Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Julian Comstock

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor, 2009)

Julian Comstock is another in a long line of science fiction novels that superficially are about the future, when they manifestly are about the past. Set more than 100 years after the evocatively named “Efflorescence of Oil” – our era – there are several nods toward the future: global warming has opened the Northwest Passage, a moldering book about ancient moon landings is assumed to be fiction, and a dictatorial American government is based in New York City. These are window dressing. Where were the attempts to transition away from oil dependence? How was it that literacy and books have survived yet so little technical knowledge? The author’s concerns are elsewhere. He has created an interesting setting, but it is an alternate version of the 19th Century rather than the future. Characters travel by horse, coal-fired train, and wooden ship, and frequently speak in archaic 19th Century formulations.

The story is narrated, years later, in the first person by Adam Hazzard, a friend of Julian Comstock from their teen-aged years forward. Adam introduces Julian as a young man who will shape historic events. Adam, presented as overly naïve about the world, is a great fan of boys' adventure novels, especially those written by a contemporary Oliver Optic or Horatio Alger-like figure (19th Century again), and he hopes to one-day write the same sort of adventure novels himself. His version of the life of Julian Comstock, which actually focuses much more on the narrator’s life, is told in something approaching the style of a boy’s adventure novel, with an occasional layer of self-awareness.

Much of what follows keeps mostly to the boy’s adventure mode, as Adam and Julian escape military conscription, run away, get conscripted anyway, endure military life, and survive battles on land (fought in 19th Century manner), and sea (in 19th Century naval style) against the Dutch in Labrador. The battles and field hospital scenes become grittier and bloodier as the story progresses, intentionally subverting the boy’s adventure tone. Still, Adam remains relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, in near-parody of boy’s adventure mode, in the face of experiences, particularly in the field hospital where he participates in 19th Century-era treatment, that could be expected to be life changing.

Adam has many adventures on his own, apart from Julian, and on one of these he meets and immediately idolizes a young woman. In boy’s adventure mode, Adam has no notion of who the woman is, or what love is, and yet he is utterly devoted to her. As the author makes clear, Calyxa, the object of his desire, is more politically aware, more widely read, and more calculating than Adam. She deliberately and unscrupulously puts him in danger, and Adam welcomes it as a chance to prove himself to her. He rescues her not once, but twice. Yet, why she should consent to marry him, and eventually bear him a child, is less clear to me.

Julian Comstock is another character depicted in multiple layers, so that the reader sees that he is both more and less than his friend Adam believes him to be. Julian is the exiled nephew of the current President of the United States, Deklan Comstock. Deklan had Julian’s war-hero father was put to death years before, because he was too popular and he was becoming a threat to Deklan’s presidency. Julian, conscripted into the army under a false name, proves himself in battle and becomes popular with the soldiers and, through his friend Adam, with the public. Adam, the budding writer, documents Julian’s accomplishments in flashy boy’s adventure style. Unknown to Adam, the battlefield journalist who is supposedly helping him refine his writing craft gathers Adam’s work together, has it published, and Julian’s exploits become a bestseller. When Julian’s identity as a Comstock is revealed, Deklan promotes him to general and sends Julian to lead an attack in the north, hopelessly under-supplied and under-supported, to guarantee Julian’s failure. Julian and Adam endure a lengthy deadlocked siege in the north, while in New York, Deklan’s presidency unravels and he is deposed. This leads to an excellent scene where Julian, recovering from his wounds in a field hospital, is horrified to learn that he has been named the new president. He is temporarily unable to speak, due to his wounds, and Adam must speak for Julian as Julian madly scribbles with paper and pencil. Adam speaking for Julian, interpreting Julian for the public, is a recurring theme and presumably the reason the narrator is telling this tale.

Julian’s short presidency is not a happy one, as we learn indirectly through Adam’s narration. Adam's concerns, indeed Julian’s concerns, are elsewhere: Adam with his new wife and child, Julian with his ambition, oddly enough, to create a silent film about the life a Charles Darwin. Julian busies himself with a script, and hiring a director and cast. At the same time he attempts a number of ambitious legislative reforms with less than his full attention.

Julian’s interest in film and in Charles Darwin is established early on. With access to forbidden books from the age of the Efflorescence of Oil, Julian has taught himself some science. These books are banned by the conservative Dominion, a tightly controlled league of churches (Dominion Catholic, Dominion Episcopal, Dominion Baptist, etc.), which certifies churches, publication of books, and much else, too. Adam was raised in an uncertified snake-handling church, which made his family outsiders in the village where he grew up. The reader learns little about this snake-handling church, which I think is a missed opportunity. Adam is shocked to discover that another, minor character is a Jew. Judaism, also, is outside of Dominion certification. As with the snake-handling church, we learn little about how Judaism survives and integrates into society, which is another missed opportunity. We meet a Dominion elder, Deacon Hollingshead. Unfortunately, he becomes a rather simplified villain of the boy’s adventure sort. Julian uses the powers of his office to try to break the hold that the Dominion has on knowledge and education, and reduce Dominion influence in general. His film about Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution is part of this strategy. Adam simply looks on as his friend Julian misuses power, taking rash and ruthless action, including ordering executions and having heads put on spikes.

The narrator’s upbeat voice is substantially different from other Robert Charles Wilson novels I have read (Spin, Blind Lake, Chronoliths), which feature conflicted main characters, with lifetimes full of doubts and insecurities. In Julian Comstock, Wilson uses the credulous worldview of the boy’s adventure story, then undercuts it from time to time to give the reader a dose of harsh reality. It’s less consistent than, say, Voltaire, who in Candide mocks Pangloss’ optimism at every turn. The nostalgic 19th Century is combined with a forbidding 22nd Century setting, and the two don’t quite mesh. The resulting dissonance is interesting, but doesn’t fully resolve into a satisfying voice or story.

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