Review: Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
There will always be small similarities between an author’s works. The most obvious with respect to Robert Charles Wilson is his uniquely character driven narrative. A much smaller scale similarity between Spin and Julian Comstock (the works of his I’ve read) is the existence of a memento box. The narrator in both books takes a moment to pick through the small treasures he collected over the course of his life. In a more metaphorical way, that describes the entirety of Julian Comstock.
The ad copy sent along with this book mentions that this was not a book anyone expected Wilson to write. It very much doesn’t come off as science fiction, though it takes place in the future. I feel more comfortable comparing it to alternate history. Whatever it’s categorized as it is more approachable by the lover of literature in general than the lover of speculative fiction in particular. The reader inherently knows more about the history of the world in which the titular character grew up in than any of the characters in the book. The explanations given in the book, the end of cheap oil and a fertility plague, are clearly only part of the story. The 22nd century America that exists in this book is a feudal society with strong institutionalized religion and hereditary president.
The story that’s told is one of war and struggle between the classes and science vs religion and a curiosity about what made the mysterious 20th and 21st century what they were. The 4th of July is still celebrated as independence day. The Constitution and Congress and presidency still exist, but with the inclusion of a religious wing of the government, these institutions come off as abstractions that could refer just as easily to 16th century England or numerous other points in history. The meteoric rise and fall of an unlikely leader offers many starting points for discussions of modern day politics, but the central theme is one of truth vs drama.
The narrative is presented as if the reader is fully aware of how history Judged Julian Comstock. I found myself significantly more sympathetic to Julian than I suppose 23th century history recorded. That said, even a story told from the point of view of his closest lifelong friend leaves significant gaps in what drove Julian beyond simple revenge and a love of drama. He confronted certain issues with tyrannical intensity while remaining oblivious to equally important issues. This is a story in which the gaps, both in history and in character development, speak as loudly as what’s presented. The powerful elite, no matter their intentions, live lives incomprehensible to the average man. That’s equally true in the other direction.
I enjoyed Julian Comstock mostly for it’s purity. It explores the world it creates and chronicles an important figure’s role in the otherwise glacial process of political and social change. It presented many opportunities to wander far afield of the central narrative, but steadfastly followed the structure it established for itself. That the stories it tells are highly captivating extols both the flexibility offered and constraints imposed when drama is emphasized over truth.