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Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Part 3

[And so it goes on. Having set out my stall and considered Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, I now give a little more attention to Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson. Again, I pick up  directly from where I left off last time (which, if you remember, was a passage discussing the Civil War in Priest’s novel). Now, onward …]

The Civil War plays a similar symbolic role in Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock; the circumstances are very different but the overall effect is the same. Of course this time around it is not the actual Civil War we are talking about, because Julian Comstock takes place in the 22nd century. Despite the future setting, however, this is a steampunk world: the oil has run out and the United States has regressed to a social and technological level roughly equivalent to the mid-nineteenth century. The population is mostly rural, living in isolated settlements; travel is horse-powered with the occasional steam train for longer journeys; ships are wooden-hulled and wind-powered. The belligerent United States has recently won a war in Mexico (yes, I know, another Civil War echo), and is now engaged in a long and inconclusive war against the Dutch being fought out in Canada. But the blue uniforms of the American troops, the details of camp life, even what we glimpse of strategy and tactics, all recall accounts of the Civil War (I could go to my collection of Civil War histories and pull down any number of books that echo what Wilson includes in his novel). This echo is deliberate and is reinforced by the voice Wilson employs here (which I’ll come back to in a moment), as in the Priest novel, it tells us that this is an America that has lost, or perhaps more appropriately abandoned, the moral, economic and social advances that came in the wake of the Civil War. We are, once again, in an America without optimism, without success.

This is, as I say, reinforced by the narrative voice, which is that of Adam Hazzard, a would-be popular novelist of no very great literary or stylistic ability. Think James Fennimore Cooper, or, perhaps more appropriately, Ned Buntline, someone who would not allow the truth to get in the way of the romance or the heroism (actually, the more I think about it, the more Buntline seems a good model for Adam).  And he writes in the clotted, round-about manner of a nineteenth century writer; a style that causes Wilson some problems, since he also wants to be modern and include sex. However, our narrator must remain innocently unaware of the title character’s homosexuality, which makes for a novel trying to be both explicit and coy about sex, while all is written in a style that does not allow any place for sex at all; the worst thing about this novel is the literary contortionism that Wilson must put himself through in order to juggle these various contradictions. Indeed, were it not for the awkward sexual content and the explicit subtitle, “A Story of 22nd-Century America”, it would be easy to imagine that this novel is set in some version of the 19th century.

In this way, the very setting of the novel represents the end point of a tragedy. From the mire of the Civil War the United States propelled itself to greatness, but has now fallen back to its starting point once more. And nothing in the novel gives us any hope that the growth might one day resume. None of these three novels leaves much room for hope. Against this tragic backdrop, Wilson fashions a story that is itself a tragedy. (One of the things that distinguish these three novels from each other is the character of the story they relate against surprisingly similar backdrops: Priest has a straightforward adventure plot; Wilson’s novel is a tragedy; and Bacigalupi has written a bildungsroman.) Of course, we are meant to see the tragedy of Julian Comstock as being the tragedy of America (though in that respect his homosexuality seems an unnecessary distraction).

Julian and the narrator are boyhood friends, growing up together in a rural community miles from anywhere. Julian is a member of the local gentry, Adam is far lower on the social scale; as is the way in such stories, Julian’s easy-going friendship with and loyalty to someone far below his class is meant to show that he is one of the good guys. Julian is, in fact, the nephew of the perpetual president, a man who behaves like a medieval monarch forever afraid that some close family member will usurp his throne (there are some ways in which Wilson’s United States has regressed far beyond the nineteenth century). Julian’s father, the popular victor in Mexico, has already been assassinated, which is why Julian has been secreted in this out of the way place. When the war in Canada starts going badly (the president depriving his generals of the resources they need for victory in case they use them against him), a draft is initiated which Julian fears is meant to put him in a position where he might be killed, so the two friends run away. After a cross-country steam train journey reminiscent of the travels of hobos in the Depression of the 1930s, they end up joining the army anyway, with Julian signing up under the pseudonym of Julian Commongold. Once in Canada, they see how ill-organised the army is, but in battle Julian proves to be extraordinarily brave and helps win the day.

Adam, meanwhile, has encountered a drunken journalist who encourages him to practice being an author by writing up his experience of the battle. Since his taste in literature has been entirely shaped by the highly coloured work of a popular novelist, Charles Curtis Easton (think Frank Reade or G.A. Henty or, to show you the way my mind works, Fellowes Kraft in John Crowley’s Aegypt (1987-2007)), this account is very romantic and emphasizes Julian’s heroism. Unknown to him, the journalist appropriates this account and uses it as his own report on the battle. Further conflicts happen, further examples of Julian’s heroism, further colourful accounts appropriated as journalism. Then the two, along with Adam’s new wife (a wonderfully feisty Canadian who I always hoped would have a much more active role to play in the subsequent action than she in fact did), get the chance to return to New York. Only as they land to a hero’s welcome do they discover that Adam’s accounts have been published and have turned Commongold into a national celebrity, and in the same moment the true identity of the hero is revealed. This means that Julian is too famous for the president to act against him, but then the war in Canada takes another bad turn it is natural to call on the new hero to lead a force. Naturally everything goes wrong, but Julian is coolly and inventively able to extract most of his force from the trap. This is the trigger for a coup that deposes the old president and puts Julian in his place.

The trajectory of the tragedy has now reached its apex and events must commence their inevitable slide. Behind all that has happened so far is another conflict, less bloody but far more crucial to what this novel is about: the struggle between the secular and the religious. For Cherie Priest there was one person who instigated the collapse, which therefore relieves everyone else of moral responsibility. For Paolo Bacigalupi, the collapse is a natural event with the fall out of which his characters must cope as best they can, they take no moral responsibility for cause of the collapse only for how they deal with its aftermath. But for Robert Charles Wilson there is collective responsibility, everyone, effectively, is guilty. The end of oil, which triggered the technological collapse, may be as natural an event as it is in Bacigalupi, but that is as nothing besides the moral collapse of the country. Power in this future America is split between the secular government of a (very bad) president, and the religious government of a church militant. The church is autocratic, puritanical, dictates every aspect of everyone’s life, is more powerful than the secular government, and the people as a whole are complicit in this power. Since we see enough to know that the church played a major part in bringing about the current degraded state of the country, we know that the population of the United States as a whole shares moral responsibility for the collapse.

Julian’s tragic fall begins when he takes on the church. This should not be an occasion for tragedy but rather for heroic achievement, except that he is the archetypal hero with a tragic flaw. Partly this is his (homosexual) relationship with a renegade preacher; but more significantly it is his obsession with the novel’s piece of fantastical technology. Yes, this is a typical steampunk novel: there are no dirigibles, but there are steam trains; there are cool costumes (it’s not just the military uniforms that echo the Civil War era); and there’s one fantastical bit of technology. In this instance it is the cinema. Not the cinema as we might understand it, but a rather delightful steampunk version in which a silent film is projected and live actors read the script, and in some curious echo of Bollywood no film, no matter how serious, is complete without songs. Julian becomes obsessed with the idea of making a film about Charles Darwin, whose teachings are prohibited by the church. This should be the crucial symbolic victory of science over superstition, except that Julian’s film is more and more caught up in the conventions of film making, the Beagle, for instance, is attacked by a sea monster and by pirates led by Darwin’s rival in love. Not only that, but the more time Julian spends on his film the less he devotes to affairs of state. The inventive and heroic war leader proves to be an indecisive and self-obsessed political leader, and the premiere of the film is not the triumph of the secular but the start of another collapse.

(to be concluded …)

10 thoughts on “Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Part 3

  1. You started out by suggesting the sort of decline reflected in these novels is a relatively new concept in science fiction. But Julian Comstock reminded me of nothing so much as the Future History that Heinlein first published in the 1940s, which suggested the United States would become a religious dictatorship in the next century.

    Of course, Heinlein also imagined colonies elsewhere in the solar system would be self-sufficient enough the rebel in that time period, but with regard to America, it seems to me he was always pretty pessimistic as to where our social tendencies were heading us.

  2. Yes, I think there is a resemblance to Heinlein. But Heinlein’s religious dictatorship always feels unAmerican, and is eventually defeated by the good guys. Wilson’s religious dictatorship is deliberately and explicitly very American.

    As I said right at the start, there were always stories in which America fell victim to some force or other, but the force was always unAmerican, and the key to eventual liberation (always the ultimate goal, of course, in American fiction) was American know-how.

    Heinlein was, I think, pessimistic about where socialist tendencies (ideas he felt came from outside the US) were leading. The mad general in Dr Strangelove going on about his precious bodily fluids always reminds me of Heinlein. But he was very optimistic about where true American values might lead – all his successful futures and colonies have a very American feel.

  3. Another layer to keep in mind when reading Julian Comstock is that it is in dialogue with the life of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate as it was told in Gore Vidal’s excellent novel ‘Julian’ (with a dash of Nero thrown in the mix).

    Its a strange mix of ancient history, 19th century nostalgia, and post-apocalyptica. For me, at least, the blending of D.W. Griffith style melodrama with a mid-20th century account of the last pagan emperor of Rome is a fairly interesting way to imagine the decline of the American Republic.

    1. Yes, I’m pretty sure that Vidal’s Julian lies somewhere behind this novel (and perhaps also Vidal’s other novels about American history). And like Vidal’s novel, Julian Comstock can be very funny at times.

      I suppose the Griffith references are inevitable given the nature of the film, but it does indeed suggest a certain grandeur to the whole idea of decline that I suspect Wilson is not entirely comfortable with. There’s a sort of disconnect of affect in the novel that makes for a rather uneasy feel in places. Which is why, in the end, I thought it was a good book but one that didn’t quite achieve all it aimed for.

  4. “Of course, we are meant to see the tragedy of Julian Comstock as being the tragedy of America (though in that respect his homosexuality seems an unnecessary distraction).

    I’m trying to imagine in instance in which you’d write: “…in that respect his heterosexuality seems an unnecessary distraction”. Can’t quite do it.

    1. Then you’re not trying hard enough, I can think of several circumstances in which I might write exactly that. But that is beside the point.

      The issue here is that Julian is a flawed hero, and his flaw is meant to reflect the flaw in America that brings about its (and his) downfall. This flaw should be the intellectual, social and cultural flaw modelled in his film, so we get in the film and in his obsession with it a glimpse of what goes wrong. Unfortunately, making Julian homosexual makes it appear that the central flaw, and hence the tragedy of America, is the personal flaw of his homosexuality.

      Now I don’t believe homosexuality is a flaw, and I don’t believe that Wilson believes that either; but that is how the novel allows itself to be read. That is why I think it is a distraction.

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