Between going to Readercon and staying up late two nights in a row reading Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson, I was in serious sleep debt for a week.
The narrator, Adam Hazzard, grew up as best friends with Julian Comstock, a young Eupatridian who’s been spirited away to the west to protect him from his murderous uncle, President Deklan Comstock. In the 22nd century, civilization nearly collapsed after peak oil. In America, the institutions that survived are the U.S. government and the Dominionist Church. The institutions that have returned are slavery, in the form of indentured servitude and hereditary debt, and 19th century boy’s adventure novel. Therefore, the story is told in the prose of a 19th century adventure novel.
This is a bit of an obstacle, which took me about 100 pages and the beginning of a war to overcome. Also some great characters, like Lyman Pugh, who lavishes all his craft on making the artisan equivalent of a roll of quarters in a sock, and Adam’s true love, Calyxa Blake. She’s says what she thinks, even if it’s Shoot my brother!
The book often inserts other languages, which challenge to look them up. For example, Calyxa lapses into French when she’s emotionally “hot” and says some pretty outrageous things. Also, during the war, Adam and Julian find a soldier’s letter written in Dutch. There’s some confusion about whether the enemy is “Dutch” or “Deutsch” (German) but it’s some sort of mitteleuropean empire they are fighting, and the letter is definitely in Nederlans.
Julian himself is modeled on the Emperor Julian, who tried to roll back the establishment of the Christian Church as the state religion and restore the old pagan religion. He is probably more familiar as Gore Vidal’s Julian. Julian Comstock wants to roll back the establishment of the Christian Church and restore the old secular religion of science.
Once Julian becomes President (which you knew was going to happen from the first few pages), he has the time and power to do anything he wants. Like make a movie about Darwin. The “movie” itself sounds like an intriguing form of art, somewhere between opera and a Broadway musical, crossed with the most cliche-ridden form of Hollywood blockbuster. Applying that to Darwin’s life is hilarious.
The politics of the book owe much to exactly the sort of bloody power struggles within the Roman Empire that our Founders hoped to avoid. Congress seems to consist only of a toothless Senate of patricians, that is, Eupatridians. Also the multiple armies, the Laurentians and the Californians, recall the Roman armies of the East and West. And the Presidential palace on the grounds of Central Park pretty much sums up the betrayal of the public trust.
The setting is so fully realized, I wanted more from it. Not fair, I know. For example, being a bit of a foodie, I wanted to know what happened to pizza and hot dogs and hamburgers. Not to mention chop suey, burritos, and pad thai. Supposedly there’s Egyptians in New York, but there’s no sign of kebab stands. Also, the great questions of the 19th century, slavery, and the 20th, race, seem to have vanished. Slavery has become indentured servitude, but we don’t see a lot of controversy about it. While the book tells us that the races are mixed through all classes of society, Adam never really shows us. Nearly all the characters who get a full description are fair or pink-faced. Just one black general or Senator, and I would believe him.
By the end of the book, you can see how Adam has become wiser, and yet still innocent. He observes that Julian had fought against Power, but once he had it, couldn’t resist using it. And yet, he fails to see that Julian was never likely to find a nice girl and settle down. And it’s not because he was doomed.
On the whole, this book is a grand adventure, full of high drama and low comedy, and definitely worth the ride.