Doctor Science Knows

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blogcomment record: "Julian Comstock" UPDATED

Paul Kinkaid reviewed Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden wondered if they read the same book. My comments:

I seem to have read the book pretty much the way DaveL@70 did, and the idea that Julian's homosexuality was "unnecessary" is boggling to me.

However, speaking of marked and unmarked states:

I am surprised that no-one has mentioned the unmarked elephant in this state room.

that the narrator, his wife, and Julian's lover are all what we would call "black", but that it's apparently without "ethnic" significance? It is, IMHO, a very marked unmarkness, a joke Wilson is pulling on the readers, to put a lot of black characters (not just one, as in Left Hand of Darkness, but a *lot*) into a story and see if anyone notices.

The fact that Paul Kinkaid was reminded of the US Civil War but didn't see the black people strikes me as hilariously revealing, but in fact when I skimmed through a bunch of reviews *no-one* seems to have noticed -- even though this is set in a North America in which *slavery* has come back.

But then, I haven't come across anyone who's noticed that the ruling Church in Julian Comstock already exists, which is why Wilson put its headquarters in Colorado Springs. Or that the back-to-the-1880s political philosophy they use is actually taken directly from a certain trend in modern libertarians.

Chris Gerrib @ 77:

Actually, there are crumbs throughout the book indicating that the narrator and various other major characters are black. In particular, Wilson uses "tightly-curled" to describe what we'd call "black" hair. He's careful not to say "nappy", because he doesn't want the signal to be overt, he's *inclueing* the characters' race.

It's also not terribly relevant.

... um. You realize, don't you, that this parallels what Kincaid says about Julian's homosexuality. Indeed, I think one of the functions of homosexuality in the novel is to be the text while race is the subtext -- flipping the foreground/background in actual 19thC novels, where race could be text but sexuality had to be subtext.

No one else has spoken up, so I don't know if anyone here besides me perceived what Wilson does with race. I can't figure out which prospect boggles me more: that his clues were too subtle even for this group of very insightful readers, or that insightful readers noticed and thought it was trivial.

PNH @ 108:

Actually, it's more explicit than that: as Jeff Sharlet pointed out years ago, many important fundamentalist (and Dominionist) organizations have concentrated in Colorado Springs *precisely* in the hope that they can infiltrate/evangelize the Air Force. Focus on the Family is there, as is the New Life megachurch. In many ways, Colorado Springs already *is* the headquarters of Dominionism.

And yes, that's New Life Church as in "Ted Haggard", and that's why Julian Comstock's homosexuality is *crucial* to the story IMHO. Besides the Classic allusion, it's part of how Wilson shows that the tragedy of his future world is built from currently available ingredients.

OK, through the magic of, here are the descriptions:

a pink and radiant face, and large eyes whose color I could not at this distance discern, although I imagined them (correctly, as it turned out) to be a handsome chestnut-brown; and a crown of hair that coiled list a vast collation of ebony springs, the light behind her making a spectacular Halo of it.
Now, I admit that "pink" is suggestive of what we'd call a white woman -- but it's not clear if he's talking about someone like Beyonce, either. The hair, IMHO, is the crucial element in Wilson's descriptions of "black" characters, and when I read this I thought, "she's got a 'fro!" Throughout the book, Calyxa's hair is described as "coiled" (if not "spring-loaded"), and in the Epilogue when their daughter Flaxie is described:
her hair is as glossy and dark and tightly coiled as her mother's was.
Now, for Magnus Stepney, Julian's lover, the description is unmistakable:
lustrously dark skin and wiry hair.
While searching for these citations, I also came across the first description of Lymon Pugh, who has an "unruly knot of black hair" under his cap, and I wonder whether he, too, is supposed to be black ... or not.

Like all good humorous novelists, I think the author spent some time laughing at *us*, the readers.

Jo Walton@179:

I'm very glad to hear that you noticed, because I remember looking up your review after I'd finally gotten around to reading the book, and was both boggled and distressed that you seemed to have missed the way Wilson marks (or rather un-marks) race. I'm relieved to know that I can still trust your powers of observation, but distressed that you didn't feel you could talk about what you observed in a way that wouldn't be misconstrued.

The fact that issues of gender, race, inclusion, and all that are under *constant* discussion on livejournal/dreamwidth made it easy for me to notice what Wilson does, but it also made it easy for me to think and talk about it.

I was hoping that someone in this discussion would know if Wilson has talked/written about the way he handles race in "Julian Comstock". I basically agree with Terry @242: I think the idea that slavery could come back to North America and *not* have anything to do with race is preposterous. But writers are allowed one preposterous assumption per book, and I'm willing to go along with this one.

Marilee @255:

I completely disagree. I think Wilson is describing this kind of hairstyle, not sausage curls.

Remember, Calyxa's hair is like a *halo* -- that certainly sounds like a 'fro. And black african hair definitely coils naturally -- each hair is like a little slinky.

In general, too, sausage curls are a highly artificial, high-maintenance hairstyle, and it seems clear to me that, throughout, the narrator is talking about Calyxa's natural hair, which her daughter inherits.

But I'm not sure if I would have come to the same conclusion about Calyxa's appearence based on this passage, except that I was looking for other unmarked black people once I noticed what Wilson did with the narrator.

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