Reading Julian Comstock

I like Robert Charles Wilson. For pete’s sake, the guy wrote Spin. How can you not like the guy who wrote one of the modern classics of science fiction?

I’ve also enjoyed his other books, too. Darwinia and The Chronoliths really stand out in my mind. I loved the concepts of those books. They were big idea books with awesome, gripping worlds. Blind Lake was pretty good, too.

But other than Spin, I couldn’t tell you what happened at the end of any of them.

That’s the key problem I have with most of Wilson’s books; he has awesome, earth-shattering ideas, but builds forgettable stories around them. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America manages to avoid that trap, since the main character is actually pretty compelling. The book is written in the first person, from the perspective of a future Mark Twain-style figure chronicling  his life with the titular Julian.

I can’t tell you how much I thought I was going to hate that folksy storytelling style in the first few pages, but it actually ends up working as a hook. The plot is well-paced and the book is a page turner. There’s little sense of real tension, though. Potential dangers frequently don’t materialize and the characters move through a potentially lethal world seemingly carefree for much of the book.

The back story of how the world moves from the modern era into this somewhat dystopian future is interesting. Wilson doles it out in bits and pieces, letting us glimpse ruins or listen in on discussions of the past. Some of these involve highly unrealistic dialogue as the history is explained, but the rest of the book is so well written that I found it easy to let those moments go.

The problem is that none of it is quite interesting enough. Considering Wilson is known for his big ideas, Julian Comstock doesn’t really have a really gripping central concept. It’s almost the reverse of his earlier books. It’s got a memorable plot, but I was wondering what the point was throughout much of it.  And as a guy that loves science fiction, I don’t need much of a reason to enjoy a book about the future society in America.

The real message behind Julian Comstock is a critique of the corrupting role of religion in government. It’s an examination of how the extreme influence of a powerful religious institution can suppress a lot of the good that society has to offer, from science to the arts. It’s an idea that felt very familiar, especially since religious leaders already have too much influence over our government.  And while I agree with much of what Wilson has to say, he actually comes across – somewhat ironically – as preachy in much of it.

I’m giving Julian Comstock a tentative recommendation. Despite the important message, it just doesn’t feel like a very significant book. Maybe because it lacks an exalted theem, Julian Comstock is a very easy and enjoyable book to read.

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