Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Julian Comstock

‘Science Fiction without the Future’

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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.

Wednesday Night MetaFilterFilter

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Wednesday night MetaFilterFilter.

* NASA climatologist James Hansen, recently arrested at an anti-mountaintop-mining demonstration in West Virginia, says we’re almost too late to stop climate change. I wonder about that “almost.”

* Nate Silver considers the legislative strategy at work in the upcoming Waxman-Markey vote.

* Mapping relationships in the X-Men Universe.

* An early Christmas present for my father? Corzine trails badly in New Jersey.

* Lots of talk lately about Robert Charles Wilson’s anti-Singulatarian Julian Comstock: A Story of the 22nd Century. Here’s an interview at io9 that takes up that angle, while Cory Doctorow highlights this blurb:

If Jules Verne had read Karl Marx, then sat down to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he still wouldn’t have matched the invention and exuberance of Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock.

* Dancing plagues and mass hysteria. Via MeFi.

* How complexity leads to social collapse: some intriguing historical exploration from Paul Kedrosky. Also via MeFi.

* Roger Ebert explains how Bill O’Reilly works.

O’Reilly represents a worrisome attention shift in the minds of Americans. More and more of us are not interested in substance. The nation has cut back on reading. Most eighth graders can’t read a newspaper. A sizable percentage of the population doesn’t watch television news at all. They want entertainment, or “news” that is entertainment. Many of us grew up in the world where most people read a daily paper and watched network and local newscasts. “All news” radio stations and TV channels were undreamed-of. News was a destination, not a generic commodity. Journalists, the good ones anyway, had ethical standards.

In those days, if you quoted The New York Times, you were bringing an authority to the table. Now O’Reilly–O’Reilly!–advises viewers to cancel their subscriptions to a paper most of them may not have ever seen. In those days, if the wire services reported something, it probably happened. Today the wire services remain indispensable, but waste resources in producing celebrity info-nuggets that belong in trash magazines. Advertisers now seek readers they once thought of as shoplifters. If nuclear war breaks out, the average citizen of a Western democracy will be better informed about Brittny Spears than the causes of their death.

Discussion (where else?) at MeFi.