Aug 9, 2009

YetiReview: Julian Comstock

21 Words or Less: A captivating (though fictional) biography of an influential man in a future America that looks and feels more like the past.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Good: Extremely high “readability” factor with prose that jumps right off the page, a setting that is interesting, original, and frighteningly plausible, plot is unpredictable but also well structured, very complex three-dimensional characters

The Bad: Some of the “themes” come across as heavy-handed, occasional pacing problems

For years, scientists have warned of the End of Oil, the point at which our oil based civilization will no longer be able to function. In Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, Robert Charles Wilson takes the world to the End of Oil and beyond; depicting a 22nd century America that has emerged from the False Tribulation transformed. Julian Comstock’s America has adopted Christianity as its official religion and the Church’s Dominion is one of the most powerful entities in American politics along side the military and the now inheritable presidency. Not to mention that the lack of oil and religious censorship has regressed America into an agricultural nation at a technological level on par with that of the Civil War. Robert Charles Wilson has concocted one heck of a setting and he slowly reveals it’s intricacies over the first third or so of the book. He also manages to communicate all of this to the reader without resorting to “infodumping” (or at least without infodumping awkwardly enough feel unnatural). It’s not only well constructed and delivered, it also feels original in a way that so many contemporary book fail to convey.

When I sat down to write this review, I knew I would have trouble writing it. Robert Charles Wilson has concocted a fictional biography by a fictional author and succeeded wildly at it. Reading it felt like reading a biography in the respect that you couldn’t really take issue with the plot. For example, if you were reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, you couldn’t really judge the “plot.” Whatever happened simply happened. This book portrays the life of Julian Comstock and the influential moments along the way as told by a close friend who accompanied him through most of the journey. I think the best complement I can give this book is that it feels authentic.

Wilson does this by framing the story as a biography written by Julian’s lifelong friend, Adam Hazzard, who had the good fortune to know the titular character when they were kids and the misfortune of getting swept up into a world of war, political intrigue, and love in Julian’s wake. Adam’s narration is extremely easy to read and his character’s optimism makes the story lively and upbeat even when dealing with the darkness of war or the maddening eccentricities that Julian develops. In fact, I felt that Adam’s story was as interesting, if not more so than Julian’s. While Julian is destined to do great things, he is also flawed in very intricate but frustrating ways. It’s much easier to root for Adam with his straightforward motivations of love, friendship, and creativity.

That’s not to say that Wilson’s narrative choices are perfect. A few times character development is handicapped by the limitations of Adam’s perspective. At certain points in the story, Adam is distanced (sometimes physically, sometimes not) from Julian and as a result there are passages of time during which Julian’s story is largely neglected due to a lack of information. While Wilson refrains from using awkward storytelling techniques to supply the missing information, this uneven pacing can be frustrating because these periods are also some of the important in terms of understanding the evolution of Julian’s character.

In much the same way, I felt like the portions of the book that were the weakest were the points at which the narrator delved into descriptions that felt thematically heavy. While it might have felt weighted simply because the characters within the story were attempting to convey their own messages, during these sections it was easy to confuse the themes the characters were focused on with Wilson’s own personal agenda (if he had one). Julian as a character has a strong stance against the logic and knowledge fearing Dominion which could be simply his character or it could be Wilson vocalizing some type of personal disdain with the prevalence of science-phobic Christian fundamentalists in today’s America. During a few select sequences, most notably scenes featuring the two artistic “movies”, the personal views of Julian Comstock, the naviete of Adam’s narration, and the politically charged lyrics and symbolism of the scenes themselves combine to form an ambiguity that seems out of place when compared to the rest of the book. It's not necessarily preachy but it could be interpreted as such and this occassionally interrupts an otherwise immersive story.

It’s important to note that I still rated the book at 4.5 stars. It’s easy to focus on the parts of the book that stood out as problematic but the vast majority of the book felt seamless and read extremely well. The story progressed as a decent pace and elements that might have seemed to be out of place tangents at first would come back to significantly influence the story in unexpected ways. And it wasn’t just the story of Julian and Adam that captivated; Wilson’s portrait of a future America is so fascinating and original that if he penned a history textbook of 22nd century America, I would have no problem reading it cover to cover. American kings, Christian powerbrokers, and steam engines, what’s not to love? While I’m not a huge fan of returning to a world once the original story is complete, I feel like Julian Comstock is but a drop in the bucket of the storytelling potential present in Wilson’s future America. To be sure, Julian Comstock is one of the best books I’ve read this year and without a doubt the most original in setting and structure.

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