Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America

When I reviewed Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian, I remarked that it felt “truncated, as though it were the beginning of a much longer and more complex narrative.” It was. The novella has reappeared as the first part of Wilson’s Julian Comstock, a Bildungsroman that gives the story of the rise of Julian Comstock, a high-born aristo, nephew of the President (and the most likely rival for that august position), as related by his friend Adam Hazzard, just barely a member of the leasing class.

When the story opens, Julian is effectively in exile in Williams Ford, a town in the state of Athabaska that owes its existence to the Duncan and Crowley Estate, a large holding owned jointly by a two wealthy Eastern families. Adam’s family are “leaseholders,” the tradesmen and skilled workers who lease their right to practice their trade or business from the owners. The lowest class are the indentured laborers, who are just what the name implies. The Poll Takers and Campaigners come to town — it’s an election year, in which Julian’s uncle, Deklan Comstock, is running unopposed (again) — accompanied by a troop of Reservists, recruiting for the war in Labrador against the Dutch (which is, as Adam comes to realize, a corruption of “Deutsch” — the war is against the Germans of Mitteleuropa). This is conscription, and no one is fooled, and it may very well be aimed at Julian: his uncle’s reach is long, and the man is paranoid — he had his brother, Julian’s father, hanged on a trumped-up charge of treason. Julian, in the company of Adam and Sam Godwin, Julian’s bodyguard and mentor, charged by Julian’s mother with protecting him, make their escape, intending to go to Manhattan. They do make it there, eventually, but not in the way they had planned.

I had mentioned in my earlier review the strong evocation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is even more marked in the full novel. Julian is, in a country dominated by the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth, an unbeliever, and is not reticent about his opinions, which lands him in trouble more than once. Adam, by contrast, has the piety he was brought up with, which is little more than he needs to observe the forms, although he repeatedly disavows any tendency toward Julian’s style of free-thinking: his belief is sincere, as far as it goes.

What brings this firmly into the realm of Twain’s masterpiece is Adam’s essential innocence, a quality that gives his narrative the same flavor as Huck Finn’s. It’s not that Adam is a fool, it’s more that he takes the world as it is, and whatever he may think about it, he doesn’t let his reservations affect his actions, unlike Julian: he is, in the words of Edgar Pangborn’s Davy, a “mor’l creature,” insofar as he understands it. Perhaps the best word to describe Adam, and perforce his narrative, is “artless.” Wilson’s prose, coming through the character of Adam, is anything but: subtle, fluent, conversational, it highlights the character of the narrator as much as the events he relates. Although Julian is the focus of the story, it’s Adam that brings it to life.

As for the milieu, as I noted after reading the novella, it’s a softly stated but merciless indictment of where we are now as a nation. It is science fiction as satire in the classic mode of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants and Pangborn’s Davy, not quite so mordant in tone as the former, and more sober than the latter, but equally incisive in its observations: the idea that there might be a ruling body that determines which religions are acceptable is thoroughly repellent, but not all that far removed from the demagogues who infest our public discourse and who claim to speak for all believers while pushing their own personal agendas. (The idea that such a body might legitimately be considered a branch of the government is even more appalling.) And the idea that the bulk of humanity exists and earns its keep by the grace of the ruling oligarchs is one that lately has become much too real as we’ve seen the world economy teeter on the verge of collapse through the actions of a small group who are accountable to no one: Wilson gets high marks for prescience on this one.

An unreserved yes on this one, although that doesn’t surprise me at all: I had a feeling, based on the novella, that this would be choice, and it is. Give yourself time with it — it’s a book to savor and reflect on.

(Tor Books, 2009)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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