Monday, September 14, 2009

If Jules Verne Had Read Karl Marx

Robert Charles Wilson has made a considerable name for himself in the science-fiction community.

His book Spin, published in 2005, garnered numerous accolades and awards, including the Hugo in 2006.

This year Tor released Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, which is the first Wilson book I've read ... but certainly not the last.

Wilson's America is emerging from decades of catastrophe: the end of oil and other resources; the death of major cities; infertility and strife among the populace; and a succession of Presidents with unchecked power (the Supreme Court no longer exists).

Against this backdrop, a fundamentalist strain of Christianity stands as the government's official religion, and its military remains engaged in perpetual land war with the Dutch.

Society is starkly divided among aristocratic property owners, a leasing class of men and women in the hand-trades, and indentured laborers in various states of destitution. Horse and rail are the primary modes of transportation; education is a privilege for the wealthy few.

Julian Comstock is a young Aristo living hidden and in exile, the nephew of the sitting President, a totalitarian leader responsible for Comstock's father's death.

Traveling under an assumed name with friends, he is conscripted for the army at gunpoint. In time, Comstock distinguishes himself in battle and forges a following that may (or may not) change the direction of the country.

This is no mere boy-into-man revenge tale, however. Wilson, through Comstock, probes the nature of social hierarchies, power, knowledge, and personal freedom.

Besides steadfast SF readers, fans of Civil War history and of literature tinged with an 18th- and 19th-century atmosphere may find much to delight them here.

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One scene in Julian Comstock depicts men digging through ruins for mouldering books, which Aristos quickly lay claim to.

This act of recovery put me in mind of scenes from my favorite dystopian novel: Russel Hobahn's Riddley Walker.

No other writer has so cleverly used language to imagine the loss of human knowledge and our descendants' futile struggle to recapture it.

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