Robert 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.