May 27 2009 10:35am

A Conversation with Robert Charles Wilson, Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part interview with Robert Charles Wilson about Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America. The first part, along with an introduction to the book, appears here. The third part will appear on Friday.

Brian Francis Slattery: In essays, reviews, and popular conversation about science fiction as a genre, one of the constant questions is to what extent science fiction attempts to predict the future and to what extent it seeks to comment on the present day. This has always struck me as a silly question to ask of the entire genre, but a good one to ask of individual books. With Julian Comstock, how much are you in the prediction business and how much are you in the social commentary business?

Robert Charles Wilson: I don’t believe science fiction is about prediction, except in the sense that we try occasionally try to explore some obvious contingency like nuclear warfare or space travel. What interested me in writing Julian wasn’t the particular minutiae of change (about which I’m as ignorant as anyone), but an attempt to represent a realistic degree of change.

I mean, how bizarre would contemporary headlines look to Herman Melville or Harriet Beecher Stowe? Air war over Afghanistan, a black Democratic president, gay marriage: this stuff would never have been considered “plausible” prediction, back in the day. And yet here we are. And that’s how it works. The future is contingent, deeply and intrinsically unknowable. Much of the background stuff in Julian Comstock that seems kind of off the wall—the U.S. battling the Dutch for possession of Labrador—is there to represent the changes that are both inevitable and not linearly predictable.

BFS: Actually, I found the opening of a northwest passage (finally!) and a protracted battle with a European power to control it to be both plausible and clever—a neat mash-up of possible environmental and geopolitical trends. What made me ask the prediction versus commentary question in the first place was the rise of the Dominion as such a powerful political force in America—the blurring of the whole separation of church and state thing. It reminded me of something Frank Zappa blurted out on Crossfire back in 1986: “The biggest threat to America today is not communism; it’s moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened during the Reagan administration is steering us right down that pipe.” I’m not saying that I think you agree with Zappa. But why did you decide to turn the book in this direction? What did you find it allowed you to talk about?

RCW: Obviously, I looked pretty closely at the so-called Christian Dominionist movement. When you investigate those folks, you discover they really do have a baldfaced blueprint for “fascist theocracy.” And no little influence.

But if you try to work out how such a thing would actually come to power in the United States … it ain’t so easy.

BFS: What do you mean by “it ain’t so easy”—that it doesn’t seem all that plausible, or that it’s plausible enough, but some really specific conditions would have to happen to make it possible? Or something else entirely?

RCW: Anything’s possible, but the project of bringing a fully-realized theocracy to the United States faces a good many obstacles. Not the least of which is the wonderfully schismatic nature of North American Christianity. The establishment (in the constitutional sense) of any one church or group of churches would alienate a dozen more. It’s a recipe for civil war. In Julian Comstock, the Dominion functions as a theological gatekeeper—it wields the power to license churches of all denominations, and it can crush rebellious upstarts or budding apostasies, but it doesn’t dictate the fine points of dogma to its members, and it’s only one of three centers of political power. That was as close as I could come to creating a plausible American theocracy.

Anyway, I didn’t want to write a Handmaid’s Tale kind of dystopia, which begins with the worst kind of people firmly in control of just about everything.

BFS: Why not?

RCW: The bipolar dystopia has been done. By Orwell, first and best. Little more needs to be said. And in the hands of lesser writers, it’s a terrible temptation to simply rig a fictional scorecard in favor of your own particular political beliefs. This isn’t a slag at Handmaid’s Tale—Atwood did that about as well as anyone could. But the approach she took is far from the only possible approach to the subject, and it might not be the subtlest one.

Brutal monolithic dictatorships certainly exist, but I’m not sure how stable they are. My suspicion is that they decay into class-based aristocracies. And I’m convinced that aristocracy, not dictatorship, is the specter that’s always haunted America. You see it in the Federalists, you see it in the debate between Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, you see it in the battle over slavery, you see it in the Reform Era controversies, and you see it in corporate culture the world over. In Julian Comstock I gave America a fractured aristocracy, quasi-late-Roman, with multiple centers of power and a lively popular culture.

BFS: This is one of the things that I admired most about your book: that the complex society you create allows you to make political observations about America—both present and future—without being polemical, by which I mean that, at the end of the book, I wouldn’t presume to be able to infer your own political beliefs from what’s said in the book, nor do I feel like you’re necessarily trying to convince anyone to adhere to a particular political view. But Julian Comstock is in many ways overtly political, not only because several of the characters in it are important public officials and members of clergy—so their conversations are political by necessity—but also because the book wades directly into that messy culture war about the place of Christianity, or perhaps religious belief more generally, in American society. I assume you have no problem mixing art and politics; but that said, what do you think the place of politics and cultural values is in Julian Comstock?

RCW: One of the fascinating things about the American political tradition is its amazing plasticity. It tangles up and changes directions like a prairie river. (Go tell Lincoln the first African-American president of the United States will be elected as a Democrat—watch his jaw drop.) Political science fiction ought to address that interesting mutability, I believe, not just some specific ideological question.

Having said that, I suppose Julian Comstock might offend a few people. My hope is that it offends the right ones. (Smiling as I write this.)

BFS: Exactly—if you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re not doing it right.

RCW: Agreed. At the same time, I really did want to avoid caricaturing the bad guys. It’s just too easy. Lazy, even. Atheist though I am, I’ve had great discussions and friendships with people of faith. I think an honest Christian—by which I mean any Christian not dedicated to tearing up the Constitution or burning books—can read Julian Comstock and find some common ground.

BFS: Did you know from the outset that you’d be writing a pretty political book, or did this arise naturally from the process of writing it? And in either case, did you have an approach in mind for dealing with the more political material?

RCW: I wanted to treat politics as a mode of human behavior, like sexuality. Like sexuality, it’s fascinating, complex, profound, often disconcerting, and generally interesting to write about. And using Adam Hazzard as my narrator helped maintain a certain focus. Adam tends to judge people, not institutions—individual acts of cruelty, not oppression in the abstract.

The third and final part of the interview will appear on Friday. Stay tuned!

1 comment
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Looking forward to part three of the interview. I've been a fan of Wilson since the days of Mysterium and Darwinia.

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