Novel Review: Julian Comstock

Robert Charles Wilson has established a reputation as one of the age’s finest science-fiction writers, but also as a fine, literary author, whose spin on our possible future reaches a broad and intelligent audience of readers. Julian Comstock, released last summer, may be his finest work to date.

In October of 2172—the year the Election show came to town—Julian Comstock and I, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, rode to the Tip east of Williams Ford, where I came to possess a book, and Julian tutored me in one of his heresies.

Title: Julian Comstock: A Novel of 22nd-Century America
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
ISBN: 0765319713, 978-0765319715
First published: 2009 (based in part on the author’s earlier work, Julian Comstock: A Christmas Story, 2006).

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Julian, nephew to the president, has been sent far west and out of his murderous uncle’s reach. A curious fellow, he delights in the often-forbidden knowledge of the Secular Ancients, and seeks unapproved books from passing peddlers. Although born to an Aristocratic family, he finds a fast friend in Adam Hazzard, a would-be writer inspired by the rousing tales of one Mr. Charles Curtis Easton.

The United States, guided by both its political capital in Manhattan and its religious one in Colorado Springs, fights a prolonged war with Mitteleuropans over disputed territory in Labrador. The two lads and their tutor, Sam Godwin, hope to avoid conscription, but soon find themselves serving in the army under assumed names. Many fine and violent adventures follow before the boys become heroes and Julian challenges the presidency itself.

High Point:

Written in a pseudo-Victorian style that proves, at turns, charming, gripping, and hilarious, Julian Comstock shows us the events as related (and, perhaps, exaggerated) by Adam Hazzard. Much of the novel’s peculiar appeal comes from this narrative perspective. Hazzard’s naïveté allows him to miss a number of key elements—including Julian’s homosexuality—while making the broader scope of the story clear to us. His respect for a level of decorum foreign to contemporary novels also creates irony, humour, and suspense.

Low Point:

I hesitate to raise so small a point, but the format of the review requires that I note some aspect of the narrative less agreeable than the rest. At times, Adam Hazzard’s naïveté beggars belief, as when he recalls perfectly foreign phrases and certain arcane details, the meaning of which he never bothered to learn. However, we might make allowances for this possible flaw. An older Hazzard (for so is the novel’s conceit) narrates the story, and he makes clear his willingness to err on the side of dramatic effect. In other words, Hazzard may be ironically feigning or recreating his own past innocence.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6. SF has not lacked for post-apocalyptic novels, and Julian Comstock echoes these along with the work of the steampunkers, the mythos of the Old West, and the great novel of the nineteenth century. The novel places familiar tropes in unfamiliar places—and feels strangely original.

Imagery: 6/6: Wilson has situated his latest novel in a twenty-second century where, after the depletion of inexpensive fossil fuels, after plague and social unrest, North America resembles the nineteenth century, with elements of feudalism and religious oligarchy. Horses and trains cross a landscape marked with the detritus of our own era. Metal skeletons tower over Manhattan. The presidential giraffe grazes by the remnants of the Statue of Liberty.

Story: 5/6. The plot takes a number of twists which, if somewhat far-fetched, stay entirely within the expectations of an olden-days heroic novel of the sort once recommended for boys. The various conflicts serve to illuminate the deeper battles between science and religion, inherited wealth and the working folk, life and story-telling.

The final chapters strained my credibility somewhat, as the depicted more events than seemed plausible for so short a time.

Characterization: 5/6. Wilson peoples his tale with credible and developed characters. The story’s villains could be more-rounded– though I suppose their depiction is in keeping with the novel’s influences.

Emotional Response: 6/6. With Julian Comstock, Mr. Robert Charles Wilson shows us a future frightening in its plausibility.

Editing: 6/6. Wilson observes Chekhov’s (Anton’s, not Pavel’s) rule that a pistol that appears in Act One should be fired by the end of Act Three. His novel, structured with an elegance any Victorian writer would have envied, wastes nothing.

We even learn, in time, why the artist has placed a stylized octopus in one corner of the book’s cover.

Overall score: 6/6. Readers of SF, fans of the nineteenth-century novel, and thoughtful bibliophiles should all enjoy Julian Comstock, and its young heroes’ adventures will give us all much to consider about our past, present, and foreboding future.

In total, Julian Comstock receives 38/42