Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America is the kind of book Samuel Clemens would be writing, if he were alive today. Which is not to say that Robert Charles Wilson is the next Mark Twain; he's quite good, but Twain had such an innate facility with language, such an entirely relaxed way of picking out just the right word, that it's difficult for any writer to equal his mastery of the craft. But if Clemens were still with us, I think he'd consider Julian Comstock to be a damn fine adventure.
The book's title refers to the young nephew of Deklan Comstock, also known as Deklan Conqueror, President of the United States, though a much different US than readers are used to. A century before the book begins, the world went through the 'False Tribulation' and the 'Efflorescence of Oil', which combined with rather serious global warming pretty neatly smashed civilization back down to the bedrock. Since actual knowledge wasn't lost it wasn't impossible to recover, but because modern infrastructure couldn't function without oil, that recovery took a very different turn. In the America of Deklan Comstock, the Dominion of Jesus Christ is a co-equal power to the presidency and the military, with its own police force and total authority over 'approved literature', the Supreme Court has been abolished by the 53rd Amendment, and perpetual, inheritable slavery has returned with a vengeance. Rich 'Eupatridian' aristocrats run the country, while teeming masses of serfs actually make it work, and a narrow band of free labourers, craftsmen, artists and guildsmen make up what little middle class exists. The United States, which stretches from Panama up to Canada, is embroiled in a war with Mittleuropa over control of Labrador and the North-West Passage, and more broadly, in a war with the whole of the world to help usher in the return of Jesus by establishing worldwide the Dominion.
It's about as different a vision of the 22nd century United States as you could think of, really.
The novel is about Julian, but it's told by his close friend and confidante, Adam Hazzard. Hazzard is an 'innocent cynic', the sort of character raised on stories about the best of his community but constantly confronted by the worst. Think Worf, from TNG/DS9. This slight remove from the subject keeps Julian from overwhelming the larger narrative going on around him (the boy is painfully self-involved at times), and the first-person narration makes for some nice moments of humour. Adam comes across as thoroughly believable, compared to the slightly alien aristocratic Julian, son of a hero murdered by his jealous uncle, the president. It's not that Julian couldn't be made relateable, it's that Adam is just that much easier to relate to, making it easier for the reader to lose himself in the narrative.
And it's a solid narrative. Wilson has a delightful way with words, no small part of why I thought of him and Clemens as being in the same vein. Indeed, Hazzard's reactions to things like his army service, watching a movie for the first time and visiting New York feel like they'd fit nicely in Twain's 'Roughing It', a similar first-person account (albeit of the author's own, somewhat less momentous adventures as a young man). The limited narration means Wilson has to work harder to show what's in other character's minds, but it's a task he's equal to, though he also knows when not to let the narrator do more than guess at what might be going on behind another persons eyes. Although his complete obliviousness to a certain aspect of Julian's nature, given that he himself mentions rumours about it before they even leave the Estate to begin their adventures, is charmingly naive. You can take the boy out of the innocent countryside, but you can't take the innocent countryside out of the boy.
Far from being a tale of high technology and world-shaking events, this tale of the 22nd century is tightly focused; it never strays beyond the borders of the United States, and covers just a few years of time. But that focus is well used, allowing Wilson to put human faces to the sorts of events that a more big picture-oriented writer might simply toss off in narration without going any deeper. And while much of the story could have been written by Clemens from his understanding of technology, it's not a straight "the future is just like the past" concept. The people of this 22nd century America may not understand how to do everything the 'Secular Ancients' did, but they know that it could be done, and they're able to come up with work-arounds. They can't record sound for their movies, so they have orchestras and stage actors reading dialogue. They no longer have nuclear-powered ships, so they have mixed sails and steam engines for maximum manoeuvrability. The army has trench sweeper machine guns on cavalry, and the Chinese have invented ultra-long-range cannons. And while the passage of time has left most relics of the past unusable, the sheer amount of stuff we 'Secular Ancients' produced means that some of it survives. Such as a certain inspiring book, detailing twenty-first century space exploration, and the American and Chinese landings on the moon.
Julian Comstock's America, as the saying goes, might be lying in the gutter, but it's still looking up at the stars.
I heartily recommend this book to anyone looking for the sort of 'boys adventure' stories that have sadly fallen out of favour of late. There's pain, death, brave men, coward men, strongest men, chases, escapes, lies, truths, passion, miracles...
Hmm. I may be thinking of another book, actually. An equally good adventure story, perhaps, and one that's developed the kind of cult following I honestly think this book might be able to pick up as well. But enough of my thoughts on it, go read Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America and make up your own mind, already!