What I’m Reading: Julian Comstock

In Books on December 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I came to Robert Charles Wilson’s ninth novel, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America somewhat reluctantly. I’ve never been particularly entranced by his style. It’s not that it’s too cerebral – more that his characters seem like chess pieces in a game played by his broad ideas. Now, this is a generic trapping of science fiction, at least in outline. I typically don’t mind it, however – I’m a fan of the “harder” stuff like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (if not his truly awful Science in the Capital series) and Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder (if you want a brain-buster, try this book) – and so I’m used to characters being subordinated to the grand march of theories or concepts.

But in Spin, Wilson’s Hugo Award-winning novel, I just got bored and lost. Here’s why: Wilson apparently loves to split his characters into one of two camps, those who are “in the know” and those who are “along for the ride.” These last characters partake of the picaresque adventurers or companion to the genius.  Their relative naiveté is an obvious life-saver for the reader, who is given sympathetic proximity through the eyes of someone who, like them, doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Now, this division is all fine and good on its own as a narrative device, but I found the habit tiresome and pedantic in Spin. Tyler Dupree may have had his own interesting journey – particularly in his troubled relationship with his parents – but Jason Lawton’s position of privilege was always too anchored to the essentials of the overarching plot. Dupree’s romantic obsession with Jason’s sister Diane was always more interesting than his friendship with the boy-genius. Wilson always seems uncertain what part Dupree is to play in the apocalyptic events that face the Earth: sometimes he’s a lynchpin, and other times, he’s on the sidelines. It’s a rather unsatisfying aesthetic experience, and is quite mechanical in its revelation of knowledge.

Happily, the author seems to have perfected the narrative formula in Julian Comstock. I’m only 200 pages in, but the retrospective frame told through Adam Hazzard is really great. Hazzard is much more convincing a naïve than Dupree, partly because of his sheltered home country and religious upbringing. I’m not entirely convinced of the social hierarchy that allows him to become friends with the future-hero Julian Comstock (aka “Julian Commongold”), but rather than dwelling on the accidents of fate that bring them together, we’re instead thrown into the rough-and-tumble West of the 22nd century. And it’s a really fun journey so far.

Wilson’s style is a deliberate throwback to 19th century frontier fiction, but he combines it with elements of post-apocalyptic literature that remind me of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Picture a mix of Deadwood, Tom Jones and The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s punchy and occasionally quite funny, a quality often missing in his other works. Rather than dwelling too much on the glories of the past, Wilson creates a believable and fragile society determined to forge its own history. And this is probably my favorite quality of the novel so far: the world of Julian Comstock is one that feels realized and alive within a plausible historical continuum. Fans of Can Lit will find lots to love here, too: the bulk of the action (so far, at least) takes place in Quebec and Labrador which, along with the rest of Canada, has been absorbed into a new and fractured America. Regional differences between the East and West coasts of North America persist, and the attention to detail in the inhabitants of these places feels like an authentically Canadian concern. History buffs will love to see Montreal and Quebec under siege yet again (though this time by Dutch-German forces and not the English). (Wilson is himself a Canadian born in the United States.)

I’ll post what I think of the ending later, but I’m really enjoying it so far. I’m not sure it will convince me to return to finish the Spin trilogy, but, taken on its own terms, it’s worth a look.

  1. You’ve sold me with the comparisons to “Riddley Walker” and “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (which just may be my favourite post-apocalyptic novel). As long as you can promise me it’s not “Oryx and Crake”, I’ll give it a go. Man, I hate that book.

  2. There’s very little of Oryx and Crake here. I didn’t care for that one either. Didactic even by Atwood’s standards.

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