We've seen this world before. If science fiction's futures are no longer shaped by a consensus dream, there are at least some futures more familiar than others: the neon urban sprawl; the accelerated post-singular virtuality; the depleted post-ecotastrophe landscape. Stories set (as Julian is) in the last of these tend to bear down on us with the weight of inevitability—it gets harder and harder, for example, to believe in the sort of ecotopia that Kim Stanley Robinson depicted with a straight face in Pacific Edge (1988). So almost nothing about the 2172 in which Julian is set is surprising. This is a world in which the US flag has 13 bars and 60 stars, and in which what was Canada has warmed up enough that corn snakes are native fauna; a world that has a militaristic government that isn't quite a theocracy but might as well be, where people talk warily of our time as the Efflorescence of Oil that led to the False Tribulation. All common as muck. But Robert Charles Wilson is known for wrapping stories around Big Ideas, so you can't help wondering what he's up to.
The answer is slow in coming. Julian has the deftly-tucked hospital corners characteristic of so many good novellas—in the end, nothing is superfluous—but its pace, even at its most dramatic moments, never risks becoming urgent. The narrator, Adam, is telling us a before-they-were-famous story about his friend, Julian, and indirectly a more interesting coming-of-age story about himself. By definition, it is a small story, a tale that portends greatness but does not contain any directly. The small town in which Adam has grown up and Julian has come to live, Williams Ford, is a backwater; such events as that year's election campaign (in which the only candidate, as has been the case for the last six elections, is Julian's uncle), or the ongoing war in Labrador, on the other side of the country, are of little moment. So when Adam and Julian and Julian's mentor Sam Godwin ride out, as they have done before, to the local Tip—a sort of swap-shop for excavated detritus from the Years of Vice and Profligacy—they have no reason to suspect it will be for the last time. But something nags at Adam:
This was the world I had been born into. It was an autumn like every autumn I remember. But I could not help thinking of the Tip and its ghosts. Maybe those people, the people who had lived through the Efflorescence of Oil and the False Tribulation, had felt about their homes and neighborhoods as I felt about Williams Ford. They were ghosts to me, but they must have seemed real enough to themselves—must have been real; had not realized they were ghosts; and did that mean I was also a ghost, a revenant to haunt some future generation? (pp. 14-15)
The answer to his question is, of course, Yes; and since it's the sort of revelation that (I think) everyone on the cusp of adulthood, confronted with the depth of history, is liable to experience, it makes Adam easy to empathise with. It also makes Adam uncomfortable, because he's been raised to avoid such questions. For Adam, the world doesn't change (later in the year, the familiar rituals of Christmas are soothing, and "spoke of eternity", p. 28); the idea that it does is Philosophy, and not much use on a daily basis. Julian, on the other hand, is more alive to the possibilities of the world. He believes in Philosophers, and claims to have met some—he may even be on his way to becoming one. His prize pick from the Tip is a biology textbook—but to Adam, DNA is a myth of the secular ancients. This is the sort of heresy that, it is strongly implied, leads to whatever notoriety Julian later achieves. Wilson is relatively tight-lipped on the nature of this notoriety, but it seems likely that it has something to do with a widespread rediscovery of rationality and science—we know that Julian makes a (banned) film about the life and work of Charles Darwin, but that's unlikely to be all he does, since we also know he becomes better-known as Julian the Agnostic, or Julian Conqueror.
The setup at the start of the novella, though, implies comprehensive societal regression—this future is a 19th-century world of landowners and laborers, cavalry and riflemen. It's deliberate. Shunning the hedonism of the 20th and 21st centuries, the leaders of 22nd-century America insist that the best model for American society is a time of "household virtues and modest industries," a practical, pragmatic lifestyle, and "useful and improving" literature. It is always something of a risk for a science fiction writer to model their future too closely on the past: if done badly, it can easily look like a failure of imagination, or run into the sort of technological and cultural inconsistencies that pock Joss Whedon's otherwise remarkable Firefly. But here, I think it mostly works, reinforcing the sense that Adam and Julian's world is one we already know—although Wilson comes close to overplaying his hand when he has Adam speculate about the implications of his society being only "an imperfect memory of another century" (p. 35). It helps that we are in a backwater; it makes it easier to believe that they've forgotten so much.
Along with his textbook of biology, Julian rescues from the Tip a book titled THE HISTORY OF MANKIND IN SPACE, and gifts it to a dubious Adam. At first Adam merely looks at the pictures; later, he starts to read more of the book, and it starts to nag at him in the same way as the Tip. Matters come to a head when a detachment of troops arrives in Williams Ford a few days before Christmas, to screen what amounts to a propaganda film (silent, of course), and to announce and enforce conscription. All of Adam's uncertainties combine:
Whatever the cause, I was beset by a sudden anxiety and sense of melancholy. Here I was in the midst of everything that seemed familiar and ought to be comforting—the crowd of the leasing class, the enclosing benevolence of the Dominion Hall, the banners and tokens of the Christmas season—and it all suddenly felt ephemeral, as if the world were a bucket from which the bottom had dropped out. (p. 35)
What Adam, under the influence of Julian, is starting to intuit is a scientific perspective; or, we might say, a science-fictional perspective. He hasn't the words to articulate it, but increasingly it colors his thoughts. Wilson writes elegantly, even romantically, about this discovery of perspective: Adam's new sense of "the impermanence of things" (p. 42) leads him to a realisation that "the universe [...] was full to brimming with lonesome places" (p. 43) and, later, to wonder at the circularity of time, "every moment dying and pregnant with its own distorted reflection" (p. 85). (Julian cautions his friend that he "must not make the mistake of thinking that because nothing lasts, nothing matters," but it doesn't seem to take.)
Some perfectly adequate but uninspiring running around follows, during which Julian attempts to avoid being conscripted (suspecting that his uncle wants him sent to the war so that he will die) and Adam assists him. The heart of the story, however, is elsewhere, in Adam's gradually expanding speculations. In the midst of a big crisp empty Athabaskan winter, such thoughts—about the day's potential; about being on the eve of a new year, a new perspective, a new adulthood, a new future; about how the familiar becomes unfamiliar—seem to strike at something true about our relationship with the world. That's enough of an Idea for one story, and, in the end, it's enough story for just one story, too. Although at times Julian inevitably feels like a try-out for some other, longer project, I hope it is not, because it stands better alone. What Julian has been trying to tell Adam, and what Julian has been trying to tell us, is simple, but heartfelt: here comes tomorrow.