Review: Robert Charles Wilson turns from space to steampunk in Julian Comstock

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

In Julian Comstock, the latest novel by Hugo-award-winning author Robert Charles Wilson, the president of the United States lives in a drafty residence lit by oil lights and guarded by cavalry soldiers. The head and torch of the Statue of Liberty are on display in New York City, where rich folks can drive by to ogle the spectacle in their carriages. The best-selling novels of the day concern spunky young lads battling pirates in the Pacific isles. The mighty European powers disrespect America and dare to tread on her sovereign soil.

Ah-ha, you exclaim! After writing about various far futures, Wilson's gone steampunk!

Well, yes and no. This is, without dispute, a keenly speculative novel of the future, taking place mainly between 2172 and 2176. So on one hand it's a decidedly brilliant and convincing projection of the world's likely destiny. But on the other, it's also a bit of a steampunk romp, a loving look "backward" at the American character and spirit, national attributes that remain fixed forever.

Basically, the technology and culture of the early 21st century—our era—have at some indeterminate point been brought down by a passel of problems, ranging from new plagues to the end of cheap oil. After this harrowing False Tribulation, the planet is left with a vastly reduced population, reordered political arrangements (America is now made up of 60 states, which incorporate most of Canada), and a junk heap technology. The rulers of America are the president, the Senate, and the Dominion, the overseers of organized religion.

Into this rich, believable, tangible-as-an-anvil scenario ride young Julian Comstock, heir to the presidency, and his lowborn pal, Adam Hazzard. Through Adam's eyes we see four years of glorious adventure and danger, romance and dreams. An aspiring writer, Adam is a brilliant creation, a kind of Sancho Panza to Julian's Don Quixote. (In his naïve optimism, Adam also recalls Ebenezer Cooke from John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor [1960], whose colonial ambiance is similar.)

Mixing humor and pathos, retro pleasures and melancholy SF losses (Adam daydreams over an ancient book titled History of Mankind in Space), this novel is a poignant, entrancing, thought-provoking "Future History Via the Past" that stands shoulder to shoulder with classics like Earth Abides (1949), The Long Tomorrow (1955) and A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960).

And what's the most convoluted "easter egg" tribute to a past post-apocalyptic masterpiece in this book? Adam's wife, a major figure in the story, is named Calyxa Blake. Edgar Pangborn wrote a wonderful novel that is the spiritual ancestor of Julian Comstock, titled Davy (1964). But Pangborn also gave us The Trial of Callista Blake (1961). And Calyxa does indeed undergo a trial of sorts at the hands of the Dominion.