Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Set in the 2170s, Julian Comstock depicts a fallen America. Hit hard by Peak Oil and global climate change refugees, America has re-imagined itself as an officially Christian nation. With technology and social norms on par with the nineteenth century—which the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth extols as the perfect template for contemporary American society—this is a profoundly different society from our own, but it strikes a chord because it may not be far off from what our society could become. That's Robert Charles Wilson's true coup with this book: he relentlessly illustrates how easily an enlightened civilization has slipped back into the pitfalls of slavery, class-ism, and religious intolerance.
At first I was ambivalent to the narrator of Julian Comstock. Adam Hazzard, friend to the eponymous protagonist, has a plodding tone full of pointless asides like "I won't bore you with the details of..." that serve little purpose. And although Hazzard expresses his aim of writing a biography of Julian from an inside point of view, the book seems to be more about him than Julian at times. Yet as I got further into the book, I understood why it was necessary to have a first-person narrator who was sidekick instead of hero, Watson to Julian's Holmes. This book would not have worked with Julian as the narrator, plain and simple, and it would have lost a great deal with a third-person narrator. It needed the perfect blend of innocent incredulity and incorruptible loyalty—in short, it needed Adam Hazzard.
Through Adam's eyes, Wilson shows us what America has become. Julian emerges early as a paragon who not only understands the past but is in a position to influence the future—he's the nephew of the President of the United States, although said President is also the one who sends Julian into the army hoping he'll be killed (twice). Adam chronicles Julian's rise to power through his singular intelligence, strength of self, and his friends (including Adam) and allies. This occupies the first four acts of the novel, but it's the fifth act that I found most interesting.
Julian emerges as a war hero for the second time in his life and finds himself the figurehead of a military coup. Nudged into the Presidency, Julian attempts to use his power for good, and makes powerful enemies: the Dominion, which essentially certifies the Christian churches that operate in America; and later, the very military forces that deposed the last President. I enjoyed this part of the book because it was both the most tragic and the most believable. The first four acts are rife with improbable events that, while entertaining and useful to the plot, are the sort for which suspension of disbelief is required. Act Five seizes upon reality and shoves it in Julian's face, precipitating an inevitable decline from hero to desperate dreamer.
Julian takes the Presidency hoping to improve conditions in America and enfeeble the Dominion, which holds too much power over the "democratic" Senate and Executive branches. We know from our experience with the previous president, Deklan Comstock, that the Presidency of this United States is only nominally democratic; Deklan was continually acclaimed president, not elected, and he showed little skill in his role as Commander in Chief. While Deklan ruled as a despot, we see Julian gradually become a sort of 17th-century Philosopher-King. Intelligent and good-intentioned, Julian nevertheless finds himself one man against a behemoth that has had a century to entrench itself in society. He scores several Pyhrric victories but ultimately finds himself the target of another coup. Julian Comstock ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
And that's what saved it. I was going to give the book four stars; as brilliant as I found Wilson's world-building, some of the writing was dull, and the book seemed much longer than it needed to be. But the ending simply blew me away because it felt so true. Julian, even Julian Conqueror, could not take on the entire Dominion by himself. Rather than reward the reader with a quick resolution, Wilson instead opted to offer us a ray of hope: that Julian's actions, and the actions of people like him, would lead to the fall of the Dominion and the renewed freedom for everyone in America. It wasn't the end; it was a beginning:
"You're a failure, Julian Comstock, and your Presidency is a failure, and your rebellion against the Dominion is a failure."
"I guess the Dominion will stagger on a while longer. But it's doomed in the long run, you know. Such institutions don't last. Look at history. There have been a thousand Dominions. They fall and are forgotten, or they change beyond recognition."
"The history of the world is written in Scripture, and it ends in a Kingdom."
"The history of the world is written in sand, and it evolves as the wind blows."
As an adventure story, Julian Comstock is an average book. Oh, there's plenty of action, and it's adequate in that respect. The strategy and combat aspects of the second and fourth acts should satisfy war enthusiasts (they didn't appeal to me as much, which is perhaps why I found the first four fifths of the book less intriguing, but there was nothing technically wrong with them). But it's a long adventure, with a ponderous narrator—a very nineteenth-century style work of prose, which is of course appropriate.
As a didactic work of fiction, however, Julian Comstock embodies the sublime. It neither preaches nor lectures. There are precious few speeches. Instead, Wilson shows us a possible future, and as the consequences of his what-if game unfold, we see his themes in both the dialogue and the action: it takes strength to stand up against injustice, especially when it's inevitable that you won't live to see your victory achieved; the only comfort is the knowledge that this too shall pass.
Although Julian Comstock is a tragedy, I found it cathartic and uplifting. I'm too young to remember any of the tense moments of the twentieth century, its Cold War, Vietnam War, or Gulf War that so shaped the psyche of the Western world. As such, I worry about the ramifications of global warming, poverty, and unrest. I'll probably be alive in fifty years, if I'm lucky, and I'd rather not see the world go to hell in that time. Julian Comstock reminded me that no matter how bad it gets, even if civilization collapses and humanity rejects Darwinism as heresy and America forgets that walked on the moon, there is still hope for the future. Yet that does not give us license to be complacent when there is work to be done:
"The spread of literacy is the problem here," said Palumbo. "Oh, I'm all in favor of a sensible degree of literacy—as you must be, Mr. Hazzard, given your career as a journalist. But it has an infectious tendency. It spreads, and discontent spreads along with it. Admit one literate man to a coffle and he'll teach the others the skill; and what they read won't be Dominion-approved works, but pornography, or the lowest kind of cheap publications, or fomentive political tracts."
Well, I certainly hope so, Mr. Palumbo! And I know you're probably biased, since if you're reading this you are a literate person yourself, but I hope you agree. The most dangerous threat, Julian Comstock teaches us, is not Peak Oil, climate change, or terrorism. It's that we will become content with mere survival instead of true freedom—freedom to speak, to act, and to contest.
Julian Comstock is a thought-provoking story of a what might happen, a tale both compassionate and cautionary. Read it. Ignore the science fiction label, if that scares you; it may be set in the future, but it's about the present.