Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian

Robert Charles Wilson is another of those writers I have only recently discovered, this time through the engaging and provocative novella Julian.

Suppose that the bulk of North America, now one nation, were effectively (and quite openly) “under God,” a “democracy” in which voting is a public affirmation of the ruling clique, the president more often than not runs unopposed (except perhaps by members of his own family), and the Dominion Council decides which religious denominations are acceptable.

The story begins in Williams Ford, a town in Athabaska that exists around, and mostly because of, the Duncan and Crowley Estate, the country retreat of two wealthy Eastern families. Aside from the Owners, the aristocrats who actually own the land, the populace is composed of the leasing class — tradesmen and skilled workers — and the indentured laborers, in all essentials serfs. Adam, the narrator, comes of a leaseholder family and is, in all unlikelihood, friends with Julian Comstock, who we learn is the president’s nephew. Julian is in Williams Ford for his safety, as much from the president as from anyone or anything else. Then the Poll Takers and Campaigners arrive — it is an election year — and there will be a movie shown at the Dominion Hall. Along with the political show comes a troop of Reservists, soldiers recruiting (read “draft”) for the war against Labrador. They also pose a direct threat to Julian, since they are, as likely as not, under orders to make sure he “enlists”.” Sam Godwin, Julian’s tutor and companion, decides they must leave Williams Ford. Adam throws his lot in with Julian as they head east.

This is a brief story, and as beguiling as it is — Wilson is a fluent writer with a sure sense of context and milieu — it feels truncated, as though it were the beginning of a much longer and more complex narrative. One thinks immediately of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or, even more aptly, Edgar Pangborn’s Davy, a picaresque adventure laden with satire set in a post-Apocalypse America.

Indeed, while not as overtly lusty as Davy (although there are hints), Julian has satire of a particularly Swiftian sort at its core, made all the more pungent by Adam’s commentary: although seemingly accepting things as they are, Adam is as rebellious as any other young man and, like most people, neither a true believer nor an out-and-out heretic, he simply does what he needs to do to get by. The contrast between the expressed social norms of Adam’s world and his own attitude calls into question the validity, not only of his rulers, but any rulers anywhere.

It would be naïve, I think, to discount the obvious contemporary political commentary in this story. While Pangborn takes the award for prescience in this area, Wilson gets major points for spot-on and very timely commentary on current trends. Indeed, as commentary, Julian is a softly stated but merciless indictment.

A word about the “feel” of the book. If for no other reason, Julian deserves to be compared with Twain’s masterpiece just on the character of Adam. While not such an overt hellion as Huck Finn, Adam is just as clear-eyed and acidic an observer. He comes through vividly as a sort of Huck reborn through Wilson’s understated, almost uninflected diction which strongly calls to mind Huck’s own distanced and dispassionate narrative without being in any way imitative.

For its length, it’s an amazingly strong addition to the canon of science-fiction-as-social-satire that has such an illustrious history. And here’s another author I have to catch up with.

(PS Publishing, 2006)

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.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.