I’m not sure what originally attracted me to Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock, A Story of 22nd Century America. Maybe an online recommendation combined with a blurb that mentioned a post-oil society. During my last trip in the states, I bought it and read it. The book is about the life of Julian Comstock, ‘famous’ president of the United States of the XXIInd century, from his modest ascencion to his infamous fall. The narrator is Adam Hazzard, childhood friend, fellow soldier and confident of Comstock, an aspiring writer first and foremost.
22nd century America lives with the dire consequences or its ancestors debauchery. When oil was depleted, society collapsed: wars, famine, pestilence, all these evils that manking had forgotten came back with a vengeance due to lack of oil and and its derived chemicals used in fertilizers, vaccines, etc. Little by little, a (much smaller) society rebuilds - in America at least - around an idealized XIXth century structure, pious and sparing. A form of aristocracy is reinstated, and slavery is the backbone of the rebuilding. Mineral resources have become extremely previous which makes the Canadian North a much coveted land by both Americans and Europeans who wage an endless war for control of Labrador. Julian Comstock is the nephew of Deklan Comstock, the reigning president (the presidential title has little to do with any democratic process). Julian’s father, a great general of the Isthmian wars (for the control of the panama canal) has been executed for treason by his president of a brother who was scared of his popularity. Since then, Julian has been in exile in a distant nobleman’s country estate, waiting for a future. He reads and learns from forbidden books that don’t have the stamp of approval of the Dominion of Jesus-Christ, a religious police that controls and vets (or not) various Christian denominations.
The story begins with Julian, Adam and Sam (an old friend of Julian’s father who swore to protect the boy) flee a new conscription for the army of the Labrador only to fall into the hands of devious recruiters who enroll them by force (but under an assumed name). From there we follow the characters through their first military campaign in Labrador, their trip back to New York, their second military campaign and the short reign of Julian that follows. The book ends up spending much more time on Adam’s coming of age - his first contact with war, with love, with big cities, etc. - than on Julian Comstock’s ascent to power.
It’s very well written, both fluid and engaging; there is none of the useless heavyness or pretentiousness one sometimes finds in genre literature. As easy as the book is to read and get into though, it lacks a central theme, a strong thread in the multiple stories that intertwine. In truth I often wondered if I was reading a teenager nover where the central character (here Adam more than Julian) is engaging and likeable, but the story is lacking and the settings versimilitude unconvincing. Ultimately I finished the book with mixed feelings, having spent an enjoyable time reading it but not sure I’ll be taking anything away from it. Wislon might have been over-ambitious, wanting to tackle in just one book multiple topics that would have deserved books of their own (a world without oil, the end of science, the impact of dogmatic creationism on society, the return of slavery, etc.) All interesting themese to be sure, but themes that would have deserved some depth to lead to a more structured reflexion. In the end, the novel’s superficiality turns it into another story of adventure, pleasant for sure, but far from unforgettable and too tainted with cheap heroism and deus ex machinae to be effective.
On the back of my edition of the book there’s a Stephen King quote about Wilson that says he’s “a hell of a storyteller”. Undeniably true, wish he’d had a good story to tell…