Robert Charles Wilson explains why he destroyed America in Julian Comstock

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Robert Charles Wilson's major new novel, Julian Comstock: A Story of the 22nd Century, envisions a future, post-catastrophe North America in many ways reverted to the early 19th century in technology, lifestyle and a theocratic religious outlook. Correspondingly, the book is quite old-fashioned in style, recalling Victorian and even 18th-century novels in its tone, picaresque quality and indeed its very title.

Wilson remarks of this approach of looking backward and forward simultaneously, "The past regarding the present from the future—that's a literary effect only science fiction can achieve, and that's what I was aiming for, a kind of simultaneous triple perspective. We think of the past as quaint and the present as mundane and the future as, well, futuristic—but so did our great-grandparents, and so will our great-grandchildren. 'All times have been modern,' as the French composer Nadia Boulanger said."

Wilson's narrator, the naively earnest and engaging Adam Hazzard, acts as biographer to his friend and hero, the title character, Julian. Adam's storytelling manner recalls quite a few precursors from classic American literature, but Wilson had a specific model in mind, "the now-forgotten American writer Oliver Optic (a pen name for William Taylor Adams). Optic was a best-selling author of what we would now call 'young adult' novels, from the 1850s to his death in 1897. Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, called his books 'optical delusions.' But he was a household name among literate families, and he's a charming, funny, progressive and well-intentioned writer who deserves to be better remembered. The books are fascinating time capsules, and I went through a shelf or two of them while I was writing Julian Comstock."

Wilson based the outline and some of the details of his tale of Julian, the rebel prince, on the life of a famous and controversial historical figure, the fourth-century Roman emperor Julian the Apostate. "The story of the emperor Julian and his attempt to restore paganism to Christianized Rome has had tremendous resonance for all kinds of free-thinkers. It pops up occasionally in American literature, too, Gore Vidal's novel Julian (1962) being the most recent and historically rigorous example. More obscurely, J.W. de Forests's 1875 satire on congressional corruption, Playing the Mischief, featured a senator named Julian who scandalized supporters with his unashamed agnosticism. If you're talking about the role of religion in a republic, you tend to reach for Julian the Apostate. And the story fit neatly into the kind of complex, late Roman culture I envisioned for post-collapse America."

Julian Comstock, then, is very much about a lively, complex intellect coming up against dogmatic institutionalized religion, in an at-times theocratically repressive, as well as regressive, future America. But the book isn't overly judgmental on this topic. Wilson says, "I wanted to portray religion, and specifically Christianity, as something that evolves over time. No first-century Christian would recognize what happens in a contemporary megachurch on Sunday morning, for instance. The result tends to look like satire on the page, but it really reflects the simple truth that religion is as fluid and unpredictable as any other human institution."

As to the nature of the collapse behind the situation in Julian Comstock, Wilson emphasizes both the plausibility of the demographically and technologically depleted America he portrays and the fact that he is not engaging in prophecy. "There's no shortage of experts who will tell you that a population of 8 or 9 billion people is insupportable in the face of diminishing resources. We're already a groaningly heavy burden on the planet's carrying capacity. In Julian I chose to make the worst-case assumptions—both that the problems we face are enormous and that our response to them will be ineffectual and backward-looking.

"On the other hand, science fiction is speculative, not predictive. Maybe we'll be clever and quick enough to dodge the climate-change and peak-oil bullets. But I was interested in this worst-case scenario precisely because it's not a full-blown world-ending apocalypse—even radical climate change and oil depletion still leave us with some kind of human population and culture. That's why the near-theocracy of Julian's time talks about 'the False Tribulation.' It looked like the end of the world, but it wasn't. In that sense, I guess you could think of Julian Comstock as a sort of ironic inversion of Tim LaHaye's fundamentalist Left Behind series."

Of course, any post-apocalyptic SF novel will pay homage to previous landmarks of the subgenre, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz and Earth Abides. "Homage, certainly. Julian isn't a critique of those books, but you can't write that kind of story without being aware of its antecedents. Paul Di Filippo's SCI FIi Wire review mentions what he calls an 'easter egg' tribute to Edgar Pangborn in the name of Calyxa Blake. He's right, and there are others. The narrator even gets a glimpse of one of my own favorite apocalyptic movies, 1959's On the Beach."

Wilson wrote a sequel (with another to come) to his recent novel Spin, but reckons he'll leave Julian Comstock a singleton. "Much as I'd love to dive back into the world of Julian Comstock and Adam Hazzard, I think this one ought to stand alone."