Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America
By Robert Charles Wilson
413 pp., hardcover. Tor Books – Jun. 2009. $25.95.
Crossing the Blue: A Post-Petrol, Post-American Road Trip
By Holly Jean Buck
328 pp. – Aug. 2008. $17.00.
This year promises to be a big one for novels set in a world beyond oil. Peak oil icon James Howard Kunstler comes out with The Witch of Hebron, a follow-up to his astonishing, critically acclaimed World Made by Hand, in September. And while the anticipation for Kunstler's book is building, two more post-oil novels are due out next month, Afterlight by Alex Scarrow and Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Of these last two, the one that I'm really excited about is Ship Breaker. It's the second novel of the accomplished, Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning young talent Paolo Bacigalupi, who is known for his evocative post-industrial dystopias.
The present year will also see the paperback release of last year's post-oil-novel event, Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock. This paperback release provides a good opportunity to review Julian, along with Holly Jean Buck's remarkable Crossing the Blue, another recent addition to the post-petroleum literary canon. Both are fine novels, though they seem to have been written with divergent purposes in mind. Buck clearly intended her book to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring peak oil. Wilson, on the other hand, appears content to have used his post-oil setting as merely an interesting backdrop against which to tell an entertaining story.
Wilson's Julian opens in the winter of 2172, in what is today northern Alberta, Canada, but in this fictional future constitutes part of an expanded union with sixty states. America once again has the feel of a bustling nineteenth-century frontier as it muddles back toward prosperity following a series of devastating catastrophes brought on by the depletion of the world's oil reserves. Our present-day automobile fleet, mass media, postal service, and modern science and medicine, among many other fixtures of early twenty-first century life, are things of the distant past. Illiteracy is commonplace, and paper currency unheard of in many parts. The detritus of the industrial age—crumbled roads, concrete foundations where homes once stood, desecrated human skeletons—lies strewn about everywhere. However, steam-powered train travel and transport have made a comeback, international trade is just beginning to pick up again, and there are plenty of places that still have (strictly rationed) access to lighting and electricity.
The Americans of the late twenty-second century harbor a deep-seated resentment toward their ancestors from the industrial era, whom they commonly refer to as the Secular Ancients. These ancients presided over a disastrous period in history now known as the Efflorescence of Oil, during which they squandered the earth's once-immense store of fossilized sunlight, at the expense of future generations and all other life on the planet. People today have taken on religion in a big way—they're ruled over by a religious authority known as the Dominion, and a new constitutional amendment grants one the right to worship at the Dominion-approved church of one's choosing. In general, people fundamentally distrust the knowledge and beliefs of their hedonistic ancestors.
The nation's capital is now Manhattan, New York, and the presidential "palace" is located in present-day Central Park. Elections are still held regularly, but they seem like little more than a sham, since a single family, the Comstocks, has ruled the nation for the past thirty years like some kind of dynasty. The current president, Deklan Comstock, is by all accounts a brooding, murderous dictator who had his own brother, the late, popular General Bryce Comstock, killed because he believed that he posed a threat to presidential power. And now Deklan has his sights set on his hapless nephew, and Bryce's son, Julian Comstock.
Julian is presented to us as a memoir of "the life and adventures" of Julian Comstock, told in the first person by his closest friend, Adam Hazzard. Julian and Adam first meet at the age of seventeen, in Adam's hometown of Williams Ford. Adam is an aspiring writer who learned the art of literacy from his seamstress mother (his father, a commoner, is illiterate). Julian, a newcomer to Williams Ford, is staying as a guest at a local country estate, where his mentor Sam Godwin seeks to shelter him from the malevolent intentions of Deklan. Recognizing that Julian needs to cultivate some friendships with people his own age, Mr. Godwin encourages the friendship between Julian and Adam, and he also persuades Adam's parents to let him take Adam on as a second student.
Adam's parents are reluctant at first, fearing that Julian, who is notorious for his heretical beliefs, may corrupt Adam. In so many ways, Julian is a man of our times, born a century and a half too late. He believes that humans once landed on the moon, and that the human race originated in Africa. He believes in evolution and the existence of DNA. He is either an atheist or an agnostic (the novel never works out which), at a time when churchgoing is the norm. He also has a flair for theater and loves to shock people with his blasphemies. And with his gentle, effeminate manner and the amount of time he spends with Adam, it is widely suspected that he is gay, and that Adam might be his lover—and indeed, Julian does remain a lifelong bachelor, while Adam gets married and starts a family. Eventually, however, Adam's parents relent and Sam takes Adam under his tutelage.
The book chronicles the next few years in the lives of Julian, Adam, and numerous other people who have an influence on them during these formative young adult years. During this time, they bravely serve together in the Army (fighting the Dutch over possession of Labrador), become famous together (Adam as an author and Julian as a war hero-turned president), and even collaborate on the production of a motion picture about the life of Charles Darwin. (The primitive, soundless movies that play in theaters these days are reminiscent of the silent films of the nineteen twenties.)
Julian's story is absolutely absorbing; its fictional world is richly, vividly realized; and its depiction of Julian, truly one of the great, arresting historical figures of this post-oil era, is fascinating and unsentimental, though ultimately tragic. The writing has an ingratiating charm to it, born of Adam's youthful innocence and inspired by the work of a now-obscure mid-nineteenth-century author named William Taylor Adams, who wrote many popular Civil War novels for boys under the pseudonym Oliver Optic. Wilson has long admired Optic's work, and he modeled Adam Hazzard after him. (The inspiration for Julian's character came from historian Edward Gibbon's account of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate.) And in crafting the book's post-oil milieu, Wilson borrowed from one of the best peak oil thinkers out there, James Howard Kunstler. He says that he "freely borrowed much of the worst-case scenario" that Kunstler presents in The Long Emergency.1
The one caveat that should be made regarding Julian is that it might not be the best novel to use for introducing someone to peak oil for the first time. Above all a first-rate storyteller, Wilson never resorts to blatantly spelling out the book's themes—and while this may be good storytelling technique, it also means that many of these themes will be lost on readers who aren't already familiar with peak oil. For Wilson, peak oil seems to have been merely an intriguing setting for a novel; and writing Julian, a purely intellectual exercise rather than an attempt at environmental activism. That isn't to say, however, that Wilson isn't concerned about peak oil, because judging from interviews, he clearly is.
Wilson is one of the most distinguished science fiction authors now working, having received numerous prestigious awards within the field. He won the venerable Hugo Award for Spin, a brilliant, genre-bending, epic rhapsody on time, the meaning of human existence, and the ultimate purposes of whatever alien beings may inhabit the universe along with us. Julian, while ironically set in a degenerative future and eschewing the very science that informs science fiction, is nonetheless a welcome addition to this impressive oeuvre.
Holly Jean Buck, unlike Wilson, did write her post-oil novel in an effort to raise awareness about peak oil. "I wrote this book," she says, "to help Americans imagine what the future might look like if we continue to be carefree or careless about it."2 The self-published novel, titled Crossing the Blue, follows the adventures of a young man named Blake as he shakes the proverbial dust off his feet and sees the world. A lifelong resident of Coral Heights, a small town in what used to be Florida, Blake has never traveled outside of the "Florida islands" up to this point in his life. (The United States no longer exists in this unspecified future era.) Buck uses Blake's naïveté as a device for introducing general readers to peak oil.
Blake's journey begins one night with the discovery of a mysterious young woman sneaking around the house that he and his family share with two other families. He is uncommonly struck by her, for one almost never comes upon a stranger within the fenced community of Coral Heights. The town is presided over by an authoritarian, gun-running general, referred to simply as "the General," who keeps everyone in line and supplied with basic necessities. No one dares cross the fence around Coral Heights; but this fierce, agile, dangerous-looking woman has done it anyway, and now she's demanding that Blake help get her away as quickly as possible. She is obviously being hotly pursued, and Blake gathers, is in mortal danger. And so Blake, scared but also thinking that he's being a good Samaritan, helps her slip out of his family's subdivision and then gets her to a safe remove from the island on his boat.
It isn't until after they've set off on the water together that Blake learns why she was in such a hurry to leave: it's because she has just assassinated the General. She tells him that she's an emissary from someplace in the Pacific Northwest known as Cascadia. She has spent more than the past year traveling to the Florida islands from there, and she killed the General as a favor for some people nearby who needed him eliminated. "It was a matter of survival," she explains. The woman has an exotic, "mestiza" look about her and an accent that Blake has never heard before, and she introduces herself as Juliet.
Blake and Juliet stay on the run together, initially out of fear that Blake could be incriminated in the General's assassination—and also because Juliet could use someone to sail the boat while she sleeps—but before long they drop these pretenses and stay together out of a mutual fondness for each other's company. Blake has issues in his home life, and little attachment to Coral Heights, and so it's easy for him to make an impulse decision to follow his heart and go with Juliet back to Cascadia.
Blake and Juliet sail across the now-underwater Florida Panhandle, veering off-course into the dreaded and reputedly haunted Submerged City. They also hitch a ride on a garish gaming ship left over from the days of vice and excess, trek alongside the Mississippi River, survey the desolation of Louisiana, and cross over the Great Plains and the Rockies. They live off the land and obtain bed and board from a couple of farming families in exchange for their labor.
Blake knows little of the outside world or the history that led up to the deindustrial present, and so Juliet keeps having to stop and provide involved explanations of peak energy, climate change, corporate personhood, and other menaces that contributed to the collapse of the old order. Through these exchanges between Blake and Juliet, Buck is also educating the uninitiated reader about these concepts.
What I like most about Crossing the Blue is its astute, droll contemplation of the ordinary details of our modern-day lives, which seem startlingly out of place when carried over into this post-oil future. Some examples include spray painted graffiti, bullet holes in signs, and signs that read "Colorado Welcomes You" and "FREE WIRELESS ACCESS POINT," no matter that neither Colorado nor the Internet still exists in this post-oil future. The novel also makes great use of unexpected juxtapositions. For example, Blake and Juliet stop at a market that sells organic fruits and vegetables alongside electrical wires scavenged from a long-retired streetlight, and they also meet a young man who insists on playing the video game Space Invaders during his share of the meager electricity quota allotted each person per day in his community.
My only beefs are that Blake's ignorance of the outside world seems contrived at times (I couldn't quite swallow a scene in which he has to ask Juliet what it means to go "from here to there"), and many of the supporting characters are a bit thinly developed. But perhaps a certain lack of character development is inevitable in a road trip story in which so many people are coming and going. And anyway, these are minor gripes with what, overall, is an admirable and largely successful attempt to spread the word about peak oil through a work of fiction.
Holly Jean Buck is one interesting lady. She has traveled through forty-eight of the United States and has lived overseas for a great part of her twenty-nine years. Following postgraduate studies at Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, she spent time in many countries around the world, including Wales, England, Ireland, Greece, Kosovo, Columbia, and Japan. She has been a correspondent on international affairs related to the environment and green living—as an intern for Toronto's Walrus magazine—and also has experience in mapmaking, permaculture, managing invasive forest species, and cataloguing antiquities. Crossing the Blue is her first novel3; and, on the strength of it, I am eagerly awaiting her second.
1 Midge Bork, “An interview with Robert Charles Wilson: Axis,” Curled Up With a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/intrcwil.htm (accessed Mar. 19, 2010).
2 "An Interview With Holly Jean Buck,” create. destroy. enjoy, www.createdestroyenjoy.net/crossingtheblue/abouttheauthor.html (accessed Mar. 19, 2010).
3 “about the author,” charting sustainability, www.charting-sustainability.org/writings/author.html (accessed Mar. 19, 2010; site last updated Jan. 14, 2010); “Holly Jean Buck: Shades of Green,” Walrus, Sept. 14, 2008, www.walrusmagazine.com/blogs/category/green/ (accessed Mar. 19, 2010); Holly Jean Buck, “download my C.V.,” charting sustainability, http://www.charting-sustainability.org/writings/CV_Holly_Buck_2009_gener... (accessed Mar. 19, 2010; site last updated Jan. 14, 2010); Buck, “Can Bacteria Juice Save the World?,” Walrus, Oct. 24, 2008, http://www.walrusmagazine.com/blogs/2008/10/24/can-bacteria-juice-save-t... (accessed Mar. 19, 2010); Buck, “about the author,” in Crossing the Blue: A Post-Petrol, Post-American Road Trip (© Holly Jean Buck, 2008), 327.
Frank Kaminski is a member of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (SPOA) and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. A connoisseur of post-oil novels, he has chronicled the evolution of the post-oil novel in several previous EB posts. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.