Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
They say the sky's the limit
But the sky's about to fall
Down come all them record books cradle and all
They say before he bit it
That the boxer felt no pain
But somewhere there's a gamblin' man
With a ticket in the rain...
--The Low Anthem, "Ticket Taker"
I've been intending to read something by Robert Charles Wilson for a while now, especially after Lydia Millet told me she was a fan. I've got a great talent for intending to read things, but my follow-through isn't always great, and so Wilson's new novel, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, is the first of his books I've read.
What ultimately got me reading Julian Comstock was Brian Slattery's 3-part interview with Wilson at Tor.com. I adore Slattery's work, and trust his judgment, particularly when it comes to novels about the collapse of America as we know it. I was intrigued, too, that the cover for Wilson's novel echoed the cover of Slattery's Liberation, though I've heard this was, in fact, an accident. Nonetheless, the books are similar in their portrayal of a world in which climate change and the end of cheap oil have had cataclysmic effects on society as we know it, and both books are adventure stories. Their differences lie especially in the ways they are told -- the narrative voice in Liberation is baroque and musical, the points of view slip fluidly from character to character, while Julian Comstock is narrated entirely by Julian's companion, Adam Hazzard, whose enthusiasm for neo-Victorian adventure novels has influenced his idea of what "good writing" should be and do.
I hate writing plot summaries, so I'm going to be lazy and steal Brian Slattery's description of the novel, which I can't much improve upon:
In Julian Comstock, with the demise of oil, America has returned to preindustrial levels of technology. The nation’s calamitous fall—involving a thorough depletion of the population and the collapse of the political system as we know it—is a hazy historical memory, replaced by a larger-feeling country, more sparsely populated and more difficult to control. The much-weakened government vies for authority with the Dominion, a huge religious organization with theocratic aims, while waging a war with a European power for possession of a recently opened Northwest Passage.Wilson developed Adam Hazzard's narrative voice after reading novels by Oliver Optic (William Taylor Adams) and finding the naive and good-natured perspective a useful one to set against the often-ghastly events -- like a milder, less absurd Candide. It's an effective choice, not just because it makes the book fun to read (and it does that), but because it gives us, the readers, something to do -- it's easy enough to pick up the clues very early on that Adam's perspective is a naive one, and from that moment on we understand the book through the surface of Adam's narrative and the deeper structure of our speculations about what is "really" going on. (One of my favorite instances of this is the information we receive about Julian's sexual orientation. The clues are relatively subtle, but they add up to a scene at the end that is deeply moving -- as much because of what Adam doesn't say as for what he does.)
Into the political, military, and religious tumult steps Julian Comstock, the nephew of the current president, Deklan Conqueror, and—inconveniently for Deklan—also the son of Deklan’s brother Bryce, the former president whom Deklan had executed in his ascent to power. Julian’s own artistic and political ambitions carry him and his best friend, Adam Hazzard, from the Midwest to Labrador to New York City, from homesteads to army barracks to the halls of power. The novel, narrated by Hazzard, is funny and sad, accessible and thought-provoking; a story of the future written in the style of the past; a light romance and a war saga; a novel of power plays and intimate friendship, where the personal is political and the political is personal.
Aside from being amusing and sometimes giving us something to do, Adam's narration is also an accessible way into the world of 22nd-century America as Wilson has conceived it, because Adam has spent most of his life in a small town far from the country's governmental and religious centers, so when he travels, his observations are those of a wide-eyed neophyte, someone who needs lots of things explained to him. The effect can also be evocative, as in this paragraph wherein Adam tries to describe his first sight of New York City:
Manhattan in a spring dawn! I would have been in awe, if not for the dangers overhanging us. I won't test the reader's patience by dwelling on all the wonders that passed my eye that morning; but there were brick buildings four and five stories tall, painted gaudy colors -- amazing in their height but dwarfed by the skeletal steel towers for which the city is famed, some of which leaned like tipsy giants where their foundations had been undercut by water. There were wide canals on which freight barges and trash scows were drawn by reams of muscular canal-side horses. There were splendid avenues where wealthy Aristos and ragged wage workers crowded together on wooden sidewalks, next to fetid alleys strewn with waste and the occasional dead animal. There were the combined pungencies of frying food, decaying fish, and open sewers; and all of it was clad in a haze of coal smoke, made roseate by the rising sun.This is a paragraph that could have appeared -- at least in terms of what it describes -- in a 19th century novel. Indeed, scenes from Gangs of New York popped into my mind occasionally. Artifacts from the days of the "Secular Ancients" are prized, but by the time the novel begins, most of the useful ones have been found, and many of them have been locked away by the Dominion, which seems to consider ignorance a vital ingredient for religious faith.
This distance from our own time and technology is another difference with Liberation, where most of the adults remember the old days of cheap oil and polar ice caps. In some ways, the lack of much hybridity from the previous era was a disappointment to me, but I wouldn't say this is a failure on Wilson's part so much as a weakness in my own expectations -- I'm a sucker for stories of mixed and reconfigured technologies. Wilson's presentation of the world Julian and Adam inhabit is mostly plausible and convincing, though, and also captures some of unpredictable elements of future history: in this future, for instance, the Dutch are a major foe of the American powers as everyone scrambles to control a Northwest Passage through Labrador (such a passage being much easier to navigate as the arctic seas thaw...)
That the world of the novel is, indeed, so like pre-20th century America is a statement in and of itself about history and power -- the social/political structures that return include slavery and feudalism, both of which seem to be an outgrowth of numerous forces, but which fluorish because of how useful they are to the twin powers within the less-centralized United States (those powers being the Dominion and the basically monarchic-aristocratic government). The danger for the entrenched powers within such a society is that they will be undermined if that society begins to change -- this, indeed, is Julian Comstock's own hope, and there are hints that his hope is not misguided.
One of the pleasures of Julian Comstock is the complexity of its political vision. Wilson does not present a monolithic, omniscient totalitarian government or some other sort of simple dystopia. The rivalry between the Dominion and the government is convincingly developed, and the country itself is also shown to have complex variations of culture, society, and politics in its various regions. There is also religious complexity -- the Dominion, which is a sort of amalgamation of various fundamentalist tendencies, is not the only religion in the land. Julian's mentor and guardian, Sam Godwin, is a Jew, though so little knowledge of Judaism has survived that he struggles to create a viable sense of faith and tradition for himself. Adam's parents are members of a barely-supported sect with a peculiar devotion to snakes. Groups of "unaffiliated" (basically illegal) churches are essential to the plot and character development in the later sections of the novel. Wilson's ability to present the political, economic, and religious complexities of his imagined world so effectively and entertainingly is among the most impressive accomplishments of the book -- there are only a few sections where the pacing falters and the story slumps, and these are easily forgiveable. The narration is so buoyant that I sometimes let the light touch of the telling fool me into thinking the book was shallow or superficial, but then, whenever I stopped reading, I realized just how vivid the world and the story were, just how much I knew about this imagined place, and I began to admire what Wilson had done the way I admire any difficult feat achieved with the gusto and flair that make it all seem effortless.
I must say something, too, about the songs. Wilson nearly has Thomas Pynchon's talent for inserting song lyrics into his story -- traditional songs, religious songs, protest songs, and finally, and most amusingly, songs about Darwin and natural selection. Julian's dream is to create a movie, an art form that has nearly disappeared completely in this world, where most old films have been lost and where the technology for creating movies barely exists. The films that people get to see are silent, and to accommodate this they are a mix of film and live theatre. And they usually include songs. Thus, when Julian begins work on a movie about Charles Darwin, he needs some songs, and Adam's wife Calyxa helps him come up with them. They aren't just songs about natural selection, though, because Julian needed to create a movie that would be popular, and so he got help from Adam's favorite writer, Mr. Charles Curtis Easton, who offers some excellent advice that Adam relates to Julian:
"He agreed that the story lacked some essential ingredients."Julian eventually recognizes the value of these elements, and so adds them to the story of Charles Darwin, leading to pages where I chortled continuously as I read.
I cleared my throat. "Three acts -- memorable songs -- attractive women -- pirates -- a battle at sea -- a despicable villain -- a duel of honor--"
Speaking of music, while reading Julian Comstock, I discovered a perfect soundtrack for it -- a gorgeous album by The Low Anthem called Oh My God Charlie Darwin (parts of which can be heard on the band's MySpace page). I listened to the album repeatedly throughout my reading of the second half of the book. In particular, the first song, "Charlie Darwin" (available via the YouTube here), which, when listened to late at night while reading the last chapter before the epilogue, will make you cry.
A fine synergy -- lovely, evocative music and an amusing, thought-provoking novel. Really, what more do you want from life?