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Julian Comstock: A Story Of 22nd Century America by Robert Charles Wilson

1/01/2010. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

Buy Julian Comstock: A Story Of 22nd Century America in the USA - or Buy Julian Comstock: A Story Of 22nd Century America in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 413 page hardback. Price: $25.95 (US), $32.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1971-5.

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I had been hearing lots of good buzz about the new novel by Robert Charles Wilson, who won the Hugo in 2005 for 'Spin'. When I heard it was about peak oil, my ears pricked up even more and when it arrived on my desk, it immediately pushed all other reading tasks to one side.

Peak oil is a topic embraced by a large number of 'doomers' who used to obsess about nuclear holocaust back before the Berlin Wall fell. However, it is also promoted by an increasing number of scientists and economists, with the International Energy Agency recently exposed by whistleblowers to be exaggerating oil reserves.

The phenomenon, first introduced by M. King Hubbert in the fifties, successfully predicted the peak of US oil production in the seventies to within a few years. The theory is simple. After a certain period of time, an oil well or field will produce less oil than it did before. At the point that oil peaks, there is roughly half the world's oil used up and half left to go. But because we extracted the easiest oil first, the second half is harder and more expensive to extract.

A number of books have begun to explore the effects this might have on our oil-dependent society. Most to date have been non-fiction, but more recently a number of novels have looked at the concept, including peak oil expert James Howard Kunstler's flawed 'World Made By Hand' and Alex Scarrow's lurid pot-boiler 'Last Light'.

So when a respected writer like Wilson takes on the subject, he has a rich source material of potential settings and plot with very little unexplored ground. The result is a deep, indulgent romp through a future oil-scarce America.

Our hero is Julian Comstock, nephew to the President. President Deklan Comstock, is a jealous, slight mad ruler, who got jealous of his brother, Julian's father, succeeding in battle against the Brazilians. Deklan had Julian's father killed and now Julian is in hiding, protected by his father's friend, Sam Godwin.

Our narrator, however, comes from more humble backgrounds. Adam Hazzard is a man in a small American village, son of a seamstress and a labourer, belonging to an unpopular church sect. Adam becomes Julian's friend during his time in hiding and, when the army comes to recruit them, they try to escape.

After failing to evade the recruiters, the trio are whisked off to Labrador and Newfoundland to fight in the US Army against the 'Dutch', an assortment of European forces attempting to invade Canada. Under an assumed name, Julian becomes a war hero, 'Captain Commongold'. When Julian's true identity is revealed on their return to New York, the President is less than happy to see his nephew re-appear.

About half-way through this book, I was disappointed with the direction Wilson had taken the story. Barring a few ruined cities and forgotten trinkets, the world is little different to the Wild West and at times feels like peak oil is used as a plot tool to re-create that era. Little is shown about some of the technology that could survive a fall in resources and bring us into a new future.

Once I reached the tail-end of the book, it became clear that the author had another motive in mind. The firm hand and censorship of the church across this fallen America is the true tale being told and after this becomes clear, the events and tone of the rest of the book take on a whole other meaning.

This is a very well-written book with exciting plot twists, beguiling characters and a sneaky moral underbelly that is surprisingly subversive for a plot that on the surface is quite traditional. It isn't the book I was expecting when I first picked it up but 'Julian Comstock' is a fascinating novel well worthy of attention. Potentially a player come awards time.

Tomas L. Martin

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