Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘Science Fiction without the Future’

leave a comment »

I was recently asked to write a review of Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America for a special “Petrofictions” issue of American Book Review. Imre has put the full text up on Facebook; hopefully you can read it there. Here’s a bit from the end:

…Here then is what science fiction looks like without (or after) the future: the twentieth century is envisioned not as the launching pad for a glorious technofuture but as an anomalous moment of prosperity and historical possibility which quickly burns itself out, leaving in its place the worst combination of Manifest-Destiny America, feudal Europe, and decadent Rome. The novel’s odd, melancholy temporality—a retrospectively narrative bildungsroman set in a future that is simultaneously a parody of the past—completely upends our sense that the last hundred years represent the apex of progress, and indeed the idea that history can be thought of as any story of progress at all. By its end Julian Comstockhas taken its reader well beyond the postmodern mood Fredric Jameson famously called “nostalgia for the present,” and comes to feel something like officiating at our own collective funeral.

But for all its anticipatory retrospection of the coming post-oil disaster, the novel is not hopeless. In the epilogue we are told that Adam has in essence gone on to reinvent the lost art of science fiction itself; in 2192 his most recent novel is American Boys on the Moon, a Jules-Verne-style adventure yarn about a group of youngsters who discover an old NASA rocket buried in Florida and use it to reach the moon. (In a footnote, Adam concedes the story is completely implausible, but admits he likes it anyway.) There are similar hints throughout the novel that a second age of enlightenment and invention could be in the offing, and indeed that the reign of the despotic and theocratic Dominion may soon be at its end. The theocrats are themselves huge believers in progress, insisting “the history of the world is written in Scripture, and it ends in a Kingdom”—but Julian’s revolutionary retort, seemingly borne out, is that history is actually chaos, written in sand and shaped by the wind (674). For Wilson, it seems, there’s an exciting, even necessary freedom in this permanent historical flux, which when juxtaposed against the violent schemes of the rich and powerful becomes in its own unstable and impermanent way a kind of unexpected utopia. The cyclicality of history turns out to be as cruel to kings and tyrants as it is to everything else; in time all their dreams of power and control turn to ash as well. Even in a history that can’t stop repeating itself, we find, the bad times eventually end, and good days someday come again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: