My SF credentials clearly need updating in that I had not heard of Robert Charles Wilson before reading this book, Julian Comstock: a story of 22nd century America.
How I came to read it is a bit unusual. It began as a short story called “Julian: A Christmas Story” and that story is included in the study guide I have been using for my Neuroscience class. That class reads “Flowers for Algernon,” which is the short story previous to “Julian” in the study guide. I can’t seem resist reading ahead.
I had the book on my nightstand for at least a year, though, and I didn’t read it until recently because of the marketing. I’m glad I persevered, because the book is really good. It’s been a long time since I discovered a new SF author whose work I wanted to read all the rest of.
What do I mean by the marketing? Well, in this case I mean two things, namely, the title and the cover. Both the self-publishing advice guides I’ve read and the writing and publishing advice I’ve received in person all harp on these two things constantly: the title is the first thing your reader is going to read, and you’ve GOT TO have a good cover. These things are supposed to “hook” your readers, catch their attention, draw them in to your story. Blah blah blah.
Well, sorry Robert (or Robert’s publisher), these did not. The cover is a mixture of several different elements, none of them particularly promising. It shows a guy in a cowboy hat, looking away from the viewer, holding a gun and standing in front of a confused and confusing landscape that includes a possibly ruined town, a road, some nondescript buildings, and something that resembles the Statue of Liberty’s torch. I’m not particularly interested in cowboys, guns, Westerns, or really anything that contains a lot of shooting. I don’t insist on equal treatment of the sexes at all times, but I do prefer that there be at least one non-stereotypical female character in a story. And, if I see a ruined Statue of Liberty, I immediately think, “Planet of the Apes.”
And then there’s the title. I’m not enamored of titles that are just the name of one of the characters—even if it’s an important—even if it’s THE MOST important—character. I had the same trouble with Adam Bede, another book I ended up loving after taking a period of months in overcoming my resistance to the boring title. Adam Bede wasn’t even the most important character in that book, or the most interesting. That honor went to his future wife, Dinah. So I should really know better. But even so I still haven’t read, say, Silas Marner, Ethan Frome, Olive Kitteridge, or Ellen Foster. It’s a pretty good example of my being “bumped out of the story” as a reader before I even start.
I wonder whose idea it was to tack on the tagline, “A novel of 22nd century America” to Julian Comstock. Whosever it was, thank goodness. Because that’s why I finally read it. It is a future alternate history of the USA, which I am also experimenting with in Hallie’s Cache.
So, the cover is accurate. Julian Comstock is in fact a Western. There is quite a bit of shooting. The few women characters are interesting enough and are not doormats, but they don’t play a super-large role in the story. It reminded me of the Star Trek episode, “Spectre of the Gun,” in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have to re-enact the gunfight at the OK Corral. That was a fun episode, which I enjoyed, so this is not a fatal criticism, but it did seem like the 22nd century was an excuse to tell an old-fashioned Western tale that could have been set in the 19th-century USA without losing a whole lot. I’ve also read a couple of reviews that claim it’s a retelling of the history of Julian the Apostate, set in 22nd century America. That could have added to the sense of familiarity that I was feeling, but it’s also a neat idea.
My favorite parts of the book were these: the narrator and his voice, and the scope of the world building. One enables and enhances the other. Adam Hazzard, the narrator, is an intelligent but unworldly son of the working class who is fortunate to befriend Julian, the nephew of the President, while he is living on a plantation out of the capitol’s intrigue and away from his corrupt and tyrannical uncle.
An issue that faces authors of books about worlds very different from our own is how to work in exposition without confusing or boring the reader. Info dumps and expository lumps are big no-no’s, but without important back story, readers are also going to be confused and tune out. Writing from Adam’s point of view was a good way to solve this problem. Adam isn’t going to know how it works in Washington, he will have large gaps in his historical knowledge, and he will need things explained to him that will also help the reader. His questions were often my questions. Like other non-title characters, he was the most interesting, and relatable, character in the book for me. Adam’s voice, the classic “unreliable narrator” that you learn about in college literature classes, worked. In the end, I cared very much about Julian Comstock. I wanted him to achieve his goals, and I was glad that he found true love.
Occasionally Adam’s naiveté could get a little irritating, though, especially in the matter of intimate relationships. It’s not unreasonable to think that after a crash, American society would revert to something like the Old Wild West under a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. But I found it hard to suspend disbelief that major aspects of the American (and human) experience, such as homosexuality, the Jewish religion, and the scientific method, would be so completely outside of Adam’s ken as it is portrayed in the book. A few words from the 21st century, such as “eBay,” survive in garbled form and meaning in this world; it seems very unlikely that the words “gay,” “queer,” or something similar wouldn’t have survived, albeit in mutated form, as well. It also seems highly unlikely to me that virtually all the science of the 20th and 21st centuries would have disappeared. The “fashionable” vaccines that actually spread disease rather than cure it are a nice creepy touch, but they stand isolated as a plot device rather than being integrated into a plausibly dysfunctional medical system.
The Dominion–this world’s government–is powerful, but not that powerful. As portrayed, it lacks the ruthlessness, brutality, and attention to detail of the Ministry of Truth. And Deklan Comstock is no President Snow. Instead, Wilson limns a sprawling, lawless land, in which nameless throngs live and die on the margins and revert back to a simpler, perhaps more natural and fundamental state. I suggest that the fact that for Wilson this fundamental state resembles the 19th century American West, says more about the author than it does about us. Still, it brings up interesting questions. Can you un-ring the bell? Put the genie back in the bottle? Would you want to? And what can one man, even one with all the possible worldly power and advantage at his disposal, do against these forces before he too is swallowed by them? I put this book down with a satisfying combination of mixed feelings: sadness and hope.