By Robert Charles Wilson
First Published: June 2009
Jacket Photography by Ross MacDonald
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction, Alternate History
Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel written as “historical fiction” from the 22nd century. The events take place more than 100 years after the end of our current civilization caused by a combination of the world running out of oil, changes caused by global warming, plagues, and infertility. The world population has been dramatically reduced, the United States has expanded to include much of Canada. Out of the chaos, religion in the form of a national religious organization named the Dominion emerges as an equal partner in the new government. In effect, the United States has been plunged into a new low technology “Dark Age”. Against this background, Julian Comstock describes the adventures and rise to power of a young aristocrat who dares to question conventional thought.
Towards the end of the 22nd century, technology has more in common with the 1800s than with the glory days of the 21st century. A society of feudalism has developed where most of the population serves a few aristocratic families, and the powerful Dominion religious order has gained influence over all aspects of society. The United States is focused on becoming more prosperous without repeating the secular errors of the past but much effort is continuing to be spent on fighting a war with the Dutch over the Northwest Passage.
Julian Comstock is written as a first person account biography by the best friend of Julian Comstock, Adam. Adam was born into a common family of the “leasing class” but becomes friends with the aristocratic Julian as a boy and ends up getting tutored along with Julian. Adam becomes the perfect foil to the much worldlier Julian. He is extremely naïve and completely trusting and becomes Julian’s most trusted confidant. He also becomes obsessed with reading which leads to a desire to be a writer and results in his careful documentation of the adventures he shares with Julian.
Wilson’s technique of creating a first person biographical account by a simple and naïve young man works well. The reader learns about the world of the 22nd century through the innocent eyes of Adam who does his best to provide an accurate report. Often times, Adam doesn’t even understand all the implications of his observations and this provides some humorous moments such as when Adam describes obvious indications that Julian is gay while Adam could not imagine this possibility. However, Adam’s friendship with the much more sophisticated Julian and the tutoring he receives does make him start to consider that the teachings of the Church about the “Years of Vice and Profligacy” may be exaggerated for the benefit of the Dominion. The Dominion, itself, is portrayed in a very realistic way as a natural evolution of the current United States religious movements brought to power by worldwide calamities.
Forever optimistic, helplessly honest, and always loyal, Adam is the perfect best friend for Julian. Through Julian, Adam finds himself involved in adventures, intrigue, and treachery because Julian is the son of a great General who was executed by his own brother when he became a threat to the current President. They end up joining the army to fight in the war in Labrador where they are involved in serious battles reminiscent of the Civil War. They travel via horse, foot, and train through empty lands, small towns, and to the largest remaining cities. They encounter secular rebels and new illegal religious movements. Gradually, Julian finds that his most challenging adversary is the Dominion which maintains its power through dogma and a pervasive presence in all aspects of society from the Federal Government to the smallest communities.
The first half of Julian Comstock was fascinating as the reader is immersed in a backwards world of the future and Adam and Julian encounter a serious of exciting adventures that include running from government agents, interesting travels, a love interest for Adam, and extensive military battles. The second half of the novel focusses more on the societal issues of religion, philosophy, and government. The final quarter of the novel seemed to drag a bit as the pace of the story lagged due to the emphasis on philosophical discussions.Julian Comstock will not appeal to all science fiction fans because it reads more as an alternative history civil war era novel than a futuristic science fiction novel. However, if you enjoy historical novels or alternative history novels, this story provides an immersive experience with some interesting and provocative ideas about government and religion