REVIEW: Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
Robert Charles Wilson has long been one of my favorite sf writers. His books combine good plotting with excellent sentence-level writing and respect for all of his characters. Sometimes I’ve found his science to be a bit hand-wavey (e. g. Blind Lake), but that is easily forgivable. Even when his sci-tech gets a bit sketchy, he has a clear and exciting vision. I enjoyed reading his latest novel, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America (2010 Hugo nominee), very much. I’m a little disappointed that, while it is sf, it focuses almost entirely on the past rather than the future. That said, it still exhibits all of Wilson’s considerable literary merits.
One hundred and fifty years from now America reverts to a state closer to that of one hundred and fifty years ago (e. g. the time of the American Civil War). Peak oil came and went and left us with a drastically reduced population. People work on estate farms, in lower-density cities (long since stripped for their resources) and fight in wars fueled by coal, steam, and good old-fashioned blood. This time the slavery system is based more on economics than race, but its effect is similar. The ongoing war isn’t Civil, but is instead fought against encroaching European (and in the south, South American) forces. And while the government still has three branches, they’re the ‘elected’-for-life President, the toothless Senate, and the Religious Dominion. Adam Hazzard navigates this world with his friend, Julian Comstock.
Julian is the nephew of the current President-for-life. Julian’s father was a good and kindly war hero and successful general, so of course he was hanged by his brother. As I read the story, I decided that the Comstock family disputes derive more from Suetonius’ The Lives of the Caesars (or Robert Graves’ I, Claudius) than from American history. Later on I read an interview with Wilson where he mentions that the story takes as its historical model the life of Julian the Apostate, a Roman Caesar in C. E. 360.
As the story begins, Adam and Julian are both in their late teens. Adam comes from the leasing class, a sort of middle class between Estate owners (such as Julian) and the indentured laborers (effectively slaves). But Adam’s education parallels Julian’s, and he becomes an aspiring writer. They escape from their small town ahead of the draft but end up in the army anyway, along with Julian’s tutor and father-figure Sam Goodwin. Julian distinguishes himself in battle as an anonymous private, and survives to be discharged. The group heads to New York where it turns out that Julian’s exploits have been covered by the newspapers. He is immediately unmasked as a Comstock. This gives his uncle plenty of reason to be nervous. So he does what Caesars have so often done: made their enemies generals and sent them to the most dangerous war zones, hoping that the dangers of combat will take care of the problem. It almost works: a landing unsupported by the Navy leads to a prolonged siege also unsupported by the Navy. Julian almost dies in a break-out attempt, but is eventually returned home and made president by acclimation, based largely on the strength of public opinion whipped up by Adam’s war dispatches. The rest of the book details Julian’s reign as president. I don’t want to go into too much detail about this, since the book then takes turns that surprised me. Suffice to say, Adam’s narration at times seems like a deliberate exercise in hagiography (and it develops that Adam-the-narrator is not as naïve as Adam-the-character), but the ending is far from saintly. Keep in mind, this book could be read in different ways depending on what motivations you ascribe to Adam-the-narrator–an interesting exercise.
This book hit a sweet spot for me. It combines elements from Ken Burns’ The Civil War series, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (and Claudius the God) and also Robert Heinlein’s “If This Goes On–,” all favorites of mine. It has a wonderfully fluid prose style, evoking the 19th century of Dickens and Melville without being over-written. It also continues Robert Charles Wilson’s amazing talent with characterization. He gives a character more life in a paragraph than some authors do in an entire novella. Even side characters like Adam’s wife Calyxa and Julian’s mother Emily spring easily to life through their dialogue and actions. I also appreciate the way that Wilson writes with a unity of purpose. He cuts the extraneous from his novels–if you find something in there, it relates to the overall theme somehow; nothing ever appears simply because it is shiny or neat. Also, he respects all his characters: very few exist simply to move the plot along. They have their own motivations, their own sense of self, and their own interesting backgrounds. No sock puppets here! Julian has a nicely diverse cast. Adam is sometimes shocked by other character’s non Waspish ways (which is another part of illustrating Adam’s character), but that never derails the story.
Julian Comstock works on multiple levels. It has some delightful structural elements, such as the dramatic acts of the story playing out in rhythm with the religious holidays of the year (in this future: Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving). Events echo between the ending of the novel and Julian’s screenplay, “The Life and Adventures of the Great Naturalist Charles Darwin” (as hilariously filtered through the dramatic imagination of a thriller writer on par with H. Rider Haggard). This book reads smoothly, and it also has a great sense of humor to it.
Reading a book that so obviously derives from several eras of history leads to the question: why set this story in the future? This may be the most cozy post-apocalypse I’ve ever read. It is safely distanced from the events of the “False Tribulations” (as the Dominion labels it) when at least 75% of America’s population (and presumably the world’s population) dies off. In the time of the novel things have assumed a new equilibrium. It is a comfortable and familiar state to many Americans, especially as we have romanticized the 19th century in so many ways (see the Ken Burns documentary series, plus the Little House on the Prairie books and many others). In asking the question, one thing stands out. I think this sort of story argues against complacency: in this future the religious authorities ban and stigmatize science. Julian (as you can see from his dramatic efforts on behalf of Charles Darwin) wants desperately to return secular thought to its rightful place, but Adam has a hard time believing that humans have ever stood on the Moon. We like to think that human history, especially Western history, is a history of progress. But Wilson shows how easy, and even comfortable, it may be to backslide. And unlike Heinlein’s fight against religious fundamentalist government in “If This Goes On–,” in Julian Comstock no restoration comes easily.
In addition, I suspect that this sort of future was the only time when Wilson could get the mix of all the elements he wanted: Roman times didn’t have the sort of religious fundamentalism that he depicts in the Dominion; during the American Civil War democracy kept functioning (more or less) and no dynastic feuds or White House coups popped up. In an interview, Wilson also mentioned that he specifically wanted to write an adventure in the spirit of the 19th century writers. He succeeds admirably, and I think easily exceeds the adventure writers of the time in terms of skill, craft, and subtlety. I admit that after books like Blind Lake and Spin (I haven’t gotten to Spin’s sequel Axis yet, much to my chagrin), I was a little sad to see a book enmeshed in history instead of looking to the future. But I loved it while I was reading it.
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