content by

Robert Charles Wilson

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Burning Paradise (Excerpt)

, || Cassie Klyne, nineteen years old, lives in the United States in the year 2015—but it's not our United States, and it's not our 2015. Cassie's world has been at peace since the Great Armistice of 1918. There was no World War II, no Great Depression. Poverty is declining, prosperity is increasing everywhere; social instability is rare. But Cassie knows the world isn't what it seems. Her parents were part of a group who gradually discovered the awful truth: that for decades—back to the dawn of radio communications—human progress has been interfered with, made more peaceful and benign, by an extraterrestrial entity. That by interfering with our communications, this entity has tweaked history in massive and subtle ways. That humanity is, for purposes unknown, being farmed...

Last Year

It’s the near future, and the technology exists to open doorways into the past—but not our past, not exactly. Each “past” is effectively an alternate world, identical to ours but only up to the date on which we access it. And a given “past” can only be reached once. After a passageway is open, it’s the only road to that particular past; once closed, it can’t be reopened.

A passageway has been opened to a version of late nineteenth-century Ohio. It’s been in operation for most of a decade, but it’s no secret, on either side of time. A small city has grown up around it to entertain visitors from our time, and many locals earn a good living catering to them. But like all such operations, it has a shelf life; as the “natives” become more sophisticated, their version of the “past” grows less attractive as a destination.

Jesse Cullum is a native. And he knows the passageway will be closing soon. He’s fallen in love with a woman from our time, and he means to follow her back—no matter whose secrets he has to expose in order to do it.

Robert Charles Wilson’s Last Year is available December 6th from Tor Books.

[Read an Excerpt]

Burning Paradise (Excerpt)

Check out Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson, available November 5th from Tor Books!

Cassie Klyne, nineteen years old, lives in the United States in the year 2015—but it’s not our United States, and it’s not our 2015.

Cassie’s world has been at peace since the Great Armistice of 1918. There was no World War II, no Great Depression. Poverty is declining, prosperity is increasing everywhere; social instability is rare.

But Cassie knows the world isn’t what it seems. Her parents were part of a group who gradually discovered the awful truth: that for decades—back to the dawn of radio communications—human progress has been interfered with, made more peaceful and benign, by an extraterrestrial entity. That by interfering with our communications, this entity has tweaked history in massive and subtle ways. That humanity is, for purposes unknown, being farmed…

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Divided by Infinity

We hope you enjoy this reprint, originally published in Starlight 2, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books, 1998.


In the year after Lorraine’s death I contemplated suicide six times. Contemplated it seriously, I mean: six times sat with the fat bottle of Clonazepam within reaching distance, six times failed to reach for it, betrayed by some instinct for life or disgusted by my own weakness.

I can’t say I wish I had succeeded, because in all likelihood I did succeed, on each and every occasion. Six deaths. No, not just six. An infinite number.

Times six.

There are greater and lesser infinities.

[But I didn’t know that then.]

Oliver Who? (A Mathom from the Time Closet)

I’ve done three or four interviews now in which I’ve been asked about the literary models I used in my new novel Julian Comstock.

The name I generally mention is Oliver Optic—always good for a blank stare.

Now, I put it to you boys, is it natural for lads from fifteen to eighteen to command ships, defeat pirates, outwit smugglers, and so cover themselves with glory, that Admiral Farragut invites them to dinner, saying, “Noble boy, you are an honor to your country!

That’s Louisa May Alcott in her novel Eight Cousins, describing the sort of books she called “optical delusions.”  She was talking about Oliver Optic, who was sufficiently well-known in the day that she didn’t have to belabor the point.  Her description of his work is perfectly apt, but the effect it had on me (and perhaps other readers) was the opposite of the one she intended:  Cripes, is there such a book? And if so, where can I find it?

[More pirates and unnatural adventures below the fold…]

Julian Comstock, Chapters 2 and 3 is proud to present chapter two of the highly-anticipated Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson, the Hugo-winning author of Spin.

In the reign of President Deklan Comstock, a reborn United States is struggling back to prosperity. Over a century after the Efflorescence of Oil, after the Fall of the Cities, after the Plague of Infertility, after the False Tribulation, after the days of the Pious Presidents, the sixty stars and thirteen stripes wave from the plains of Athabaska to the national capital in New York City. In Colorado Springs, the Dominion sees to the nation’s spiritual needs. In Labrador, the Army wages war on the Dutch. America, unified, is rising once again.

As an added bonus, after you’re done reading, you can listen to the first, second, and third chapters of the audio version of Julian Comstock using the widget below the excerpt. 


It falls to me to explain something of Williams Ford, and of my family’s place in it, and Julian’s, before I describe the threat Sam Godwin feared, which materialized in our village not long before Christmas.1

Situated at the head of the valley was the font of our prosperity, the Duncan and Crowley Estate. It was a country Estate, owned by two New York mercantile families with hereditary Senate seats, who maintained their villa not only as a source of income but as a resort, safely distant (several days’ journey by train) from the intrigues and pestilences of the Eastern cities. It was inhabited—ruled, I might say—not only by the Duncan and Crowley patriarchs but by a whole legion of cousins, nephews, relations by marriage, and distinguished guests in search of clean air and rural views. Our corner of Athabaska was blessed with a benign climate and pleasant scenery, according to the season, and these things attract idle Aristos the way strong butter attracts flies.

It remains unrecorded whether the town existed before the Estate or vice versa; but certainly the town depended on the Estate for its prosperity. In Williams Ford there were essentially three classes: the Owners, or Aristos; below them the leasing class, who worked as smiths, carpenters, coopers, overseers, gardeners, beekeepers, etc., and whose leases were repaid in service; and finally the indentured laborers, who worked as field hands, inhabited rude shacks east of the River Pine, and received no compensation beyond bad food and worse lodging.

My family occupied an ambivalent place in this hierarchy. My mother was a seamstress. She worked at the Estate, as had her mother before her. My father, however, had arrived in Williams Ford as a bondless transient, and his marriage to my mother had been controversial. He had “married a lease,” as the saying goes, and had been taken on as a stable hand at the Estate in lieu of a dowry. The law in Athabaska allowed such unions, but popular opinion frowned on them. My mother had retained only a few friends of her own class after the wedding, her blood relations had since died (perhaps of embarrassment), and as a child I was often mocked and derided for my father’s low origins.

On top of that was the thorny issue of our religion. We were—because my father was—Church of Signs, which is a marginal Church. Every Christian church in America was required to secure formal approval from the Council of Registrars of the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth, if it wanted to operate without the imposition of crippling federal taxes. (The Dominion is sometimes called “The Church of the Dominion,” but that’s a misnomer, since every church is a Dominion Church as long as it’s recognized by the Council. Dominion Episcopal, Dominion Presbyterian, Dominion Baptist—even the Catholic Church of America since it renounced its fealty to the Pope of Rome in 2112—all are included under the Dominionist umbrella, since the purpose of the Dominion is not to be a church but to certify churches. In America we’re entitled by the Constitution to worship at any church we please, as long as it’s a genuine Christian congregation and not some fraudulent or satanistic sect. The Dominion exists to make that distinction. Also to collect fees and tithes to further its important work.)

We were, as I said, Church of Signs, a denomination shunned by the leasing class and grudgingly recognized (but never fully endorsed) by the Dominion. It was popular mostly with the illiterate transient workers among whom my father had been raised. Our faith took for its master text that passage in Mark which proclaims, “In my Name they will cast out devils, and speak in new tongues; they will handle serpents, and if they drink poison they will not be sickened by it.” We were snake-handlers, in other words, and famous beyond our modest numbers for it. Our congregation consisted of a dozen farmhands, most of them lately arrived from the southern states. My father was its deacon (though we didn’t use that title), and we kept snakes, for ritual purposes, in wire cages on our back acre, a practice that contributed very little to our social standing.

That had been the situation of our family when Julian Comstock arrived in Williams Ford as a guest of the Duncan and Crowley families, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, and when Julian and I met while hunting.

At that time I had been apprenticed to my father, who had risen to the rank of an overseer at the Estate’s lavish and extensive stables. My father loved and understood animals, especially horses. Unfortunately I was not made in the same mold, and my relations with the stable’s equine inhabitants rarely extended beyond a brisk mutual tolerance. I didn’t love my job—which consisted of sweeping straw, shoveling ordure, and in general doing those chores the older stablehands felt to be beneath their dignity—so I was pleased when my friendship with Julian deepened, and it became customary for a household amanuensis to arrive unannounced and request my presence at the House. Since the request emanated from a Comstock it couldn’t be overruled, no matter how fiercely the grooms and saddlers gnashed their teeth to see me escape their autocracy.

At first we met to read and discuss books, or hunt together. Later Sam Godwin invited me to audit Julian’s lessons, for he had been charged with Julian’s education as well as his general welfare. (Fortunately I had already been taught the rudiments of reading and writing at the Dominion school, and refined these skills under the tutelage of my mother, who believed in the power of literacy as an improving force. My father could neither read nor write.) And it was not more than a year after our first acquaintance that Sam presented himself one evening at my parents’ cottage with an extraordinary proposal.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hazzard,” Sam had said, putting his hand up to touch his Army cap (which he had removed when he entered the cottage, so that the gesture looked like an aborted salute), “you know of course about the friendship between your son and Julian Comstock.”

“Yes,” my mother said. “And worry over it often enough—matters at the Estate being what they are.”

My mother was a small woman, delicate in stature but forceful, with ideas of her own. My father, who spoke seldom, on this occasion spoke not at all, only sat in his chair gripping a laurel-root pipe, which he did not light.

“Matters at the Estate are exactly the crux of the issue,” Sam Godwin said. “I’m not sure how much Adam has told you about our situation there. Julian’s father, General Bryce Comstock, who was my friend as well as my commanding officer, shortly before his death charged me with Julian’s care and well-being—“

“Before his death,” my mother pointed out, “at the gallows, for treason.”

Sam winced. “That’s true, Mrs. Hazzard—I can’t deny it—but I assert my belief that the trial was unfair and the verdict unjust. Just or not, however, it doesn’t alter my obligation as far as the son is concerned. I promised to care for the boy, and I mean to keep my promise.”

“A Christian sentiment,” my mother said, not entirely disguising her skepticism.

“As for your implication about the Estate, and the practices of the young Eupatridians there, I agree with you entirely. Which is why I approved and encouraged Julian’s friendship with your son. Apart from Adam, Julian has no reliable friends. The Estate is such a den of venomous snakes—no offense,” he added, remembering our religious affiliation, and making the common but mistaken assumption that congregants of the Church of Signs necessarily like snakes, or feel some kinship with them—“no offense, but I would sooner allow Julian to associate with, uh, scorpions,” striking for a more palatable simile, “than abandon him to the sneers, machinations, ruses, and ruinous habits of his peers. That makes me not only his teacher but his constant companion. But I’m more than twice his age, Mrs. Hazzard, and he needs a friend more nearly of his own growth.”

“What do you propose, exactly, Mr. Godwin?”

“I propose to I take on Adam as a second student, to the ultimate benefit of both boys.”

Sam was ordinarily a man of few words—even as a teacher—and he seemed as exhausted by this oration as if he had lifted some great weight.

“As a student of what, Mr. Godwin?”

“Mechanics. History. Grammar and composition. Martial skills—”

“Adam already knows how to fire a rifle.”

“Pistolwork, sabrework, fist-fighting—but that’s only a fraction of it,” Sam added hastily. “Julian’s father asked me to cultivate the boy’s mind as well as his reflexes.”

My mother had more to say on the subject, chiefly about how my work at the stables helped offset the family’s leases, and how difficult it would be to get along without those extra vouchers at the Estate store. But Sam had anticipated the point. He had been entrusted by Julian’s mother—that is to say, the sister-in-law of the President—with a discretionary fund for Julian’s education, which could be tapped to compensate for my absence from the stables. And at a handsome rate. He quoted a number, and the objections from my parents grew less strenuous, and were finally whittled away to nothing. (I observed all this from a room away, through a gap in the door.)

Which is not to say there were no misgivings. Before I set off for the Estate the next day, this time to visit one of the Great Houses rather than to shovel ordure in the stables, my mother warned me not to entangle myself in the affairs of the high-born. I promised her I would cling to my Christian virtues—a hasty promise, less easily kept than I imagined.2

“It may not be your morals that are at risk,” she said. “The high-born conduct themselves by their own rules, and the games they play have mortal stakes. You do know that Julian’s father was hung?”

Julian had never spoken of it, and I had never pressed him, but it was a matter of public record. I repeated Sam’s assertion that Bryce Comstock had been innocent.

“He may well have been. That’s exactly the point. There has been a Comstock in the Presidency for the past thirty years, and the current Comstock is said to be jealous of his power. The only real threat to the reign of Julian’s uncle was the ascendancy of his brother, who made himself dangerously popular in the war with the Brazilians. I suspect Mr. Godwin is correct—Bryce Comstock was hanged not because he was a bad General but because he was a successful one.”

No doubt such scandals were possible. I had heard stories about life in New York City, where the President resided, that would curl a Cynic’s hair. But what could these things possibly have to do with me? Or even Julian? We were only boys.

Such was my naiveté.

1 I beg the reader’s patience if I detail matters that seem well-known. I indulge the possibility of a foreign audience, or a posterity to whom our present arrangements are not self-evident. Back to text

2 I beg the reader’s patience if I detail matters that seem well-known. I indulge the possibility of a foreign audience, or a posterity to whom our present arrangements are not self-evident. Back to text

And now, you can continue by listening to Chapter Three of Julian Comstock right here.

Sarah Waters vs. Forbidden Planet: A Ghost Story

This isn’t a formal review of Sarah Waters’ excellent new novel The Little Stranger, but you can consider it a strong recommendation.  If you haven’t read Sarah Waters, she’s a British writer with a superb command of voice, cultural history, and the art of storytelling.  Her first novel was Tipping the Velvet, an unputdownable tour of gender conventions and their bending in Victorian London.  Her latest, The Little Stranger, is a ghost story set in a crumbling manor house in post-World-War-II Warwickshire.

[More on ghosts, architecture, and the Krell below the fold…]

The Ruins of Tomorrowland

This week ABC broadcast a two-hour documentary special called Earth 2100 that used art, narrative and interviews to sketch a doomsday scenario for the next 90 years.  The problems the show enumerates—climate change, population pressure, and ever-fiercer competition for ever-scarcer resources—are inarguably real, though their consequences and potential solutions remain fiercely debated. 

What struck me, however, as I watched Bob Woodruff walk us through the collapse of civilization, was how far our consensus vision of the future has evolved.  Since when? Well, take as a baseline the year 1955, when TV viewers were exposed to another art-driven, scientifically-based panorama of the near future:  Disney’s Man in Space, broadcast in three parts (Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond) on the Sunday-night program then called Disneyland

[More Disney and apocalypse below the fold…]

Mathoms from the Time Closet (1)

Apologies to Gene Wolfe for borrowing the title of his story from Again, Dangerous Visions, but it’s a phrase that’s stuck with me for years.  I’m sure my family is tired of hearing me exclaim “Mathoms from the time closet!” whenever we drag out Christmas decorations, old newspapers, sneakers down at the heel, or any other of the other numberless objects that linger in limbo between daily use and the yard sale.  It seemed apt for this post, because I want to talk here about books, the mathomy sort of books: books old, obscure, out of print, or unjustly ignored; books that spring at you from dark places and take you by surprise.

Subject of today’s sermon is David Bradley’s No Place to Hide.  It isn’t science fiction, or fiction at all, but if you harbor a fondness for surreal Ballardian cold-war landscapes, or anything involving atom weapons, Bradley’s 1948 memoir is likely to ring your bell.

[More below the fold…]

Julian Comstock, Chapters 1 and 2 (Excerpt) is proud to present the intial chapters of the highly-anticipated Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson, the Hugo-winning author of Spin.

In the reign of President Deklan Comstock, a reborn United States is struggling back to prosperity. Over a century after the Efflorescence of Oil, after the Fall of the Cities, after the Plague of Infertility, after the False Tribulation, after the days of the Pious Presidents, the sixty stars and thirteen stripes wave from the plains of Athabaska to the national capital in New York City. In Colorado Springs, the Dominion sees to the nation’s spiritual needs. In Labrador, the Army wages war on the Dutch. America, unified, is rising once again.

As an added bonus, after you’re done reading, you can listen to both the first and the second chapters of Julian Comstock using the widget below the excerpt. 



A Pine-Bark Eden; or, the Caribou-Horn Train

(Christmas, 2172)

“And the same fires, which were kindled for Heretics, will serve for the destruction of Philosophers.”

—Hume (a Philosopher)


In October of 2172—the year the Election show came to town—Julian Comstock and I, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, rode to the Tip east of Williams Ford, where I came to possess a book, and Julian tutored me in one of his heresies.

There was a certain resolute promptness to the seasons in Athabaska in those days. Summers were long and hot, December brought snow and sudden freezes, and most years the River Pine ran freely by the first of March. Spring and fall were mere custodial functions, by comparison. Today might be the best we would get of autumn—the air brisk but not cold, the long sunlight unhindered by any cloud. It was a day we ought to have spent under Sam Godwin’s tutelage, reading chapters from the Dominion History of the Union or Otis’s War and How to Conduct It. But Sam wasn’t a heartless overseer, and the gentle weather suggested the possibility of an outing. So we went to the stables where my father worked, and drew horses, and rode out of the Estate with lunches of black bread and salt ham in our back-satchels.

At first we headed south along the Wire Road, away from the hills and the town. Julian and I rode ahead while Sam paced his mount behind us, his Pittsburgh rifle in the saddle holster at his side. There was no perceptible threat or danger, but Sam Godwin believed in preparedness—if he had a gospel, it was BE PREPARED; also, SHOOT FIRST; and probably, DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES. Sam, who was nearly fifty winters old, wore a dense brown beard stippled with white hairs, and was dressed in what remained presentable of his Army of the Californias uniform. Sam was nearly a father to Julian, Julian’s own true father having performed a gallows dance some years before, and lately Sam had been more vigilant than ever, for reasons he hadn’t discussed, at least with me.

Julian was my age (seventeen), and we were approximately the same height, but there the resemblance ended. Julian had been born an Aristo, or Eupatridian, as they say back east, while my family was of the leasing class. His face was smooth and pale; mine was dark and lunar, scarred by the same Pox that took my sister Flaxie to her grave in ‘63. His yellow hair was long and almost femininely clean; mine was black and wiry, cut to stubble by my mother with her sewing scissors, and I washed it once a week—more often in summer, when the creek behind the cottage warmed to a pleasant temperature. His clothes were linen and silk, brass-buttoned, cut to fit; my shirt and pants were course hempen cloth, sewn to a good approximation but clearly not the work of a New York tailor.

And yet we were friends, and had been friends for three years, ever since we met by chance in the hills west of the Duncan and Crowley Estate. We had gone there to hunt, Julian with his rifle and me with a simple muzzle-loader, and we crossed paths in the forest and got to talking. We both loved books, especially the boys’ books written by an author named Charles Curtis Easton.1I had been carrying a copy of Easton’s Against the Brazilians, illicitly borrowed from the Estate library—Julian recognized the title but vowed not to rat on me for possessing it, since he loved the book as much as I did and longed to discuss it with a fellow enthusiast—in short, he did me an unbegged favor; and we became fast friends despite our differences.

In those early days I hadn’t known how fond he was of Philosophy and such petty crimes as that. But I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered to me, if I had.

Today Julian turned east from the Wire Road and took us down a lane bordered by split-rail fences on which dense blackberry gnarls had grown up, between fields of wheat and gourds just lately harvested. Before long we passed the rude shacks of the Estate’s indentured laborers, whose near-naked children gawked at us from the dusty lane-side, and I deduced that we were headed for the Tip, because where else on this road was there to go?—unless we continued on for many hours more, all the way to the ruins of the old oil towns, left over from the days of the False Tribulation.

The Tip was located a distance from Williams Ford in order to prevent poaching and disorder. There was a strict pecking order to the Tip. It worked this way: professional scavengers hired by the Estate brought their pickings from ruined places to the Tip, which was a pine-fenced enclosure (a sort of stockade) in an open patch of grassland. There the newly-arrived goods were roughly sorted, and riders were dispatched to the Estate to make the high-born aware of the latest discoveries. Then various Aristos (or their trusted servants) rode out to claim the prime gleanings. The next day the leasing class would be allowed to sort through what was left; and after that, if anything remained, indentured laborers could rummage through it, if they calculated it was worthwhile to make the journey.

Every prosperous town had a Tip, though in the east it was sometimes called a Till, a Dump, or an Eebay.

Today we were lucky. A dozen wagonloads of scrounge had just arrived, and riders hadn’t yet been sent to notify the Estate. The gate of the enclosure was manned by an armed Reservist, who looked at us suspiciously until Sam announced the name of Julian Comstock. Then the guard briskly stepped aside, and we went inside the fence.

A chubby Tipman, eager to show off his bounty, hurried toward us as we dismounted and moored our horses. “Happy coincidence!” he cried. “Gentlemen!” Addressing mostly Sam by this remark, with a cautious smile for Julian and a disdainful sidelong glance at me. “Anything in particular you’re looking for?”

“Books,” said Julian, before Sam or I could answer.

“Books! Well—ordinarily, I set aside books for the Dominion Conservator…”

“This boy is a Comstock,” Sam said. “I don’t suppose you mean to balk him.”

The Tipman promptly reddened. “No, not at all—in fact we came across something in our digging—a sort of library in miniature—I’ll show you, if you like.”

That was intriguing, especially to Julian, who beamed as if he had been invited to a Christmas party; and we followed the stout Tipman to a freshly-arrived canvasback wagon, from which a shirtless laborer was tossing bundles into a stack beside a tent.

The twine-wrapped bales contained books—ancient books, wholly free of the Dominion Seal of Approval. They must have been more than a century old, for although they were faded it was obvious that they had once been colorful and expensively printed, not made of stiff brown paper like the Charles Curtis Easton books of modern times. They had not even rotted much. Their smell, under the cleansing Athabaska sunlight, was inoffensive.

“Sam!” Julian whispered ecstatically. He had already drawn his knife, and he began slicing through the twine.

“Calm down,” said Sam, who wasn’t an enthusiast like Julian.

“Oh, but—Sam! We should have brought a cart!”

“We can’t carry away armloads, Julian, nor would we ever be allowed to. The Dominion scholars will have all this, and most of it will be locked up in their Archive in New York City, if it isn’t burned. Though I expect you can get away with a volume or two if you’re discreet about it.”

The Tipman said, “These are from Lundsford.” Lundsford was the name of a ruined town twenty miles or so to the southeast. The Tipman leaned toward Sam Godwin and said: “We thought Lundsford had been mined out a decade ago. But even a dry well may freshen. One of my workers spotted a low place off the main excavation—a sort of sink-hole: the recent rain had cut it through. Once a basement or warehouse of some kind. Oh, sir, we found good china there, and glasswork, and many more books than this…most hopelessly mildewed, but some had been wrapped in a kind of oilcoth, and were lodged under a fallen ceiling…there had been a fire, but they survived it…”

“Good work, Tipman,” Sam Godwin said with palpable disinterest.

“Thank you, sir! Perhaps you could remember me to the men of the Estate?” And he gave his name (which I have forgotten).

Julian knelt amidst the compacted clay and rubble of the Tip, lifting up each book in turn and examining it with wide eyes. I joined him in his exploration, though I had never much liked the Tip. It had always seemed to me a haunted place. And of course it was haunted—it existed in order to be haunted—that is, to house the revenants of the past, ghosts of the False Tribulation startled out of their century-long slumber. Here was evidence of the best and worst of the people who had inhabited the Years of Vice and Profligacy. Their fine things were very fine, their glassware especially, and it was a straitened Aristo indeed who did not sit down to an antique table-setting rescued from some ruin or other. Sometimes you might find useful knives or other tools at the Tip. Coins were common. The coins were never gold or silver, and were too plentiful to be worth much, individually, but they could be worked into buttons and such adornments. One of the high-born back at the Estate owned a saddle studded with copper pennies all from the year 2032—I had often been enlisted to polish it, and disliked it for that reason.

Here too was the trash and inexplicable detritus of the old times: “plastic,” gone brittle with sunlight or soft with the juices of the earth; bits of metal blooming with rust; electronic devices blackened by time and imbued with the sad inutility of a tensionless spring; engine parts, corroded; copper wire rotten with verdigris; aluminum cans and steel barrels eaten through by the poisonous fluids they had once contained—and so on, almost ad infinitum.

Here as well were the in-between things, the curiosities, as intriguing and as useless as seashells. (”Put down that rusty trumpet, Adam, you’ll cut your lip and poison your blood!”—my mother, when we had visited the Tip many years before I met Julian. There had been no music in the trumpet anyway—its bell was bent and corroded through.)

More than that, though, there hovered above the Tip (any Tip) the uneasy knowledge that all these things, fine or corrupt, had outlived their makers—had proved more imperishable, in the long run, than flesh or spirit; for the souls of the Secular Ancients are almost certainly not first in line for Resurrection.

And yet, these books…they tempted eye and mind alike. Some were decorated with beautiful women in various degrees of undress. I had already sacrificed my claim to spotless virtue with certain young women at the Estate, whom I had recklessly kissed; at the age of seventeen I considered myself a jade, or something like one; but these images were so frank and impudent they made me blush and look away.

Julian ignored them, as he had always been invulnerable to the charms of women. He preferred the more densely-written material. He had already set aside a spotted and discolored Textbook of Biology. He found another volume almost as large, and handed it to me, saying, “Here, Adam, try this—you might find it enlightening.”

I inspected it skeptically. The book was called A History of Mankind in Space.

“The moon again,” I said.

“Read it for yourself.”

“Tissue of lies, I’m sure.”

“With photographs.”

“Photographs prove nothing. Those people could do anything with photographs.”

“Well, read it anyway,” said Julian.

In truth the idea excited me. We had had this argument many times, especially on autumn nights when the moon hung low and ponderous on the horizon. People have walked there, Julian would say, pointing at that celestial body. The first time he made the claim I laughed at him; the second time I said, “Yes, certainly: I once climbed there myself, on a greased rainbow—” But he had been serious.

Oh, I had heard these stories. Who hadn’t? Men on the moon. What surprised me was that someone as well-educated as Julian would believe them.

“Just take the book,” he insisted.

“What: to keep?”

“Certainly to keep.”

“Believe I will,” I muttered, and I stuck the object in my back-satchel and felt both proud and guilty. What would my father say, if he knew I was reading literature without a Dominion stamp? What would my mother make of it? (Of course I wouldn’t tell them.)

At this point I backed off and found a grassy patch a little away from the rubble, where I could sit and eat lunch while Julian went on sorting through the old texts. Sam Godwin came and joined me, brushing a spot on a charred timber so he could sit without soiling his uniform, such as it was.

“He loves those musty old books,” I said, making conversation.

Sam was often taciturn—the very picture of an old veteran—but today he nodded and spoke familiarly. “He’s learned to love them, and I helped to teach him. His father wanted him to know more of the world than the Dominion histories of it. But I wonder if that was wise, in the long run. He loves his books too dearly, I think, or gives them too much credence. It might be they’ll kill him one of these days.”

“How, Sam? By the apostasy of them?”

“He debates with the Dominion clergy. Just last week I found him arguing with Ben Kreel2about God, and history, and such abstractions. Which is precisely what he must not do, if he means to survive the next few years.”

“Why? What threatens him?”

“The jealousy of the powerful,” said Sam.

But he would say no more on the subject, only stroked his graying beard, and glanced occasionally and uneasily to the east.

* * *

Eventually Julian had to drag himself from his nest of books with only a pair of prizes: the Introduction to Biology and another volume called Geology of North America. Time to go, Sam insisted; better to be back at the Estate by supper, so we wouldn’t be missed; soon enough the official pickers would arrive to cull what we had left.

But I have said that Julian tutored me in one of his apostasies. This is how it happened. As we headed home we stopped at the height of a hill overlooking the town of Williams Ford and the River Pine as it cut through the low places on its way from the mountains of the West. From here we had a fine view of the steeple of the Dominion Hall, and the revolving water-wheels of the grist mill and the lumber mill, all blue in the long light and hazy with coal-smoke, and far to the south a railway bridge spanning the gorge of the Pine like a suspended thread. Go inside, the weather seemed to proclaim; it’s fair but it won’t be fair for long; bolt the window, stoke the fire, boil the apples; winter’s due. We rested our horses on that windy hilltop as the afternoon softened toward evening, and Julian found a blackberry bramble where the berries were still plump and dark, and we plucked some of these and ate them.

That was the world I had been born into. It was an autumn like every autumn I could remember, drowsy in its familiarity. But I couldn’t help thinking of the Tip and its ghosts. Maybe those people, the people who had lived through the Efflorescence of Oil and the False Tribulation, had felt about their homes and neighborhoods just as I felt about Williams Ford. They were ghosts to me, but they must have seemed real enough to themselves—must have been real; had not realized they were ghosts; and did that I mean I was also a ghost, a revenant to haunt some future generation?

Julian saw my expression and asked what was troubling me. I told him my thoughts.

“Now you’re thinking like a Philosopher,” he said, grinning.

“No wonder they’re such a miserable brigade, then.”

“Unfair, Adam—you’ve never seen a Philosopher in your life.” Julian believed in Philosophers, and claimed to have met one or two.

“Well, I imagine they’re miserable, if they go around thinking of themselves as ghosts and such.”

“It’s the condition of all things,” Julian said. “This blackberry, for example.” He plucked one and held it in the pale palm of his hand. “Has it always looked like this?”

“Obviously not,” I said, impatiently.

“Once it was a tiny green bud of a thing, and before that it was part of the substance of the bramble, which before that was a seed inside a blackberry—”

“And round and round for all eternity.”

“But no, Adam, that’s the point. The bramble, and that tree over there, and the gourds in the field, and the crow circling over them—they’re all descended from ancestors that didn’t quite resemble them. A blackberry or a crow is a form, and forms change over time, the way clouds change shape as they travel across the sky.”

“Forms of what?”

“Of DNA,” Julian said earnestly. (The Biology he had picked out of the Tip was not the first Biology he had read.)

“Julian,” Sam said, “I once promised this boy’s parents you wouldn’t corrupt him.”

“I’ve heard of DNA,” I said. “It’s the life force of the secular ancients. And it’s a myth.”

“Like men walking on the moon?”

“Exactly like.”

“And who’s your authority on this? Ben Kreel? The Dominion History of the Union?”

“Everything changes except DNA? That’s a peculiar argument even from you, Julian.”

“It would be, if I were making it. But DNA isn’t changeless. It struggles to remember itself, but it never remembers itself perfectly. Remembering a fish, it imagines a lizard. Remembering a horse, it imagines a hippopotamus. Remembering an ape, it imagines a man.”

“Julian!” Sam was insistent now. “That’s enough.”

“You sound like a Darwinist,” I said.

“Yes,” Julian admitted, smiling in spite of his unorthodoxy, the autumn sun turning his face the color of penny copper. “I suppose I do.”

* * *

That night I lay in bed until I was reasonably certain both my parents were asleep. Then I rose, lit a lamp, and took the new (or rather very old) History of Mankind in Space from where I had hidden it behind a pinewood chest.

I leafed through the brittle pages of it. I didn’t read the book. I would read it, but tonight I was too weary to pay close attention, and in any case I wanted to savor the words (lies and fictions though they might be), not rush through them like a glutton. Tonight I meant only to sample it—to look at the pictures, in other words.

There were dozens of photographs, and each one captured my attention with fresh marvels and implausibilities. One of them showed, or purported to show, men standing on the surface of the moon, just as Julian had described.

The men in the picture were Americans. They wore flags stitched to the shoulders of their moon clothing, an archaic version of our own flag, with something less than the customary sixty stars. Their clothing was white and ridiculously bulky, like the winter clothes of the Inuit, and they wore helmets with golden visors that hid their faces. I supposed it must be very cold on the moon, if explorers required such cumbersome protection. They must have arrived in winter. However, there was no ice or snow in the neighborhood. The moon seemed to be little more than a desert—dry as a stick and dusty as a Tipman’s wardrobe.

I cannot say how long I stared at this picture, puzzling over it. It might have been an hour or more. Nor can I accurately describe how it made me feel—larger than myself, but lonely, too, as if I had grown as tall as the clouds and lost sight of every familiar thing. By the time I closed the book I saw that the moon had risen outside my window—the real moon, I mean; a harvest moon, fat and orange, half-hidden behind wind-tattered clouds.

I found myself wondering whether it was truly possible that men had visited that celestial orb. Whether, as the pictures implied, they had ridden there on rockets, rockets a thousand times larger than our familiar Independence Day fireworks. But if men had visited the moon, why hadn’t they stayed there? Was it so inhospitable a place that no one wanted to remain?

Or perhaps they had stayed, and were living there still. If the moon was such a cold place, I reasoned, people living on its surface would be forced to build fires to keep warm. There seemed to be no wood on the moon, judging by the photographs, so they must have resorted to coal or peat. I went to the window and examined the moon minutely for any sign of campfires, pit mining, or other lunar industry. But I could see none. It was only the moon, mottled and changeless. I blushed at my own gullibility, replaced the book in its hiding place, chased all these recreant thoughts from my mind with a hasty prayer, and eventually fell asleep.



1Whom I would meet when he was sixty years old, and I was a newcomer to the book trade—but I anticipate myself. Back to text

2Our local representative of the Council of the Dominion; in effect, the Mayor of the town. Back to text



And now, you can continue by listening  to Chapter Two of Julian Comstock right here.

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