Title: JULIAN COMSTOCK: A STORY OF TWENTY-SECOND CENTURY AMERICA
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Reviewer: Kevin Riggle
MITSFS somehow missed acquiring this book, so when Elizabeth Bear described it on her blog as "everything those Orson Scott Card books [the ALVIN MAKER books] should have been, and more so," I bought a copy with the plan to donate it when I was done with it. The Library doesn't yet have a copy as of this writing, but probably will by the time you read this, as I plan to donate it tomorrow (4 Jan 2010). (This should not be taken as any kind of statement against the book — in fact I quite enjoyed it. I am just trying to keep my number of possessions to a relative minimum, and so if I can't forsee myself re-reading or lending a book to a friend in the fairly near future — and I almost never re-read novels — it gets donated to MITSFS or otherwise sent to a good home. I don't need more than one library in my life that's bursting at the seams, and I'm personally running low on bookshelf space even with this philosophy.)
I rather liked the Alvin Maker books, to which Bear compared JULIAN COMSTOCK, and having read the book, the comparison makes sense. Julian Comstock doesn't provoke the same sense of wonder that the hedge-magic and native mysticism of Card's books do, and I miss that, but in some ways that lack is the point of JULIAN COMSTOCK. It's a science fiction story told in the style of 19th century boys' adventure novels, but its worldview and politics are very modern, and that tension is the key to its action. JULIAN COMSTOCK is set in a 22nd century America where the combination of oil running out and global warming conspired to kill much of the Earth's population, leaving the survivors living on 19th century-style agriculture and whatever can be scavenged from the ruins of the old world. Dominionist Christian believers took over the US government and remade the country into a theocratic, almost feudal society with three classes, the better to promote their values — the aristocrats or Eupatridians, the leasing class, and indentured servants who are essentially slaves — and three branches of government — the Executive branch, the Army, and the church, the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth. The Dominion believes that it is their duty to unite the world under American (and thus Christian) rule, and that once the world has been so united for a thousand years, Jesus will return.
We are introduced to this world through the eyes and words of the book's narrator, one Adam Hazzard, a leasing-class boy from the American West (somewhere in present-day Saskatchewan or Alberta, parts of those provinces having been annexed by the US as the state of Athabaska well prior to the story, and with the climate of a present-day Wisconsin or Minnesota). For a book with so firm a sense of place, and in which geography plays such a key role, I was disappointed that it didn't include a map — it's not necessary to follow the story, but it would help anchor it in the reader's (or at least my) mind. Adam is a good Christian boy brought up with Dominion ideals, though his father is the pastor of a church which is recognized marginally at best by the Dominion (which is not a denomination itself but a federation of and authorizor of denominations). Adam meets the title character, Julian Comstock, aristocrat and nephew of the sitting President (which has become an unbounded and hereditary office), when he is sent away from the nation's capital, New York City, to protect him from his uncle after his father is wrongfully convicted of treason and executed. Julian is an inquisitive and iconoclastic young man, eager to learn about the Secular Ancients and dismissive of Dominion doctrine, and it's clear that there is a potential for conflict. Adam chronicles his travels with Julian and Julian's mentor, Sam Godwin, as they unsuccessfully flee from conscription into the army, and as Julian rises to distinguish himself therein.
I had a few issues with the book I thought were plot holes, and the telling of the story grates occasionally — the hundred-and-first time Adam ham-handedly elides mention of having sex with his wife, for instance. I found the characters to be all well drawn and human — even the ostensible villains of the piece, the Dominion men, are depicted as real people and not as moustache- twirling hypocrites, and, if Julian is the hero, then his flaws are very apparent. Adam's journey of faith through the book is a believable and sympathetic one for me, and could profitably be the subject of a church book discussion group. For all that the book is obviously a reaction to and extrapolation of Bush's America, I felt like it managed to avoid being too polemical or blatantly political. It's a future that reads like an alternate history, or a history that reads like an alternate future — I can't decide which. The world-building is good and consistent, the characters are well- developed, and the book plays out some intriguing what-if's to reasonable conclusions — I'd very much recommend this book if you like those sorts of things.