Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Felix Gilman, The Revolutions (2014)

The year is 1895.  Arthur Shaw is a struggling writer.  He meets Josephine Bradman, and they get engaged.  Josephine does typing and translation work for various eccentric spiritualist types, and it's through this work that Arthur becomes involved with one such group that is trying to astrally project themselves into space--into different "spheres," as the cosmology would have it.  This is all part of a sort of spiritual arms race, as it comes out that these spiritualists are involved in a subrosa magical war with various others.  

Anyway, one thing leads to another, and Josephine gets her consciousness trapped somewhere in the vicinity of Mars.  Arthur has to ally himself with these somewhat dubious people, notably the ambiguous Martin Atwood, to try to project after and rescue her.  The last part of the book is taken up with Exploits on Mars & Environs, switching between Arthur & Co and Josephine (who is certainly no passive damsel in distress).

So you know how sometimes you really like an author and you're really waiting for a book, so even if you don't love the book, you have a vested psychological interest in saying you do, 'cause you want to so much?  And you know how sometimes you flat-out feel bad about sharply criticizing an author's work not only because he's definitely talented, but because he's a fellow Pynchon fan and to all appearances a real mensch with good politics and you'd probably like him if you met him?  

All of which is by way of saying (obviously) that, although it pains me to say it, I flat-out did not like The Revolutions.  The concept is very cool.  The ambition is not wanting--in particular, the sketching out of an entire Martian society and history is impressive.  But the execution, I feel, is just not there.  I sporadically enjoyed reading it, but I got to the end and realized, huh--that didn't actually lead to much of anything.  It's all very disjointed.  The whole "magical war" business may not be exactly an original concept, but it's well-done--until the Mars section begins, at which point it just abruptly stops, and many pivotal characters are seen no more.  The Mars section is similarly problematic: the build-up, as Josephine gets involved with Martians, and Arthur, Atwood, and company explore the planet and look for her, is pretty okay*--but then, there's a very strong anti-climax; things just peter out, and one gets the strong impression that Gilman wasn't quite sure how to wind things down, and ultimately just decided to…stop them.

*I also want to make note of a subtle but effective jab at colonialism: the idea is that the surviving Martians had to escape to one of the planet's moons because one particular tribe of Martians got access to powerful destructive technologies and used them to basically destroy the planet.  This is the story as told to Josephine; by contrast, when Atwood is investigating and learns the outline of what happens, he characterizes the aggressors as "wise and civilized," and their victims as "barbarians."  Well-done.

Gilman makes a lot of use of the technique where you suggest just enough to be evocative while leaving various details tantalizingly obscure.  This served him well in his first four novels.  Here, not so much.  I feel like maybe he didn't really think of these abrupt conclusions as being problematic, but instead thought, well, okay, this kind of says what it needs to while leaving things intriguingly open.  But I disagree.  None of his previous novels were what you'd call conclusive, but they still felt thoroughly imagined and complete.  The Revolutions does not.  It's part of why I found the ending surpassingly irritating: it does one of these wide-pan things where it goes "and then for the next forty years…," and it really relies on the reader feeling that the narrative up to that point had covered the material and done all it needed to do.  But it didn't, dammit.  Not even close.

I really think you should read The Half-Made World; it's awesome, and it will make you a fan.  And do not get me wrong: I'm still going to buy anything Gilman writes, and I'll still be excited about it.  But every writer slips up on occasion, and The Revolutions is not a great book.


Anonymous Gregory pontificated to the effect that...

A shame; I'm reading Half-Made World on your recommendation, and enjoying it greatly.

7:07 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Awesome! Glad you like it. Thunderer and its sequel are worth checking out too.

11:40 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

"So you know how sometimes [...]"

Yes. I got hooked on Don Rosa's stories near the end of his run, when quality began to lessen. So while most of the earlier work was all wonderful, the new stories were mostly not-so-very-good. And I really wanted to like them, being part of DCML, communicating with Don amongst other fans.

2:31 PM  

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