Tor, 2009, 413 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1971-5
We’re all familiar with the disappointment when a book we were primed to like doesn’t live up to expectations. But what about the surprise when a book that didn’t look all that good turns out to be quite a bit better than expected?
I steeled myself before reading Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. Even though I quite like most of what Wilson writes, the recent duds of Axis and the not-growing-any-fainter trauma of Darwinia temper certitudes about any new book of his. Then there’s the fact that Julian Comstock is an expansion of a previous novella that had left me cold, along with my general lack of enthusiasm for post-apocalyptic futures. None of this amounted to any burning desire to read the book, which helps explain why it was the last of this year’s Hugo-nominated slate to be taken off my shelves.
Most of my apprehensions were justified: Julian Comstock is, after all, an exercise in using a Science Fiction framework to tell another kind of story. Set in a post-apocalyptic 2170s where America (and presumably much of the world) has regressed to late-nineteenth-century levels of technology and political sophistication, Wilson’s novel is really an old-fashioned Victorian adventure set in a future engineered to foster those kinds of stories. Any attempt to criticize the world-building, the regression of current social values and the almost-complete lack of technology beyond 1870s sophistication takes a back seat to the realization that Wilson is manipulating his future to tell a story, not writing a dour prescription for everyone foolish enough to ride in an SUV.
It helps a lot that the story is told in a sympathetic faux-naif style that makes even the cruellest deprivations sound like just another character-building obstacle. Julian Comstock may be the hero of the novel, but it’s being told by Adam Hazzard, a young man with literary ambitions who rides alongside his friend “Julian Conqueror” as major events happen to them both. The style, entertaining and funny, polishes a depressing setting into a far more interesting second-level read. This blend of ironic narration and bleak world-building is what prevents Julian Comstock from falling prey to the same air of déjà-vu that makes other earnestly catastrophic books so unpleasant to read –I’m looking at you, Hugo-nominated The Windup Girl. For a future in which most of us would be condemned as heretics, it’s a surprisingly charming and funny novel.
So it is that within pages of starting Julian Comstock, I found myself unexplainably enthralled by the power of its prose, slowing down my usual reading speed in order to appreciate the subtleties of the sly humour, offhand references to hideous bits of future history and stone-faced put-downs of contemporary values (“Business Men, Atheists, Harlots and Automobiles” [P.211]) There’s nothing fun about much of Julian Comstock’s world, but the adventures narrated are gripping, and faithfully follow the form of classic adventure novels. The story spends a bit of time in Montréal (with funny snippets of French) before setting out to the Saguenay and Newfoundland after a detour in New York. In the background, weighty issues of political infighting, dynastic succession and church/state conflict play out: It’s quite a balancing act to put those into an otherwise light adventure of wartime heroics and coming-of-age discoveries.
But balance and subtlety are, after all, what Wilson does best, and the result this time around is an odd novel that dares to do things that others wouldn’t even consider. There are allusions here to historical figures and genre literature that I’m ill-equipped to evaluate, but those won’t slow down readers who suspect nothing about Julian the Apostle and William Taylor Adams. It’s also, again in the Wilson tradition, quite a bit different from anything he’s done before. And while I don’t quite love the result (see above regarding residual concerns about the world-building), I respect it quite a bit more than I expected from early reports about the novel. Considering a 2010 Hugo Best Novel nominee slate dominated by books with significant problems, Julian Comstock is the best-rounded of them all, with the added advantage of considerable charm. Guess where my vote is going?