14 February 2011

The autopista to Hell: Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock

Theocratic political officers to mind the military?   Check.

Religiously driven control of history and cultureCheck.

Oligarchs who expect the state to enforce their domination of labor?  Check.

Widening income disparities, leading to the return of widespread slavery?  Check.

Every link, save the last, points to something that Republicans, teabaggers, Dominionists and their corporate paymasters has done in the last four months, or is doing now.  The one last regards the 2012 budget released today by rightward-turning Barack Obama.  All point to actions that are paving the autopista to, at best, a constellation of Dickensian hellholes.

This toll road to the Twenty-Second Century led Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson to, among other things, a 2010 Hugo nomination for best speculative-fiction novel.  In Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America, humanity has barely survived the False Tribulation, a series of catastrophic effects triggered by climate change and resource depletion.  North America has fallen under the control of a United States that has replaced the Congress and Supreme Court with an Egyptian-style military and the Dominion, a powerful union of fundamentalist churches.  New York's Central Park has been transformed into a vast palace that houses the now-imperial President.

The novel itself follows the rise and fall of its titular character, the nephew of the current President.  It's an interesting story, narrated by Julian's best friend, a naïve young man from the tiny remnants of the American middle class.  Any similarities between it and Gore Vidal's Julian are intentional (as Wilson himself has openly admitted).  Both novels (Vidal's, much more explicitly) drew from the brief reign of Julian the Apostate (331-363), the last non-Christian emperor of Rome.  The real Julian, like Wilson's, tried to reform a failing, Christian-dominated empire.

But it's the setting of Julian Comstock that caught my fancy in the first place.  The oil has run out.  Most towns have had to be built from scratch, their predecessors reduced to mines for scavengers.  Only a few pre-collapse cities -- New York City, Montréal, Colorado Springs, Marseilles -- remain, all shadows of their former selves.  Where it even exists, electricity runs for only four hours each night (and that's an technical advance).  It's almost like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, a century after the missiles flew.

Instead of radiation, though, it's the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth that permeates this landscape.  The Dominion decides which churches are legal, and which are to be wiped from the face of the Earth.  It controls whatever science, knowledge and technology can be recovered from the ruins, destroying some of it and hiding the rest.  It dictates what books can be sold.  Through its vast school system, it teaches the masses that the Americans lived the ideal life in the early 19th Century.  Like any self-respecting evil empire, the Dominion trains its own military officers, who serve as ministers (and Saddam Hussein-style minders) in the two U.S. armies.

The Dominion doesn't control everything in 2175 America, but it doesn't have to.  As in the 19th Century it so idealizes, a small clique of oligarchs dominates the economy.  Some of them "escape" to mansions in places like Athabaska, a northern U.S. state carved out from present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they live off the labors of indentured servants who languish in shanties that don't even protect them from the still-cold winters.  The tiny remnants of the American middle class consist of the handful of skilled workers who support their small towns.  They lead better lives, but like the servants, they live at the aristocrats' sufferance.  Every such town has a Dominion preacher, effectively trained in the Dominion capital at Colorado Springs to discourage whatever dissent might arise from this stunning inequality.

City life is little different.  The middle class is a bit larger, immigrants do the indentured servants' work, but the upper class still dominates.  The Dominion controls more covertly, but somehow doesn't mind the unregulated shops that sell "vaccines" and other threats to public health.  Nor does it have a problem when rich industrialists, farmers and ranchers alike have government troops sent in to quell labor unrest.

All this is described by Julian's lifelong friend, Adam Hazzard -- who doesn't always realize what he's doing.  Born into the tiny remnants of the American middle class, Adam sees much in his Athabaskan town, but it's not clear how much he understands.  He grew up along side both aristocrats like Julian and indentured servants, but only when he and Julian flee a military draft does he begin to comprehend what that meant.  Only his travels reveal to him the possibility that the Dominion might not be as pious or godly as he once believed.

I think of that lack of guile, and it reminds me of the Tea Party movement.  Its members tend to support all the things I cited at the top of this post, but I wonder how many of them have really thought their implications out, separately or as a while.  Go read Julian Comstock, and see the future our Dominionists have in store for us.

100! Yay!  The post count for The Ghost-Grey Cat has now reached 100.  One of my resolutions this year is to make the next 100 posts go quicker.  Effin' miaow!

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