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Bookends: What happened to North America when the oil ran out February 5, 2015

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Bookends: What happened to North America when the oil ran out

By Dan DavidsonJulian Comstock

June 18, 2014

– 912 words –

 

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America

By Robert Charles Wilson

TOR Books

689 pages

$10.99

 

Science fiction novels, from Shelly’s Frankenstein on, are more likely to investigate the permutations of Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will) than they are to celebrate progress. This form of speculation, called the dystopia, is also one that has gained a certain acceptance among so-called “serious writers”, from Orwell and Huxley on down to Margaret Atwood, who even went so far as to commit that most SF of publishing phenomena, a trilogy.

In Julian Comstock, Wilson has taken that route and introduced us to a North America after a lot of the things we’re worried about right now have in fact gone wrong. The television series Revolution tried to show us an America without electricity. Julian Comstock shows us a continent after the Oil Age, or the Efflorescence of Oil, as it is often called in the narrative. This disaster was followed by something known a century later as the False Tribulation. Think of it as the aftershock of an earthquake, but understand that the very name is had been given tells you a lot about the power of the officially recognized. Americanized, version of Christianity known as the Dominion of Christianity.

The Dominion supports a governmental and social structure than has regressed to something like Roman times. The President presides as an emperor, backed by a Senate. At the top of the socioeconomic ladder are the Aristos, or Eupatridians. Beneath them are the Leasing Class and at the bottom a kind of Indentured Class.

This reborn, but regressed, America, boasts a flag with 13 stripes and 60 stars, and is in competition with invading forces from Europe (German dominated Mitteleuropa) for the northern portions of the continent, which are noticeably warmer than they are now. Much of the military action in the book takes place in northern Quebec or Labrador.

Our narrator is Adam Hazzard, of the Leasing Class, but a young man in special circumstances because he has been chosen to be the childhood companion of Julian Comstock, the president’s nephew, who lives in seclusion in the region called Athabasca. He is there to avoid the notice of his uncle, Deklan the Conqueror, who arranged the death of his father, Bryce, when the latter became too popular a general during battles in Central America.

Deklan is a terrible military leader, and his errors cause him to invoke conscription across the land to fight off the invaders who have taken Labrador and part of present day Quebec. Trying to evade the press gangs, Adam and Julian (who adopts the name Commongold to avoid detection) are scooped up, along with their mentor, an older experienced soldier named Sam.

Writing 20 years after the end of the major events in the story, Adam, who eventually became a successful writer, has set out to tell the story of his friend’s rise to military and political glory, and his eventual fall from grace.

The lads survive their early military adventures in a way that brings Julian much fame, especially when Adam’s journals are stolen and published by a hack reporter and become a bestselling account of that part of the war. Returning home to New York, Julian is greeted by his mother and that lets the secret out.

After a brief pastoral respite during which Adam marries a Montreal songstress he met while serving there, Deklan decides to deal with his famous nephew in somewhat the same fashion as he had his brother. Bryce was executed on trumped charges of treason. Julian and his immediate companions are dispatched to Labrador, to run a campaign that should have seen them dead – but instead results in Deklan’s downfall.

That Julian would come to sad end is telegraphed so early in the book that I am giving nothing away to say that the last 150 pages are devoted to that decline. Julian is agnostic as to religion, and sees the Dominion are a corrupting force in the reviving nation. Indeed, within the army its agents act like political commissars under the Soviet regime. Julian is also obviously gay, though this is a fact that never seems to register with the more socially naïve Adam.

Quite a bit of the book is given over to considering how public entertainment might be created without the technology to do it the way we do. There are descriptions of several “movies”, which are a combination of silent film and musical theatre. Wilson uses these sequences to brief us on both the reality of history and the mythology that has replaced it during the century leading up to 2172. The novel covers the next three years, with a coda set 20 years later.

Julian’s artistic masterpiece is a movie called The Life and Adventures of the Great Naturalist Charles Darwin, which shows you how far he was prepared to go to rub his beliefs in the face of the established Dominion once he had the power to do so.

Robert Charles Wilson lives just north of Toronto and is the author of a number of novels that have either won major science fiction awards or have been nominated for them. His Hugo Award winning novel Spin, has recently been optioned for development as a television series. Julian Comstock was nominated for the Hugo in 2010.

 

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