In the tradition of popular American author Charles Curtis Easton, Julian Comstock has a villain, women in distress, songs, even a giraffe. But though it contains all the elements of a successful 22nd-century adventure story, at almost 700 pages excitement is sparse, and the characters too thin (and their fates too assured) to be thoroughly engaging.
Set in the 2170s after the collapse of our current digital and diesel infrastructure, the world is in the early stages of a new industrial revolution. Guns abound, but trains are still uncommon in the west, and radio hasn’t been rediscovered yet. Artifacts from before the False Tribulation are confiscated or banned by the Dominion, a religious organization that works in tandem with the United States government to prepare for the arrival of heaven on Earth. There’s no mention of slavery, but indentured servitude is rampant, with fathers passing on their debts to their sons while aristocrats like the Comstock family remain in power for generations.
It’s a fascinating but somewhat empty vision. As told by Adam Hazzard, an author and personal friend of Julian Comstock (himself son of President Deklan the Conqueror), it’s assumed the reader is intimately familiar with the events that led up to this future. Equally frustrating, the book also supposes the reader knows the territories at stake in America’s ongoing war with the Dutch. There are some geographical hints, but it’s difficult to become invested in a pissing match over unspecified regions of Labrador. It’s understandable given the Dominion’s influence that Adam wouldn’t know the true history of the so-called Secular Ancients, but a map of America’s disputed boundaries would have been appreciated.
Adam chronicles Julian’s rise in popularity through these conflicts, his installment as President, and his inevitable fall. With the Dominion in power, it’s clear from the early chapters that if Julian’s imperious personality won’t be death of him, than his sexuality will. In the end, his decision to force what many consider heresies on the American public causes his ouster. It’s a bit much to accept, especially since Julian had previously been so calculating, to believe he would ignore his presidential duties to focus on making a movie about the life of Charles Darwin and place his lover in the title role. But then again, he also conceded to making it a musical and adding pirates.
If only the book had more of those moments than military campaigns. There’s a lot of charm in this narrative. Robert Charles Wilson adopts a portentous, archaic writing style for Adam’s voice that’s a pleasure to read. But the hand-wringing plot pales in comparison to the unfulfilled promise of the world’s scope, the wry humor of Adam’s own experiences as a writer, and his friendship with an illiterate soldier. If Wilson ever returns to this world to flesh it out, I hope he takes Adam’s own self-doubt to heart and adds an octopus to the story for good measure.