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Literature / Julian Comstock

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Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is a Steampunk science-fiction novel by Robert Charles Wilson. Set in a future where the oil has long since run out, America has become a feudalistic theocracy, and 19th-century social norms have been revived, this novel tells the life story of the title character.

Julian Comstock, nephew of President Deklan Comstock, has been sent out west for his own safety, since the President has executed the boy's father and has hostile intentions toward Julian himself. Julian's life with his friend Adam Hazzard and his teacher Sam Godwin is quite idyllic — until the three are drafted into a war against "Mitteleuropa," a Dutch-German alliance seeking to control the northern waterways of what was once Canada...

See also Fitzpatrick's War for a similar premise, albeit with a more deconstructive bent.


  • After the End: The "End" being when the oil ran out. By the time the story starts, society has stabilized at a pre-ACW level.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 1, bordering on Class 2-a combination of resource depletion and climate change resulted in the collapse of industrial civilization.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Deklan Comstock, Mr. Wieland
  • Badass Boast: Comstock designs his army's campaign flag with an astronaut's boot on a yellow circle and the inscription "WE WALKED ON THE MOON."
  • Balance of Power: in the US between the Executive Branch, the Aristos, the armed forces and the Dominion (which used to be the United States Air Force until all the jet fuel ran out and it combined with Focus On The Family).note 
  • Big Applesauce: with Washington, DC flooded and abandoned, New York City is now the capital of the US. The Presidential Palace is located in what was Central Park.
  • BFG: The US Army's "Trench Sweeper", and the Mitteleuropans' "Chinese Cannons."
  • Bilingual Bonus: Julian and Adam read a note home from a Dutch soldier, but since they don't speak Dutch, they ask their commanding officer what it means. Although the letter contains standard quotes that one might expect in a letter from a soldier (like I miss you and the kids) the officer lies and says it contains hate for the Americans. This leads to a humorous moment later in the novel where Adam yells a line from the letter to Dutch soldiers, hoping they will believe he is Dutch since he says they hate the Americans. In reality, the line translates as "I miss Fido, too" which leads to confused reactions from the Dutch.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Julian dies of a virulent new "Pox" next to his lover, but his friends escape to France. In addition, Julian's successor seems to be continuing his efforts to curb the Dominion's power
  • Bury Your Gays:
    • Subverted; Deacon Hollingshead's daughter, who has had relations with women, was thought to have died when the Army of the Californias attacked the house she was in. Julian, however, had her secretly moved to Montreal.
    • Julian's own death is played straight.
  • But What About the Astronauts?: averted - a "Secular Ancestors" book on space travel shows that although the Chinese landed people on the Moon in the 21st century, no permanent off-world bases were established before the oil ran out. Adam briefly muses on what life would be like on the moon; he imagines without air, water or food it would be pretty harsh.
  • Censorship Bureau: Only Dominion-approved books may be read legally.
  • Church Militant: Deacon Hollingshead
  • Corrupt Church: The Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth, a theocratic body that acts as a branch of government. It's since absorbed the vast majority of whatever Christian group it deems acceptable, with Catholics having some degree of autonomy. On the other hand, it's been purging American society of heretics (Christian, atheist or otherwise) while just barely tolerating Jews.
  • Days of Future Past: The social mores of the 19th century were actively restored. Society and technology in general are a mix of this and World War I, or rather "imperfect" recreations of them. Justified in part, due to a good deal of modern technology becoming useless with the End of Oil. Not to mention the whole thing being a deliberate effort to create an "idealized" version of Americana.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Julian's attempted assassin - and after Julian thinks about it a bit, his uncle Deklan as well.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: When trying to flee the draft in a train, Adam fought a man named Lymon Pugh and lost; this loss caused the other runaways to accept him, since it showed that he didn't see himself as "better."
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: With the regression in technology has come a regression of social values. Feminism, LGBT rights, and religious freedom have all ceased to exist.
  • Did You Die?:
    The reader, if not versed in recent history, may be anxious to discover whether or not Julian and I were killed on Independence Day.
  • Draft Dodging: Adam, Julian and Sam buy places on a semi-legal train to avoid being caught by a press gang; ironically the people running the train sell them out to another group further down the line.
  • Eagleland: A very unsympathetic mix of #1 and least until Julian takes charge.
  • Evil Uncle: Deklan Comstock.
  • Expanded States of America: By the time of the novel, the US stretches from Canada to as far south as Panama.
  • Expy: Julian Comstock himself is a futuristic version of Julian the Apostate, who himself was known for his attempt to reduce the power of Christianity in an effort to restore to past secular glory in his short reign. Furthermore, his early life as an orphan due to the death of his father by his relative (Deklan playing the role of Constantius II, who murdered Julian's father), his rise to leadership due to his military aptitude, and his scholarly background with disdain for Christianity.
  • Feudal Future: Because people during the End needed to eat, they willingly became serfs. Unfortunately, the system of serfdom became entrenched, persisting into the relative prosperity of post-Peak Oil society. In addition, the return of an industrial working class in the cities is beginning to put said serfdom to the test.
  • Fighting for a Homeland: It's suggested that the the Mitteleuropan armies at large, much of which are of Dutch descent continue fighting on so as to find a new place to call their own after their old homeland drowned beneath the waves.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Adam Hazzard tells the story of Jullian Comstock as the first person narrator.
  • Future Imperfect: The Dominion is deliberately cultivating this trope in the hopes of both maintaining their power and permanently damning the "Secular Ancients."
  • General Failure: Deklan, who runs the War in Labrador so incompetently he's deposed by the army.
  • Global Warming: Washington DC is a swamp, it doesn't snow in central Canada until November, and the US and Mitteleuropa are fighting a war over Labrador, Nunavut and the now-open Northwest Passage. In passing it's mentioned the Mitteleuropan army is mostly composed of displaced Dutch whose homeland is now under water.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Adam grabs a short letter off of a dead Mitteleuropan soldier; it is in untranslated Dutch.
  • Gratuitous French: Several of Calyxa's lines are in untranslated French.
  • Insistent Terminology: Aristocrats prefer to be called "Eupatridians."
  • Lost Superweapon: Tanks, planes, satellites - all gone once the oil ran out.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: There is a scene where Adam describes how soldiers' innards spill out in battle.
  • Meaningful Name: Julian Comstock shares many traits with the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate.
  • Monumental Damage: An otherwise intact (Secular-era) cathedral in Montreal gets destroyed during a Mitteleuropan artillery strike while in New York, a remnant of the Statue of Liberty is preserved as an exhibit.
  • Most Writers Are Writers
  • Nostalgia Filter:
    • Averted by the Dominion, who portrays the civilization of the "Secular Ancestors" as a corrupt Babylon filled with such evils as pornography and the separation of church and state. In addition, since it's been a century since the "False Tribulation" no one has any first-hand memories of "the Oil Florescence".
    • It's also played straight by the Dominion as well, given that it espouses a distorted and overtly idealized version of 19th Century Americana crossed with elements of pre-industrial feudalism.
  • Please Select New City Name: The western part of the former Canada is "Athabaska"; English-speakers call Japan "Nippon", etc.
  • President for Life: In the future, Presidents rule for life and choose their successors, just like the Emperors of the Roman Empire.
  • Ragnarök Proofing:
    • Averted; scavenged electronics don't work anymore, scavenged books have brittle pages, and most late 20th-early 21st century movies do not survive — the few that do survive have serious damage.
    • The ending has Adam write a novel about some boys who get an old spacecraft to fly to the moon. A reader points out that even the smartest people would not be able to get a badly-aged spacecraft to fly.
  • Recycled In Space: The gist of the plot is essentially the tale of Julian the Apostate transplanted to a post-apocalyptic Columbia.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: There are still a good deal of abandoned ruins in the countryside, but many have long been salvaged of anything useful. Places like Montreal and New York on the other hand still preserve some shreds of their pre-Fall glory but for the most part have been cannibalized to the point of being unrecognizable. While Washington DC in particular is mentioned as a swamp ruin which the government has been trying to reclaim for years.
  • Science Is Bad: Biological evolution is a "discredited creed," and arguing in favor of it is heresy.
  • Selective Obliviousness: While Adam is in no way unintelligent, and can sometimes be very perceptive, he does often think how nice it would be for Julian to find a wife, even as Julian dies in the arms of his male lover, who refuses to leave Julian's side, even thought it means his own death.
  • Schizo Tech:
    • Seems to be a mixture from roughly the Civil War to about the First World War. Telegraphs seem common, as do steam engines, but telephones and all sorts of wireless communication systems seem non-existent. Only a single reference to an internal combustion engine is made, and it is an alcohol fueled generator at that. Electricity exists only for illumination and only then for those who can afford their own generation system and typewriters are hand-made by craftsmen. No cars or airplanes, yet there are silent films- although going to see one is a much grander affair then it is now. Machine guns are available to cavalry units, yet Artillery now exists only in the form of Cannons- The U.S. Navy seems to have forgotten the lesson of the Monitor.
    • Major cities like Montreal and New York were (re)built over the remains of their 21st Century incarnations, with some shreds of modern architecture or "original" city blocks still surviving here and there beneath the generally Victorian/Edwardian aesthetics.
  • Show Within a Show: Eula's Choice; Adam sometimes points out the film's historical inaccuracies. Later on, Julian makes his own movie about Charles Darwin.
    • In addition, after Julian loots the Dominion's collection of banned media he and Adam watch a surviving thirty-minute segment of the 1959 Cozy Catastrophe movie On The Beach. They find it somewhat confusing.
  • Sleeves Are for Wimps: Oddly enough, present among female Aristos who show off the vaccination scars on their arms as a fashion statement. What's more, the vaccinations are generally made with useless-at-best substances such as pond water that can actually spread disease.
  • Still Wearing the Old Colors: In a twisted sense, officials of the Dominion don attire based on the dress uniforms of the United States Air Force, a nod to their origins in the USAF.
  • Take Over the World: The Dominion's ultimate goal, because the second coming of Christ justifies the means.
  • The Theme Park Version: Of late 19th Century and World War I America, which the Dominion and its supporters deliberately cultivated over generations.
  • Uriah Gambit: Deklan Comstock sends Julian up to Labrador at the head of an army and then withholds reinforcements and naval support. The young general survives long enough for Deklan to be deposed and the Navy to come to his rescue.
  • While Rome Burns: While the Army of the Laurentians rebels and advances on New York City, and plague starts to appear on Manhattan, Julian is focused on completing his Charles Darwin biopic.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Literal for Adam and Julian.