Thursday, August 19, 2010

Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson

One of the things I enjoy about future history is seeing how our current society changes over the years. Set in 2172, America has become a largely oligarchical theodemocratic society, with elections to confirm a hereditary President closely coupled with a strong fundamentalist religious organization named the Dominion based in Colorado Springs. While very different from what we know today, there are enough recognizable elements that the feel is more like looking through a funhouse mirror than viewing a totally alien society. “In America we’re entitled by the Constitution to worship at any church we please, as long as it’s a genuine Christian congregation and not some fraudulent or satanistic sect.” Reasons for the various transformations aren’t detailed, but climate change, depletion of the world’s oil reserve, and a few wars and revolutions are hinted to be contributing factors. The fact that there isn’t a detailed history is both maddening and tantalizing; I’d love to know more about how we got here, but have to be satisfied with scattered hints.

The story tells of the rise to public prominence of Julian “the Reformer” Comstock and the resulting fall at the hands of the Dominion for daring to make a film about the life of Charles Darwin. The book is written as an actual biography (complete with footnotes) from the point-of-view of one of the main characters, and amusingly he is portrayed as not being too bright. This allows for a lot of humor to sneak in, which of course I loved. For instance, “Waiters circulated with carts of drink and plates of small food items. Some of these* were impaled on toothpicks. ... *The food items, not the waiters.” One of my favorite bits was Julian Comstock’s definition of a sport: “Any outdoor game or sport, to be a sport, ought to have three essential qualities. It should be difficult, it should be impractical, and it should be slightly silly.” Considering I’ve been debating this issue off-and-on since 1997 I found this absolutely hilarious!

The plot is mildly interesting, but to me learning about the way the world works through the characters is the fascinating part. Well written, Wilson manages to capture a wide variety of situations from politics and military maneuvers to romance and bar fights in a believable fashion with a heavy dose of humor thrown in. The ending is fairly conclusive so I don’t expect a direct sequel, but if other volumes set during earlier events mentioned in passing such as the end of the Efflorescence of Oil, the Fall of the Cities, the False Tribulation, the days of the Pious Presidents, or even how the rest of the world fared through the ages, I’d read those in a flash.

First Sentence:
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.

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