May 25 2009 10:26am

A Conversation with Robert Charles Wilson, Part 1

Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America opens on an America 163 years from now that looks a bit like the 19th century but feels, in unexpected and delightful ways, very much like the present. In Julian Comstock, with the demise of oil, America has returned to preindustrial levels of technology. The nation’s calamitous fall—involving a thorough depletion of the population and the collapse of the political system as we know it—is a hazy historical memory, replaced by a larger-feeling country, more sparsely populated and more difficult to control. The much-weakened government vies for authority with the Dominion, a huge religious organization with theocratic aims, while waging a war with a European power for possession of a recently opened Northwest Passage.

Into the political, military, and religious tumult steps Julian Comstock, the nephew of the current president, Deklan Conqueror, and—inconveniently for Deklan—also the son of Deklan’s brother Bryce, the former president whom Deklan had executed in his ascent to power. Julian’s own artistic and political ambitions carry him and his best friend, Adam Hazzard, from the Midwest to Labrador to New York City, from homesteads to army barracks to the halls of power. The novel, narrated by Hazzard, is funny and sad, accessible and thought-provoking; a story of the future written in the style of the past; a light romance and a war saga; a novel of power plays and intimate friendship, where the personal is political and the political is personal.

When asked me if I’d be willing to interview Wilson about Julian Comstock, I quickly said yes and then became intimidated, wondering how I’d manage to ask him questions that he wouldn’t think were stupid. As it turned out, Wilson was as generous in reality as he is in his books. The interview, conducted over email, took several weeks. I originally imagined that, after editing it, I’d come up with a good 1,200-word piece. However, Wilson kept answering my questions in such entertaining and intriguing ways that I had no choice but to keep asking more questions. I’m thus dividing the interview into three parts, of which this is the first. The second part will appear on Wednesday; the third part on Friday.

Brian Francis Slattery: One of the things about Julian Comstock that I really enjoyed was that, in many ways, you wrote a pre-20th century novel—which, of course, totally matches the content in several important ways. But why did you decide to do this? I ask in part because there’s a certain bravery in going back to the 19th and 18th centuries for literary inspiration, given that your readers are reared on 20th-century expectations; also, by choosing such a specific style, certain stylistic and thematic doors close—and others open. What did the style—and your narrator in particular—allow you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

Robert Charles Wilson: I came at the idea sideways, in a sense. When I first considered writing a novel set one hundred and fifty years into a radically depleted future, I tried to get a feeling for what a century and a half really means in terms of change (and not just technological change) in America. So I started immersing myself in mid-19th century American popular literature as a kind of depth gauge. Basically asking the question: What’s the cultural distance between then and now, and can I build a comparable degree of change into my book?

I’m not talking about classic literature but long-forgotten topical and popular novels—the kind of thing you have to hunt down at or read in PDF at archival sites. Weird stuff like George Lippard’s creepy The Quaker City, or Eugene Batchelder’s A Romance of the Sea Serpent, a novel in verse about a monster that attacks shipping in Boston Harbor and subsequently gets invited to a Harvard commencement. Seriously.

But the real galvanizing moment for me was when I stumbled across a series of six boys’ books written just as the Civil War was winding down, the so-called Army-Navy series by Oliver Optic. (Oliver Optic, a.k.a. William Taylor Adams, was a hugely successful writer in his day, author of over a hundred books and a household name for many American families. The better-remembered Horatio Alger was an Oliver Optic wannabe.) Read those books and you get the impression of a genuinely kindly, well-meaning, often naïve author trying to introduce young readers to the world they would inhabit as adults—and a pretty ugly world it was. Internecine warfare, slavery, rampant racism, mob justice: Have fun, kids!

For instance, in one of the books, during a naval battle, the 17-year-old narrator says, “A cannonball nipped off the head of the man standing next to me. This was so irregular that I did not know quite what to do.” It’s funny and ghastly at the same time. It’s like Guernica repainted by Norman Rockwell. And I thought it would be a great way to tell a story about a post-collapse 22nd-century America.

BFS: It occurred to me that having Adam Hazzard as your narrator is often what saves the book from becoming too serious, not only because Hazzard makes his friend Julian lighten up, but also because he doesn’t tend to dwell very much on the horrible things going on around him—both the things that he would find horrible and the things that we might find horrible by 21st-century standards. Had you given the book a different narrator, the story could easily have been much darker—and not nearly as entertaining. Did you consciously decide to keep it lighter than it could have been? Or is the frequent humor a happy by-product of a different decision?

RCW: Irony, and the kind of humor it generates, tends to crop up in American literature whenever cultural conflicts come to a boil. A house divided cannot stand, and irony is the sound of its timbers creaking.

Ironic understatement was a literary staple in the decades before and after the Civil War. Melville was steeped in it, and so, obviously, was Twain. But it was ubiquitous. And in contentious times, maybe a bitter truth is best expressed by a gentle and slightly naïve narrator.

It also creates a sort of ghostly three-way dialog between the objective circumstances of the story, the narrator’s perception of those circumstances, and the reader’s reaction to both. I like that kind of layering—those little dissonances give a story a special kind of presence in the reader’s mind, I think.

BFS: Can you explain a bit more what you mean by that? Why would you want to set up these dissonances in the first place? What kind of presence do you hope to set up in the reader’s mind?

RCW: It’s one of those mesmeric tricks fiction does. As soon as a reader says, “Don’t be so pessimistic, Watson, I think you’re underestimating Holmes,” the trance is fully induced. Because you don’t argue with Watson unless, on some level, you’ve constructed Watson in your mind; you don’t second-guess his opinion of Holmes unless you’ve done the same with Holmes. They start to hover over the text, holographically, if you see what I mean.

In science fiction, the same effect gives a neat little triangulation on whatever future you’re postulating. I think that’s the key element H.G. Wells brought to science fiction—the implicit understanding that present-day London is simultaneously someone’s dream of a gaudy future and someone else’s haunted ruin, and that each of those viewpoints is equally legitimate.

As mentioned above, the second part of the interview will appear Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Brian Francis Slattery is the author of Spaceman Blues and Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six after the Collapse of the United States of America.

Joshua Heggen
1. Kelfyr
Apparently you two have similar taste in cover artists.
2. CarlosSkullsplitter
Wasn't this published a few years back as Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson? Nineteenth century style narrators, depleted America, layered ironies, classical historical model. I agree, it was excellent.
Brian Slattery
3. brianslattery
@1: Ha! I noticed that myself--the resemblance is pretty striking. The cover for Liberation was done by Ross MacDonald. We'd have to ask Irene Gallo (fellow denizen) if Ross also did the cover for Julian Comstock. Irene?
Pablo Defendini
4. pablodefendini
That's right, it's Ross MacDonald on both covers. Irene's got the full story, though.
5. ChrisF
@2: Wilson published 'Julian: A Christmas Story', a short story which introduced the main characters.
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
I know, I've read it. Quick, is this scene from Judson (2004) or Wilson (2007)?

The necessary gear had been hauled into Williams Ford under a canvas-top wagon: a projection apparatus and a portable Swiss dynamo (probably captured from the Dutch forces in Labrador), powered by distilled spirits, installed in a sort of trench or redoubt freshly dug behind the church to muffle its sound, which nevertheless penetrated through the plank floors like the growl of a huge dog.

"You will love this," Tony Mason told us as he clipped the filmstrip in place behind the lens and lit the projector's internal lamp, which needed a minute more to glow brightly.

I had never seen any movies, though Julian had described them to me. He had seen them often in New York when he was younger, and whenever he grew nostalgic -- life in Williams Ford was sometimes a little sedate for Julian’s taste -- it was the movies he was provoked to mention.

"Of course, they did it better in the secular era," Julian whispered. By all reports, movies had indeed been spectacular during the Efflorescence of Oil...

"Good Lord!" swore Davis. "The men are dancing!"

"Was there no sense of personal dignity back then?" asked Shelley.

The scene changed and before us appeared some more dancing men and women, and this group was shown in full color. They were inside some sort of domed structure. Lights were flashing over their heads; bright, pulsating lights that hurt the eyes if one looked into them for more than a few seconds. The men were wearing trousers that had extraordinary wide legs yet fit about their hips as tight as women's corsets. The women wore dresses so short they were parodies of dresses and allowed the harlots to show their knickers every time they moved their bare legs. The camera singled out a particular male dancer, a dark Latin I would guess he was; he wore his hair slicked down to his skull as Latins do even today...

The movie then proceeded to more decorous episodes and scenic views representing the glories of the reign of Deklan Conqueror, as he was known to the Army of the Laurentians, which had marched him to his ascendancy in New York City. Here was the reconstruction of Washington, DC (a project never completed, always in progress, hindered by a swampy climate and insect-borne diseases); here was the Illumination of Manhattan, whereby electric streetlights were powered by a hydroelectric dynamo, four hours every day between 6 and 10 p.m.; here was the military shipyard at Boston Harbor, the coal mines and foundries and weapons factories of Pennsylvania, the newest and shiniest steam engines to pull the newest and shiniest trains, etc., etc.
Interesting, no?
7. lotusblossom
I just looked up Judson's book on Wikipedia and it doesn't sound much like Wilson's.
Brian Slattery
8. brianslattery
@ 6: Ah, this game. But be careful! Novelist William Gaddis, author of, most famously, The Recognitions, JR, and A Frolic of His Own, once wrote this in a letter to a friend: "I recall a most ingenious piece in a Wisconsin quarterly some years ago in which The Recognitions’ debt to Ulysses was established in such minute detail I was doubtful of my own firm recollection of never having read Ulysses."
9. CarlosSkullsplitter
Actually, I think Wilson probably doesn't even know who Judson is. No debt implied.

What dismays me is the unfamiliarity that this has been done, done well, and done recently -- to the point where entire passages can plausibly be interchanged from one work to the other, with very little modification.

Also, while I understand how difficult it is to stay on top of a large and increasingly fragmented genre, I found your praise a little fulsome for the second book of its kind, you know? "A certain bravery," indeed.
Brian Slattery
10. brianslattery
@ 9: Guilty as charged. I had never heard of Fitzpatrick's War until you brought it up, and I'm notoriously bad at keeping up with just about everything. (You should see my record collection.)

However, I stand by the fulsomeness of my praise for the book, as I, you know, really liked it.
11. Robert Charles Wilson
You're right, I haven't read the Judson, but judging by the description of the book I expect both he and I have read Michael Moorcock, The Chrysalids, Pangborn's Davy, The Long Tomorrow, and numerous other works of (especially post-apocalyptic) science fiction that play with antique voices and classical themes.

You can cut and paste those, too, to much the same effect.
12. CarlosSkullsplitter
RCW, I don't doubt that, but your story and Judson's book are much closer in tone and concept than (say) your story and Pangborn's Davy.

It's really striking. There are differences. I think his is probably meaner. Among other things, it's a pretty vicious satire of military science fiction and neoconservative political tropes. The anti-Darwin and anti-Einstein sentiments are mostly in mock-academic footnotes; by the narrator's time, no one is even asking those questions. His setting has much more industrial might but no electricity. The successor state in North America despises the memory of the old United States (it's descended from white separatist militias) rather than using its trappings for legitimacy. The ending is only happy for the narrator -- but then, I haven't read your novel yet, only the story.

But yeah: scion to empire and his plebeian narrator sidekick, looking back to the nineteenth century, despising the twentieth, digging through ruins (farmers' plows breaking old television tubes), watching movies (Judson's film stock is better preserved), travel, bigotry, repression, court politics, and war, glorious war.
13. Robert Charles Wilson
It might be more productive to continue the discussion when you've actually read Julian Comstock. (The rather detailed Wikipedia page on Judson's book is helpful. It sounds fascinating, and I'll have to dig up a copy, but it ain't Julian.) In the meantime I would encourage curious readers to "compare and contrast," as my 8th grade English teacher used to say. I think you'll find they're very different books.
14. CarlosSkullsplitter
Of course I'll read the book, because I like having an informed opinion. I trust you'll do the same.

That Wikipedia entry is very odd; it's as if someone described A Canticle For Leibowitz in terms of Miller's imaginary geopolitics... which I see someone has. I can picture the entry for Julian Comstock already, rough maps trying to figure out what Canadian provinces have been incorporated into the United States under what names, the Talk page devoted to figuring out the new boundaries of Athabaska and the Northwest Passage.
Ben R
15. sphericaltime
Yay! The marketing spin up begins. My review can be posted on my blog!

/Thanks for the good read, RCW. Several good reads, actually. I'm looking forward to Vortex.

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