Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
It’s perhaps appropriate as we come around to the end of the one-hundred year moratorium on the publication of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ autobiography to pick up a modern exploration of the relationships between the classes, races and religions in a new United States. Not that I am drawing any direct comparison with the various adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course. Julian Comstock is a kind of post-apocalyptic novel, rather than one supposedly rooted in the real world of the Deep South. But in tone there’s a certain thematic overlap as Julian does what he thinks is right even though most around him think he is wrong (for one reason or another) and Robert Charles Wilson is also interested in social commentary, albeit not quite in the same vein as in Clemens’ published work. Whether all the more private thoughts about to be revealed in the unexpurgated version of Clemens’ autobiography are more closely akin to Wilson espoused by remains to be seen.
Anyway, here we are back in the territory first carved out in classics like Earth Abides by George R Stewart where a global epidemic reduced the population somewhat, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr. with a nuclear war. Lists are always boring so I will add only a two more relevant sources: The Cloud Walker by Edmund Cooper has the remnants of humanity dominated by the Luddite Church and the alternative history books like Pavane by Keith Roberts where the role of the church in managing access to knowledge is discussed.
For the purposes of Julian Comstock, we have the collapse of civilisation following the end of readily available oil. In a remarkably short span of years, wars are fought and epidemics rage as the infrastructure providing clean drinking water and sanitation disappears. When the dust settles, we have a relatively small world population, but one still intent on fighting wars. The rump of American society is dominated by the capitalists, a political elite and the religious right. A new form of feudalism has emerged with the majority indentured or otherwise committed to the service of the “aristos” — a class which includes the liberal left with more philosophical interests.
I confess to be less than impressed by the notion that what was left of middle Europe would be inclined or capable of maintaining an active military campaign in the border area of the US and Canada. My credulity is even further stretched by the idea that the Chinese might be selling advanced weaponry to the Europeans. But, if we are to go through a kind of civil war re-enactment scenario (not quite in the same mould as Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore), then this is as good a way of doing it as any. Indeed, when you actually list all the plot elements, none of them are particularly original and the whole is a more readable type of fiction than that written by Mack Reynolds who was playing around with left-wing economic themes thirty and forty years ago. It’s all rather worthy, told in a somewhat pedestrian style, with a rather predictable plot. I limped through to the end and was relieved to see the last page.
As an added note, Julian Comstock placed second in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award 2010 for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novel.