Arts/Literature

Hugo Best Novel Nominee Review: Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson

Worldcon, the annual science fiction convention for fans and writers, is taking place in Australia this year, at Aussiecon. As usual, the major interest will be in the best novel category, and it’s a pretty good list this year, although there have been some complaints. Well, SF fans tend to be a passionate bunch, so this is not surprising. I’m not certain this criticism is justified—for my money, this is one of the better line-ups of the past several years. The six novels nominated by fans for the Hugo as best novel are Boneshaker by Cherie Priest; The City & The City by China Miéville; Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson; Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente; Wake by Robert J. Sawyer; and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This is actually a pretty wide-ranging bunch, including several future and/or alternative histories, and an intriguing Internet consciousness novel. There’s something of a steampunk motif for at least half of them as well. We’ll be reviewing them all over the next several weeks.

Julian Comstock is an interesting choice as a nominee because it’s pure future history. There is no razzle-dazzle science fictiony aspect to it other than the world in which it is set—a future America which has become a Christian military dictatorship, afflicted by the end of oil and global warming and a resulting population collapse, constantly at war with Europe (the “Dutch,” who clearly are a broader group of Europeans, probably Germans on the whole). But Wilson does a masterful job of describing and peopling this world. The tale is told by Adam Hazzard, who is Julian Comstock’s childhood friend (and the child of some of the Comstock family’s servants), and follows their exploits over a period of several years (2172-2176) as Julian, nephew of President Declan Comstock, becomes a military hero, among other things, thus bringing his life into danger from his vengeful uncle.

It’s a bleak world that Wilson creates, roughly modeled on 19th century America—distances are large, food is uncertain, most of the population works on estate farms owned by the rich, cities are a mix of vibrancy and delinquency, as all cities tend to be. The government is a sham and controlled in part by the Religious Dominion, whose agents are everywhere. All in all, it’s a pretty sad future on a post-oil world. Pretty much a future western—imagine 1984, or something similar, retold as a Penny Dreadful.

Yet Wilson brings it to life wonderfully. The tale is told by Hazzard, who accompanies Julian in his travels, and who writes up their adventures and publishes them, becoming something of a minor celebrity himself in the process. In fact, Wilson has cleverly modeled the story on those 19th century western yarns spun by writers who wandered the US west looking for heroes to write about for a clamorous readership. It’s a nice bit of irony from Wilson. As is Julian’s devotion to Darwin in a world dominated by religious fundamentalism.

In fact, there are a number of nice touches to this ambitious novel. Wilson has created a consistent world here, one that we understand immediately, with the full knowledge of how the world unfolded to get us to the particular place and time Wilson is describing, There is nothing implausible about the world inhabited by Hazzard, Julian Comstock, and a whole raft of major and minor characters, all finely drawn. Nor is Adam Hazzard’s doubt that humans ever stood on the moon implausible either. One of the high points for me was a scene in which Adam first sees old movies, with no previous knowledge of what they are. The book is full of magical scenes like this, just as it is full of the horrors of the perpetual war that their society endures. And Adam Hazzard, who moves from naivete to manhood over the course of the book, is a wonderful creation.

What Wilson has done here is return to his roots in a way—this is very reminiscent of Darwinia, a much earlier novel, and one of his more successful. Wilson won the Hugo in 2006 for Spin, which is a much more ambitious science fiction tale (along with its sequel, Axis). Julian Comstock, like Darwinia, is a different type of story, a genuine future history. It’s the most straightforward of the nominees, this year, and I would be surprised if it won—the competition is pretty stiff, particularly from Bacigalupi, Priest, and Mieville. But it’s a worthy book, a genuine 19th century novel, and will reward readers even beyond those familiar with Wilson’s Sci-fi lineage.

5 replies »

  1. Christian military dictatorship? So it’s near-futurism, then?

    *Ahem*

    I’m trying to lay out my next few Kindle purchases, and it sounds like you’re going to be a big help. I’m especially waiting to hear about The Windup Girl, which I hear good things about. Except it’s not available for Kindle yet.

  2. I’ll be reviewing it next week. It’s very good, too, although it’s similar to some other future scenarios. But worth reading–he’s got a whole franchise set up here. If you’ve never read any Ian McDonald, go for Brasyl. And the Chaga series. If they’re available. He has a new one out soon set it Turkey. McDonald is astonishing. Nancy Kress’s Nothing Human, which I mentioned in the piece last week. Paul Mcauley also highly recommended–The Quiet War and its sequel, Gardens of the Sun, are good places to start.

  3. Just finished this book tonight. It was fantastic. Thanks for the recommendation.