Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Felix Gilman, Thunderer (2008) and Gears of the City (2009)

(There seems to be some confusion about these release dates; wikipedia says 2007 and 2008, but my copy of Thunderer clearly says 2008, and my copy of Gears claims to have been released in 2009 but has a 2008 copyright date.  Beats me.)

I picked up Gilman's first novel, Thunderer, due to comparisons to Perdido Street Station.  Turns out the similarities between the two are more in theory than in fact.  Yes, there are obvious points of comparison: both take place in vivid, sprawling, mysterious cities; both ultimately involve the accidental release of Very Bad Things that have to then be subdued; both…okay, come to think of it, that's really about it.  And both Cities and Bad Things are entirely different than those in Miéville's novel.  Probably Gilman's read it; who hasn't? but I don't think you can say that Thunderer couldn't have been written by someone who hadn't.

Thunderer did not suck me in immediately as Perdido Street did.  But once I was sucked in--I was sucked in.  I would like to propose that Thunderer is less brilliant than PSS--that is, there are fewer and less intense moments where you just have to go "holy SHIT that is SO FUCKING COOL--but is ultimately a better novel, inasmuch as it doesn't fall prey to the problems that marred the back half of Miéville's book.  Rest assured on that score: it does not descend into an enormous fucking boss fight, and the ending is not grim-for-the-sake-of-it.

Thunderer concerns a young man named Arjun, and I should start by noting that, yes, it can be a little hard at first to get used to some of these names: "Arjun" makes me think "Hindu epic," which really has nothing to do with the character.  One does get used to them, however.  Arjun comes from a town that worships this musical god known only as the Voice; when this Voice seems to disappear, he decides to travel to The Big City, Ararat (see above re names), which is haunted by innumerable gods, to try to find it.  There's another, parallel plot concerning a boy named Jack who escapes from a workhouse and joins up with various other escapees to found a gang/collective of sorts.

Now, the big difference between Miéville's New Crobuzon and Ararat is that, although Miéville leaves a lot unsaid or only hinted at, to great effect, there's a sense that his city is, theoretically knowable.  Perdido Street Station has a map in the front, even.  Whereas that notion is inimical to Gilman's city.  Literally so: a big deal is made of the idea that nobody knows how far the city extends, and the passages of gods are constantly subtly altering it in any case.  Trying to map it is forbidden, and one of the central plot threads concerns a group making a clandestine effort, with which Arjun finds himself involved, to create an atlas of the city.  The Thunderer of the title is (among other things) a giant airship, which was able to be created thanks to the passing by of a huge bird god; the scientist responsible for it had the idea that this would allow people to comprehend the entire city, but the countess for whom he built it uses it instead--big surprise--for military dominance (there's no one ruler of the city; it's more in the manner of rival fiefdoms than anything else, all with different rules and forms of government).

As often happens, I feel like I'm babbling like a cretin.  It's an elaborately-plotted novel, and there's only so much currency in trying to map it out here.  Suffice it to say, there are many signs and wonders.  I would especially like to praise the Bad Thing, which is absolutely nothing like Miéville's slake moths, but is just as effective in its own way.  The only glaring weakness of the book is a plotline involving the aforementioned countess's military commander, Arlandes.  In the process of getting the Thunderer up and going, his young bride ends up dead, and he pretty much spends the entire novel being all emo-y about this state of affairs, and then his story just kinda peters out without ever having really gone anywhere or contributed anything of note.  I suppose it was considered desirable to have a character from whose vantage point readers could see some behind-the-scenes politicking and whatnot, but it feels weirdly superfluous.  That's my only real criticism, though.  Apparently, the book wasn't successful enough to stay in print (an entirely unjustifiable state of affairs), but you can find used copies easily, or get an ebook edition.

Say this for Thunderer's sequel, Gears of the City (which apparently wasn't even successful enough to merit a paperback release--jeez): you cannot accuse Gilman of repeating himself.  At the end of Thunderer--SPOILERS to follow!--Arjun had been taught how to look behind the city, as it were; to travel its sort of mystical byways through space and time--what, in the sequel, is referred to as the "metacontext" or, yes, "gears of the city."  This was going to help him more effectively search for his god.  This search, we learn, revolves around trying to get to the Mountain, a mysterious macguffin always looming in the distance but seemingly impossible to reach.  There are all sorts of eccentrics and paranoids from everywhere and everywhen, who have figured out the metacontext, trying to get there.  As Gears of the City opens, Arjun seems to have reached it, but he's chased down by its shadowy guardians, losing his memory in the process.  He ends up in a part of the city that has a certain amount of twentieth-century technology but that doesn't exactly map onto any specific historical period.  He takes refuge with two sisters, Ruth and Marta, who are used to seeing "ghosts" like him coming down from the mountain, and who want him to find their other sister, Ivy, who has been…kidnapped? went voluntarily? with a strange wizard-y guy named Brace-Bel from somewhere and when else.

And…away we go.  This leads into an elaborate story involving the Mountain and the quest for it.  Thing is, this is pretty clearly a weaker novel than its predecessor.  It's not that I didn't enjoy it, but the midsections are pretty overwhelmingly gray-green and murky, not unlike a contemporary first-person shooter.  It can be a bit of a slog, and one can't help but feel a little disappointed that, with all the wonders of the city open to him, Gilman should so confine his action.  There are also a bunch of secondary characters whose stories feel underdeveloped.  However!  The climax is awesome.  You might think that having the characters actually reach the Mountain would be a bad idea, tantamount to having Godot drop by at the end, but the way Gilman does it is actually quite cool and effective.

Anyway, that concludes that series.  I wouldn't say it would be impossible, but it's very difficult to see how Gilman could do anything else in this setting after this without feeling really redundant.  But I recommend them both, albeit a little reservedly as far as the second one is concerned.


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