In Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America (2009), Robert Charles Wilson — who may be one of science fiction’s best pure storytellers — deploys his considerable talents toward that troublesome subgenre, the retrofuture. The resulting novel makes for a rousing adventure story and an effective, if unsurprising, cautionary tale.
The novel paints a portrait of a post-oil, post-collapse future, through the eyes of young Adam Hazzard, best friend of one Julian Comstock, a man destined for great things. Julian is the nephew of the president of the United States, the tyrannical Deklan Conqueror, and seen as a potentially dangerous heir. He hides out in the quaint, idyllic state of Athabaska with Adam and his caretaker, Sam Godwin. When they’re forced to flee this safe haven, their subsequent adventures see them participate unwillingly in a war for control of the unfrozen waters of the Northwest Passage, where a combination of Julian’s innate leadership and Adam’s naïve writerly ambitions return Julian to the public eye, and pave the way for his rise to power. But Julian — a philosophical sort with an “unhealthy” interest in the time of the Secular Ancients — has a head filled with ideas that clash mightily with the powerful religious dogma and cruel labor practices of his era. Will his gradually increasing influence change the world?
The novel feels like a historical, and it’s an effective style, conveying our future through its past. Wilson’s straight-forward, smooth-flowing writing clips along nicely, like the “ripping yarns” Adam favors, and as a pure adventure story it succeeds quite well, building its legends convincingly. I was less enamored of its SFnal content, however. The scenario is well conceived, and clearly this is a world thoughtfully descended from our own. But the book is at its most interesting when blending speculation about our future into its world-building, which happens in the early-going — when discussing Julian’s interest in the past and setting up its climate-changed geography — but not often enough thereafter. Once the basic lines are drawn, the novel fixes its focus on its own era: a depressing throwback time where narrow-minded religion is ubiquitous, science is marginalized, and a brutally unfair caste system holds sway. This is deliberate, of course, and not ineffective; at its core, Julian Comstock is a cautionary tale, its dystopian trappings devised to convey dark messages. Even so, I prefer more future in my futures, and this one doesn’t give us much. And despite Adam’s middle-ground viewpoint, the science versus religion theme feels simplistic and unsurprisingly rendered. On the whole, then, this one fell a little short for me, generally fast-moving and entertaining but slightly disappointing.