Brendan's Reviews > Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America

Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
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's review
Nov 08, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010, adventure-thriller, book-club, fiction, politics, philosophy-religion, scifi
Read from November 08 to 10, 2010

Julian Comstock tells the story of America after oil runs out, the modern infrastructure collapses, and we regress to a world of 19th century technology and 18th century agrarian social structure and economy. We follow Adam Hazzard, a lease-boy (child of lower-middle class artisans) who befriends, through happenstance, Julian Comstock, exiled nephew of the tyrannical "president" Declan Comstock. Adam follows Julian through adventures in the army and political life afterward, to great effect. A few thoughts:

* Wilson proposes one interesting resolution to the idea of what will happen after we run out of oil: Cities collapse, there's a terrible time of starvation known as the "False Tribulation," and a religio-fascist state springs up in its place. We regress to 19th century technology because we don't have oil anymore, and most other high tech that we have depends on a fuel source at least as efficient as oil. It's interesting to compare this book to Brian Slattery's Liberation, which has a similar cover and similar sense of societal regression in its vision of America's future.
* Because the story uses the 19th century melodramatic bildungsroman as its model, there's plenty of adventure and excitement as well as a keen sense of moral arc. It's a little bit Ragged Dick and a little bit Great Expectations.
* Wilson suggests that the conservative element would take control again in this crisis. While I don't find it beyond belief, I would hope we can maintain our advances in the cause of human liberty and happiness, even in the face of technological and societal upheaval.
* The best part of the book, for me, is Wilson's use of naivete on the part of his narrator. Adam, as a devout lease boy with little knowledge of the world, is often unaware of the implications of what's going on around him. When Julian begins hanging around with Philosophers and Aesthetes, he remarks on the strange habits and dress of his friend's new companions. Codes that we read to understand that Julian is gay completely elude poor Adam.
* One of the amusing recurring themes in the book is Adam's wonder at the business of book publishing. At one point, he publishes an adventure tale about a young man at sea, which includes pirates and all sorts of fun. When he gets to see the book, he notices that the artist has added an octopus, which doesn't appear in the book and Adam worries may disappoint his readers. Adam writes the book in the past tense as a man who lived through the events. As such, the cover art we see here is a handbill for the book we're reading, posted on a wall somewhere in New York City. We can see a palimpsest of other handbills behind it, including the spurious octopus.

It was only well after I read the book that I remembered wondering, on two separate occasions, why there was an octopus on the cover of the book and whether I could expect to encounter one. In other words, the octopus on the cover of Wilson's book, meant to represent the octopus on Hazzard's book, which was meant to entice readers to fantasize about an octopus that wasn't there enticed me to fantasize about an octopus that wasn't there. Ha!

There were a few plot points I wanted to resolve a bit differently, but such is good drama -- if you can choose how it all ends, it's not very dramatic, is it? Overall, a good read.

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