Thursday, June 25, 2009

Post-Apocalyptic Novel: JULIAN COMSTOCK

I love S. M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire" series, about a world in which all advanced technology (anything dependent on electronics, explosions, internal combustion, etc.) instantaneously and inexplicably stopped working at one catastrophic moment in the 1990s. So I was intrigued when I picked up JULIAN COMSTOCK, by Robert Charles Wilson. It's set in the twenty-second century of an America where technology has recovered to a late Victorian level after the devastating End of Oil, False Tribulation, and Plague of Infertility in the twenty-first century. The United States, though nominally a republic, is governed by despotic presidents who rule for life. Julian's uncle, the current president, was responsible for Julian's father's death. The theocratic Dominion also wields vast power, including censorship of books and culture in general. Julian (whom the author modeled on the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate) has an avid interest in the forbidden works of the Secular Ancients (us) and heretical doctrines such as Evolution. The story is told by a naive young man, Adam, Julian's best friend. In this future, elections are only a ritual. The outward forms and verbal formulas of American culture and politics as we know them are mostly preserved, but with altered meanings. There's a biting scene in which a military officer solemnly tells Adam the Dutch are trying to drive the Americans out of Labrador because "they hate our freedoms"—while the guileless Adam accepts this claim at face value, the reader by this point is well aware that most of those "freedoms" survive in name only.

As the current crisis in Iran reminds us, the mere existence of an election process doesn't guarantee rights and freedoms, much less the peaceful transitions we're fortunate to enjoy here. In the America of JULIAN COMSTOCK, presidents often lose their lives, like many of the Roman emperors, to coups and assassinations. This novel offers cautionary and mildly satirical retrospective glimpses of our own world through the eyes of a future century with only distorted memories of the pre-collapse world.

How well would most of us cope if our technological civilization suddenly collapsed? I don't know about you, but I am not and never will be an omnicompetent Heinlein-style survivalist. I don't even like camping! I'm very attached to my conveniences and would hate to go back even to the 1970s. My favorite historical era is the 1890s, but I don't want to *live* there. Five days without electricity after Hurricane Isabel made that point clear (worse than the nineteenth century, actually, because without power our well pump doesn't work). And relatively few of us have the useful experience of belonging to the SCA or other historical re-creation groups, as the resourceful protagonists in Stirling's DIES THE FIRE do. I'm afraid I would be a victim of the collapse, not a survivor.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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