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

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsRobert Charles Wilson’s novel Julian Comstock is set in a vastly changed 22nd-century USA — after the end of the age of oil and atheism has resulted in disaster. Technology is mostly back to pre-20th century levels, and the population has been vastly reduced due to social upheaval and disease. Society has become fully class-based, divided into a Eupatridian aristocracy, middle-class lease-men, and indentured servants. The country — which now stretches across most of the North American continent — is involved in a lengthy and brutal war with the Dutch over control of the recently opened Northwest Passage.

In this setting we meet the novel’s extraordinary hero, Julian Comstock, the nephew of the dictatorial president Deklan Comstock. Julian is a free-thinker with a deep interest in the apostate Charles Darwin (whose heretical theories are anathema to the Dominion of Jesus Christ, one of the three branches of the government with the president and the senate). Julian is forced to flee his country hide-out with his friend Adam (the amazing narrator of the novel) and Sam Godwin, who is Julian’s mentor since his father died in battle — his father being Bryce Comstock, army commander and brother of the president, who was sent into a hopeless conflict by Deklan, fearing his brother’s growing popularity would endanger his own tyrannical rule.

While all of this may sound grim, the tone of this story is often actually very light thanks to Adam, the narrator, who combines a certain naiveté with a generally positive outlook on life and a willingness to see the good in everything. Adam often doesn’t fully understand what is happening, and sometimes his general decency forces him to brush over certain things. At other times, his strong conscience puts many things other characters do in a very stark perspective. Part of the beauty and the fun of Julian Comstock is seeing it through the prism of Adam’s growing understanding.

This novel pulls off something extraordinary: it is written in the style of a 19th century novel, but set in the 22nd century, AND somehow manages to deal with issues that are relevant today. The skill with which Wilson pulls this amazing trick off is simply dizzying. While some of the content might be controversial, I find that Wilson does a great job of extrapolating from current events to an all-too-plausible future without explicitly taking a definite position.

It’s been a while since I’ve a read a novel that so deftly combines so many different elements. The characters have amazing depth, even if you don’t always initially realize this due to the narrator’s style. The story moves at a brisk pace that makes it impossible to put down. There are moments of high comedy and moments that are so immeasurably poignant and moving that I simply can’t stop thinking about them. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, both to SF fans and to anyone who loves a good book.

One note: I found it odd that the author included some quotes in Dutch and French but didn’t include a translation, especially since the book has many footnotes. This was probably done because the narrator doesn’t understand either language and the author didn’t want to break the consistency of the narrative, but as someone fortunate enough to understand both languages, I can tell you that some of those sections are very funny and, in several cases, very relevant to the story. I think a brief appendix with the translations would be a great idea for future editions.

~Stefan Raets

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century AmericaI didn’t like Julian Comstock as much as Stefan did. Julian’s story works like most of RCW’s novels — an everyman, close to power, witnesses thrilling events — but somehow it never caught and held my attention.

~Ryan Skardal

From the Hugo-winning author of Spin, an exuberant adventure in a post-climate-change America. In the reign of President Deklan Comstock, a reborn United States is struggling back to prosperity. Over a century after the Efflorescence of Oil, after the Fall of the Cities, after the Plague of Infertility, after the False Tribulation, after the days of the Pious Presidents, the sixty stars and thirteen stripes wave from the plains of Athabaska to the national capital in New York City. In Colorado Springs, the Dominion sees to the nation’s spiritual needs. In Labrador, the Army wages war on the Dutch. America, unified, is rising once again. Then out of Labrador come tales of a new Ajax—Captain Commongold, the Youthful Hero of the Saguenay. The ordinary people follow his adventures in the popular press. The Army adores him. The President is…troubled. Especially when the dashing Captain turns out to be his nephew Julian, son of the falsely accused and executed Bryce. Treachery and intrigue dog Julian’s footsteps. Hairsbreadth escapes and daring rescues fill his days. Stern resolve and tender sentiment dice for Julian’s soul, while his admiration for the works of the Secular Ancients, and his adherence to the evolutionary doctrines of the heretical Darwin, set him at fatal odds with the hierarchy of the Dominion. Plague and fire swirl around the Presidential palace when at last he arrives with the acclamation of the mob. As told by Julian’s best friend and faithful companion, a rustic yet observant lad from the west, this tale of the 22nd Century asks— and answers—the age-old question: “Do you want to tell the truth, or do you want to tell a story?”


  • Stefan Raets

    STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping.

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  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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