October 05, 2009

BOOKS: Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson (2009)

From the "if this goes on" sub-genre of SF comes this tale set in the late 22nd century, in a United States that has suffered technological collapse (when the oil finally ran out), but expanded to include most of North America. We're at war with the Europeans in Labrador, and though the enemy is never specified, the Army of the Californias is fighting on the West Coast.

The influence of the religious right on our government has been solidified; the Air Force Academy has been converted (because you don't have any need for an air force when you can't fly planes) into the headquarters of the Dominion, the military/religious organization that approves churches, consults on all important government decisions, and issues its seal of approval on acceptable publications.

The Presidency is now dynastic, handed down from one family member to the next. Our title character, Julian Comstock, is the nephew of the current president; they have been estranged ever since Uncle Deklan had his war-hero brother (Julian's father) killed for fear of being deposed. When Julian is suddenly drafted into the Army of the Laurentians and sent to Labrador, it looks as if he may face the same fate.

The story is told in the form of a memoir by Julian's best friend, Adam Hazzard. Adam's narrative voice has a delightfully old-fashioned air of formality. Take, for instance, this footnote:

Julian's somewhat feminine nature had won him a reputation among the other young Aristos as a sodomite. That they could believe this of him without evidence is testimony to the tenor of their thoughts, as a class. But it had occasionally redounded to my benefit. On more than one occasion his female acquaintances -- sophisticated girls of my own age, or older -- made the assumption that I was Julian's intimate companion, in a physical sense. Whereupon they undertook to cure me of my deviant habits, in the most direct fashion. I was happy to cooperate with these "cures," and they were successful, every time.

As is the nature of "if this goes on" stories, there's a touch of didacticism to it, and there doesn't seem to be much doubt about Wilson's own politics, or how he feels about, for instance, the rise of the Dominion. (It's interesting to imagine the same story re-told by a more right-wing author, perhaps from Deklan's point of view.)

The characters are compelling, the story is entertaining -- I particularly enjoyed a passage in which Julian brings his theatrical expertise to the battlefield -- and Wilson's imagined future is a vivid one; the road from here to there seems all too plausible.

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