In the last quarter of the 22nd century, after civilization has wound down – between energy shortages and population-reducing plagues, the infrastructure could no longer support the great cities of the past – the world is largely reduced to 19th century technology. The United States still soldiers on, an aristocratic class owning most of the capital and using indentured labor, ruled by two seats of power: a series of quasi-dictatorial Presidents, and the State religion, the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth. Within this environment, Adam Hazzard relates the story of his friend, Julian Comstock.
Julian is an aristocrat, the nephew of the current President, Deklan Comstock. He has been sent to a Western estate in a small town, where, despite their class differences, he and Adam become friends. Julian is intellectually curious, a voracious reader, interested in science and philosophy, and in sharp disagreement with Dominion dogma. He is also in danger from his uncle, who may have had Julian’s father, a popular Army general, arrested on trumped-up charges and executed in order to eliminate a potential rival for the Presidency. As Christmas approaches, it becomes clear that the Army will be drafting able-bodied men to fight in Labrador, where the United States has been attempting, without success, to dislodge the European powers that took the territory some years back. Julian believes that his uncle wants to send him into battle in order to eliminate another potential Presidential rival. His mentor and protector, Sam Godwin, devises a scheme in which he, Julian, and Adam escape from the town and attempt to bribe rail passage back East along with others avoiding conscription. They manage to do so, only to be double-crossed, and find themselves in the Army, albeit under assumed names.
During their stint in the Army, Julian, though merely a private, commands the respect of his fellow soldiers, and Adam, a budding writer, writes embellished versions of Julian’s exploits. Upon their release from the Army, Adam is astonished to find that Julian has become a folk hero on the back of these semi-fictional accounts. Partly as a result of Deklan’s mismanagement the Labrador campaign and paranoia of any successful generals, the war is not going well, and Deklan seizes on Julian’s popularity to put him in charge of the campaign and send him into a desperate situation in order to have him killed. Julian, though gravely wounded, inexplicably survives the ordeal and, when rescued, finds that the Army has deposed Deklan and installed Julian as President in his stead.
The remainder of the book describes Julian’s efforts to deal with his sudden rise to power, particularly his conflict with the Dominion. This conflict starts as merely philosophical, but quickly becomes personal. Deacon Hollingshead is the leading Dominion figure, and Hollingshead arrests Julian’s mother and Adam’s wife while the two men are at war.
Julian Comstock is not a Steampunk novel, but it is certainly a cousin of sorts, from the use of 19th century technology to the class-conscious society. Within the story itself – which at times reads like a boys’ novel of warfare (intentionally so, I will add) – Wilson takes on a variety of themes, from the interplay of people stuck in desperate situations to the corrupting sway of power, whether political or religious. Julian is a philosopher, but a philosopher needs an economic and legal system that permits and supports his heterodoxies. In Wilson’s view, the stifling influence of both Church and State inevitably crush that intellectual freedom.
Despite Adam’s protestations that he has attempted to write a “true” and “accurate” account of his friend, various clues abound to suggest that Adam is an unreliable narrator. After he shows his early writings to a professional journalist, the writer asks Adam whether he wants to be accurate or whether he wants to sell books, noting that there is nothing wrong with adding “drama” to an account if it helps sales. Similarly, when Julian, long enamored of Charles Darwin, commissions a movie of Darwin’s life, it becomes a fanciful musical, with a lion and a giraffe among the animals found in the South Seas, and a pirate attack on the Beagle, with Darwin having a sword fight with a pirate. Dramatic, if not very accurate. Might those episodes inform the reader about the reliability of Adam’s own accounts?
I’ve long admired Wilson’s novels, which combine both the Big Idea approach to science fiction (What if the entire planet found itself encased in an impermeable membrane that slowed down time? (Spin) What if, in 1912, an alien force had replaced Europe with an alien jungle? (Darwinia) What if we were confronted with statues commemorating great military victories from some years in the future? (The Chronoliths)) and the interpersonal relations that arise as a result of these external forces. Julian Comstock isn’t my favorite Wilson novel, in large part because both the Big Idea and the relationships are somewhat lost in the attempt to condense 160 years of history plus the minutae of three years or so of more intimate details into a single book. Too much time is spent in exposition such that the story gets lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, it’s a solid book, combining the sweep of an epic tragedy with meditations on subjects ranging from evolution to religion and power to the unreliability of narrative.