The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
|Book Name:||The Half-Made World|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Steampunk / Fantasy|
|Release Date:||October 12, 2010|
The best thing about Felix Gilman’s latest novel, The Half-Made World, is without a doubt the world it introduces us to. In shape and ambiance, it has shades of the mythic American West—recalling not just the physical aspects of a frontier terrain, but the thematic qualities of wilderness and receding civilization, lawlessness and the struggle to survive, that have characterized westerns from Archie Mayo’s The Petrified Forest to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It also echoes the visionary novelists of the nineteenth-century who wrote during the first flowering of the industrial revolution, who saw the coming of the mechanized world with a kind of fascinated loathing, and for whom the steam-train hurtling across the countryside on newly-laid tracks was a symbol of both progress and destruction.
Gilman’s book lands roughly inside the literature/fashion/lifestyle movement known as steampunk that has been exploding during the past year or two like the profits of a Lancaster mill owner, circa 1860. My general feelings about steampunk are somewhat mixed; while I enjoy the aesthetic of it lot, as a historian of the 19th century I find its romance with the British Victorian world (which often includes inadvertent white-washing of that culture’s significant and troubling imperial tendencies) pretty troubling. I am not the only one to have pointed out this trouble spot in steampunk culture, and there are some powerful voices being raised for a more inclusive and (for want of a better word) multicultural steampunk (a good perspective on this issue can be found on the blog of Ay-leen the Peacemaker).
The Half-Made World avoids that particular cultural minefield, and manages to show the reader a world that is steampunk without Victoriana, and alt-historical without glossed-over social problems. This world is not our own, but it is one which is both brilliantly original and which manages to suggest powerful truths about the history of western expansion in America and about the conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a world divided between the established, settled East and the chaotic West, a land that is in the process of being created. Beyond it, the land dissolves into chaos, and it is only by the slow process of western expansion that the world is formed and settled into a real and rational shape.
The West is wracked by war, and has been for centuries. The two sides pitted against each other in this Manichean struggle are the forces of the Line and those of the Gun. The Linesmen are like the bastard children of George Orwell’s and William Blake’s nightmares, full of groupthink mentalities and at work in “dark satanic mills.” They are pushing their sphere of influence ever-westward, laying down tracks so that the great Engines, whom they treat like mechanized gods, can go forward into the west. Against them are ranged the Agents of the Gun, like anarchist anti-superheroes on speed, who are ridden by vengeful spirits as they spread indiscriminate chaos and destruction.
The story’s main characters are caught between these opposing forces that are—whether you love to hate or hate to love them—no better that the aggressors of any real life war. Unfortunately, none of principle actors are very sympathetic, or quite as interesting as the world they inhabit, but the story Gilman has pulled them into is urgent and mysterious enough that I followed it enthusiastically, despite that.
The skeleton of the story is that of a handful of individuals who have walked (or been chased down) eventful and dissimilar roads through life, whose paths converge at a shared point of crisis. Liv Alverhuysen is a doctor of experimental psychology and a product of the East, who has decided to travel west to take up a position at an isolated hospital on the edge of the created lands. John Creedmoor is an aging Agent of the Gun and is, despite that, almost a man of scruples. He is called upon by his masters for one more mission, and what brings them together is the target of both their work, a broken inmate of the hospital and forgotten relic of history, the General of the defeated Red Republic. Hidden in the General’s mind is a secret of the Hillfolk, the original inhabitants of the West who appear in the story as inhuman Others, powerful and enigmatic. Both the Line and the Gun are marshalling their forces to try to uncover this secret, since it is the key to a power that could permanently tip the balance of the long war.
In a way, what Gilman has written an archetypal adventure story, in that the reader can recognise—from the elements given at the beginning—that certain things are going to happen. Characters are going to be thrown together, there will be dramatic action, combat, a series of physical and metaphorical journeys…but this does not mean that the story is predictable. There is, for one, the pleasure that comes from seeing the way in which Gilman uses the archetype. Further, he plays both with and against the reader’s expectations, sometimes giving the dramatically conventional (and satisfying) plot twist, and sometimes the unexpected (and powerful) surprise. Also, there is a real and opaque level of mystery to the story. I, along with all the rest of the cast of characters, really wanted to find out what the secret is that everyone is pursuing so doggedly.
That desire is not fully satisfied in the end, and the enigmas that remained after the final resolution left me craving a sequel—which I hope Gilman is in the process of writing! I also want a sequel to get to better know and like the characters. While neither Liv nor Creedmoor is very appealing when the reader first meets them (Liv is too reserved and self-contained, and Creedmoor acts the loveable rogue without being actually loveable), they both show themselves capable of growth over the course of the story. Unfortunately, that growth is only partly realized, and I was left wondering what would happen to them next.
(I know, by the way, that Gilman can write fully sympathetic characters, because of his short story, Lightbringers and Rainmakers, which is set in the same world and features the completely charming “Professor” Harry Ransom, a minor character from The Half-Made World. I strongly recommend any reader who enjoys the novel check it out as well!)