Worlds & Time

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson

Written October 8, 2008 while I waited for the book to get published:

I got lucky again. I stopped by Tor when I got to New York to drop off a get well soon card for Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Patrick just happened to be there and he offered me a free book.

You should have seen my face light up.

The problem was, I was still staying with Jay at this point, and everything I owned was in two suitcases and a backpack, all stuffed to the point of bulging seams. I had nowhere to put another book, not even a free one.

But he popped back into his office and came back with an ARC, an advance reader copy, of book by Hugo Award winner Robert Charles Wilson. I'd already read Spin and I happened to have the sequel Axis in my backpack. (PNH pointed out that the final novel in the trilogy, Vortex, is currently being written.)

A free book I could turn down, but this was more than a free book. It was . . . special? Using that word seems forced and it implies things that I don't intend but it still comes closest to conveying what I'm trying to get at. I like having connections with the books I read. I like reading signed copies, I like reading books by friends or acquaintances. And I like advance copies.

This is supposed to be a review though, so I suppose I'll move on to the book.

Spoilers Galore

Julian Comstock: A Story of the 22nd Century by Robert Charles Wilson is a future history. That is, it's a novel about the future written from the perspective of someone that is recalling it as history. In this case it's a biography of Julian Comstock by his good friend Adam Hazzard.

Julian is the nephew of the President of the United States, Deklan Comstock, and the presidency has become something of a monarchy. There are still elections but there are little more than a formality. Senate seats have become hereditary. Still, things are not quite stable. Julian's father is declared a traitor and executed when he starts to rival his brother's popularity and Julian is sent away to what used to be Canada for protection from his uncle (I'm pretty sure that the place where he grows up, William's Ford in the Athabasca region of Alberta, is a reference to William Gibson who went to Athabasca University, but tons of the references went flying over my head so I may have gotten this completely wrong).

Adam's mother works at the Comstock estate and eventually Adam and Julian become friends and so when Julian is forced to leave home due to the machinations of his Uncle, Adam leaves with him.

This isn't the stereotypical science fiction novel. Instead of living in world where technology has progressed the characters live in a world that is much more like the late 18th century that the 21st. Oil has Effloresced, and combined with plagues and "the false Tribulation" the world has returned to what we would consider simpler times: horse drawn carriages and ships are the primary forms of transport, digital technology is lost, and conservative Christianity has fufilled its Dominionist dreams and taken over most people's daily lives and infiltrated the government. The sector of power that they've created is even referred to as the "Dominion" and is based in Colorado Springs.

Since this does take place in the future though, it's interesting to see what has been made of past by people that have trouble believing in things like cars, traveling to the moon, or flying to Europe in eight hours.

This is in some sense a bildungroman, and I suspect that aside from the modern in jokes it would have fit in well with literature from the 18th century. The level of technology, the overt Christianity and the greater emphasis on propriety and decorum through the reassertion of conservative value systems over an entire society are all more closely related to Gone With the Wind than 1984.

As such, this isn't the sort of book that I'd normally read. I like space ships and aliens and computers and that sort of thing, and I probably wouldn't have picked it up off a self as something that was required reading. However, I can say that it was engaging, entertaining and well-written.

The characters are for the most part three dimensional, especially Adam as narrator and Sam Godwin the Jewish bodyguard of Julian (I suspect his name is another subtle joking reference, this time to the internet meme). The plot is believable, and the setting is beautifully described from Alberta to British Columbia to New York City.

In order to do an honest critique, the rest of the review contains even more spoilers. Unless you've already read this book, aren't planning on reading it, or don't care about spoilers stop reading here.

My main quibble with the books is from one major element that is clearly implied in nearly every chapter of the book about Julian but isn't ever directly addressed. He's gay. There are several major jokes based on this throughout the novel, including one in the last few pages that is intended to endear the audience to Adam.

Trying to rationalize this from an authors perspective, I have problems coming up with something that I would agree justifies this. First, it's implied at the end that Adam never figures this out. On the contrary, several people have suggested this directly to him and he says as much in the first chapter. So he seems to have considered it and dismissed it.

Second, if Adam had attempted to hide his friend's sexual orientation, there are sections that would be differently written or completely left out. Considering that he describes the book as "a true and authentic portrait of [...] Julian Comstock" and in every other manner seems to hold to this seem to suggest that Adam didn't intentionally cover it up, he just didn't consider it.

But this doesn't make any sense. Considering Adam's issues with Christianity, he never shows discomfort with his friend's presence. Pardon my language, but bull crap. Given his reaction to finding out that Godwin is a Jew, he should have a significant discomfort or insecurity or curiosity about homosexuality and there is absolutely no justification for why he doesn't.

So, as a twenty first book written by a person writing as another, I have to ask: What the crap is so special about homosexuality that it's danced around?

It's obviously relevant to the story. Chekov's gun. But why write around it and pretend that it's not there? To be honest, this significantly bothers me to a large degree. Our society currently has enough problems being forthright about homosexuality. Look at Clay Aiken, who just came out of the closet (and Adam Lambert, who hasn't -- ST May, 2009), not to mention Ted Haggard and hundreds of others.

It can't pretend to address this though, because it's never explicitly addressed. It would be like writing a book in which one of the characters is implied to be Jewish and then claiming that it addresses the way that Jews pass in modern society. No. If the problem is that gay people can't be open or honest then a book that isn't honest is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And it is a problem. Do you know how many (human) homosexual characters I can think of in science fiction? Maybe ten, and almost all of them are minor characters. If I want to identify with a romantic situation in a science fiction book, I usually have to pretend that I'm the girl, or that the text says "he" instead of "she."

So here you have a central character (his name is on the cover, notice) that's gay. Julian is already a rebel in a situation where homosexuality is a crime and the most homophobic sections of our society have become the law of the land. Further, this is a book about how the character becomes a man and learns about life. What better situation is there to write about a gay character dealing with homosexuality in a world of conservative Christianity?

So why isn't a major part of his life addressed?

At some point I feel that I'm blowing this out of proportion but I can't emphasize how empty I felt at the end of the book when I got to the big homosexuality joke about men and their wives. Usually I can just laugh this stuff off, but this particular point has been festering for a couple of weeks now. I'm used to comments like the end joke from people that deride homosexuality, I guess I just don't feel like I need to take it from someone that is comfortable with gay people.

Yarg. Now it sounds like I didn't like this book. I did. I thought it was great. I enjoyed reading it, and carried it around the NYC subway with me for days, marveling at the Wilson's amazing ability to take us back and forward in time at once. I just had an issue with that one specific little part of it.

Anyway, despite the issues that I had with it, I recommend it, especially if you tend to like 17th and 18th century historicals or historical fantasies.

It's available for pre-order through Amazon here.

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