Julian the Apostate on a Gunboat: Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock

I’d just finished re-reading Julian Comstock when I heard it had been nominated for a Hugo. I read it for the first time as an ARC some time before it was published. It’s a fun but odd book, and how much you’ll like it depends very much on how much you enjoy Victorian style adventures. The book’s full title is Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America, and that’s what it is. It’s a retelling of the story of Julian the Apostate in a future post-Apocalytic US (that now includes Canada) where the presidency has become dynastic and everyone looks to the nineteenth century as the one to emulate. Our hero, Adam, is a naive country boy, who becomes the best friend of a young aristocrat who is nephew and rival to the president. Julian has strange heretical ideas, and his greatest ambition is to make a moving picture about the life and adventures of Darwin. Adam’s naivetë and charm are a great deal of what carries the book. Here’s a sample, a footnote from early on:

Julian’s somewhat feminine nature had won him a reputation among the other young aristos as a sodomite. That they could believe this without evidence is testimony to the tenor of their thoughts, as a class. But it had occasionally rebounded 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.

Adam sometimes quotes French remarks he can’t understand  but the reader of course can—once, it’s “What kind of idiot are you?” which he takes to be an expression of gratitude. His continued naivetë, through battle and power and success, may be implausible but is never less than charming. I laughed aloud several times. This is a Victorian boy’s own adventure written with modern sensibility and set in a future to which our own times are the “Efflorescence of Oil” to be followed shortly by the “Days of the False Tribulation”.

Some writers write books that are quite similar to each other, others write things within a certain range, but Wilson is a writer whose spectrum is as broad as the electro-magnetic. He wrote the brilliant Spin, of course, which is big idea science fiction. He also wrote the completely bizarre Darwinia, in which Europe is replaced by a jungle in 1910 and then everything gets weird. I’ve been reading him for a long time and have concluded that he’s one of those writers where you can’t tell what to expect—The Chronoliths is about monuments from the future appearing in the past and affecting everything that follows. Some of his works are on the edge of horror, others are as solidly science fictional as anything in the genre. Julian Comstock never wavers in its nineteenth century tone—it’s funny, it’s got lots of adventure, and it’s very clever. It isn’t like any of Wilson’s other work, and it well deserves its Hugo nomination.

Wilson himself described it by saying he was reading a US Civil War memoir called “Frank on a gunboat” and thought that was good as far as it went, but it would be better if it was Julian the Apostate on a gunboat—and that’s what this book is. The technology is about that of the US Civil War, with the ruins of our civilization underlying theirs everywhere. (I found the parts set in Montreal particularly odd from that point of view. I expect readers in New York might find the same from the Manhattan sections.) The US are fighting the Dutch in Quebec and Nova Scotia, the Comstock dynasty has a firm grip on the presidency, Adam Hazzard wants to be a writer, and Julian wants to overthrow the hold of the Dominion Christians and make a film about Darwin. It’s a romp, with meditations on time and civilization, and the way the future views the past and makes what it wants to out of it.

I hear Wilson is working on the third book in the Spin cycle, and after that, no doubt, something as different from everything else as his earlier books are from each other.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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