As lovers of science fiction, we like to think of ourselves as eternal optimists. We imagine our future, if not utopian, at least one in which humanity is thriving. We foresee the gifts of science and the freedom of space travel as accessible to all. If we're feeling especially generous, we like to think we may conquer mortality itself and solve the tricky physical problems that keep us from traveling among the stars. When our stories are dystopian, we take them as wise cautionary tales. But we always like to keep the belief in the back of our minds that, for all our faults, we'll manage to act in our best interests in the end, and avoid the collapse such ominous stories portray.
I worry the future offered in Robert Charles Wilson's sweeping and triumphant Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America looks more likely to unfold in reality than the glistening tech wonderland offered by legions of space opera imagineers. The end of oil leading to warfare and the complete downfall of technological society, with America overtaken by fundamentalist Christian Dominionism and reverting to 19th-century agriculturalism, indentured servitude and civil war? Well, we are going to hit peak oil one day, period. Considering too little is being done now to wean us off fossil fuels and onto alternative energy sources, the idea that we simply won't be ready when it happens is not to be taken lightly. And given that, well into the 21st century, religious extremism — which by all rights ought to have been eradicated by the Enlightment — is digging in the trenches and determined to fight tooth and nail against science and social progress, it's hardly beyond the pale to see a new dark age of dogma and oppression looming.
What's remarkable about Julian Comstock is that, though it does present us with such a future, it is emphatically not a didactic, dystopian tale of woe. If anything, in imagining America's retreat into its own past, Wilson has crafted an unabashedly old-fashioned and rousing story of the rise and fall of a hero. In some ways it's callow and melodramatic, as befits its narrator, Adam Hazzard, a rural "lease-boy" whose life becomes inextricably and fatefully linked to the world-changing exploits of the title character, his dearest friend. In other ways, it offers plenty of subtextual insight into the themes it explores — the conflict between science and religion; how the course of history often hinges on the acts of a few or even one; the intertwining of history with mythmaking; the dangers of absolute power and the way in which even the best intentions can backfire catastrophically — that sometimes escape its not altogether worldly narrator.
Julian Comstock is the sort of thrilling and immersive novel that in Heinlein's day was called a future history. (It isn't steampunk.) It's a lush and rewarding reading experience with few equals in the genre. Covering a three-year period from Christmas 2172 to 2175, it presents a post-peak-oil America in which knowledge of the civilization of the "Secular Ancients" is suppressed and forgotten, and the presidency of the United States (headquartered now in New York City) has become more or less a hereditary monarchy that shares power with the Dominion of Jesus Christ.
Julian Comstock is the nephew of the current presidential tyrant, Deklan, who jealously had Julian's father killed for doing too good a job of being a war hero and threatening Deklan's rule. Living in the northwestern state of Athabaska, Julian is forced to flee the town of Williams Ford with his childhood friend Adam and their mentor, Sam Godwin. America is at war against the Dutch, who are occupying some of its territories in what used to be Canada, and the draft has finally come west. Julian — who boasts a rebellious streak that rejects the religious absolutism of the Dominion for the science and philosophy of the Secular Ancients, gleaned from old books recovered from ruins — is convinced his uncle means to get him out of the way like his father. Despite their efforts, they manage to get swooped up and pressed into service anyway. It's here that Julian will distinguish himself in the field, and circumstances will bring him into contact with his uncle, setting him on a collision course with his own destiny.
I can imagine grumblings in some quarters that Wilson's characters are too arch. The sinister Dominionist Deacon Hollingshead comes to mind, as does Adam's bride, the willful and incorrigibly rebellious tavern singer Calyxa, who thinks nothing of shocking social convention at any opportunity. She is way out of Adam's league, marrying him as it's the sensible thing to do at the time, but she loves him all the same. But because there is an archetypal quality to the entire novel — it reads convincingly like a Victorian epic — it characters spring to life from each page. Adam and Julian are a study in contrasts. Julian's heroic exploits are only slightly more spectacular than his horrendous failures, and his friendship with Adam — who charts a more linear path from youthful naivety to somewhat more hardened adulthood — is often all that grounds him.
One theme I enjoyed in particular: the power of art as propaganda. All books and films (which are still made, though they're silent again, with live actors lip-synching the actors' dialogue during screenings) must possess a Dominion stamp of approval, while one of Julian's great stick-it-to-the-man dreams is to produce his own biopic about Charles Darwin. History is frequently fictionalized in order to sell it to a receptive audience. Still, in writing his account of his friend's life, Adam strives to be scrupulously factual. Julian's great tragedy is that he tries to right his country's wrongs in all the wrong ways. But in the end he understands that whatever he may have done right or wrong, he couldn't have done otherwise. History will judge.