Monday, February 04, 2013

Felix Gilman, The Half-Made World (2010) and The Rise of Ransom City (2012)

The Half-Made World is not by any stretch "science fiction," and it's weird that Ursula K. LeGuin and The Cleveland Plain Dealer (I realized in proof-reading that I had initially written "Cleveland Pain Dealer," which sounds quite terrifying) claim it is in their laudatory pull-quotes.  What it is is a highly allegorical fantasy novel taking place in a general though not exact (when you try to make things correspond exactly, you inevitably run into trouble) equivalent of late-nineteenth-century America.

The central conceit here is that there are two warring factions that function in the western part of this world (you can think of Northeast as being the more "civilized" American northeast, or you can think of it as old Europe, with the west being America as a whole).  The first of these is called the Line, an intensely repressive, essentially fascist group that is all about conquering the land and forcing it to fit into a regimented, industrialized shape.  The Line is governed by its "Engines," supernatural entities that manifest themselves as "Stations" with associated trains.  It broadly represents the industrial revolution, the oncoming of capitalism, and industrialized death in a way that, dare I say it, presages World War I and on to the other horrors of the twentieth century.

Opposing the Line is the Gun, another group of supernatural creatures that manifest themselves in the form of special guns that each associate themselves with a given human "agent," with whom they communicate telepathically and grant superhuman powers.  The agents can be killed, though not easily, but when this happens new ones are found.  In contrast to the flat, gray, bureaucratic conformism of the Line, the Gun's agents are all flamboyantly idiosyncratic (and Gilman delights in coming up with cool, evocative names for them--Gentleman Jim Dark, Rattlesnake Renner, Jen of the Floating World, One-Eye Beck, Smiling Joe Portis, Abban the Lion, Dandy Fanshawe, and so on).  They represent the American will to anarchism, lawlessness, and chaotic, aimless violence.  Don't mistake this for a battle of good and evil: in Dungeons & Dragons terms, the difference between the Line and the Gun is essentially that between lawful and chaotic evil.

I find this to be a really brilliant conception.  The back-cover copy compares the novel to Against the Day.  You've gotta be pretty damned cocky to make a claim like that, but after reading The Half-Made World…yeah.  The struggle between chaos and order, with regular people just keeping their heads down and trying to get by, is very thematically reminiscent of Pynchon's novel.  I'd go further with the Pynchon comparisons and say that the "half-made world" concept--the idea being that the farther west you go, the less "tamed" the world is, until you reach a point where it's literally as well as figuratively "unmade"--in the absence of any "civilizing" force, nature is still raw chaos--is also very much like what we see in Mason & Dixon.  And don't imagine that these allegorical constructs are the only thing the setting has going for it: it all feels very authentic to its inspiration, from the proliferation of cults and splinter sects to the popularity of patent medicines of dubious value.  Trust me: it's very rich stuff.

If I have one quibble to make, it's that I feel like the portrait of the Line isn't quite complete.  It has all these fanatically loyal troops, but the question is: why?  They're pressed into service, sure, but why would they come to identify with it so?  As any Marxist will tell you, the problem with capitalism is not that it doesn't bring with it good and useful things that people want.  If it were purely negative, it wouldn't have been able to spread.  And yet, it's not clear what the Line really offers people, exactly.  I can't help feeling that Gilman's conception is a little bit, ahem, half-made.  It's not a major complaint, though, and it doesn't do much to dull the power of the concept.

There are three major characters/plotlines here: first, there's a professor of psychiatry from the east named Liv Alverhuysen who, recently widowed, gets an invitation to go west to a hospital where the mentally-scarred victims of the fighting are treated (this hospital is strictly neutral, and the Line and Gun leave it alone because it's protected by a spirit that prevents violence from taking place on its grounds).  Then there's John Creedmoor, an aging and at this point somewhat reluctant Agent of the Gun (he's probably more chaotic neutral than evil, and a quite well-drawn anti-hero), whose gun orders him to go to this same hospital, to retrieve a certain patient, who, it is said, holds some sort of secret to ending the war.  This patient is a general and former leader of the Red Valley Republic, a short-lived effort to carve out a space where people would be able to live without fear of the constant battles between Line and Gun (ah, the American dream--inevitable that that wouldn't last long).  This general was thought to be dead, but in fact, he lives on, although his mind has been shattered by a Line weapon designed to do exactly that.  The final character is Subinvigilator Lowry, a typical Line bureaucrat who perfectly embodies the "banality of evil" concept.  His story is less prominent than the other two, but he's quite well-drawn, in a constant struggle to tamp down his desire for individual recognition.  His final apotheosis, though brief, is one of the most amazing things in the novel.

Let's not beat around the bush: this book is fantastic and I love it.  I liked Gilman's first two novels fine, but I feel like here he's really come into his own.  The Half-Made World is totally original and very thematically rich and I highly recommend it.  Really, my only objection is that it's, well…kind of half-made.  In the sense that, although there is no indication of this anywhere on any of the copy, you really can't claim that this is a complete story.  And this isn't anything like Thunderer, which does not resolve Arjun's quest but is nonetheless obviously a self-contained story in itself.  The Half-Made World ends at an important turning point that is nonetheless obviously not the end, and there's an epilogue that could not telegraph a sequel more strongly.  Gilman has said in interviews that the original idea was for the thing to be self-contained, but that it got away from him.  I don't hold this against him; unlike certain hacktastic fantasy authors who can't possibly finish their tedious Tolkien knock-offs in a mere nine thousand pages, The Half-Made World has clearly earned another book.  Seems a bit much to nowhere mention this, however (not Gilman's fault, obviously).

As it so happens, however, I have its sequel, The Rise of Ransom City, right here.  As with Gears of the City, I admire the hell out of the fact that Gilman was not content to give us more of the same.  Ransom City covers much of the same territory as its predecessor, but from a completely different direction: it's written in the form of the reminiscences of one Harry Ransom--audodidact, amateur inventor, showman, utopian.  A quintessentially American type.  Ransom makes a very brief appearance in The Half-Made World, but nothing that would make you expect he'd be making a starring turn (the fact that Gilman wrote a freely-available short story about him to promote the first book, however, might have given you a clue).

The deal with Harry is that he comes from a family out east, and after the death of his father, he strikes out alone, to try to develop and promote the "Ransom Process," which, in theory, provides unlimited, free light--though it turns out it may have unexpected and unwelcome military uses as well.  The action moves along at a rather stately pace, as he eventually becomes embroiled in the Line's bureaucracy.  The Line is more explicitly connected with capitalism here than it was in the previous book; whereas there we more or less saw it as a sort of nomadic, roaming entity, here we see more of its basic infrastructure.  There's also at least a small nod to the idea that it can have its benefits, as Harry, as a child, is saved from a life-threatening illness by its technology (while also, however, sending his father into permanent debt peonage).

The Rise of Ransom City inevitably lacks some of the shock-of-the-new that made its predecessor stand out so, but it's still a plenty fine book, and Harry's voice is distinctive and likable.  His "apparatus" by which the Ransom Process works allows us to continue the Pynchon parallels, from the use of light as a governing metaphor to the idea of ripping holes in space-time revealing other possible worlds to the intimation of nuclear power when the thing is used as a weapon.  While you could argue the point regarding The Half-Made World, after reading the sequel, I'd be quite surprised to learn that Gilman did not consciously take inspiration from Against the Day.

I was generally quite satisfied with the sequel: nobody who gave it a moment's thought would possibly have expected that it would end really conclusively--what, we expect the struggle for America's soul to just stop?--but I think it does about as well as it could.  We could perhaps compare the utopian strivings here to the ones in Miéville's Iron Council, but for my money Gilman's ultimate treatment of the theme is rather more satisfying.

I would not say that Ransom City is perfect, however; there are a number of plot threads that are left dangling or aren't developed as well as I feel they might've been, including this business with a love interest of Harry's which never seems sufficiently well-developed to particularly mean much, even though its clearly meant to; and his relationship with one of his sisters.  Also, Creedmoor--whose ambivalence about his position was one of the most interesting things in The Half-Made World--is just left hanging; his character arc is never really finished.  I feel like this is a situation where more would've been more.

Finally, I feel like I should comment on what might be the most controversial and potentially problematic aspect of both of these books; namely, the treatment of the "Folk," the aboriginal people of this world.  They do not, it should be emphatically noted, even pretend to be any sort of clear analogue with actual Native Americans, and I feel that reviews that try to approach them from that direction are not paying sufficient heed to the allegorical nature of this world.  What the Folk are, however, is more or less completely incomprehensible to everyone: literally alien creatures, who may or may not be immortal and whose thought processes cannot be understood by the other characters.  It's obvious enough how this could be seen as problematic, but to me, it works well enough as a general statement about the way we tend to construct the Other as alien.  Fact is, though, they're also people, and yet the books keep them very much at arm's length.  In The Half-Made World, they engage in brief, cryptic telepathic communications with both Liv and Creedmoor, and while I get that Gilman's thing is implying rather than flat-out saying, this just feels like an aspect of the world that was perhaps not as carefully considered as it might have been.  I think there would be a lot of space open here if he wanted to flesh things out in another book.

Be that as it may, though, this is some of the best fantasy shit I've read.  And I should probably be  glad that his next book ISN'T going to be a follow-up, because what it IS going to be about is "Victorian occultists who go to Mars," which sounds super-cool.  At any rate, I'm a confirmed fan now, and I will automatically read anything he publishes.


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