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Monday, June 22, 2009

"Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America" by Robert Charles Wilson (reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Robert Charles Wilson Website
Read the novella Julian: A Christmas Story as a PDF file; the novella forms the basis of the novel and has been incorporated as the roughly first 50 pages in it; it was originally published by PS Publishing in 2006
Order "Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America" HERE

Robert Charles Wilson is a US born Canadian writer of speculative fiction who built over the years an amazing body of work, winning many sff awards, including the 2006 Hugo award for the extraordinary novel Spin.

I have actually followed Mr. Wilson's career across the years, but Spin was such an astounding book that it became an instant classic for me and put R.C. Wilson on the list of authors I buy and read everything on publication as noted in the Fantasy Book Critic list of favorite authors on the front page.

I also love his short fiction and have quite a few favorites short stories written by him, including The Cartesian Theater in Futureshocks, ed. L. Anders, The Inner, Inner City collected in the author's The Perseids and Other Stories, and of course the novella Julian:The Christmas Story that forms the basis of this novel.

Most recently I loved Mr. Wilson's story
This Peaceable Land, or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe in the Other Earths Anthology, ed N. Gevers and J. Lake and reviewed by me HERE.

OVERVIEW: Julian Comstock is just a superb book written in a very quiet and understated manner, as well as being a page turner since once you start it, you cannot put it down. Actually it was so compelling that
I *had* to reread it twice since I could not leave its characters and universe very easily and I expect to reread it more across the years.

Set in the late 22nd century USA, essentially from 2172 to 2176 , with glimpses from the past and an epilogue some years later, we visit an America that is very familiar from the history books of the 19th century with some twists.

After the "age of Oil and Atheism" ended in catastrophe, with the "Fall of the Cities", the rise of "estates" worked by indentured labor and of the Dominion "of Jesus Christ on Earth", a unifying religious umbrella governing the "approved" - all Christian of course - churches, and having a powerful influence on secular life consolidated in the time of the "Pious Presidents" and headquartered in Colorado Springs, America has both a lot of continuity with the country of today while regressing with the whole world at a 19th century technology level, but also is quite different in essential ways.

The power resides in the President whose imposing fortified palace occupies the grounds of today's Central Park in Manhattan, Washington having been abandoned a long time ago, the Senate, the Army - there are two of them, of the East, "Laurentian", and of the West, of the "Californias" and of course the Dominion; the Supreme Court has been dissolved by the 52nd Constitutional Amendment, election by inheritance has been allowed by the 53rd, and the Comstock family has been occupying the Presidency for 30 years now. So both continuity and change, with the 22nd century USA resembling to some extent both Tsarist Russia and the late Roman Empire in structure, though change is in the air. The four national holidays are Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Of course the Comstocks do not form a happy family, with Deklan "Conqueror" the current President and former commander of the Laurentian Army having sent younger and more popular brother Bryce and the army of the Californias on a dangerous expedition in Panama to occupy the Canal against Brazilian "provocations"; when that succeeded only too well, Deklan had Bryce recalled and hanged for treason.

Bryce's only son and Deklan's only "heir", Julian has been spared being a child as well due to his mother Emily's powerful aristocratic connections, but he was sent far away in Athabasca to a small estate-town for protection by his worried mother.

There is an ongoing decades long war in Labrador against the "Dutch" settlers, actually the German - Deutsche - speaking forces of "MittelEuropa", though Netherlands being under water due to the increasing sea levels, many Labrador settlers are indeed of "Dutch" origins; the important city of Montreal, currently American held is close to the front lines.

The repopulated cities are much smaller, the technology is at a roughly 19th century level, most people outside the aristocracy - Eupatrids - and the clergy are illiterate, the 20/early 21st century are both a myth and a warning for "the sins of free inquiry and prosperity", the Moon Landing is considered a legend though there are preserved books with actual pictures of it and Charles Darwin is the ultimate "apostate" in popular "culture".

Adam Hazzard is an 18 year old "lease-boy" in Athabasca - belonging to what passes for middle class in the rural estates, the skilled workers straddling between the masses of indentured laborers not better than slaves and the Eupatridians - and the similar aged Julian befriends him on a hunt, while Julian's tutor/surrogate father, retired officer Sam Goodwin, who is secretly Jewish, Judaism being sort of tolerated by the Dominion, but beyond the pale socially, arranges that Adam becomes Julian's companion, by essentially "purchasing" his skills from his parents who were understandably afraid of his association with an aristocratic semi-outcast.

The book stands at 416 pages divided in five named parts.
The novel is told through the eyes of Adam as his later recounting of the times of Julian the "Apostate" and "Conqueror", in a clear homage to the later Roman Emperor of the same name that battled the rise of Christianity and died young in battle; there are lots of notes "inserted" by Adam that illuminate the back-story and add a lot to the depth of the novel and our understanding of its context.

ANALYSIS: First and foremost and whatever the title says, this *is* Adam's novel. Julian is of course an important character and the pivotal figure in our hero's life, but Adam starts and remains throughout a personal friend and later military companion to Julian, while pursuing his interests from just staying alive in the middle of murderous intrigue and brutal war, to his budding war correspondent skills and later adventure novel author, as well as his love for a mysterious Montreal girl met by chance in a church and much more...

Adam matures quickly from a naive country-boy to a seasoned soldier and writer, and his endearing voice stayed with me long after finishing the book.

Julian Comstock himself is not particularly soldierly while being a lover of philosophy, arts and culture; his one dream is to make a "movie" - which is not quite what we understand today, but something part silent film, part opera - called "The Life and Times of Charles Darwin" and of course take Deklan's head if ever having a chance.

Sam Goodwin as the experienced grizzled officer and tutor/father figure to Julian is the third main character and the trio's story forms the basis of most of the novel ; though the relationship between the two is quite complicated by various factors including Julian' stubborn and even ruthless on occasion Comstock streak, as well as the difference between their relative social standing and Sam's not so secret love for Emily.

Later we meet the irrepressible Calyxa Blake, the French speaking singer and revolutionary of Montreal with a murderous family of her own and she forms a great counterpart feminine character to Adam.

The villains mostly hover in the background, from Deklan to various representants of the Dominion that Julian cannot help but confront, humiliate and belittle throughout his career and they are less memorable than the four main characters.

As is Mr. Wilson's customary style exhibited in his great novels like Spin, the action focuses on the day to day vagaries of life, whether in the trenches or in the familiar as well as strange Montreal and later Manhattan of the novel, so we have less high level politics and such, as is customary in alternate or pseudo-alternate histories like this one, but a lot of glimpses in the life of the regular soldiers, battles that would be familiar to Civil War buffs, an unforgettable shootout on Montreal's rooftops, love, marriage, childbirths, deaths of relatives and all the stuff that "life" is made from.

Another career defining novel like Spin, this novel consolidates the psoition of R.C. Wilson as a leading writer of speculative fiction as well as one of my favorite authors.

Highly, highly recommended, an early candidate for next year sff's awards and just superb!!!


SQT said...

Oooh, so glad to hear this is a good one. I have this on the TBR pile and now I'm excited to get to it.

Ben said...

Greta review! I've had my eye on this one for a while and am glad that it lived up to your expectations. Now if I could only find a copy...bookstores around here don't have it yet.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your comments; if you love the novella style linked above, you will enjoy the novel a lot.

It will be a notable sf novel of 09 for me, maybe a top 5 - will do another re-read in 4-5 months to see how it will read after some time has passed.

SQT said...

I just got done with this and now I have to figure out how to write a 200 word review! How impossible is that? Such a complex book and yet so genteel-- that's the only word I can think to describe it. I hadn't read anything else by Robert Charles Wilson before, but now I'll have to hunt some of his other books down.

Ron Buckmire said...

I shouldnprobably give it another try... I loved Spin and some of RCW's other works (Chronoliths but I returned this book to the library wihout much regret after they attempt to escape from the hick town the main character grew up in. I just wasn't interested that much in following him around....

The politics did seem interesting (I read the book jacket) but it just never"caught" for me.

Liviu said...

Julian definitely gets more interesting later in the action sense, but the style/tone remains the same; this reads a lot like historical fiction


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