My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Expanded from his Hugo-nominated novella Julian: A Christmas Story, Robert Charles Wilson has crafted a magnificent future history that is a compelling and somewhat chilling vision of what America could become. As I recall, I did not enjoy the original novella very much because it was difficult to place the events in context. The novel does a wonderful job of filling in the details needed to fully understand the story. And creative details they are! Julian Comstock is a tale of America 160 years from now that shows the aftermath of the breakdown of our technological society. As a memoir ostensibly intended for readers of the time, the book only hints at the turmoil and upheaval visited upon the world at the end of the 21st Century, on the assumption that readers will be thoroughly familiar with those events. The pre-apocalypse time of the “Secular Ancients” is known as the Efflorescence of Oil. America emerges as an agrarian, Christian theocracy from the False Tribulation and Fall of Cities. Somehow Canada (and possibly Mexico) has been annexed to form an America with 60 states. The Presidency is now essentially hereditary, with sham elections to ratify the candidates that are approved by the real power, the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth, a coalition that suppresses dissidence and free speech. (Perhaps the most chilling reflection of the Dominion’s oppression is a passing reference in a short footnote that the 53rd Amendment abolished the Supreme Court.)
Seventeen-year-old Julian Comstock is the Aristo nephew of President Deklan Comstock. Deklan Conqueror, as he is commonly known, is the man who executed Julian’s father to help ensure his continued reign. Julian’s mother, fearing that Deklan will extend his fratricidal ways, sends Julian west to the town of Williams Ford, Athabaska, with Julian’s mentor Sam Godwin. There Julian befriends Adam Hazzard, the son of a lease-man (the new middle class lease land from the Aristo dynasties and manage the indentured laborers who work the land). It is from Adam’s point of view that the novel’s events take place. Adam is a naïve and somewhat unreliable narrator who nevertheless captures the essence of Julian’s life.
At Christmastime 2172 the Army arrives to conscript the town’s youth for the ongoing war in Labrador against Mitteleuropan (primarily German) forces. Julian, Adam, and Sam sneak out of town, knowing that Julian’s lineage would put him in danger in the Army. However, the trio eventually ends up in the Army anyway, using assumed names. Julian’s charisma, bravery, and luck quickly propel him to greater things. Meanwhile, Adam hones his burgeoning writing skills by documenting Julian’s exploits, eventually leading to the revelation of Julian’s real identity to the public. Julian’s triumphs and tragedies continue through Christmastime 2175, affecting the entire fabric of American government, class struggle, and religiosity.
Wilson’s portrait of a future America is fascinating, original, and frighteningly plausible. The people in this world are generally ignorant of the ways of the Secular Ancients because digital records are inaccessible and everything else is censored by the Dominion. Technology has by and large reverted to the level of the mid-19th Century. The theocracy persecutes scientists, sectarians, and free-thinkers like Julian. The pertinent background information is slowly revealed without unnecessary exposition.
Julian Comstock is an excellent novel, with authentic, three-dimensional characters, a believable yet unpredictable plot, and large doses of humor. The writing rings true to Adam’s perspective without being archaic. The novel is a contemplative and persuasive parable that illustrates the dangers of the collapse of technology and the rise of religious extremism. This is science fiction at its best.