Sunday, July 26, 2009

Book Review: Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson

In Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock the 22nd Century looks quite different than our world of today, but not in the way you would imagine.

Having run out of oil a century earlier, the world has since gone through a series of catastrophic events, including plagues and infertility, that have dramatically turned back the clock on technological development. Wars have shifted the landscape of America which now encompasses Canada (known as Athabaska) and the country is still embroiled in an ongoing war against the Dutch.

 Julian Comstock, the nephew of the sitting president Deklan Comstock, lives in a kind of exile in Athabaska after the President conspires to murder his father. The Comstock line has become the hereditary line of leaders in America and Julian lives almost as royalty. He befriends a commoner by the name of Adam Hazzard, who is an outcast due to the fact that his father belongs to a sect that believes in a religion devoted to the use of snake handling. And it is the mannerly, gentle Adam who narrates Julian's rise to prominence and his fight against the Dominion Church.

 Despite the name of the book, "Julian Comstock" is really the story of Adam Hazzard. Julian's easy manner has allowed Adam the opportunity to become Julian's best friend despite their differences in station. Adam and Julian are swept up in the war in Labrador when Julian's uncle, showing increasing mental instability, decides to shove Julian to the war front in an effort to see him killed in battle. Instead, Julian distinguishes himself in battle, and soon rallying cries of "Julian Conquerer" follow in his wake thanks in part to a series of stories written by Adam that describe his heroism. Julian, for his part, wants nothing to do with war or leadership, and would rather study the "Secular Ancients" and discuss philosophy.

 "Julian Comstock" is an incredibly hard book to describe in a few short paragraphs because it is so complex. It isn't just a war story--far from it. At first I thought the book might go into a fairly preachy, political realm because allusions were made to the long-term effects of global warming and the evils (according to Julian) of religion, but the story was far deeper than that. Society has regressed to the mores of 19th Century America thanks to the loss of modern technology. The turbulence of the time known as the Efflorescence of Oil, which lead the the False Tribulation (what the people of the time thought was the apocalypse) led to rise of a heavy-handed church known as the Dominion as people sought religion as a refuge against plagues of disease and infertility. Society has also reverted to a rigid class structure in which bonded-landsmen are essentially slaves to the aristocratic class.

 All of these elements are woven into clever storytelling with Adam as the narrator. He follows Julian's exploits while he pursues his own career as a journalist and writes the story of both their lives. The narration is the humorous, genteel and sometimes naive view that Adam has of events as they unfold. He is an unwavering friend to Julian even when he honestly admits Julian's shortcomings. Robert Charles Wilson is an incredible writer who looks at the weakness of men without passing judgement. He never takes the easy way out by condemning war, society or religion, but rather looks at how man shapes and reacts to the world around him. "Julian Comstock" is a funny and philosophical book that never strays from its measured pace. An impressive bit of writing that will have me scanning the shelves of the local bookstore for anything else written by Robert Charles Wilson. Very highly recommended.


Charles Gramlich said...

hum, sounds a bit like the post-apoc works of Neil Barrett Jr. I liked those. I'll check this one out.

SQT said...

I don't *know* you taste Charles, but I think you'd appreciate this one. It's such a thoughtful book and that's how I think of you-- so I'm betting it would be a good match.