Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America by Robert Charles Wilson is the fourth novel I’ve read that’s up for the Hugo Award this year.

  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest
  • The City & The City, China Miéville
  • Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, Robert Charles Wilson
  • Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente
  • Wake, Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi


This is the first time I’ve tried to read all the nominees before the awards were given and it has proven to be a rewarding endeavor.  I’ve got Boneshaker and Palimpsest to read before September 5th.  I listened to all four books, and will listen to Boneshaker next, and Palimpsest last, since it won’t come out on audio until August 15th.  This is a sign about how successful these novels are because they are all getting the audiobook treatment.

Even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each of these books, so far I’d bet that The Windup Girl will win because it’s gotten the most attention.  Wake has been the story most like a traditional SF novel, and covered my favorite subject matter, but the other three have been the most literary ambitious.  The Windup Girl makes for an interesting bookend to Julian Comstock since they are both about the 22nd century after the oil runs out.  Strangely, their imagined futures couldn’t be more different.

The Windup Girl portrays science progressing after the collapse of oil, whereas Julian Comstock pictures the world de-evolving into technology that’s downright 19th century, and some people have even called the novel steampunk, but I wouldn’t.  For instance, people of the United States in Robert Charles Wilson’s future live under a flag of sixty stars but ride horses again and sail across the oceans on schooners.  They even have to reinvent the repeating rifle and have reverted back to silent films with a strange twist.

These books don’t try to predict the future but tell complex stories set in strange worlds far different from ours.  Each book does speculate on current trends, but they diverge in fascinating ways.  In Julian Comstock America is ruled by the Executive Branch of the Presidency, the Military and the Dominion of Jesus Christ, a new Orthodox church that apparently grew out of today’s fundamentalism.  Society has restructured itself around severe class distinctions, including indentured servitude, feudal land owners and an aristocracy.

Julian Comstock is a rich story that has the flavor of 19th century dime novels.  The Dominion of Jesus Christ has brought back puritanical beliefs and censorship so the characters think and speak like people from the pioneer days of the old west.  Julian Comstock is the nephew of a murderous President who must hide out in the western states because the Presidency has become an inherited title and his uncle fears any possible challenges to his rule.  Julian is raised with Adam Hazzard, a son of an indentured worker who narrates this modern picaresque tale.  Wilson uses Adam to make some fun swipes at his own profession of writing.

Julian Comstock is a colorful novel that would make a beautiful movie, perfect for Hollywood’s liberal philosophizing, but I’d like to see a more balanced treatment.  Even though I’m a liberal myself, I think the story could have been improved if the Dominion of Jesus Christ hadn’t been so one dimensional.  It would have been far more fascinating and scary to see a more realistic theocracy taking over America, as many fundamentalists dream about.  This is an odd subject for science fiction, but Heinlein explored it back in the early 1940s with some of his first stories collected in Revolt in 2100.

Wilson never gives enough reasons why in his world of Julian Comstock so much technology and science from our era is forgotten, like radio communication, or needs to be reinvented, like machine guns, which leaves me to think the story is less science fiction and more allegory about the dangers of religion in politics.  But this story does make me wonder just how much we could forgot?

JWH – 6/27/10

2 thoughts on “Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson”

    1. Darwinia was the first RCWilson book I read, and I did like it. I’m thinking about listening to it on audio. I also read SPIN, his Hugo winning book and was impressed with that one too.

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