Visions of Paradise

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Julian Comstock

I have read a handful of Robert Charles Wilson novels previously, and I often had mixed feelings about them. He usually creates an interesting scenario, around which he tells a human-interest story showing the impact of that scenario on ordinary people’s lives. This is the type of story which I tend to enjoy, and I have found Wilson’s previous novels very readable and generally interesting, as were his characters.

But what I found frustrating about his novels is that often nothing seemed to be resolved. The world was the same at the end of the novel as it was at the beginning, which tended to make the sfnal foundation of the story more of an excuse to examine his characters than anything he cared to explore for its own sake. While there was always forward progress in the lives of the characters, there was little or no development in the speculative foundation of the story.

At times I wondered if Wilson was a frustrated literary writer who liked science fiction but did not really know what to do with it other than create his backgrounds. Darwinia was a book I expected to like a lot, but it was mildly disappointing. So was The Harvest. His Hugo-winning Spin was better in that some exploration of the speculative foundation actually took place, but I have not read the sequel Axis yet to see if he fully explored it.

Which brings us to Wilson’s novel Julian Comstock, a Hugo-nominee in 2010. Its scenario appealed to me considerably, since I have grown weary about near-future sf which always presupposes that advanced technology will continue to grow and expand into singularities, raptures and non-human humans. In my own unpublished science fiction, I have hypothesized a collapse of technology and, to a large extent, civilization, and Wilson has adopted the same scenario for Julian Comstock.

In the late 22nd century, America has expanded to 60 states, including most of Canada, but the technological level is fairly 19th centuryish, due to various collapses in the mid-21st century. The government still has a president and Senate, but the former is mostly a hereditary position, and the latter are chosen exclusively from rich aristocrats rather than from the various lower classes (which range from free workers to indentured servants who are no better than hereditary slaves).

There is also a union of churches known as the Dominion, which exerts a commanding influence over both the government and the lives of most Americans, so that life is fairly dominated by three institutions: president, Dominion and military.

The novel is narrated by Adam Hazzard, the son of a seamstress on an aristocrat estate controlled by a family which has a distant relationship to Declan Comstock, the current president who has remained in office many years. The president has forestalled any threat of an overthrow by trumping up charges against his very popular brother whose military victories against European invaders in eastern Canada made him a national hero, eventually having him executed. Now the president fears that his nephew Julian might become the pawn of his enemies in another attempt to replace him, so Julian’s mother has sent him to that estate to keep him as far away from Declan Comstock’s attention as possible. He is accompanied by a mentor Sam who serves as the surrogate arm of Julian’s mother, and he becomes fast friends with Adam who stays with him through the entire book.

The war against the Europeans is going badly, largely due to the president’s mismanagement of the military, so another round of large-scale recruitments is enforced, and Julian, Adam and Sam are forced into the military. Julian decides to hide his true identity by adopting a pseudonym, a wise decision since he soon shows himself to be a bit of a rebel as he questions the Dominion beliefs and authority constantly. He also displays some of his father’s military genius and gradually becomes a hero among his fellow soldiers.

Adam is a writer wannabe, who keeps a journal of their adventures in the military, much of it centered around Julian’s exploits. He becomes friendly with a war correspondent who is much less scrupulous than Adam realizes. He steals Adams writings and publishes it in New York City as his own work. As a result, Julian becomes a popular figure in the media, so that he and Adam are invited to New York City to be honored for his exploits. Ironically, the person doing the honoring is the president’s sister-in-law, who is Julian’s mother, so that his true identity is immediately revealed. Almost overnight, Julian Comstock becomes a national hero.

These are just the bare bones of the novel. Much of it is spent following the lives of Julian, Adam and Sam. All three come near death due to the president’s determination to have his troublesome nephew killed by withholding military support from their portion of the army. They encounter several interesting people in their travels, perhaps none moreso than Calyxa, a rebellious singer from Montreal who becomes Adam’s wife.

The book is not without some flaws. Good things happen to Julian a bit too easily at times. Adam’s naivete is too convenient to be totally believable. And some of the villains were too black-and-white where they might have been better developed had they showed a bit more shades of gray in their personalities.

But overall I empathized with the main characters, and enjoyed the events of the novel. It reminded me somewhat of the straight-forward storytelling of the 1950s, which stood up well so long as you did not think too deeply about what was taking place, lest the house of cards come tumbling down. For me, the cards did not fall down and I enjoyed Julian Comstock enough to give it an A ranking.


  • Wilson's "The Chronoliths" is one of my favorite books. This one is on my stack of books to read. I hope to read this book sometime later this year.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 12:35 PM  

  • I've never read THE CHRONOLITHS, nor BLIND LAKE, which has gotten very good reviews as well. After reading JULIAN COMSTOCK, I intend to read some others as well. I think Wilson is growing on me as I adjust to what he is doing in his novels.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 3:22 PM  

  • Wilson does have a different style than most writers.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 7:29 PM  

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