Friday, August 27, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novel: JULIAN COMSTOCK: A STORY OF 22ND-CENTURY AMERICA by Robert Charles Wilson

Last, but not (quite) least for the 2010 Hugo nominees, we have the novel Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson. I’m inclined the group Wilson in with the likes of Sawyer, Stross, Scalzi as a successful sf author from the period I’d missed out on. This novel covers a lot of the same ground as The Windup Girl, but in very different way.

Like Bacigalupi, Wilson depicts a 22nd century future in which oil supplies are exhausted with a resulting collapse of technology. There are also rampant plagues and a population collapse that has resulted from the lack of energy, disease, and infertility brought on by chemical pollution. In the wake of this collapse, reactionary political forces have taken over North America: landowners have become aristocrats, while many laborers are slaves (called indentured servants, but it is an inherited class). Christianity has become an official religion that censors scientific knowledge and enforces morality.

The narrator, Adam Hazzard, tells the story of his close friend, the titular Julian Comstock, an aristocrat and the nephew of the evil President of the United States, who killed Julian’s father. When both are young men, they are conscripted in a war against the European Union in Labrador. They are very successful, and Julian especially rises to fame through his military exploits. Meanwhile, Adam works to become a writer of adventure books and falls in love with a rebellious young woman.

Adam is an odd sort of unreliable narrator – we don’t have any reason to suspect that he’s intentionally dishonest, but he’s one of the most naïve characters I’ve ever read. As a lower class country boy from a religious background, he seems completely unaware of much of what’s going on around him. Sometimes this makes for some humorous situations, but usually it was a bit too precious. It’s also difficult to believe that a character who sees as much as Adam, who finds himself (while still very young) in the highest echelons on military, political, and artistic circles, would be so thick. I wasn’t a huge fan of the prose, which was generally very plain with the occasional Victorian affectation, and I’m not sure if this is Wilson’s voice or Hazzard’s – if the latter, it is at least more impressive. The contrivances of the plot, which puts these young men at the top of American society, also feel Victorian, and again, I’m sure this is intentional on some level, but does that make it any less annoying?

Overall, this heavy leaning on American Victoriana is the novel’s biggest fault. It feels like Wilson’s been reading some Twain and some books on the American Civil War, and he wants to tell a futuristic story in this mode. I didn’t buy the turning back that we see here – the society of Windup Girl felt a lot more like our future than Wilson’s arbitrarily resetting culture, technology, and science back to 1900. There are also some cheap political shots here that took me out of the narrative. I think my politics are pretty close to Wilson’s, and I agree with most of his critiques of the contemporary US, but I still winced, for instance, when one character explains that America’s European attackers “hate us for our freedoms.” I’d prefer a bit more subtlety in my political satire.

There is plenty to enjoy here, especially if you're looking for a post-apocalyptic novel that's a little different, and much less grim. It’s a fast-paced and easy read, and the narrator is quite likable, despite his cloying naivete. It really does capture the feeling of a boys’ adventure novel, which is certainly the intention, but I’m not sure it worked for me. Mostly, I think it suffers in comparison to the better written and more compelling work by Bacigalupi.

Next week I'll wrap up my 2010 Hugo coverage by revealing my votes and making some predictions...

Grade: B-


  1. It was a fun read for me. The Victorian affectation didn't bother me as much as it seems to have bugged you. I thought that the disappearance of so much commonplace science was unconvincing. Especially things like medical science.
    But the story was well told and engrossing.

  2. I definitely agree that it was fun. I'd put it in the same category as Boneshaker - I enjoyed the experience of reading both (Julian Comstock was more grounded in reality so it felt more consequential than Boneshaker), but I wanted more.

    I'm looking forward to reading more Wilson though.