Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At some point in the early 21st century the oil ran out leading to a catastrophic collapse of civilisation, mass starvation and the evacuation of the cities in a time now known as the false tribulation. By the second half of the 22nd century America has returned to a state of feudal theocracy with the aristo class voting on behalf of their indentured servants for a Presidency that is hereditary in all but name. The ruling president, Declan Comstock, has already hanged his brother Bryce as a traitor and has sent his nephew, the now fatherless Julian, into exile in the rural west.
The long running war with the forces of Mittel-Europa for the province of Labrador is going badly and a new round of conscription is on the cards. Julian’s tutor and guardian Sam Godwin fears that as Julian reaches manhood he will be sent to the front lines to die as a noble patriotic hero before he can become a threat to his uncle, the President. Thus Sam, Julian and his friend Adam – a poor lease-boy and aspiring writer – flee the town, only to face greater dangers, not least from The Dominion – the coalition of fundamentalist churches that guards the nation’s morals by suppressing all knowledge of the decadent wonders of the ‘Secular Ancients’.
The book is written from Adam’s point of view as a memoir and biography of his friend Julian. Adam find his views of the world challenged by Julian’s free-thinking radicalism and atheism, as well as the horrors of war, and slowly has his eyes opened to truths that have long been suppressed. His passion for books – a dangerous folly in the eyes of The Dominion – leads him to such eye opening discoveries as a tattered copy of ‘A History of Mankind in Space’ which proposes the fanciful notion that men once walked on the surface of the moon.
This book is reminiscent of a Victorian novel, and Adam’s style is based on his literary hero, a certain Charles Curtis Easton who writes inspiring, patriotic adventures for the improvement of young men. A lot of the joy of this book comes from reading between the lines as Adam reports events and occurrences that he fails to grasp the significance of at the time given his rural naiveté, particularly in the moving and unexpected conclusion of the story.
This is excellent literary science fiction that explores the conflict between church and state, and the politics of sceptical thinking, in a thought provoking way. It is also a cracking good yarn that depicts a convincing future as well. Highly recommended.
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