Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson
Published by Tor
Taking a slight step from his Hard SF sequence begun with the Hugo Award Winning Spin, Robert Charles Wilson turns his deft hand to an American Future that resembles the country during the Civil War. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is told through the eyes of Adam Hazzard, one of the titular characterís closest confidants and chronicler. The novel begins when Adam first meets Julian as a young man who defies the long held beliefs of the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth (an extrapolated version of the Catholic Church that holds great sway over the country) and government led by Julianís uncle the ďPresidentĒ Deklan Comstock, where the president is more of a tyrannical emperor who further empowered by his allegiance to the Dominion. The world got into this state after Peak oil (the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached) and the resultant global conflicts have allowed the United States of America to expand into Canada and grow to 60 states.
The main character, Adam, is a sympathetic, if very naÔve, young man and son of a snake wrangler. When Julian, whose father was murdered on orders of his own brother Deklan, arrives at the lands where Adam is a lease boy, the two strike up a friendship. Adam has dreams of becoming a writer (which come true as evidenced by the chronicle of Julianís life that is the novel) and is fascinated by Julianís outside-the-box ideas about DNA and men on the moon. The books to which Julian refers and shows Adam are not officially approved by the Dominion, so elements of such books are denied and shunned. Soon enough Sam, Julianís guardian and friend of Julianís father Bryce, purchases the services of Adam.
Julian, Sam, and Adam are eventually conscripted into a war that is slightly reminiscent of the struggles between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia in Orwellís 1984. While Julian is not a traditional warrior marked by great battle, he does gain the respect of those men with whom he serves and eventually leads. As his strategic mind allows him to rise within the ranks, he and Adam come up with the name Julian Commongold, to further hide his true identity from his jealous, petty and maniacal uncle who would have Julian killed for his fears of Julian supplanting him. Adam sees his dream of becoming a published writer come true as he becomes a war correspondent for a major New York City newspaper. Adamís chronicles of Julianís exploits and surges up through the ranks attracts many readers and fans who see Julian Commongold as a shining light in an otherwise dark and tumultuous war. Of course, Julian is eventually outed as Comstock and Deklanís nephew.
Along the way, Adam meets an intriguing woman named Calyxa while his army company is stationed in Montreal. Adam marries her and the two are brought along with Julianís mother in when Julian is summoned to New York at the behest of Deklan ďConquerorĒ Comstock, the President. In the tumultuous events prior to the novel, the US capital is relocated to New York City and the Palace of the President is in what is now Central Park.
The tone is very comfortable and Wilsonís prose is just wonderful to read and digest. The comfortable to which Iím referring is the tone is inasmuch as we the reader, through Adamís positioning of words, know who Julian Comstock really is. Essentially, the feel of the novel is that we are taking a peek behind the curtain at how the real events transpired around a legendary and historical figure.
While not quite a post-apocalyptic tale, the novel is definitely the story of a nation (and one suspects of a world) struggling to rise through the mire of sin and decadence from its societal predecessor. The world isnít a typically blasted landscape seen in post-apocalyptic fiction, rather Wilson has envisioned a regressed future. In many ways, this is an elegiac and depressing novel, but the pathos we hear through Adams voice lends an understated elegance and hope to the tale.
It isnít through info dumps or anything obtrusive that the reader learns about the world at large, technology like cars and travel to the moon are viewed as nearly magical things of the past or fallacies of fantasy outright banished from collective thought. Wilson also manages to conjure the reality of the future world and layer the details very well through the characters thoughts, actions, and words. Furthermore, by just touching on some of the details rather than flat out explaining them, Wilson lends a credibility to 22nd Century America which gives a deeper sense of resonance. Credibility and believability in this world is also conjured through Adam Hazzardís footnotes sprinkled through out the novel.
The slightest criticism can be leveled at Adam himself, since he doesnít have much depth of character himself. Heís more of a cipher and a lens through whom the reader can experience the story. He is definitely in the shadow of Julian and is quite subservient to his headstrong wife and even Sam and Julianís mother. In another sense, since Adam is more or less a reporter relaying the events of Julianís life, this is quite appropriate in terms of presenting a relatively unbiased narrator.
I donít know that it was a coincidence that Julianís initialsí are shared with Jesus Christ and in this, thereís an ironic twist. With the Dominion of Jesus Christ representing a true power in the world, it seems somewhat fitting that their hierarchical stronghold on the country be challenged by a saviour who bears their own saviourís initials. Though Julian doesnít espouse a religious pedagogy, his philosophy and wish to share knowledge (particularly of Charles Darwin who also found enemies and barriers with the church of his time) and understanding is enlightening and quite similar in form if not content to Jesus.
Iíve read a couple of novels by Robert Charles Wilson, including the aforementioned Spin which was one of the best Science Fiction novels Iíve read in the past ten years. With that in mind, and a good deal of positive buzz surrounding this novel, I opened the book with high hopes. It isnít often that the experience matches the expectations, but in this case, Mr. Wilsonís haunting, elegant, and addictive novel was above those expectations. Julian Comstock is a powerful, engaging, and smoothly written novel that should add more awards to Wilsonís shelf.
Highly, highly recommended and easily one of the top 2 or 3 2009 books Iíve read this year.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford
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