This is the third 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 second part appears here.
Brian Francis Slattery: What’s your opinion of James Howard Kunstler? [Ed. note: Kunstler is a journalist, novelist, and cultural critic; he is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, a critique of suburbia, and The Long Emergency, a rumination on what could happen to us when the oil runs out.]
Robert Charles Wilson: Unlike most science fiction, Kunstler is predicting the future, and I freely borrowed much of the worst-case scenario he presents in The Long Emergency. (You might say the keys to Julian Comstock are Kunstler, Gibbon, and Oliver Optic.) Is he right? Well, he makes a good case for the absolute unsustainability of our way of life. The idea is that we’ve basically fed on oil for 150 years—literally, in the sense that we used oil to bring marginal cropland under cultivation and to create the system by which we transport food worldwide. And like any animal population, our numbers increased accordingly, to such a degree that the system would be strained even if we weren’t facing radical oil depletion. Not to mention the dozens of other potential ecological and economical disasters implicit in the problem.
I don’t think science fiction writers are obliged to be optimists or pessimists. I do believe in the possibility of progress—but not its inevitability.
BFS: I’d like to hear you talk a bit more about that, because it’s a sentiment I totally share but haven’t been able to formulate succinctly yet. Because of my day job, I tend to see things through an economic lens, and I have been struck, especially lately, by just how much people had come to depend on the assumptions of progress formed by America’s experience of the last fifty years—essentially, one of relatively stable, dependable growth. Sure, it was a fifty-year run, but in some sense, it was also something of an aberration. It’s hard to imagine, say, someone in 1945 looking at the fifty years of America’s performance that preceded it and making a similar assumption. I think about all those stories you hear of people who lived through the Great Depression saving money under their mattresses, or coins in dresser drawers, for decades afterward—they could never bring themselves to believe in the economic stability that so many of us who were born later took for granted. And that’s to say nothing of the experience of other countries.
RCW: And there’s more than one kind of progress. Abolishing slavery, for instance, or enacting universal suffrage, represents a kind of progress not necessarily related to technological or economic bull markets (though they may proceed in lockstep). An interesting question that arises from Kunstler is whether social and technological progress can be completely divorced from one another. In other words, if we’re in for a radical human die-back and a return to, at best, nineteenth-century levels of technology ... do we have to give up all our social progress, too? Perhaps not necessarily. Democracy, for instance, is a fairly simple and portable way of making collective decisions. All you have to be able to do is raise your hand. But that’s my optimistic side speaking.
In terms of our expectations and the illusion of dependable growth, yeah, as human beings we have an obvious and innate tendency to discount the future. I remember reading about a poll that was conducted among a cross-section of college students back in the 1980s. As I recall, students were asked to describe what they expected the world to be like in forty years. Their answers were fairly bleak, leaning toward post-nuclear wastelands patrolled by killer robots and such. But when asked how they pictured their future forty years on, the responses were more like, “Well, I’ll be ready to retire from my well-paying job...”
BFS: That’s funny, isn’t it. Looked at one way, it can seem very head-in-the-sand ignorant—it’s all “bad things can happen, just not to me.” But if you look at it another way, it also suggests a kind of resilience—it’s the idea that no matter how bad things get, people feel like they can muddle through somehow.
RCW: I like that idea—blind optimism as a survival trait. If our species ever needs an ad campaign, we ought to work it into our slogan. “Cognitive dissonance—it’s what we do.”
BFS: Though the idea that we can muddle through strikes me as something that your narrator might agree with—and naïve though he is, you do give him flashes of wisdom. Which is a good way to bring this back around to where we started. As I’ve thought more about Julian Comstock, one of the things that leaps out at me is the way that the characters’ different worldviews shape their lives. Julian has the wild, breathtaking story arc that he does because he’s an ambitious young man who sees the world as deeply flawed, fraught with philosophical, moral, and religious problems. Adam’s personal story is a bit more sedate—more like most people’s lives, in many ways—because he doesn’t see the world as being particularly flawed. Which is really interesting considering that they exist in the same world. They grow up in the same place and are together through almost all of the adventures that they have.
RCW: Adam is stubbornly determined to see the best in everyone. Which makes him vulnerable, but it also gives his moral judgment, when he eventually renders it, a particular kind of force. Paradoxically, it also makes him just a little bit dangerous to be around.
I guess you could say that Julian wants to make the world more benevolent, while Adam wants to make space for benevolence in an imperfect world.
BFS: So, without giving away the ending, do you see the book seeking to resolve the tension between those two points, or is it something you wanted to leave as an open question? I ask this because, in the course of writing, I often found my own characters to be similarly opposed—and the characters were wrestling with questions to which I personally had, and still have, no good answer. When is violence justified? How much blood is an idea worth? Some of the characters arrive at answers for themselves—they have to, or what kind of story would it be?—but it doesn’t mean that I did, or that I expect readers to either.
RCW: A writer doesn’t have to master every moral dilemma in order to find drama in it. You just have to be sensitive to it. If a reader comes away from Julian Comstock with the idea that power is a blunt instrument, that’s great. Some of the most sympathetic and interesting figures in American history have struggled with the question of when violence is justified even in the best of causes—I’m thinking of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, among others. In fact I’ve just published a short story that addresses the question directly—it’s called “This Peaceable Land; or, the Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe,” and it appears in the DAW anthology Other Earths, edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake.
Religion figured into the thoughts of all these people in one way or another. And one of the finest and most enduring American religious ideas is the notion that the true source of divine inspiration is the individual conscience. It’s an idea that steers away from crude Biblical literalism, and in some cases (I’m thinking of Garrison again) it even borders on agnosticism. It’s not the kind of methodical rationalism someone like Richard Dawkins might approve of. But it tends to lead people into battle on the right side.
The side of the angels, you might say.