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 Tor.com 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 ABEbooks.com 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.