Thursday, August 12, 2010

Postsecular Gothic

My third Hugo 2010 nominated novel is yet another that fails to live up to the expectations for science fiction, even though it is the first set in the actual future. No talking squid. No space ships. Not even a whisper of laser cannon. I wonder if this speaks to the mood of the times?

Robert Charles Wilson conjures up a pretty sad future for us. As is inevitable, our supply of relatively cheap oil runs out. The consequences are far reaching, and in the late 21st century of Wilson's story it means the collapse of civilization as we know it. When the dust clears a theocracy with a hereditary presidency survives the present United States, bent on conquering the world. The story's hero, Julian Comstock, the nephew of the currently ruling president, is in the uncomfortable position having to flee for his life into the teeth of a war.

It's a rip-roaring adventure, told from the point of view of Julian's best boyhood friend, Adam Hazzard. Adam is a bit reminiscent of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, although I think Huckleberry Finn was not nearly so naive as Adam, even if Adam has had a better education. Since Wilson tells the story in a style borrowed from 19th century authors like Twain and Melville, the resemblance is more than just a matter of the roles they play.

I enjoyed the story very much. Wilson's stylistic efforts are consistent and not at all as tiring as I feared at first. The story moves at a brisk pace, but not so brisk that the characters of Julian and Adam are neglected. If Wilson was tempted to make the story's ending too upbeat, he resisted and produced a very satisfying conclusion, given the serious nature of his thesis. What might that thesis be?

You'll have to read it and find out for yourself. You won't be disappointed.


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