Robert Charles Wilson, Julian Comstock [Library of Babel]

Over at the Science and Entertainment Exchange, they have a nice post about the Darwin movie, which also appears in today’s Links Dump, with John Scalzi addressing the putative controversy about the movie’s distribution. John’s suggestion for how to attract major US distribution– Will Smith, explosions, and Jennifer Connelly’s breasts– reminded me of The Life and Adventures of the Great Naturalist Charles Darwin, a movie that figures prominently in Robert Charles Wilson’s latest:

Act One was called Homology and it dealt with Darwin’s youth. In this Act young Darwin meets the girl with whome he is destined to fall in love– his beautiful cousin Emme Wedgwood– and discovers he has a rival for her affections in the form of a young divinity student named Samuel Wilberforce. The two boys enter into a Beetle-Collecting and Interpreting Competition sponsored by the local University, which is called Oxford, and Miss Wedgwood in a coy moment mentions that she’ll save a kiss for the winner. Wilberforce the sings a song about Bugs as Specimens of the Divine Ordination of Species, while Darwin retorts with musical observations on Homology (that is, the physical similarities shared by Insects of different species). Wilberforce, a ruthless and cunning conspirator, tries and fails to have Darwin disqualified from the contest on the grounds of Blasphemy. But Oxford is deaf to his pleadings. Darwin wins the contest; Wilberforce comes in a bitter second; Emma kisses Darwin chastely on the cheek; Darwin blushes; and a simmering Wilberforce vows ultimate vengeance.

This goes on for two more Acts, culminating in a duel betweenn Darwin and Wilberforce, with “singing, and pistol-shooting, and some lively screaming by Emma, and more pistol-shooting, and wrestling about on cliff-edges,” Oxford having been relocated into someplace with wild and windblown mountains.

The context of all this is a very unusual 22nd century setting, which Wilson has conceived for two purposes (extrapolating from things he said in a Kaffeklatsch at the Worldcon in Yokohama): 1) to explore what an American theocracy would really be like, and 2) to allow himself to write fanfic of the Reconstruction era, in particular, and author who went by “Oliver Optic.”

In this setting, oil ran out late in this century, leading to a massive and messy collapse of civilization, and things have settled down to a more or less 19th Century level of technology. The United States has been reconstituted as a sort of quasi-theocratic aristocracy, with secular power in the form of the military co-existing somewhat uneasily with the Dominion, a religious authority based in Colorado Springs. The Dominion is not a church unto itself, but rather a kind of meta-church: they certify appropriate Christian denominations, and all citizens are expected to belong to one Dominion-approved church or another.

The story is very much in the 19th Century boys’ adventure novel style, and follows the adventures of Adam Hazzard, a poor boy in the Western states who becomes friends with Julian Comstock, the nephew of the current President, who has been exiled to prevent his death at the hands of his scheming uncle. Adam’s friendship with Julian leads him into a series of exciting adventures, as he is swept along in his friend’s wake through military service, political machinations, more military derring-do, and finally Julian’s brief but memorable reign as President himself (not really a spoiler, since the introduction hints at this).

I bought this very shortly after it came out, because I’ve loved everything by Wilson that I’ve read so far, but held off on reading it because the central conceit didn’t really seem like my thing. I’m no great fan of 19th century fiction, nor of depressing novels about post-apocalyptic theocracy. I was pleasantly surprised by this book, though, for two reasons: first, Wilson’s future is more fully realized than most, even operating within the constraints of having things end up more or less like the US in the 19th century; more importantly, though, Adam Hazzard’s narrative voice is really great.

The narration is probably a little dicey, and will not be to all tastes. In particular, Adam is possibly the most naive and clueless narrator in the history of fiction. This sort of goes past the point of “oh, my God, how can he be this thick” to become kind of funny. There’s a running joke about his inability to interpret French that provides some cute bits (I also liked the line “‘Oy,’ said Sam, in the cryptic language of the Jews.”), along with some great bits on the publishing industry, and his insistence on putting the most charitable possible interpretation on everything really won me over. This may not be true for everyone, though, and I suspect that novel will stand or fall on the reader’s reaction to Adam’s voice.

I ended up liking it quite a bit, though. Despite the more constrained setting, it fits the pattern of Wilson’s other books, in telling a well-realized personal story about someone on the periphery of world-changing events. And it has a Darwin movie, with duels and swordfights. What more could you want?