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  • Future's Past
  • Gerry Canavan (bio)
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America. Robert Charles Wilson. Tor Books. 416 pages; cloth, $25.95; paper, $8.99; eBook, $8.99.

In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) Karl Marx notes G. W. F. Hegel's claim that "all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice": first as tragedy, then as farce. For Marx, the Roman affectations of the French Revolution represented precisely this sort of uncanny repetition—as did the Old Testament interests of Cromwellites during the English Civil War and the French Revolution of 1848's aping of the previous revolutions of 1789 and 1793-1795, "[i]n like manner a beginner who has learnt a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue." History repeats, the thinking goes, not as some inevitable law of the universe but as a basic tendency of human nature—history repeats because our impoverished imaginations can only very rarely conceive the truly new. More commonly, in attempting to look forward, we find ourselves instead simply looking backward.

This principle seems particularly important in recent science fiction that attempts to depict the world after Peak Oil. As Imre Szeman, among others, has noted, cheap, easily extractable petroleum is now so central to the workings of contemporary capitalism that almost no aspect of the present system could function without it. Consequently, as Szeman writes, "Oil capital seems to represent a stage that neither capital nor its opponents can think beyond." In the absence of some sufficient substitute for oil's energy miracle—in the absence, that is, of a future that is both prosperous and possible—the only solution for the imagination seems to be to cast itself into history in search of the secret of what's to come. For James Howard Kunstler (a leading Jeremiah of the coming post-oil "long emergency"), the title of his 2008 novel World Made by Hand suggests what he sees as the only conceivable alternative to the global oil economy: a return to the hyperlocal artisan economy of the early nineteenth-century U.S. In Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (2009), the end of oil similarly entails a return to the past; the novel is set several hundred years after the end of oil, which has come to be retrospectively recognized as the end of both globalization and U.S./Western hegemony and the start of a century-long period of breakdown and disaster known as "The Contraction." To the people of this distant future time, the oil age is remembered as a distant "golden age"—but one that is permanently and hopelessly in the past, never to return.

Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock, too, envisions the post-petroleum world as the return of obsolete historical social forms. Wilson's previous novel, the Hugo Award-winning Spin (2005), imagined a universe in which time begins to move too fast; mysterious aliens sealed the Earth inside a stasis bubble, condemning us to watch years pass by in minutes, millennia in months. Julian Comstock, in a way, poses the opposite problem: a history that has lost any ability to progress at all, that indeed has begun to move backwards. The contemporary era has come to be remembered by the people of 2172 as the "Efflorescence of Oil," the word "efflorescence" describing the evaporating of water that leaves behind a thin layer of salty detritus. Here, that detritus is the ruined remains of our own twentieth- and twenty-first-century lives: the hardship and dislocation of global collapse, the inscrutable plastic junk that litters their countryside, their myths that man once walked on the moon, a generally ruined world. American life has become much more technologically constrained; New York is considered the greatest city in the world in part because it still manages electrical illumination for four hours every day. American democracy has been completely transformed: the presidency is now an inherited, aristocratic office; the House of Representatives has apparently been abolished; elections are purely symbolic, empty rituals, primarily enacted for the purposes of military recruitment in an endless series of imperial wars...


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pp. 11-12
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