I am a huge fan of Robert Charles Wilson and still think Darwinia is one of the best books I have read (although Spin / Axis are right up there as well). So, it is with great anticipation that I started his latest novel, Julian Comstock – A Story of 22nd Century America.
As I have mentioned before in my review of Robert Sawyer’s Wake, Sawyer’s characters undergo an internal transformation that drives the story as they adapt to it and revise their outlook on their surroundings based on such transformation. RCW’s follow a somewhat opposite pattern: society or the planet change and the characters have to adapt to what is going on around them. Julian Comstock is no exception to this pattern.
JC’s 22nd century America (actually, the Earth) is environmentally devastated. The planet finally has run out of oil which triggered catastrophic conflicts, plagues, mass sterility and death and therefore major population reduction. In this context, human societies have regressed, having to give up most of the oil-related technology. The end of oil has meant major social, economic and political upheavals.
In the United States, political power is divided between the official power structure of the Executive and the Senate, and the unofficial authority of the Dominion, a theocratic organization that rules society and has engaged in tremendous historical revisionism and controls what gets published, and pretty much everything pertaining to culture and religion. Needless to say, it is extremely powerful and fundamentalist and often plays the role of Inquisition, with torture and all against those it defines as deviants.
Julian Comstock, the main character, is the nephew of the current President. Julian’s father, the brother of the President, a war hero, had been executed for treason on trumped charges as his brother feared his popularity. For fear for Julian’s safety, his mother sent him away under the protection and mentorship of a veteran soldier, Sam Godwin. It is in this exile in what is today Alberta. It is there that Julian meets the narrator of the story, Adam Hazzard. It is this threesome that the story follows.
22nd century America is a highly stratified and conflicted society. At the top are the Aristos, those who had property when society collapsed. Then are the leased people, those who lost everything in the collapse and had to sell their labor to the aristos. At the bottom are the indentured servants. This arrangement has the stamp of approval of the Dominion. It is a caste system based on a highly unequal distribution in an economy of scarcity.
On top of it, America is at war with what is now called Mittleeuropa over control of parts of Canada. Resource wars indeed. Julian, Sam and Adam get caught in their attempt to avoid drafting into the war and end up there anyway. Julian becomes a war hero and therefore a threat to his uncle who then puts him in charge a suicide operation with no reinforcement, hoping he will die. He does not but this last maneuver cost his uncle the loss of military support. He is deposed and Julian is appointed President in his place.
Julian always resented the Dominion for their suppression of the past and of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. As president, he takes it on. All the political maneuvering that is required to handle the different power groups (the Senate, the Dominion, and the military) take a toll on Julian and his presidency, along with his life, are short, having only managed to weaken the Dominion but not destroy it as he had hoped. This is a coming of age and its costs story not just for Julian but for Adam, the narrator as well. And Julian also has another reason to resent the Dominion. He is gay.
I was a bit disappointed by the book, compared to Spin and Axis, mostly because I did not care for war stuff and it was a bit repetitive at times. Also, some aspects of Julian’s rise and fall were predictable. I would have liked more social stuff and less war strategy stuff. I would have loved some narrative located in Colorado Springs, where the headquarters of the Dominion are located. Also, I would have liked more developments on what happened between the end of oil and Julian’s times. Some information is provided but not enough for my taste.
That being said, the book is a page-turner as all RCW’s books are and there is a compelling story. Some secondary characters (especially the women, Julian’s mother and Adam’s wife) are interesting as well and there is a lot to keep the sociologist’s interest. And, of course, little Atheist me loves Julian’s resentment of religious authority and theocratic imposition.