In Robert Charles Wilson's new novel Julian Comstock, an energy-depleted 22nd Century looks very much like the 19th. We interviewed Wilson about his non-singularity future, and the silent movies that inspire him.
The novel is about a world where fundamentalist Christianity controls North America, war rages on the Arctic frontier, and an unlikely hero tries to reignite his country's believe in evolution. That hero is Julian Comstock, and his story is told by a lifelong best friend named Adam Hazzard. Ultimately Julian gets a chance to have a tremendous impact upon the world, and he uses his power to make a swashbuckling, silent movie about the romanticized adventures of Charles Darwin. You can read our review of the novel here.
Wilson is the author of several other novels, including the award-winning Spin. We chatted with him via e-mail.
io9: One of the delightful things about your novel is the narrator, Adam Hazzard. You've said other places that you took inspiration from 19th century adventure novels for Adam's voice. Are there any ways that you think Adams language or point of view diverges strongly from its 19th century influences? What concerns or verbal tics did you try to give him to mark him as a 22nd century man, rather than a 19th century one?
RCW: When you read those old American adventure novels you can't help feeling the gap between then and now. Their assumptions about sex, race, patriotism and religion are often jarring, sometimes funny, occasionally bizarre, and always revealing. So how would the folks who wrote and read those books see us?
What Adam Hazzard gives us is an approximation of that impossible dialogue. He's the product of a culture that looks like 19th-century America, but he can glimpse our world in the rear-view mirror. I hope that what he misunderstands or misinterprets speaks volumes about his time and about ours.
I suppose what marks Adam as a 22nd-century voice is that he consistently sees our world as wasteful, a time when great and irreplaceable wealth was recklessly and thoughtlessly spent. And I expect there's some truth in that.
io9: Adam is constantly reminding us that he's writing a story for public consumption where some things are exaggerated and some things are clearly being left out. I felt like this was particularly obvious when it came to the topic of Julian's homosexuality. Although Adam is fairly open about many kinds of radicalism and unconventional ideas that he encounters, he steadfastly refuses to believe – or maybe to admit – that Julian is gay. What made you decide to do that?
RCW: I don't want to get into spoilers here, but I would suggest that Adam does ultimately accept Julian's homosexuality, if you read the text closely. (I guess you could say he accepts it without explicitly acknowledging it.) Adam is timid about discussing sexuality of any kind: the closest he gets to detailing his own sexuality is his admission that he and his future wife Calyxa "anticipated our vows," and you can practically hear him blushing as he says it.
He does live in an officially homophobic society, and he does have to be a little careful of what he says. At the same time, the story makes it clear that the official homophobia isn't universally shared. There's a lively gay subculture that Adam glimpses more or less out of the corner of his eye.
And while Julian's homosexuality is only dimly visible to Adam, he's never judgmental about it. The counter-example in the book is Deacon Hollingshead, who is in such single-minded denial about his daughter's lesbianism that he tortures her lovers in attempt to discover some kind of gay conspiracy aimed at his family. And Adam's sympathy is all with the Deacon's daughter.
io9: I think this may be the only novel I've ever read where the swashbuckling futuristic hero is from Saskatchewan. (As somebody who has spent a lot of time in Saskatchewan, I was pleased.) In fact it seems as if you're trying to create a future where all of North America is like Saskatchewan today: largely unpopulated and rural. Is that what you were imagining?
RCW: A radically depleted population has made the continent seem much larger, and global warming has made what Adam calls "the boreal West" a more inviting place to live. But the world of Julian Comstock is far from entirely rural, and its cities are vibrant cultural centers.
io9: A lot of this novel deals with silent movies – watching them and making them. What movies were you watching as you wrote this novel? And has anyone subsequently approached you about making a musical action movie about Darwin?
RCW: The movies are part of that vigorous, crude urban culture. I do love watching silent movies when I have the opportunity, for the same reason I love reading obscure 19th-century novels: in the absence of a working time machine, it's as close as we can get to dropping in for a visit. One of the films I came across as I was writing Julian Comstock was D.W. Griffith's In Old California (1910). Like the pernicious Birth of a Nation, In Old California is nostalgic for an imagined past of wealthy aristocratic landowners presiding over fields worked by contented serfs. The "eupatridians" of Julian Comstock would approve, no doubt.
As for a musical action movie about Darwin...um, no, I haven't been approached. But if anyone wants to film Julian Comstock, that movie-within-a-movie might make an interesting set-piece.
io9: There is a strand of contemporary science fiction that deals with the idea of a post singularity society, a future so transformed by technology that we can't recognize it. But the future in Julian Comstock looks more like the 19th century than a post-singular noosphere or cyber-whatever. Would you consider Julian Comstock to be kind of an anti-singularity fiction?
RCW: I didn't have the singularity in mind when I was writing Julian Comstock, though I'll confess I don't believe in it. Extrapolating curves to the asymptotic just doesn't seem realistic. I think it was Damon Knight who characterized this kind of extrapolation back in the 1960s: if commemorative postage stamps continue to grow larger at their current rate, they'll cover entire continents by the year 2000.
That doesn't mean science fiction writers shouldn't write about the singularity. Futurists toss out these possibilities; we play with them. And in the course of play the premises are explored, challenged, expanded, sometimes exploded. I've written stories set in prosperous, post-scarcity futures. That doesn't seem too likely at the moment; but the future is intrinsically unpredictable; that's why it's fascinating. We would impoverish the genre if we limited ourselves to mere likelihoods.
io9: Many of your books have dealt with time travel or time warping or temporal mash-ups in some way. I think the temporal juxtaposition of past and future in Julian Comstock could make it a time travel novel too. What appeals to you about messing around with time?
RCW: I like to say that science fiction de-privileges the present. Past, present, future — those aren't fixed categories; they're points of view. It was the French composer Nadia Boulanger who said, "In art there are no generations, only individuals; all times have been modern." Not just in art, I would add. The quaintness of the past and the marvelousness of the future are entirely in the eye of the beholder. Messing around with time in fiction is one way we remind ourselves of that truth. Science fiction does it more consciously and consistently than any other genre, and that's one of the things I love about it.