“And so we rode out that Christmas morning from the ruins in which the Tipmen had discovered ‘The History of Mankind in Space,’ which still resided in my back-satchel, vagrant memory of a half-forgotten past.”
-Robert Charles Wilson, “Julian: A Christmas Story”
Merry Christmas from the theocratic neo-Victorian 22nd century created by Robert Charles Wilson! Climate change and the end of peak oil have caused a technological reversion. The social order is structured by a hierarchy with feudal indenture, property-based representation in the senate and a hereditary line of succession to the presidency. The titular character, Julian Comstock, is the nephew of the sitting president sent to a remote district by his mother for his safety. That safety is threatened two days before Christmas when reservists arrive to impose a draft for the war with the Dutch in Labrador. Maps and geopolitical relationships have changed significantly — our flag has 60 stars and Julian’s father was a hero of a war against Brazil. Julian’s father was also hanged for a dubious charge of treason, and the president now sees Julian as a threat. Conscription into the war would be a convenient way for the president to eliminate his teenage nephew.
Julian is a free thinker with egalitarian views that conflict with the rigid world he lives in. Many of his ideas are considered heresies, such as his belief in the suppressed ideas of Charles Darwin. Julian gets many of these ideas from old books that aren’t endorsed by the “Church of the Dominion.” These books are often obtained surreptitiously from Tipmen — men who make their living scavenging the detritus of the fallen world, the time they call the “Efflorescence of Oil,” our time.
The narrator of the story is Julian’s friend Adam Hazzard, told years after Julian has made his mark on the world. “Julian: A Christmas Story” chronicles the events in the days leading up to that Christmas day when Julian and Adam are forced down a path into history. This being a Christmas story, the author skillfully weaves many hallmarks of the season into the story: holiday food and decorations, snow-covered hills and a melancholy longing for home.
The story can be found in the science-fiction themed holiday collection, “A Cosmic Christmas 2 You.” Wilson later expanded Julian’s story into a novel, “Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America.” It is very well written, like the story that inspired the novel. Wilson writes prose and dialogue that skillfully echos the language of the 19th century, reinforcing how much the world has regressed. The novel almost reads like an alternate history, except it is set in the future.
I’m sure for some the idea of a dystopian holiday season doesn’t seem like fiction: it can be a time of great stress as well as a time of joy. But arguing politics with your uncle over the Christmas ham is not the end of the world, no matter how frustrating. Aside from scenes of people waiting in lines for hours only to be trampled for Black Friday deals, the holidays aren’t very dystopian. I certainly hope they aren’t for any of you. Happy Holidays!