Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America
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Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America

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by Robert Charles Wilson
     
 

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From the Hugo-winning author of Spin, an exuberant adventure in a post-climate-change America

In the reign of President Deklan Comstock, a reborn United States is struggling back to prosperity. Over a century after the Efflorescence of Oil, after the Fall of the Cities, after the Plague of Infertility, after the False Tribulation, after the

Overview

From the Hugo-winning author of Spin, an exuberant adventure in a post-climate-change America

In the reign of President Deklan Comstock, a reborn United States is struggling back to prosperity. Over a century after the Efflorescence of Oil, after the Fall of the Cities, after the Plague of Infertility, after the False Tribulation, after the days of the Pious Presidents, the sixty stars and thirteen stripes wave from the plains of Athabaska to the national capital in New York City. In Colorado Springs, the Dominion sees to the nation’s spiritual needs. In Labrador, the Army wages war on the Dutch. America, unified, is rising once again.

Then out of Labrador come tales of a new Ajax—Captain Commongold, the Youthful Hero of the Saguenay. The ordinary people follow his adventures in the popular press. The Army adores him. The President is…troubled. Especially when the dashing Captain turns out to be his nephew Julian, son of the falsely accused and executed Bryce.

Treachery and intrigue dog Julian’s footsteps. Hairsbreadth escapes and daring rescues fill his days. Stern resolve and tender sentiment dice for Julian’s soul, while his admiration for the works of the Secular Ancients, and his adherence to the evolutionary doctrines of the heretical Darwin, set him at fatal odds with the hierarchy of the Dominion. Plague and fire swirl around the Presidential palace when at last he arrives with the acclamation of the mob.

As told by Julian’s best friend and faithful companion, a rustic yet observant lad from the west, this tale of the 22nd Century asks— and answers—the age-old question: “Doyou want to tell the truth, or do you want to tell a story?”

Editorial Reviews

Sara Sklaroff
…charming (if occasionally silly) post-apocalyptic western
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Hugo-winner Wilson (Axis) perpetrates a kind of skewed steampunk novel set in a postcollapse, imperial United States returned to 19th-century technology and mores. Julian Comstock, the disgraced nephew of the tyrannical American president, grows up in a small town in what was formerly northern Canada. Adam Hazzard, Julian's working-class friend, and Sam Godwin, a bluff old retainer and secret Jew, struggle to keep Julian alive despite his uncle's hatred and Julian's proclivity for annoying the repressive Dominion Church. When Julian is drafted to fight the invading Dutch in Labrador, exaggerated tales of his heroism, written by would-be novelist Adam, catapult the young aristocrat to unwanted fame. Written with the eloquence and elegance of a Victorian novel, this thoughtful tale combines complex characters, rousing military adventure and a beautifully realized, unnerving future. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School—After the disasters of the 21st century that resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, the United States retreats from technology and urban life. Social classes are sharply distinguished, and a centralized Protestant Church plays a powerful role in both politics and everyday life. President Deklan Comstock is periodically reelected without opposition. Despite his apparent stranglehold on power, he views his nephew, a child named Julian, as a potential future rival. In an effort to protect her son, Julian's mother sends him to be raised in a remote village in the Western states, where he becomes fast friends with a local lad, the narrator of this tale. Forced to flee their village to avoid the military draft, they make their way eastward where, after many adventures, Julian at last faces his uncle. On one level, this is a straightforward adventure story in the tradition of G.A. Henty or Oliver Optic. Throughout the narrative, however, there runs an engaging philosophical examination of the nature of society, the individual, truth, power, idealism, and change, which adds to the drama while foreshadowing Julian's eventual fate. Teens looking for a meaty adventure will enjoy this book, as will those looking for provocative science fiction, while readers aspiring to careers in politics will find much to contemplate.—Sandy Schmitz, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Kirkus Reviews
Post-apocalyptic power struggle from Hugo Award winner Wilson (Axis, 2007, etc.). A century from now, following a total collapse of the social order, the reborn American administration resides in New York City. The 60 states have reintroduced slavery, in the form of indentured labor; the Church of the Dominion in Colorado Springs exercises supreme religious power; technology is Victorian; in Labrador, the Army struggles to contain Dutch invaders. The hereditary President, Deklan Comstock, executed his brother Bryce for treason and sent Bryce's son Julian for safekeeping to the town of Williams Ford in the province of Athabaska. Julian's constant companion is narrator Adam Hazzard, a naive but educated commoner who, along with warrior-scholar Sam Godwin, attempts to smooth over Julian's outspoken remarks, particularly on the taboo subjects of religion and politics. Still, only Julian's aristocratic heritage keeps him out of trouble-until the army arrives, intent on conscripting all able-bodied males for the war effort. Julian, unwilling to trade on his name and eager to remain with his companions, calls himself Commongold. In the army, he continues to preach against the Dominion and for the works of the Secular Ancients, while winning renown for his bravery and receiving a battlefield commission. Sooner or later, though, he will be obliged to return to New York, where his identity can no longer be hidden from the president. Expertly handled prognostication with more than a touch of somber magnificence.
From the Publisher

“Astute, romantic, philosophical, compassionate, and often uproariously funny, Julian Comstock may be Wilson's best book yet” —Cory Doctorow

“It's like Margaret Atwood meets The Wild Wild West.” —SciFiDimensions

“Robert Charles Wilson is a hell of a storyteller.” —Stephen King

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780765359230
Publisher:
Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
05/25/2010
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
689
Sales rank:
304,363
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Julian Comstock

A Story of 22nd-Century America


By Robert Charles Wilson, Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2009 Robert Charles Wilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5654-3


CHAPTER 1

In October of 2172 — the year the Election show came to town — Julian Comstock and I, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, rode to the Tip east of Williams Ford, where I came to possess a book, and Julian tutored me in one of his heresies.

There was a certain resolute promptness to the seasons in Athabaska in those days. Summers were long and hot, December brought snow and sudden freezes, and most years the River Pine ran freely by the first of March. Spring and fall were mere custodial functions, by comparison. Today might be the best we would get of autumn — the air brisk but not cold, the long sunlight unhindered by any cloud. It was a day we ought to have spent under Sam Godwin's tutelage, reading chapters from The Dominion History of the Union or Otis's War and How to Conduct It. But Sam wasn't a heartless overseer, and the gentle weather suggested the possibility of an outing. So we went to the stables where my father worked, and drew horses, and rode out of the Estate with lunches of black bread and salt ham in our back-satchels.

At first we headed south along the Wire Road, away from the hills and the town. Julian and I rode ahead while Sam paced his mount behind us, his Pittsburgh rifle in the saddle holster at his side. There was no perceptible threat or danger, but Sam Godwin believed in preparedness — if he had a gospel, it was BE PREPARED; also, SHOOT FIRST; and probably, DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES. Sam, who was nearly fifty winters old, wore a dense brown beard stippled with white hairs, and was dressed in what remained presentable of his Army of the Californias uniform. Sam was nearly a father to Julian, Julian's own true father having performed a gallows dance some years before, and lately Sam had been more vigilant than ever, for reasons he hadn't discussed, at least with me.

Julian was my age (seventeen), and we were approximately the same height, but there the resemblance ended. Julian had been born an Aristo, or Eupatridian, as they say back east, while my family was of the leasing class. His face was smooth and pale; mine was dark and lunar, scarred by the same Pox that took my sister Flaxie to her grave in '63. His yellow hair was long and almost femininely clean; mine was black and wiry, cut to stubble by my mother with her sewing scissors, and I washed it once a week — more often in summer, when the creek behind the cottage warmed to a pleasant temperature. His clothes were linen and silk, brass-buttoned, cut to fit; my shirt and pants were coarse hempen cloth, sewn to a good approximation but clearly not the work of a New York tailor.

And yet we were friends, and had been friends for three years, ever since we met by chance in the hills west of the Duncan and Crowley Estate. We had gone there to hunt, Julian with his rifle and me with a simple muzzle-loader, and we crossed paths in the forest and got to talking. We both loved books, especially the boys' books written by an author named Charles Curtis Easton. I had been carrying a copy of Easton's Against the Brazilians, illicitly borrowed from the Estate library — Julian recognized the title but vowed not to rat on me for possessing it, since he loved the book as much as I did and longed to discuss it with a fellow enthusiast — in short, he did me an unbegged favor; and we became fast friends despite our differences.

In those early days I hadn't known how fond he was of Philosophy and such petty crimes as that. But I suppose it wouldn't have mattered to me, if I had.

Today Julian turned east from the Wire Road and took us down a lane bordered by split-rail fences on which dense blackberry gnarls had grown up, between fields of wheat and gourds just lately harvested. Before long we passed the rude shacks of the Estate's indentured laborers, whose near-naked children gawked at us from the dusty laneside, and I deduced that we were headed for the Tip, because where else on this road was there to go? — unless we continued on for many hours more, all the way to the ruins of the old oil towns, left over from the days of the False Tribulation.

The Tip was located a distance from Williams Ford in order to prevent poaching and disorder. There was a strict pecking order to the Tip. It worked this way: professional scavengers hired by the Estate brought their pickings from ruined places to the Tip, which was a pine-fenced enclosure (a sort of stockade) in an open patch of grassland. There the newly-arrived goods were roughly sorted, and riders were dispatched to the Estate to make the high-born aware of the latest discoveries. Then various Aristos (or their trusted servants) rode out to claim the prime gleanings. The next day the leasing class would be allowed to sort through what was left; and after that, if anything remained, indentured laborers could rummage through it, if they calculated it was worthwhile to make the journey.

Every prosperous town had a Tip, though in the East it was sometimes called a Till, a Dump, or an Eebay.

Today we were lucky. A dozen wagonloads of scrounge had just arrived, and riders hadn't yet been sent to notify the Estate. The gate of the enclosure was manned by an armed Reservist, who looked at us suspiciously until Sam announced the name of Julian Comstock. Then the guard briskly stepped aside, and we went inside the fence.

A chubby Tipman, eager to show off his bounty, hurried toward us as we dismounted and moored our horses. "Happy coincidence!" he cried. "Gentlemen!" Addressing mostly Sam by this remark, with a cautious smile for Julian and a disdainful sidelong glance at me. "Anything in particular you're looking for?"

"Books," said Julian, before Sam or I could answer.

"Books! Well — ordinarily, I set aside books for the Dominion Conservator ..."

"This boy is a Comstock," Sam said. "I don't suppose you mean to balk him."

The Tipman promptly reddened. "No, not at all — in fact we came across something in our digging — a sort of library in miniature — I'll show you, if you like."

That was intriguing, especially to Julian, who beamed as if he had been invited to a Christmas party; and we followed the stout Tipman to a freshly-arrived canvasback wagon, from which a shirtless laborer was tossing bundles into a stack beside a tent.

The twine-wrapped bales contained books — ancient books, wholly free of the Dominion Stamp of Approval. They must have been more than a century old, for although they were faded it was obvious that they had once been colorful and expensively printed, not made of stiff brown paper like the Charles Curtis Easton books of modern times. They had not even rotted much. Their smell, under the cleansing Athabaska sunlight, was inoffensive.

"Sam!" Julian whispered ecstatically. He had already drawn his knife, and he began slicing through the twine.

"Calm down," said Sam, who wasn't an enthusiast like Julian.

"Oh, but — Sam! We should have brought a cart!"

"We can't carry away armloads, Julian, nor would we ever be allowed to. The Dominion scholars will have all this, and most of it will be locked up in their Archive in New York City, if it isn't burned. Though I expect you can get away with a volume or two if you're discreet about it."

The Tipman said, "These are from Lundsford." Lundsford was the name of a ruined town twenty miles or so to the southeast. The Tipman leaned toward Sam Godwin and said: "We thought Lundsford had been mined out a decade ago. But even a dry well may freshen. One of my workers spotted a low place off the main excavation — a sort of sink-hole: the recent rain had cut it through. Once a basement or warehouse of some kind. Oh, sir, we found good china there, and glasswork, and many more books than this ... most hopelessly mildewed, but some had been wrapped in a kind of oilcoth, and were lodged under a fallen ceiling ... there had been a fire, but they survived it ..."

"Good work, Tipman," Sam Godwin said with palpable disinterest.

"Thank you, sir! Perhaps you could remember me to the men of the Estate?" And he gave his name (which I have forgotten).

Julian knelt amidst the compacted clay and rubble of the Tip, lifting up each book in turn and examining it with wide eyes. I joined him in his exploration, though I had never much liked the Tip. It had always seemed to me a haunted place. And of course it was haunted — it existed in order to be haunted — that is, to house the revenants of the past, ghosts of the False Tribulation startled out of their century-long slumber. Here was evidence of the best and worst of the people who had inhabited the Years of Vice and Profligacy. Their fine things were very fine, their glassware especially, and it was a straitened Aristo indeed who did not sit down to an antique table-setting rescued from some ruin or other. Sometimes you might find useful knives or other tools at the Tip. Coins were common. The coins were never gold or silver, and were too plentiful to be worth much, individually, but they could be worked into buttons and such adornments. One of the high-born back at the Estate owned a saddle studded with copper pennies all from the year 2032 — I had often been enlisted to polish it, and disliked it for that reason.

Here too was the trash and inexplicable detritus of the old times: "plastic," gone brittle with sunlight or soft with the juices of the earth; bits of metal blooming with rust; electronic devices blackened by time and imbued with the sad inutility of a tensionless spring; engine parts, corroded; copper wire rotten with verdigris; aluminum cans and steel barrels eaten through by the poisonous fluids they had once contained — and so on, almost ad infinitum.

Here as well were the in-between things, the curiosities, as intriguing and as useless as seashells. ("Put down that rusty trumpet, Adam, you'll cut your lip and poison your blood!" — my mother, when we had visited the Tip many years before I met Julian. There had been no music in the trumpet anyway — its bell was bent and corroded through.)

More than that, though, there hovered above the Tip (any Tip) the uneasy knowledge that all these things, fine or corrupt, had outlived their makers — had proved more imperishable, in the long run, than flesh or spirit; for the souls of the Secular Ancients are almost certainly not first in line for Resurrection.

And yet, these books ... they tempted eye and mind alike. Some were decorated with beautiful women in various degrees of undress. I had already sacrificed my claim to spotless virtue with certain young women at the Estate, whom I had recklessly kissed; at the age of seventeen I considered myself a jade, or something like one; but these images were so frank and impudent they made me blush and look away.

Julian ignored them, as he had always been invulnerable to the charms of women. He preferred the more densely-written material. He had already set aside a spotted and discolored Textbook of Biology. He found another volume almost as large, and handed it to me, saying, "Here, Adam, try this — you might find it enlightening."

I inspected it skeptically. The book was called A History of Mankind in Space.

"The moon again," I said.

"Read it for yourself."

"Tissue of lies, I'm sure."

"With photographs."

"Photographs prove nothing. Those people could do anything with photographs."

"Well, read it anyway," said Julian.

In truth the idea excited me. We had had this argument many times, especially on autumn nights when the moon hung low and ponderous on the horizon. People have walked there, Julian would say, pointing at that celestial body. The first time he made the claim I laughed at him; the second time I said, "Yes, certainly: I once climbed there myself, on a greased rainbow —" But he had been serious.

Oh, I had heard these stories. Who hadn't? Men on the moon. What surprised me was that someone as well-educated as Julian would believe them.

"Just take the book," he insisted.

"What: to keep?"

"Certainly to keep."

"Believe I will," I muttered, and I stuck the object in my back-satchel and felt both proud and guilty. What would my father say, if he knew I was reading literature without a Dominion Stamp? What would my mother make of it? (Of course I wouldn't tell them.)

At this point I backed off and found a grassy patch a little away from the rubble, where I could sit and eat lunch while Julian went on sorting through the old texts. Sam Godwin came and joined me, brushing a spot on a charred timber so he could sit without soiling his uniform, such as it was.

"He loves those musty old books," I said, making conversation.

Sam was often taciturn — the very picture of an old veteran — but today he nodded and spoke familiarly. "He's learned to love them, and I helped to teach him. His father wanted him to know more of the world than the Dominion histories of it. But I wonder if that was wise, in the long run. He loves his books too dearly, I think, or gives them too much credence. It might be they'll kill him one of these days."

"How, Sam? By the apostasy of them?"

"He debates with the Dominion clergy. Just last week I found him arguing with Ben Kreel about God, and history, and such abstractions. Which is precisely what he must not do, if he means to survive the next few years."

"Why? What threatens him?"

"The jealousy of the powerful," said Sam.

But he would say no more on the subject, only stroked his graying beard, and glanced occasionally and uneasily to the east.


Eventually Julian had to drag himself from his nest of books with only a pair of prizes: the Introduction to Biology and another volume called Geology of North America. Time to go, Sam insisted; better to be back at the Estate by supper, so we wouldn't be missed; soon enough the official pickers would arrive to cull what we had left.

But I have said that Julian tutored me in one of his apostasies. This is how it happened. As we headed home we stopped at the height of a hill overlooking the town of Williams Ford and the River Pine as it cut through the low places on its way from the mountains of the West. From here we had a fine view of the steeple of the Dominion Hall, and the revolving water-wheels of the grist mill and the lumber mill, all blue in the long light and hazy with coal-smoke, and far to the south a railway bridge spanning the gorge of the Pine like a suspended thread. Go inside, the weather seemed to proclaim; it's fair but it won't be fair for long; bolt the window, stoke the fire, boil the apples; winter's due. We rested our horses on that windy hilltop as the afternoon softened toward evening, and Julian found a blackberry bramble where the berries were still plump and dark, and we plucked some of these and ate them.

That was the world I had been born into. It was an autumn like every autumn I could remember, drowsy in its familiarity. But I couldn't help thinking of the Tip and its ghosts. Maybe those people, the people who had lived through the Efflorescence of Oil and the False Tribulation, had felt about their homes and neighborhoods just as I felt about Williams Ford. They were ghosts to me, but they must have seemed real enough to themselves — must have been real; had not realized they were ghosts; and did that mean I was also a ghost, a revenant to haunt some future generation?

Julian saw my expression and asked what was troubling me. I told him my thoughts.

"Now you're thinking like a Philosopher," he said, grinning.

"No wonder they're such a miserable brigade, then."

"Unfair, Adam — you've never seen a Philosopher in your life." Julian believed in Philosophers, and claimed to have met one or two.

"Well, I imagine they're miserable, if they go around thinking of themselves as ghosts and such."

"It's the condition of all things," Julian said. "This blackberry, for example." He plucked one and held it in the pale palm of his hand. "Has it always looked like this?"

"Obviously not," I said, impatiently.

"Once it was a tiny green bud of a thing, and before that it was part of the substance of the bramble, which before that was a seed inside a blackberry —"

"And round and round for all eternity."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2009 Robert Charles Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

ROBERT CHARLES WILSON was born in California and lives in Toronto. His novel Spin won the Hugo Award in 2006. He won the Philip K. Dick Award for his debut novel A Hidden Place; Canada's Aurora Award for Darwinia; and the John W. Campbell Award for The Chronoliths.

Scott Brick first began narrating audiobooks in 2000, and after recording almost 400 titles in five years, AudioFile magazine named Brick a Golden Voice and "one of the fastest-rising stars in the audiobook galaxy." He has read a number of titles in Frank Herbert's bestselling Dune series, and he won the 2003 Science Fiction Audie Award for Dune: The Butlerian Jihad. Brick has narrated for many popular authors, including Michael Pollan, Joseph Finder, Tom Clancy, and Ayn Rand. He has also won over 40 AudioFile Earphones Awards and the AudioFile award for Best Voice in Mystery and Suspense 2011. In 2007, Brick was named Publishers Weekly's Narrator of the Year.

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Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
It is 2172 and America is a radically different place since the oil was depleted. Transportation and communication are gone; people indenture their lives and that of their children to the Aristos who own vast Estates in return for food, clothing and shelter. The term for a president is thirty years as civilization has reverted back to no better than the early nineteenth century. In fact the goal of the present is a new "Manifest destiny" to encompass the entire continent.------- President Deklan Comstock had his brother hung for the crime of becoming too popular; Julian Bryce's son now lives in the backwater town of Williams Ford. Julian the president's nephew, his mentor Sam and their friend Adam escape the local enlistment only to be impressed into the army. Julian becomes a hero known as young Captain Commongold throughout the Republic. Deklan is irate as history seems to repeat itself with his nephew replacing his bold and charismatic brother. To prevent further mishap to his presidency, Deklan sends Julian and friends to the front with few supplies and the worst troops; he figures if the enemy fails to kill the usurper, his subordinates will when they rebel.--------------- Extrapolating current day economic, extremism and environmental trends, Robert Charles Wilson paints a bleak future for the sixty stars and thirteen stripes as the Bush legacy. One disaster after another has devastated America until the president becomes a tyrant and the country is divided between the less than 1% ultra wealthy Dominion And Aristos and the impoverished rest. The Christian Churches, the property owners, and the president determine what can be read by the masses and what is dumbed down taught in schools. Julian is an interesting person who is seen through the eyes of the narrator (Adam) as a champion who never wanted to be a hero, but was destined to be one. Though fascinating as he is, it is Mr. Wilson's America that grimly owns this futuristic thriller.---------------- Harriet Klausner
Anonymous 20 days ago
A great spin on post oil society
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