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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Robert Charles Wilson

As was already apparent from the novella-length teaser published by PS Publishing a couple of years ago, Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is beautifully written, populated with engaging and sympathetic, if conflicted, characters, and unlike anything else he's done to date (though its innocent tone echoes a bit of his very first novel, A Hidden Place). It's also a fascinating example of SF's ongoing negotiations with ideas of history and identity, and a good deal more complex than its faux-naif narrative voice and boys'-book adventure plotting would seem to suggest. That narrative voice, for example, seems clearly intended to evoke the cadences of 19th-century moral fiction (Wilson even mentions Oliver Optic in his acknowledgments), as does the initial setting: a rustic village in the far west of a post-industrial, post-oil, post-apocalyptic USA, long since expanded to incorporate most of Canada and under the heavy thumb of a puritanical megachurch called the Dominion. So already we have the 19th-century frontier as one template, and a rather grim theocratic 22nd century as another. And if that's not enough, there are significant echoes of fourth century Rome as well: the title character, who also becomes known as Julian the Agnostic or Julian Conqueror, shares a fair number of characteristics with his namesake, the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (whose story also provided the basis for Gore Vidal's 1964 novel Julian). Both are exiled to wealthy estates after members of their family are murdered by a usurping relative; both are educated by fellow exiles who introduce them to proscribed ideas; both grow into rationalists who tend to view religion as allegory; both — despite their preference for philosophy — become celebrated military leaders; both become enemies of the organized Christian church; both become reformist rulers whose very efforts at reform lead to growing unpopularity.

And, of course, there's a fourth historical template which is pretty hard to ignore: namely us, or at least the United States in the first decade of this century. Julian's war-mongering uncle Deklan, who has suspended virtually all civil liberties and constraints on the presidency (including term limits), enjoys a cozy relationship with the fundamentalist, resolutely anti-science Dominion, which has successfully suppressed all knowledge from the sinful and profligate era known as the Efflorescence of Oil. Deklan has already murdered Julian's father, and is clearly thinking of ways to remove the implicit threat of Julian himself as a possible rival.

Thus, when a new military draft is announced to support the ongoing war in Labrador against the Dutch (I know, that sounds like a Monty Python skit, but there's some confusion as to whether the enemy is just the Dutch or all northern Europe; these rubes sometimes confuse "Dutch" with Deutsch), Julian goes into hiding, fearful that his uncle means to get him drafted and then killed in the army. Accompanying him are narrator Adam Hazzard, the too-earnest lower-class kid who has befriended Julian in his exile, and his mentor Sam Godwin, whose survival instincts have been honed by his own need to keep his Jewish identity secret. Apart from being as loyal as Sam Gamgee, Adam is at first of limited use as anything other than a goggle-eyed foil for Julian's progressive ideas; his ideas of the wider world come almost entirely from the popular fiction of Charles Curtis Easton (whose boys' books sound a lot like Oliver Optic's), and when he finds an ancient forbidden book called A History of Mankind in Space, he's as fearful as he is fascinated. Sam, however, is a shrewd guide, whose goal is to reunite Julian with his mother, living in a more genteel exile in New York. The stage is thus set for an episodic quest odyssey, with the three of them ending up in the army, Julian becoming a hero through some remarkably well-described battles, and Adam inadvertently turning him into a national legend through dispatches from the front which end up in the New York papers thanks to an unscrupulous reporter.

Readers expecting the kind of sudden shift into a cosmic perspective that so often characterizes Wilson's fiction might be surprised at his tight control over point of view here, although later scenes set in a kind of 1840s-era New York being rebuilt in the vaulting shadows of ruined skyscrapers generates a sense of wonder all their own. But in other ways, we're in familiar Wilson territory; as in Spin, the point of view is that of a relatively poor kid who befriends a wealthier and more talented scion of a seriously dysfunctional family; as in Axis, this is essentially a coming-of-age tale set in a world whose history is mostly lost. And as with virtually all his work, we're drawn through the narrative mostly by the characters: Julian, the brilliant thinker and eventual war hero who faces a bright political future but who, it seems, really wants to be Orson Welles; Sam, who faces his own crisis of confidence after being wounded in the war; Adam's courageous and radicalized wife Calyxa (in many ways the most interesting character in the book); and Adam himself, though his towheaded innocence hangs on for a bit longer than it really needs to, and his manner of narration never quite matures to keep pace with his character. As always, Wilson trusts his characters to develop along their own lines, and as a result he earns our trust as well, in one of the more affecting post-apocalyptic, reverse-frontier tales of its type since Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow or John Wyndham's The Chrysalids.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the May issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America

Robert Charles Wilson

(Tor 978-0-7653-1971-5, $25.95, 416pp, hc) June 2009.



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