Julian Comstock

December 19th, 2010

I expect much from Robert Charles Wilson. I was deeply impressed by Spin, which is easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, or ever; and although Axis disappointed somewhat, I thought the idea behind Julian Comstock was an exciting and interesting one. Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate how much of a downer it would be.

He returned to the formula of Spin, somewhat, where we read the account of the man at the side of a truly great man, which is something he knows how to do well. This story’s setting, however, is the true main character of the book. It is the 22nd century, and sometime in our own century, we run out of oil at the same time that climate change is having really colossally noticeable effect, and our civilization is unable to keep up with the rapid changes and a collapse (called “The False Tribulation”) occurs. Conjoined with a conservative religious movement gaining primacy, we are reverted to an America that holds the 19th century to be its ideal. Victorian cultural elements are resurrected as being right and proper, Christianity is embedded deeply in the functioning of the State, and a strict class system (and hereditary “Presidency”) rules the day.

This is a neat idea, probably even a Big Idea, but it doesn’t work terribly well (at least, not for me) in the larger picture. Even if one grants that all the elements for Wilson’s proposed decline are in place in our society today and could see such a thing coming to pass…that says nothing about the rest of the world. And neither does Wilson, really. Oh, America is at war with “The Dutch,” and the Chinese are mentioned as suppliers of arms…but why would all these powers seem to be reduced to roughly similar levels of ignorance and technological backwardness, all simultaneously? It just doesn’t track well. There’s too much information out there for *everybody* to lose the key bits that seem to have been lost.

So as a warning of where our society’s current flaws could someday take us, it does pretty well. As an exercise in worldbuilding, it was too farcical to buy. The characters were likable, though, and the unreliability of the narrator was done well and playfully enough that interpreting what the truth behind his hints and misdirections might be was often amusing. It was still a picture of a world in decline, though, which I can only enjoy for so long, and this book was a bit longer than that.

Leave a Reply