Peak oil has left the world a churchy, early-industrial shambles in Robert Charles Wilson's new novel Julian Comstock. An engaging cross between post-apocalyptic series Jericho and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, it may be the best science fiction novel of the year so far.
Wilson has won the Hugo award, and written half a dozen other novels, but has yet to achieve a great deal of name recognition among SF readers. I think Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America is likely to change that. Ostensibly a tale of the brave wartime deeds and eventual presidency of Julian Comstock, written by his close friend Adam Hazzard, the novel is far more than that. It's a sprawling, gorgeous meditation on the inexplicable ways that history mutates culture, from its religious institutions to its pop culture.
It's also a fine example of world building. Wilson takes his time showing us what has happened over the 150 years between us and his characters, giving us glimpses of how the future has come to regard our lives via government propaganda in film and underground treatises by a French radical named Parmentiere. After peak oil, the world is plunged into a period of massive starvation (factory farms collapse without a steady oil supply), the population of North America is decimated, and a new government finally arises that absorbs Canada into America and rules by succession. The Supreme Court is abolished, indentured servitude reinstated, and the "Dominion Church" is a branch of government used to balance the power of the military.
Julian Comstock is the nephew of the current president, who beheaded Julian's father for becoming a bit too popular with the people. Now young Julian is hiding out in Saskatchewan, with his trusty guardian Sam, where he befriends the local "lease boy" Adam. (The leasing class rents its land from the "Aristo" class.) They bond over reading: Adam wants nothing more than to be an adventure writer like his idol Mr. Charles Curtis Easton; and Julian has a stash of forbidden science books, including Darwin's. Julian wants to make a movie about Darwin's life, to reintroduce science to America's Dominion-dominated pop culture.
Eventually the two boys are conscripted and swept up into the endless war between America and "Mitteleurope," which are fighting for control of the now ice-free Northwest Passage that cuts between Northern Canada and Denmark before entering the Arctic. They must dodge bullets, find friends in war-torn Montreal, and escape the murderous plotting of Julian's uncle.
After much tribulation, Julian is crowned president, and the novel becomes a tale of how he tries to bring his version of justice to America from the presidential palace in New York City.
One of the conceits of the novel is evolution itself - not just the evolutionary theory that Julian wants to re-introduce to the masses, but social evolution. When Julian tries to explain evolution to the incredulous Adam, he describes it as a way that DNA "imperfectly remembers" lifeforms that have come before. Just as the future imperfectly remembers the past. We see this happening again and again in the novel, where people in power twist the past into stories that bolster their own perspective. And others try to unbury alternate versions of that past, to reintroduce old scientific ideas into the gene pool.
And at a key moment, Julian reminds us of exactly what's at stake in this evolution metaphor. He's explaining to Adam why he loves people of the past, but also hates them. How could he hate them? Adam wonders. "Because they evolved into us," Julian says. Indeed, the culture of brutal church leaders and illiterate servants we see in Julian Comstock is all too plausible as an outcome of our present.
It's impossible to do justice to the gentle humor and cleverness of Wilson's prose in a review: Suffice to say that he manages to capture a nineteenth century flavor without falling into off-putting artifice. This is one of those rare science fiction novels whose prose style is as energetic and finely-tuned as its ideas. For some readers, the odd turns of phrase and footnotes may be wearing. But it's crucial for Wilson's world-building project, where he's exploring what happens to American life in a world whose cultural elite consider the nineteenth century the height of civilization.
There are a few problems with the novel, such as the selective credulousness that Wilson assigns to his narrator Adam. We know that Adam is clever enough to see through political scheming, and open-minded enough to accept the heretical scientific ideas of his friend Julian as well as his radical, Parmentierist wife Calyxa. But even when Julian goes to gay bars, and eventually takes a male lover, Adam stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that his friend is gay. Though played as humorous naivete, Adam's peculiar blindness comes across as a general narrative squeamishness that seems out of place in a book that confronts so many other thorny issues head-on.
But you can mark this squeamishness up to stylistic choice, and certainly we're never in doubt that our hero is both a brave war hero and a homosexual.
Not only has fictional author Adam Hazzard written a brave book about an unconventional radical who challenges the powers-that-be in his world, but Robert Charles Wilson has written a brave book too. For Julian's issues are our issues. The church tries to control our pop culture and politics; and disempowered, semi-literate people are sent by our governments to fight wars over resources they'll never be able to access. Our media are far more mesmerized by the fashions of the aristocracy than by scientific discovery.
Julian Comstock reminds us that inevitably, every generation imperfectly remembers the past. The best we can hope for is that the future will remember the constructive ideas we've left behind rather than the unhelpful ones. This novel is about why the struggle over cultural memory may be the most important of all.
You can pre-order Julian Comstock via Amazon - it will hit bookstores next month.