Felix Gilman’s new book, The Half-Made World is out (Powells, Amazon). I liked it very much indeed (but then, I’ve liked everything that Gilman has written since stumbling across Thunderer ). It’s a steampunk-inflected Western, with a fair dollop of HP Lovecraft thrown in (the malignant ‘Engines,’ whose physical appearance is mostly left undescribed, are genuinely unsettling). The writing is lovely, and the main character a genuinely complex and interesting woman.
I’m mildly allergic to steampunk, which seems to me to have become a set of lazy tropes. But Gilman reinvents these tropes – clockwork (and, most particularly, the sound of clockwork) has never been so horrifying. There are strong hints that the bits of the novel that seem formulaic (in particular, the allotted role of the Hill People, who are loosely analogous to Native Americans in the real 19th century American West, as magical-saviours of the white folks) are going to be radically undermined in the sequel. Things are going to get weirder.
Locus had an interview with Cherie Priest last month which summed up a certain approach to steampunk quite nicely.
“Steampunk is a style that’s still searching for myths – the archetypes and icons and tropes by which it will be defined. For example, if you see a book cover and there’s an elf and a dwarf and an axe, you know that’s a fantasy book. If you see a black cover with red letters and fangs on the front, okay, that’s a horror novel. There are these pop-culture shortcuts that we immediately recognize. The airship and the goggles are just trappings. … “I’m going to try to make a world where the trappings of steampunk as we understand them are symptomatic of the world, and not just gears glued on a top hat. If there are going to be goggles, then I would like there to be a reason for them. If there are going to be dirigibles, well, why? How does this work?
There’s another word that would substitute perfectly well for ‘myth,’ ‘archetype,’ ‘icon’ and ‘trope’ in this passage. It’s ‘cliché.’ And clichés which are ‘symptomatic of the world’ that is created to explain them are still clichés. This is probably why I found Priest’s Boneshaker (a book liked by quite a lot of people, including people I respect) very competently written, but completely dead.
What I like about Gilman’s book is that the metaphors aren’t dead. They’re being combined with other ideas and metaphors and reinvented. They are also entirely self-aware, and contingent even inside the text (the two malign forces of the book, the Gun and the Line, are direct products of the imaginative limitations of the settlers). If The Half-Made World fits into a line of thought within f/sf, it’s less steampunk, then a set of arguments which come out of Gene Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus and go through Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide and Paul Park’s Celestis about the ways in which colonialists imagine the aboriginals that they are violently displacing, and the ways that the aboriginals imagine them. I’ve no idea whether any of these books are conscious or unconscious influences on The Half-Made World – but it’s helpful for some purposes to think about them together.
I suspect that this is one of the reasons that Ursula Le Guin likes this book so much (this has to be the only book in the history of the genre to have received twin blurbs from Le Guin and Eric van Lustbader). This is a really good book. If you like books like this at all, you should buy it.