The Revisionists


By Thomas Mullen

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A fast-paced literary thriller that recalls dystopian classics such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, from the award-winning author of The Last Town on Earth.

Zed is an agent from the future. A time when the world’s problems have been solved. No hunger. No war. No despair.

His mission is to keep it that way. Even if it means ensuring every cataclysm throughout history runs its course-especially The Great Conflagration, an imminent disaster in our own time that Zed has been ordered to protect at all costs.

Zed’s mission will disrupt the lives of a disgraced former CIA agent; a young Washington lawyer grieving over the loss of her brother, a soldier in Iraq; the oppressed employee of a foreign diplomat; and countless others. But will he finish his final mission before the present takes precedence over a perfect future? One that may have more cracks than he realizes?

The Revisionists puts a fresh spin on today’s global crises, playing with the nature of history and our own role in shaping it. It firmly establishes Mullen as one of the most exciting and imaginative writers of his generation.



A trio of bulbous black SUVs passes sleekly by, gliding through their world like seals. The city shines liquidly off their tinted windows, the yellow lights from the towers and the white lights from the street and the red lights they ignore as they cruise through the intersection with a honk and a flash of their own beams. People on the sidewalk barely give them a glance.

I cross the street, which is empty in their wake. Most of the National Press Building's lights are still on, as reporters for outlets across the globe type away to beat their deadlines. Editors are waiting in Tokyo, the masses are curious in Mumbai, the public has a right to know in London. The sheer volume of information being churned out of that building is unfathomable to me, the weight of it, and also the waste. As if people needed it.

It's just past ten and my mark is on the move. He has an important date—a date with history, in fact, though he isn't thinking of it that way. He's meeting his source, the mysterious individual who has provided him with glimpses of a golden but dangerous truth, a mythic grail whose existence he was beginning to doubt. The source has promised him the grail, tonight. But only if they meet in person.

My mark is thin, harried. He doesn't look like he's slept much lately. Even my rough understanding of contemp style tells me he has little: his white shirt is stained with coffee and is untucked in the back; his jeans seem tighter than he's comfortable with; he's had to adjust himself in the glass elevator that isn't as private as he believes it to be. He is thirty and aging too quickly, his thin hair graying along the temples (but then, my judgment of age in this beat isn't good either; the legacy of their insufficient medicine, diet, and hygiene is difficult for me to puzzle out). He lives with the realization that his life's work, his reason for being, is overlooked by this world he thinks he is serving. He is unimportant. He doesn't say this to the people he works with, but he blathers about it on his pseudonymous blog, and in the constantly revised, unpublished memoir hiding in his computer, both of which he turns to late at night after filing a story few people will read.

Oh, but you are important, Mr. Karthik M. Chaudhry! You have no idea how much value is placed on what you do, and how terrible is that value.

I've been watching him for days. He talks on his phone and attends press conferences at which he is relegated to the back rows, then he sits in libraries or cafés with his laptop and reads and writes, reads and writes. So much information here, they spend the majority of their lives losing themselves in it. As far as I can tell, he doesn't have any friends. His apartment is devoid of women's clothes or toiletries, not even a secret photograph of an idolized, untouchable someone in his top drawer. It's because of his dedication to work, or that's what he tells himself. He is, after all, very good at what he does, and it's getting him into trouble.

We crossed paths in the hallway of his building earlier today and I slipped a Tracker onto him, so I know when he leaves his office and enters the elevator. That's why I've left the bar across the street, the Anonymous Source, where I've been staking him out, nursing a couple of drinks against Department regulations.

I walk into the lobby, past the elderly Chinese man selling his magazines and newspapers and brightly colored candy bars, past the tie boutique and the shop of tourist paraphernalia: framed photographs of the White House, coffee mugs and pencils emblazoned with U.S. flags. My mark is descending in the glass elevator.

Seeing him is all the confirmation I need, so I walk back out and get into my car. I know where he's going and when he'll be there. I also know that he doesn't own a car and will take the Metro, which, due to a disabled train on the Blue Line, will make his ride a good ten minutes longer than my drive. I'm in a rented tan Corolla, which the people in Logistics had recommended based on its not being conspicuous. Before they sent me here, I trained on a replica they created for me, but I find the real thing awkward to handle, and I have to hope I don't break some obscure traffic rule and get pulled over. The vodkas I drank make this even more surreal, the vehicle large and bulky, this sprawling extension of myself, numb and careening into a world I barely understand.

And what a city! The perfect geometric layout, the wide avenues and clean sidewalks, all the monuments bathed in celestial light. The contemps around me have no idea how long it will take to rebuild something like this. Do they see the beauty around them? Are they dizzy from the heights of this pinnacle their civilization is teetering upon? No—they troop along, necks crooked into their ancient phones like bent marionettes'. Their right cheeks glow.

The night is cool and I drive with the windows down. I love the air here, the crispness—I forget how bad our air is, despite the recent improvements, until I come back to a time like this, before all the burning.

At a traffic light I check my internal GeneScan and see that the hags too are in motion. The GeneScan tells me when someone of a non-contemporary genetic makeup is in the vicinity, allows me to track him down. Right now the hags are doing some tracking of their own. One of them, I think, but possibly more; despite the best efforts of the people in Engineering, my GeneScan detects hags accurately only within a mile, and anything much beyond that comes across as just a faint shimmer, a certain foreboding.

Yes, Mr. Chaudhry, you are important indeed. You have no friends and no lover, but you have me, your guardian angel. Well, not really that—indeed, the furthest thing from it. But you do have me, as well as a few others—we're all intertwined like strands of DNA, like subject and verb and object, unspooling into the future, the generations and sentences extending endlessly.

Again, not really. The end for you, I'm afraid, is quite near.


I protect the Events.

That's the most succinct way of putting it, and that's how my superiors at the Department first explained it to me. I used to know as little about these particular Events as anyone else did, but now I'm an expert on this era. I know why these people are fighting each other, why they hate those they hate, what they most fear. At least, that's what they told me in Training. Don't be intimidated, they said. You will know these people better than they know themselves. After all, how well do we truly understand what we're doing, and why, as we're actually doing it? It's only later, as we're looking back, that events fall into easily definable categories. Motive, desire, bias. Happenstance, randomness, intent. Cause and effect, ends and means. One thing this job has taught me is that when people are caught in the maddening swirl of time, they do what they need to do and invent their reasoning afterward. They exculpate themselves, claim they had no choice. They throw their hands up to the heavens or shrug that Events simply were what they were. They used to call it fate, or God, or Allah, though of course such talk is illegal now.

Now. I barely know what the word means anymore.


This is my tenth day in Washington, just before the start of the Events that culminated in the Great Conflagration. On each mission, the Department sends the Protector back a bit earlier than the hags—the historical agitators—are expected to show up, so he can muddle through the initial disorientation and establish his position. Every advantage is vital. But ten days is more than double the usual prep time, and it has me wondering if this was all a colossal mistake, if I should begin the complicated procedures for being sent back.

The contemp patrons at the Anonymous Source were ignorant of the coming calamity, but they were hardly carefree. They had their complaints, they had their crystalline views of the chasms between their desires and their actualities. I almost wanted to clap their shoulders, tell them to enjoy what time they had left.

A few tables away, four young women finished a round of something orange and umbrella-adorned and were moving on to something aquamarine. Along the bar, the backs of navy suit jackets were strained by abdominal fat. A man sat alone at one table, anxiously wiping the spilled drink from a computer in his lap. A young couple sat on the same side of their booth so they could both see a basketball game on TV. The music was low and deep, all bass and thrumming.

I was in a corner booth, safely layered by darkness. People could see me, and if I'd been following Department protocol I'd have learned their names or surreptitiously taken genetic samples or at least burned their images into my drive so I could enter them into my Report of Historical Contacts. The Department wants to know everyone with whom I interact, as the whole point is to leave no trace. But I saw how drunk and preoccupied they all were, how circumscribed their little worlds. The quiet man in the corner booth did not exist to them. Which was fine with me. I'm used to not existing.

Six men and women at a sprawling table to my left were celebrating something with gallows humor. "Print is dead!" one of them called out to jeers and boos from his companions. I caught words like restructuring and buyouts, odd contemp phrases like do more with less and new business paradigms. They seemed to feel they had reached the end of something.

A waiter took my plate; I had ordered a salad and some risotto, the only things on the menu that didn't include dead, burned animal flesh. I've gradually grown used to the sight of people gorging themselves on "meat"—this is my fourth assignment now—but still, the immorality is stunning, the blitheness of it. Geneticized foods are in their infancy during this period; it's always a struggle to figure out how to eat enough to maintain energy without succumbing to their carnivorous ways.

My insides have mostly recovered from the illness that hit me my second day here. An unfortunate and inevitable part of the process, as my body is feasted upon by all these bacteria and microbes to which it has no resistance. I still feel a bit weak, having eaten little more than rice and bananas the past three days. I love bananas. For the taste as well as the novelty—they don't exist in my time. It's like eating a dinosaur, forbidden and impossible. But as I chew, it becomes a part of me.

In the bar, I periodically checked my GeneScan while I flipped through the issue of the Post that someone had left on the table. I was struck by the amount of information contained in these old, baked slips of hammered pulp, as well as by the unfiltered nature of it all, the varying viewpoints and opinions. But once I got past that initial unfamiliarity, what I truly found amazing was all the intergroup hatred. The smallness of it, the predictability. The Russians hated the Chechens. The Sunnis hated the Shiites. The whites hated the blacks, who hated the Latinos. The English hated the Irish. The Hutu hated the Tutsi. The Bosnians hated the Serbs, and I lost track of all the people who hated the Muslims or the Jews or both. The Japanese hated the Chinese, who hated the Taiwanese and the Tibetans. The Salvadorans hated the Nicaraguans. The Saudis hated the Yemenis. And I was only on page A-9.

Some of these stories I already read as part of my training. Studying up on the beat, immersing myself in their ugly mind-set. It almost attains a certain logic, the more time I spend here. Which is why I need to get out. I worry that if I'm here too long, I'll learn to enjoy it, like some deranged visitor to the zoo suddenly climbing the fence to commune with the beautiful tigers, running to his doom.


The road slices between museums and monuments, then merges with a highway to rise above a river that glimmers coldly in the moonlight. I turn south, skirting the river, toward the launching point of the jets that scream above me.

I park in the airport deck and walk not toward the terminal but to a narrow asphalt path flanking the road. The trail is used by cyclists and joggers during the day, but no one walks it at night. Once I put the airport behind me, I leave the path and cut around a fenced-off lot of tankers and luggage trucks. Soon I reach the small park, now empty, where families bring lunches so their kids can marvel at the size and sound of the outgoing planes whose tailfins nearly scrape their picnic blankets. By the water are a few trees; I walk to the one closest to the water and position myself behind it, the river at my back.

The sky is so much clearer than I'm used to, a black sheet punctured with a few holes for the stars to stare through. We don't see the stars anymore—our atmosphere too opaque—though we're working on it. Some people don't believe stars were ever visible, think it's a folktale, some slice of fabricated history that's managed to circulate through the collective subconscious. But I stare up at them and wonder, like these ancestors of mine must, at the vastness of things, and the smallness.

The empty lot tells me that Mr. Chaudhry's source has not yet arrived. My GeneScan tells me the hags are close, though I still can't tell quite how many there are. I also don't know how exactly they plan to disrupt the Event, but they tend not to be terribly imaginative. I picture a lone gunman crouching in the weeds, his heart pounding as he struggles to claim his space on history's as-yet-​unwritten page. Lone gunmen are always the easiest.

The data pertaining to this Event is somewhat fuzzy, as it usually is. The people in Veracity do their best with the limited information they cull from the old files, the burned paper, the half-deleted records. I know that Mr. Chaudhry is on his way to this lot, but the exact time of his source's arrival is wrapped in mystery.

Mr. Chaudhry's meeting with the source will boost his career beyond his wildest imaginings, but not in the way he'd like.

Each plane roars like some massive beast exhaling. Amazing that Mr. Chaudhry thinks he can have a conversation with someone out here. But that's part of what intrigues him. The odd locale, the darkness, the paths crossing in the heavens above him and along the highway to his side. Even I'm excited. I love these moments, these tiny fulcrums of history, the gears turning before my eyes.

And there are the two hags, crossing the highway on foot. They're so stupid, it's a wonder they even get this far. They're nearly run over and someone honks at them—I hear tires squeal—but they make it to the other side. They must have parked in another lot, not wanting their car to reveal their presence. One of them is carrying a large duffel bag.

They hurry to a thick tree twenty yards in front of me. One opens the bag, the zipper shivering, and pulls out a rifle. The other leans against the tree, watching the parking lot. I cautiously advance toward them, keeping low, the sound of my approach lost in the next jet's sonic boom. I watch the parking lot too, and there we all see Mr. Chaudhry, hands in his pockets, bag slung over his shoulder, strolling down that lonely bike path, making his soon-to-be-famed appearance.


After nine days of waiting for the hags to show up, of sitting in my terrible motel room and venturing out only at night to learn the city, watch Chaudhry, and scout the locales without leaving a trace, I finally allowed myself to roam about by day that afternoon. The Department would not have condoned it, as I was supposed to limit my appearances to errands of strict necessity, but I was bored, and I figured that by wandering the National Mall I could be just another tourist cloaked in anonymity.

During my first gig, the details were what had stunned me, the tangibility. I had expected it to feel like being inside a video, like walking upon a two-dimensional image—had expected to look at people who would not look back at me, to touch objects that would not tease my fingertips with their warmth. The sounds and smells, too, the three-dimensionality, took me aback; the irrefutable fact that this place existed, that I was here. But at the same time, the insanity of it all, the wrongness. It was like waking to find myself in a different hemisphere: a sudden shifting of the seasons, the air all wrong, the constant surprise from seeing the skewed angle of the light playing tricks with how ordinary objects appeared. A shine to everything. I was in a new, old world, and it was real and it had weight.

At the Mall this afternoon, the tourists around me snapped pictures and struck poses in front of their inflated tributes to former presidents and judges and warriors. I tried to enjoy this unprecedented ability to tour an ancient time, to take in wonders that would soon cease to exist. The white limestone gleaming in the afternoon sun, the awestruck comments in countless languages, the yawning buses and bored taxis, the sweaty office workers squeezing in lunch-break jogs. Silver jets seemed to hang in the blue sky as they dipped their wings seconds after lifting off from across the river. Government-crested helicopters passed at low altitudes, buzzing our chests.

Walking along a reflecting pool at the base of the Capitol building, I saw a young woman carrying her toddler, a little black girl in a pink sweater, her hair braided with white beads. Residue from cotton candy encrusted the girl's lips, and I thought to myself, She's two, maybe three. I wanted to know her name, look her up in my databases, see if by any chance she would be one of the survivors. It was incredibly important to me. I followed them for a block, then another, trying to concoct an excuse to start a conversation with the mother or at least get close enough to take a sample or a savable image. The girl smiled at me and waved. Her mother never noticed, never turned around, and after they reached an intersection I made myself stop. It doesn't make any difference, I told myself. She'll likely die, or, if she's lucky, she won't—yes, if she's "lucky" she'll get to grow up in one of the most violent periods the world has ever known.

I waved back, as helpless as she was.


Fifty yards away from me, a Metro train worms itself from the earth, emerging from its tunnel and heading toward the airport. The hags are still crouched at the tree, the only true cover to hide behind while staking out Chaudhry. Beyond them the ground slopes downward, slowly, toward the river, and I'm about twenty yards back. The Potomac at low ebb smells of fuel and the rotten dankness of things that should have stayed buried. I can see Chaudhry in the distance, standing forlorn in the parking lot, lit up by the one streetlight, an actor alone onstage. He's looking around nervously, afraid some Homeland Security agent is going to ask him why he's loitering outside an airport at night. Don't worry, Mr. Chaudhry, I know the schedule of the DHS agents' routes; they won't be here until later.

In my right hand I hold the pistol that the Engineers designed to look, sound, and function like an early-21st-century nine-millimeter automatic. Attached to it is a silencer, though the thing is still too loud. We have more efficient methods in my time, but the Department limits the amount of technological advances I'm allowed to bring back, in case they're discovered by a contemp. At least I was granted a Stunner, which I clutch with my left hand.

Each time a plane takes off, the ground vibrates and I inch closer. I keep low so Chaudhry can't see my outline against the bright backdrop of the city, though I'm probably too far away for him to see me, as he has bad eyesight and is always squinting through his thick glasses. (It's embarrassing how much I know about him.)

One of the hags checks the rifle's stock; the other peers through binoculars. The low rumble of a plane accelerating on the tarmac is my cue. I aim my pistol at the hag with the rifle. He's still fiddling with it; they probably don't quite understand how the antique device works, though I'm impressed they found a way to procure one. They're getting better at this.

A black car loops off the exit ramp to the parking lot, slowing as it approaches Chaudhry. Then I see the plane, and I almost cower instinctively as it rises up like some predator, shiny steel breast exposed. Chaudhry has turned away from us to face the car, so he won't see the flash from my gun.

The jet's roar is at its peak when I pull the trigger. The hag was facing away from me and I get him in the back of the head—it looks like he simply nods, agreeing with something unspoken, and then he drops.

I shoot his partner low in the back. That may give me a chance to ask him a few questions afterward. I scramble toward him and tag him with the Stunner, mainly to keep him from screaming. His body is leaning into the tree and I pull him to the ground.

I lie beside the bodies and watch Chaudhry, now standing in the lot with two other men. One is bald; the other has dark hair with a streak of white above each ear, like he made a wig from a skunk's pelt. A third is behind the wheel of the black car, whose lights are off. These men are good at what they do—they stand at either side of the shorter, thinner reporter, boxing him in against the car. I'm only surprised they didn't find some way to break the streetlight before they did this. (The bubble of a security camera is perched beneath that light, but later reports will reveal that the camera malfunctioned on this night.) I hear a raised voice, two disjointed syllables, and then there's a quick motion and Chaudhry doubles over. One of the men opens the back door, and they push him inside. Again he is surrounded; the doors are closed. They hit him a few more times as the car drives toward the on-ramp.

Chaudhry's appearance at this parking lot will not be known for a few days, not until a concerned coworker taps into his e-mail account and finds a message sent from someone—exactly who, no one will know, as the mystery person's account traversed many complicated networks and domains and secret portals—asking that Chaudhry meet him here tonight. Despite much investigative effort by police, his outraged employer, his stunned colleagues, and his grieving family, this is the farthest Chaudhry's path in life will ever be traced.

The car drives onto the highway—heading south, in case any students of history are curious—although even I don't know where they're taking him from there.

I reverse the Stunner on the hag who isn't quite dead yet. What an awakening, to be revived to this state, a bullet in one of his kidneys. I hate myself for doing this; I should have just shot him in the head, like I did his partner. He gasps, confused, possibly numb from the waist down, and starts to cough blood.

"Where are the others?" I ask him.

Cough, cackle, spit.

"How many did you take with you? Tell me. This is your one chance to make right—you probably have about ten seconds."

He bashes me in the side of the head with something that can't possibly be a fist. My stomach turns and I go dizzy, catching myself with my hands before I hit the ground. He's about to hit me again—he's holding a rock—but I manage to block his arm, then roll onto him. I wrestle him for a moment; he has much more life in him than I thought, though he's losing it fast. Then I hold him down and hit him once, square in the face. I stand up, and as I hover over him, his eyes go wide, and then he's gone.

I stare at the mess I've made. No, it's their mess—they're the ones causing the problems that I need to fix. As if rationalizations can make shooting two people any easier.

I breathe deeply and try to get my stomach under control. The dizziness is gone already—it was a short, sudden burst—but it's being replaced by a worse pain, just behind my left ear and radiating out.

I have about ten minutes before a DHS agent or Coast Guard boat or some other security personnel patrols the area. I reach into the hags' pockets and remove their wallets, complete with fake IDs—again, I'm impressed. They're learning. They don't have any other weapons or hotel keys, nothing that tells me where they're based. I scrape them for genetic samples so I can record exactly whom I've dispatched. The Department prefers it if we dispose of the bodies, and I do have a few Flashers with me. They'd eliminate the corpses, as well as everything else within a radius of a few feet, but they're too bright and would attract attention. So I grab the hags' legs and drag them to the riverbank. As the planes continue to scream overhead I toss a body into the river, then another, then their rifle. The confluence of the Potomac and the Anacostia should get the bodies far enough from the airport that the police won't connect them with Mr. Chaudhry, but I'm not really worried about it. Their fingerprints will turn up no matches, their dental health will be meaningless, and their DNA will be rather puzzling to whoever analyzes it. The corpses will constitute quite a mystery, but this is Washington, and the assassination of two nameless men will likely be assumed to be the tip of some iceberg best given a wide berth. Local cops will quietly ask the federal police, who might ask the creepy and suspicious denizens of the clandestine forces' many branches, none of whom will betray any interest whatsoever with their glazed and nocturnal eyes and all of whom will assume one of the others is to blame. The discovery of the bodies will be shielded from the newspapers and TV reporters, the citizenry will not be alarmed, and my superiors will be impressed once again by my ability to perform complex duties while leaving no trace.

I try to run another check on the GeneScan, in case more hags are coming late—such incompetence is hardly beyond them. But nothing happens. The GeneScan is supposed to look like a series of dots and images superimposed on what my eyes perceive in front of me or spread out radar-like over my internal GPS. But the GeneScan isn't working. Hopefully it's just the headache from that blow with the rock interfering, and this is only temporary.


  • "An extraordinary trip to the near future ... Questions of fate versus free will, utopia versus reality, and the implications of a world without racial and ethnic lines add terrific human depth to the whiz-bang gadegtry of Mullen's imagined world ... a very high-brow spin on the spy novel and science fiction."—Atlanta Magazine
  • "Blade Runner meets John le Carré....a thoughtful, suspenseful novel of intrigue."—Paste Magazine (A Best Novel of the Year)
  • "An imaginative, elegant work of literary sci-fi, set in modern-day Washington, D.C....What transpires in the final act is as powerful for its well-paced revelations as it is for the ethical questions it raises."—Los Angeles Magazine
  • "A grippingly readable book, creating a kaleidoscopic world where the reader's sense of what's going on changes with every chapter ... thrills grounded in intelligence and compassion."—The Columbus Dispatch
  • "Provocative... relentless...Mullen delivers."—The Tampa Tribune
  • "Mullen is a skilled storyteller ... [THE REVISIONISTS is] much more than a page-turning techno-thriller. It also serves as a vehicle for .. an indictment of avoidable human folly leading to wars year after year, decade after decade, century after century."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • "The Revisionists is a devious and absorbing novel that challenges the reader at every turn, not letting up until the final pages. I loved it."—Olen Steinhauer, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Tourist and Nearest Exit
  • "Sharp as razors, savage and immense in its power and weird beauty."—Warren Ellis, author of RED, Crooked Little Vein, and Transmetropolitan
  • "Mullen explores the ethical implications of time travel in this excellent thriller set in the near future...The complex concatenation of events that follows make this book a one-sitting read despite its length."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "This well-written cross-genre book is a great reading experience. As told from multiple points of view from four fully developed characters, the engaging plot and ultimate resolution will leave you still thinking about the possibilities long after you turn the last page. THE REVISIONISTS will appeal to readers who like smart literate works in any genre-it's a contemporary thriller with a science fiction vibe, written by an author known for literary fiction."—San Diego Union-Tribune (a Best Novel of theYear)
  • "An outstanding dystopic novel."—Library Journal
  • "[An] intriguing thriller [that] serves up a heaping helping of paranoia."—Booklist
  • "A tightly woven, deeply layered look at war, love, sacrifice, and loss."—Julianna Baggott, author of Pure
  • "Such a unique, original story could only come from a unique, original mind--Thomas Mullen's."—Alex Tse, co-screenwriter of Watchmen
  • "A peek at a future that is both exciting and terrifying."—Brian Wood, Eisner Award-nominated author of Channel Zero, Demo, and DMZ

On Sale
Oct 23, 2012
Page Count
464 pages
Mulholland Books

Thomas Mullen

About the Author

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction, and The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. His books have been named Best of the Year by such publications as the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Onion, and He lives with his wife and sons in Atlanta.

Learn more about this author