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Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America
By Robert Charles Wilson
It's Hugo time! And as regular readers know, as with years past, I am trying to read as many of the nominees as possible for this most prestigious of science-fiction awards, before the award itself is actually given out this September at Worldcon in Melbourne, Australia. As of today I've now read three of the six -- Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, China Mieville's The City & The City, and now Robert Charles Wilson's astounding Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America -- and in fact, along with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, these four are considered by most to be in a dead heat for odds-on favorite, making this a great year indeed for SF, in an industry that's seen some less-than-stellar years lately. (For what it's worth, I also have Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest on reserve at the library, although I'm not sure if I'm going to bother with the sixth nominee, Robert J. Sawyer's Wake, after reading his 2007 Rollback and being profoundly disappointed with it.)
To be specific, it's Comstock that seems to be generating the most passionate write-ups online out of all these nominees; and now that I've read it myself, I can see why, becuase of its sense of audience-pleasing uniqueness that seems absent in the other books I've read -- it is in fact a clever combination of a witty steampunk actioner and a dour Bushism post-apocalyptic tale, an almost perfect manuscript whose only minor weakness is that there's been an awful lot of other books by now that have taken the same concept for their own premise. And this of course is something else that regular readers know, that I've read so many post-9/11 books now regarding a conservative American government bringing about the end of civilization, I've been thinking of doing a book-length compendium of them all, entitled The CCLaP Guide to Bushist Literature; I've reviewed over a dozen titles now in the last three years that would fit in such a guide, the latest before today's being James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand.
But while I found Kunstler's book to be rather silly despite having the same theme -- this idea that the nation would revert after an apocalyptic event into a bunch of corpone-speaking, Amish-dressing farmers just because -- Wilson gets away with it by coming up with a compelling reason for such a thing happening; how the combination of losing most of the resources that made the Information Age work (oil, electricity, silicon) with a group of reactionary Luddites taking over the country post-apocalypse and turning it from a democracy into a Christian Republic (imagine Sarah Palin as President and with the court system replaced by Protestant deacons) has produced a world 150 years from now where not only does no technology exist newer than the early Industrial Age, but where even knowledge of post-Industrial technology is forbidden, a world where for an entire century the army has been collecting up every moldy 20th-century textbook still in existence and burning them, except for one archival copy inside a crumbling Library of Congress now under lock and key by the all-powerful Dominion of Christian Churches, one of a handful of organizations with their own large militias (including the army on the west coast, a separate national army on the east coast, and the aristocracy of "gentlemen farmers" who now run the government's executive branch) who through an uneasy truce are all managing to keep American society up and running again on a reasonably stable level. (For one ingenious example of what I'm talking about, see the running theme of how most Americans no longer believe that man actually went to the moon, but that it's simply one more godless lie that brought about the downfall of the atheistic, oil-worshipping old society to begin with.)
And in fact, this book could double as a sly history and sociology textbook on top of everything else, because of Wilson not taking these old feudal and aristocratic structures for granted, like so many other lazy post-apocalyptic stories do, but literally showing the real issues of an anarchic world that brought them about in the Middle Ages in the first place, and why they might form again in a future anarchic world -- how after the chaos of a genuine apocalypse (whether nuclear war or the fall of the Roman Empire), the first people to restore order are isolated groups of strong-willed individuals, warlords who eventually become just regular lords with their own little fiefdoms in the middle of nowhere, in which they provide protection and food for neighboring townfolk in return for them working the land and providing security, which as society becomes even further stabilized turns into a formal network of estates, with eventually a central bureaucracy with a king at its center (in this case still technically called the "President," but now a hereditary emperor in everything but name) to provide some semblance of rule of law, so that these fiefdoms don't have to spend their time in an endless series of petty Mad-Max-style border skirmishes, like exactly what you saw in Europe during the first 500 years of the Medieval Era, before their own formations of kings and national identities. Wilson takes the time and trouble in Comstock to patiently explain all this step by step, providing by the end a surprisingly solid and realistic world, a welcome change from the usual post-apocalyptic offhanded justifications for such things. ("Why has the world devolved into a series of warring little kingdoms? Because warring little kingdoms are freaking cool, maaaan.")
But of course this is ultimately all expository fodder I'm talking about; the true delight of Comstock instead is the almost perfect neo-Victorian tone Wilson finds for the whole thing, turning in a story that for the most part actually could've taken place in the 19th century, except for his occasional references to modern ruins, the Vietnam-style proxy war the US is fighting against a much better equipped European Union in the wilds of northern Canada (in which humorously the Americans no longer understand the difference between the Dutch and the Deutsche), and a lot more. It's within such a stylized milieu, then, that Wilson tells his bildungsromanesque tale, a look at the titular reluctant hero as seen through the eyes of his Watson-like journalist companion, an arts-loving adherent of heretical Darwinism who rises through his war exploits to eventually depose the current American President (who just happens to be his uncle), only to have the horrors of his military decisions and the corrupting influence of absolute power ruin even him by the end. And this is yet another brilliant element that's missing from so many other Bush-inspired post-apocalytpic tales; that while so many of them end on this sort of wishy-washy note of open-ended optimism, Comstock is more like a grand Shakespearean tragedy, adding a sense of gravitas to this otherwise lively adventure story that makes it truly a step above most other Bushist novels out there.
There are all kinds of other details about this book that I could mention, which further attests to its power -- I haven't even touched on its dryly engaging humor, for example, nor its cinematic descriptions of what exactly a neo-Victorian post-apocalyptic America looks like, nor Wilson's lovely premise that, even under the dictatorial control of a Christian Republic, there would still be large pockets of transgressive thought that exist, and with the sophisticates of large urban areas still openly thumbing their noses at what they see as the fascism of a bunch of superstitious hillbillies. (The novel opens in the rural Midwest, completely and utterly under the control of the Dominion, who themselves are headquartered at the old Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; but then ends in New York, where supposedly banned activities like Judaism and homosexuality are still openly practiced, a nice touch by Wilson in a genre usually marked by dreary unstoppable totalitarianism.) And that's probably the best compliment I can pay this book, that I've been talking about it now for almost a thousand words, and still haven't even scratched the surface of all the interesting things there are to say about it.
I wouldn't necessarily call it better than the other two Hugo nominees I've now read, only different; and I have to say, at this point I would be immensely pleased to see any of these three end up as the big winner come September (and imagine will feel the same way about The Windup Girl as well, for which impassioned pleas by other readers have already started appearing in the comments of my other Hugo reviews over at Goodreads.com). In any case, it's almost undeniable by now what a great period we're in right now for science-fiction, and especially when you add genre-hopping projects in other media like Lost and the like; and needless to say that I highly recommend Julian Comstock to all my fellow genre-loving readers.
Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for fans of steampunk and post-apocalyptic tales