Book Review: Julian Comstock

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles WilsonWhen I was a kid, “USA” was forever. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. I am sure kids growing up in the USSR in the 1970’s probably felt the same way about their country. As I grew older, and started to learn about civilizations that rose and fell, I would always wonder “Could that ever happen in the U.S.?” But my childhood conclusion was always “No, American society will stand the test of time.”

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about what the future holds. I think about the world that my children and eventually grandchildren are inheriting from us. I am optimistic about certain issues, but there is plenty that concerns me.

We tend not to be very good at long-range planning, and that fact concerns me more than any other. In that old fable about The Ant and the Grasshopper, our political leaders are like the grasshopper. We tend not to like to sacrifice today for the possibility of a better tomorrow. As a result those who ask for sacrifice tend to have short political careers, so we have conditioned our politicians to avoid long-range planning that involves short term inconveniences for their constituents. We live for the moment, and when the bills come due we find ourselves being forced to bail out the auto industries and the banks. But we can’t bail out industries forever – we have to modify the sort of short-term thinking that led to the problems in the first place.

Are we adequately planning for life after oil? My belief is that what we are doing amounts to very little in the way of preparing for major declines in oil production. Yes, there are a lot of ideas in the pipeline, but generally when I take a very close look I find that most of these ideas are riddled with faulty assumptions. Sure, if I put together a model that projects that people will pay me $100 a ton to take their biomass, I can make some very aggressive projections on how cheaply I can make biofuels based on that biomass. But a model isn’t reality; it is a projection and it can be horribly flawed based on the assumptions that are put into it. I think the biggest challenge will be whether some of contenders can really make it in a world that is dealing with seriously declining oil production. After all, many of the contenders are enabled by cheap fossil fuels, so we don’t know whether they can compete when that crutch is removed.

These themes all play out in Robert Charles Wilson’s book Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America. People had recommended Julian Comstock to me on several occasions, so I picked it up and read it on my recent trip to New Zealand. Wilson has long been one of my favorite science fiction writers. In Spin and Axis he created complex stories with rich characters, and the overriding theme was an uncertain threat that hung over mankind. (Spin was actually one of the best science fiction books I have ever read). The reason I enjoy science fiction is that it helps me envision possibilities. We don’t know what the future holds, so it is prudent to plan for multiple possible outcomes (like someone who has insurance against multiple possible outcomes). Books like Julian Comstock explore one of those possible outcomes in some depth and will cause you to consider some of the things you may not have considered.

Wilson’s 22nd century America has seen the decline of petroleum, and with it the loss of today’s industries that are dependent upon petroleum. This book is a more ambitious version of Jim Kunstler’s World Made by Hand. The characters are more complex, and there are more parallel stories playing out. Making a comeback in 22nd century America is the coal-powered steam engine, which is used for rail and marine transport. Personal transportation has reverted back to horses or foot. Resource wars are taking place, and there is big business in mining the dump grounds from the time when oil was cheap. People have turned back to religion in these difficult times, and religion has a very powerful position in the government of the 22nd century.

Wilson’s 22nd century America is not an America I want to see, but it would be foolish to discount the possibility that falling petroleum production may cause a domino effect that could end badly. I believe we have the capacity to transition from oil, but if we display grasshopper thinking and only start to take drastic measures once we are in crisis, then the doomers will have been right.

This book is a sharp departure from Wilson’s earlier work, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as with his earlier works, Wilson does a fine job of telling a story, and as a result I had a hard time putting the book down. As Wilson clearly conveys, there is a threat hanging over mankind. The threat is the very petroleum-dependent world we have created. Life beyond petroleum is difficult to fathom, but the threat of what might be is what motivates me to do what I do.