Julian Comstock: A Novel of 22nd-Century America
In October of 2172—the year the Election show came to town—Julian Comstock and I, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, rode to the Tip east of Williams Ford, where I came to possess a book, and Julian tutored me in one of his heresies (1).
Robert Charles Wilson has established a reputation not just as one of the age's finest science fiction writers, but as a fine literary writer, whose spin on our possible futures reaches a broad and intelligent audience of readers. In 2006, he published a novella, Julian Comstock: A Christmas Story. He revised and expanded the premise in 2009's award-worthy work, creating a novel of twenty-second century where, after the depletion of inexpensive fossil fuels, after plague and social unrest, North America resembles the nineteenth century, overlaid with elements of feudalism and religious oligarchy. Horses and trains cross a landscape marked with the detritus of our own era. Metal skeletons tower over Manhattan. The presidential giraffe grazes near the remnants of the Statue of Liberty, relocated to Central Park.
Julian, nephew to the president, has been sent far west and out of his murderous uncle's reach. A curious fellow, he delights in the often-forbidden knowledge of the decadent Secular Ancients, and seeks unapproved books from passing peddlers. Although born to an Aristocratic family, he finds a fast friend in Adam Hazzard, a would-be writer inspired by the rousing tales of one Mr. Charles Curtis Easton.
The United States, guided from both its political capital in Manhattan and its religious one in Colorado Springs, fights a prolonged war with Mitteleuropans over disputed territory in Labrador. The two lads and their tutor, Sam Godwin, hope to avoid conscription, but soon find themselves serving in the army under assumed names. Many fine and violent adventures follow before the boys become heroes and Julian challenges the presidency itself.
Written in a pseudo-nineteenth-century style that proves, at turns, charming, gripping, and hilarious, Julian Comstock shows us these events as related by Adam Hazzard. Much of the novel's peculiar appeal comes from the narrative perspective. Hazzard's naïveté allows him to miss a number of key elements—including Julian's homosexuality—while nevertheless making the broader scope of the story clear to the reader.
At times, this naïveté beggars belief, as when he recalls perfectly foreign phrases and certain arcane details, the meaning of which he never bothered to learn. However, we might make allowances for this possible flaw. An older Hazzard (for so is the novel's conceit) is writing his memoirs, and he makes clear his willingness to err on the side of dramatic effect. In other words, Hazzard may be ironically feigning or recreating his own past innocence.
The plot takes a number of twists which, if somewhat far-fetched, stay entirely within the expectations of an olden-days adventure novel of the sort once recommended to boys. Yet Wilson peoples his tale with credible characters and shows us a future frightening in its plausibility. The various conflicts also serve to illuminate the deeper battles between science and religion, inherited wealth and the working folk, life and story-telling. Wilson also faithfully observes Chekhov's rule that a pistol that appears in Act One should be fired by the end of Act Three. His novel, structured with an elegance any Victorian writer would have envied, wastes nothing. We even learn, in time, why the artist has placed a stylized octopus in one corner of the book's cover.
Readers of SF, fans of the nineteenth-century novel, and thoughtful bibliophiles should all enjoy Julian Comstock, and its young heroes' adventures will give us all much to consider about our past, present, and foreboding future.