Apr 7 2010 10:34am

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.

1. CarlosSkullsplitter
I loathed this book, because it does such a deep disservice to the actual American nineteenth century.

It also has some rather crankish political and scientific views, confirmed by the author, although -- unusually for science fiction -- those come from the left, not the right.

Still, at least it doesn't use Wilson's generic plot.
Jon Evans
2. rezendi
I found this book slight and immensely fun.

I think "slight" because I never quite bought the milieu - not that it was internally inconsistent, but it didn't seem to have much depth to it. It felt like one of those Hollywood Western false-front movie sets.

Actually, the whole thing felt like a 1950s movie, with that kind of intentional distance between the story and the readers. (Which Wilson kind of riffs on in the "movies" in the book itself.)

Does that sound like a complaint? It isn't, really; it's just that it's a cinematic 19th century story, with Heros and Villains and swashbuckling, as opposed to, say, a Blood Meridian-style visceral-intensity 19th-century story ... and I tend to prefer the latter.

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.

As a former Montrealer and former New Yorker, I found the NYC section more convincing - but I think that's just because thanks to this book I have a much better image of nineteenth century New York than nineteenth century Montreal.
Jonah Feldman
3. relogical
I really disliked this book. It was suspiciously identical to Theodore Judson's Fitzpatrick's War in its setting, framing, and plot, except "Comstock" was less clever, less plausible, and much more insensitive to religion. I will admit that "Darwin: The Musical" was a lot of fun.

Maybe Wilson should stick to "mysterious bizarre event that changes history" sci-fi. I liked Darwinia and Spin.
Debra Doyle
4. DebraDoyle
Julian Comstock appears to be one of those books which either resonates with the reader or doesn't, with not much room left for a middle ground. For my part, I found it utterly charming and full of great niftiness, the sort of book that one wants to press upon one's friends so that they, too, can enjoy the experience.

(I'm willing to buy, however, that it's a different kind of thing than most of Wilson's other books, since most of Wilson's other books leave me, well, not so much cold as kind of lukewarm.)
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
It certainly does seem to be polarizing. I haven't read Fitzpatrick's War so I can't comment on that. I wouldn't call Julian Comstock insensitive to religion, it's just taking the position of "against".
Chuk Goodin
6. Chuk
I really enjoyed JC. The writing style and narrator's voice were one of my favourite parts of it, but the story itself was quite interesting, too.

(And showing my ignorance: I knew there was an emperor named Julian but that was about all I knew, so I totally did not make the connection. Not sure if that would have made the book better or not.)
7. peachy
Well, Drake & Stirling did "Belisarius (on a giant dog) on a gunboat", and that worked just fine; and I generally have no objections to stories that use an armature of historical fact transplanted to a different setting, or to a "boys own adventure" sensibility (in moderation.)

On the other hand, I was disappointed by Darwinia - it wasn't bad by any means, but I expected Wilson to play the premise straight, and I was disappointed when he didn't. It sounds as if Julian is exactly what it says it will be, though, so perhaps I'll give it a shot.
Mitch Wagner
8. MitchWagner
CarlosSkullsplitter (#1): I'm curious how you see this book doing a disservice to the actual American 19th Century, given that it's not set in the 19th Century. Comstock's America has all the American 19th Century's flaws, but is missing some of its key virtues.

SPOILER ALERT: The ending of the novel is bittersweet. Sure, the hero and his family live happily ever after. But the civilization in is doomed, or, at least, the American civilization is. Whereas the 19th Century was a century of improving science and freedom, Julian Comstock's America is the opposite. This is a civilization in long, slow decline, with no sign of reversing. Hopefully, Europe and other continents are better off.

relogical (#3): I loved "Comstock," but I'm now looking forward to reading the Judson.

I would most definitely not say that Comstock is insensitive to religion, and he's not against it either. Adam and his mentor both derive their moral strength and courage, to a large degree, from their religion. The novel is, however, hostile to large, powerful established religion--which 19th Century American Mark Twain would have heartily approved of.

DebraDoyle (#4): (Hi, Debra!). I loved "Julian Comstock," and "Spin," liked "Darwinia" but found it somewhat unsatisfying, and didn't care for "Axis" at all.

peachy (#7): I'd say Darwinia does play the premise straight, although the actual premise of the novel is not the apparent premise at the outset of the book. My main quarrel with "Darwinia" is that a Big Cosmic Mystery novel needs a big payoff, and Darwinia just didn't deliver.

There are parts of Darwinia that I love, though. One that comes to mind: The protagonist has a subscription to Astounding magazine in the 1940s.
9. jere7my
I confess I took against this book solely because of the cover: it looks like it's trying to ride the coattails of Brian Francis Slattery's Liberation. The Slattery cover is a marvel of design, one of the best SF covers of the last few years; this cover is fine, but it pales in comparison, and given the similarity in milieu it left me with the impression that the same relationship will hold between the texts.

Irrational, I know. Maybe I'll check it out now.
10. ericket
I liked the Huck Finn kind of voice of Adam and so was inclined to enjoy the characters. I was perfectly willing to appreciate it as a "boys adventure" with amusing dystopian twists.

The ending felt sad and in some ways reflected my perception about the direction America's headed.

I did love the Dutch in Quebec and Nova Scotia though. It reminded me of an indignant Dr. Who saying, "I was with the Philippine army in the battle of Reykjavik!"
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Jere7my: Have you seen the paperback cover -- you can see it on this post, and the paperback will be out soon. I think it's a much better fit for the book.
12. Pam Adams
I just finished JC- I'm starting my 'read through the Hugo nominees' phase. I enjoyed it- at first it felt somewhat distant, but I grew to like it more and more. Perhaps it helps that I enjoy (in reasonably small doses) the boys own adventures written by Alger and 'Oliver Optic.'
13. rachel-swirsky
I'm partway through the book right now.

The world-building doesn't actually make any sense. I'm willing to believe a kind of slip back into the 19th century in some ways, but the slip is more complete than it should be--there should be more patchwork in the culture as it sews together what it was, with what it wants to be.

And the naivete re: languages is totally unbelievable.

But so far it's rather entertaining.
Sandi Kallas
14. Sandikal
Rachel, the world-building did make sense to me. In some ways, it reminded me of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale in that America changed primarily because of a takeover by religious extremists. That, combined with the fall of the industrial infrastructure, led to a nation that was more like Victorian-era America than what the country would be like if we continued as we are. Probably the best comparison might be Iran after the Shah was booted out.

As far as the naivete regarding languages, I think that was even more believable. I live in Southern California and am surrounded by the Spanish language. I know a lot of people who can't even pronounce "La Jolla", much less tell you what it, or any other Spanish place name means. We won't even get into the ubiquitous Orange County Vietnamese. I myself couldn't tell you a single word of Vietnamese even though it's the 2nd or 3rd most common language in my area. Our nation is very provincial when it comes to foreign language education. Most people don't even get an opportunity to study a foreign language until high school. Even then, it's optional unless you're planning on going to a university. I can totally see a dictatorship banning the teaching of foreign languages to commoners. What better way to keep them from learning foreign ideas? In the world of Julian Comstock, people outside of America seem to still have religious freedom. That's not something the powers that be want spread around.
15. Pam Adams
I don't know- I didn't understand the French myself, so I can't blame Adam for not knowing it.
16. rachel-swirsky
He transcribed it accurately. It's in his book. It's full of words that mean basically what they seem to mean, e.g. idiot. It actually seems clear to me that Wilson deliberately chose passages that readers who had very little French or German (for instance, me) would be able to get the gist of if they read them over a few times.

However, there's a passage late in the book where he describes writing his novel with a protagonist "just like me only more naive." I am willing to read this as meta-commentary on the faux-narrator's part, that the book is narrated from a slightly false perspective (as all memoir must be), and he's playing up he-author is playing up he-narrator's ignorance. That mostly works for me.

As far as the cultural return to the 19th century, I'm not complaining about the social mores, or codes of dress so much--but the language in particular has a tendency to use words that are Victorian in a way that seems implausibly like reeling back time rather than figuring out what a future inspired by Victorianism would look like. I would expect to see more new slang and more neologisms, and less use of fancy adjectives that fell out of fashion in 1895. This is partially excused by the mentions that Adam has grown up on the fare of Victorian moralists, but didn't totally convince.

It's a quibble, though. I still find the book entertaining--and really love Calyxa and Julian as characters. I'm also really enjoying the weaving of the movie scripts into the text.

I found the military passages boring, but that's a flaw in me as a reader, I suspect. I always find those passages boring.

I'm about 20 pages from the end.
Peter Tijger
17. Peter-Tijger
I picked this one up a couple of days ago. There's another book I have to finish first and then I'm starting on this one. First thing I noticed was the cover, then I read the back and laughed.....the Dutch at war with America......looks like a must read for me as a Dutch guy. I got intrigued by the description of the story and bought the book. I'll be back with a comment when I'm finished reading it.

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