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Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America
Robert Charles Wilson
Tor, 413 pages

Julian Comstock
Robert Charles Wilson
Robert Charles Wilson was born in California and moved to Canada at the age of nine. His novel Spin won the Hugo Award in 2006. Earlier, he won the Philip K. Dick Award for his debut novel A Hidden Place; an Aurora Award for Darwinia; and the John W. Campbell Award for The Chronoliths.

Robert Charles Wilson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Spin
SF Site Review: Spin
SF Site Review: Bios
SF Site Review: The Chronoliths
SF Site Review: The Perseids and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Bios
SF Site Review: Bios
SF Site Review: Darwinia

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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In the twenty-second century, a resurgent America, having survived the end of the previous two centuries's oil-based civilization and the economic and environmental turmoil that accompanied it, now controls all of North America, with the exception of those pesky Dutch in occupied Labrador. It's a land where the inhabitants are proud to call themselves "Americans," but this is an America where wealthy aristocrats own vast estates worked on by indentured servants, where the President is in essence a military dictator, and where religious freedom means the right to worship at the Christian Dominion approved church of your choice. Out of this background comes Julian Comstock, a young aristocrat with unconventional, bordering on heretical, viewpoints on everything from the worth of the society created by the Secular Ancients to the truth of the Theory of Evolution. Julian is also the nephew of the President, and his father died under suspicious circumstances in one of the President's wars. When Julian is impressed into the Army and shipped off to fight in Labrador, it looks very much like he will share his father's fate. Instead, Julian's military adventures become the basis for the legend that is the life of President Comstock.

Legend is the operative word here. Julian Comstock, the character, lives in a world that is very nineteenth century in its level of technology, mostly because of its reliance on energy sources like coal, water, and wind. Julian Comstock the novel shares some characteristics with nineteenth century literature also, especially the dime adventure novels that made heroes out of such figures as Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill. Julian Comstock is more polished in its prose than those popular publications, but its sense of adventure, the unlikely accomplishments of its hero, and a cast of colorful characters make it the twenty-second century equivalent of what once would have been called a ripping good yarn.

There's reason, though, to suspect that not much of this actually happened in the way it's depicted in Julian Comstock. Julian's story is narrated to us by Adam Hazzard, Julian's friend and boyhood companion. Adam has discovered he has a talent for writing, and when he meets a freelance writer, the writer agrees to critique his accounts of Julian's adventures. Beyond a lesson in the ways of the publishing industry, Adam learns that when it comes to the popular press, the facts go down much easier with a helping dose of drama, even if that drama isn't quite the way things really happened. Later in the narrative, Julian himself has written a theatrical presentation based on the life and work of Charles Darwin. He gives the script, which he feels lacks a certain something, over to his friend for revisions. By the time Adam and another writer are finished with it, the life of Darwin culminates in a hilltop duel where Darwin defends the truth of his science and the love of his fiancée from the attacks of his sinister rival.

It's pretty reasonable to assume that the story of Julian Comstock's rise from aristocratic fugitive to military hero and President is being narrated to us in the same spirit that Darwin's story is told in The Life and Adventures of the Great Naturalist Charles Darwin. There is drama, romance, and political scheming aplenty, enough to entertain and intrigue most any reader. Just how much of it actually happened, though, is a story known only to Julian, Adam, and, perhaps, Robert Charles Wilson.

Copyright © 2010 by Greg L. Johnson

While waiting for the next volume in the world of Spin and Axis, reviewer Greg L Johnson thoroughly enjoyed the visit to Julian Comstock's America. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.


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