Gilman’s Claustrophobic West

by Lizardbreath on May 6, 2013

As an undiscerning, lowbrow reader, my reactions to books are heavily driven by plot; I expect competent prose, but what I’m usually looking for in genre fiction is a series of engaging events that wraps up neatly with a bow on the end. On the other hand, while both The Half-Made World and The Rise Of Ransom City are entertainingly written in terms of story and event, the structure of the setting is more interesting than anything that actually happens in either book.

The most obvious thing to be said about The Half-Made World and The Rise Of Ransom City is that they are fantasy Westerns, centered on a long-term war between the Line and the Gun: industrial totalitarianism against anarchic violence. The fantasy Western is a familiar setting for speculative fiction, from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to Firefly, but Gilman makes it unfamiliar by broadening the setting beyond the stylized frontier/gunman/saloon/dusty cattle-drive world of a TV Western to include a range of other aspects of the nineteenth century American West, and putting those aspects together in a way that is very alien to my sense of what the American West generally represents.

While Gilman’s West includes the elements of the standard “Western”, its setting is geographically and structurally complicated. It’s spatially vague, in that I couldn’t dream of drawing a map, but along with the half-made world of the frontier Rim, it includes a rich, aristocratic South (the baronies of the Delta), midwestern farming towns like something out of Tom Sawyer where Ransom, the protagonist of the second book1, grew up, a Mississippi-style river with riverboats and at least one but implicitly several business-driven Chicagoesque midwestern cities.

What’s missing is as interesting as what’s there; there’s no East, and as part of there being no East, there’s no recent history of the sort you’d expect in a version of the American nineteenth century. While there’s an east to west gradient of civilization with the more civilized cities to the east of the frontier Rim, there’s no East in the sense of a much-longer-settled, denser, more industrialized area with a longer history, and no sense of the West generally as a place where the entire population arrived fairly recently from someplace else, no “What was your name in the States?” There’s a Europe-analog, the old countries over the mountains, but they’re inaccessible and while there are references to people having ancestry derived from the ‘European’ countries, there’s no sense that there was any sort of recent mass immigration (also, and I don’t know whether this was purposeful, they’re explicitly to the north, rather than east, of the western setting of the books). And while there’s history – The Half-Made World involves the ‘European’ protagonist relying on a children’s history of the West as a source of information – it’s a static feeling history, without much in the way of progress or motion. The war between Gun and Line has been going on almost since the first settlement of the West four hundred years before the events of both books, and nothing significant seems to have happened one way or the other in that four centuries.

The Line and the Gun, as representing developed industry versus frontier anarchy, should take the place of the East/West opposition that seems missing from Gilman’s setting, but the pieces don’t line up right. First, neither power is geographically well-defined. Line-controlled territory shows up either as places in the process of being destroyed while being taken over by the Line, or as what seem to be individual buildings, the Stations. While there must be areas, rather than merely points, that are Line-controlled, we don’t really see them. Gun-controlled territory is even less visible; while the Line shows up as giant buildings, the Gun, as a power, appears only in terms of its individual Agents. Second there’s really no feeling at all of Gun-controlled territory as a place that Linesmen can flee to, of the Gun as defining a safety-valve for the Line’s excess population where people can go to find open land and redefine themselves. If part of the meaning of the American West is Horace Greeley’s exhortation to “Go West, young man,” the Gun absolutely fails to take that role in relation to the Line.

Instead, both the Gun and the Line close in, claustrophobically, on the unaffiliated areas where most of both books take place. The closest things to a third place allowing escape from both are the Red Valley Republic, which we encounter only after it has been already crushed by the Line, and Ransom City, which exists only in the form of an expedition into the wilderness that is never heard from again. The frame story in The Rise of Ransom City takes place after the war between Gun and Line is over, and it’s implied, without quite being stated, that the McGuffin-wielding forces of Alverhuysen and Creedmoor were successful in destroying both, but it’s clear throughout both books that flight from Gun and Line is hopeless: while they’re eventually (probably) defeated in head-on battle, they can’t possibly be avoided.

Recasting the frontier as a place that’s anything but open and free, and is instead only temporarily open before being imminently consumed by rival horrors, is disturbingly effective in making an overfamiliar setting new and horrifying. Gilman turns a set of tropes usually used to stand for limitless possibility into a cramped, hemmed-in nightmare. It’s a neat trick – every other Western I’ve ever seen or read has now become much creepier in retrospect.


  1. Ransom, as a traveling showman/inventor, is certainly a familiar Western type, along the lines of O Henry’s Jeff Peters, or The Rainmaker but it’s weird running into him as anything other than a con man – I wouldn’t have thought you could have taken out the fraudulent aspect and left the character recognizably the same type. 

{ 40 comments }

1

Western Dave 05.06.13 at 1:55 pm

“Recasting the frontier as a place that’s anything but open and free, and is instead only temporarily open before being imminently consumed by rival horrors, is disturbingly effective in making an overfamiliar setting new and horrifying. ” Wait, are you reading SF or Patty Limericks’s Legacy of Conquest?

2

Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.06.13 at 2:32 pm

Not sure the Line is that different from “the East” in the sense you remark. I mean, in the sense of supernatural demons creating a hierarchy of abuse and misery in the name of efficency it is, but the Stations are more than simple stations where the engines stop. They have masses of people in there, factories producing everything… and they start East, in the first colonized areas.

But as you say they are tied to their metaphor of the train as bringer of industrial civilization, so the places between Stations are either insignificant, markets to be exploited or annexed, or future destinations of the Line.

3

Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.06.13 at 2:36 pm

Also… one subtle thing is that we are never sure how much of the tale of Harry Ransom is, in fact, false. Leaving the opportunity for him to be a con-man – or not. The frame of “documents found by somebody” gives it enough reality as to know there was a Harry Ransom, or somebody calling himself such, that was there in the events described – but as if the tale is truthful or not, we cant say we know.

We want to believe it as much as one could one to believe a snake-oil cure-all. We just dont know if in this case, it was a real cure-all

4

LizardBreath 05.06.13 at 2:52 pm

Fair enough on Ransom as an unreliable narrator, but the Ransom process has large-scale public effects: there’s no way to make the book work if the Ransom process is entirely a fraud. He’s a fraud in that he didn’t develop it entirely himself, of course, but he’s not a complete con-man: he’s got something real.

5

Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.06.13 at 3:02 pm

Yes, it has enough of a frame as to make the tale not 100% possible to dismiss as a fraud. The degree of … embellishment of those details is what we dont know – starting with our friend the reporter who puts the tale together.

After all, the book already have a fictitious account of a business man rise from rags to riches :-P

6

Dan Nexon 05.06.13 at 3:03 pm

A very nice piece.

FWIW, Felix Gilman suggests that Harry Ransom should be treated as reliable — inasmuch as any narrator is “reliable.” If you don’t trust my claim, or Felix doesn’t make it in his contribution, he says so in the interview I did with him some months back: http://newbooksinsciencefiction.com/2013/01/08/felix-gilman-the-rise-of-ransom-city-tor-2012/

I think it is important to see “the West” as only one source for the two books. There really is a much more general riff on the frontier, the edge of empire, and the coming of modernity going on in Half-Made World and the Rise of Ransom City. And I think LB is right to argue that, as far as his Western-evocation goes, Gilman is involved in a (successful) task to subvert the genre not simply be casting a clear eye on the “western hero,” but by placing it within a larger argument about the dialectics of modernity.

7

Manoel 05.06.13 at 3:15 pm

I thought, at least at first, that Liv Alverhuysen lived in the east. Isn’t that right?

8

Dan Nexon 05.06.13 at 3:27 pm

Yes, and I think LB is somewhat off on this point. There’s a well-settled, urbanized, and at least somewhat industrialized (electricity, no?) “east” with a population that migrated in after the passage through the mountains opened. Liv comes from there. And there are hints of a much wider world than that, e.g., Harry’s father.

9

LizardBreath 05.06.13 at 3:37 pm

Liv comes from the other side of the mountains, which in the context of the books is clearly a Europe analog — it’s where the entire ‘West’ was settled from about four hundred years before the action of the books. What seems to me to be interestingly absent is the American East: a rich, completely settled, industrialized area that’s still the “New World” rather than Europe, but with a longer history than the “West”, and that’s the source of the population of the West.

While there must be an area controlled by the Line with agriculture and population and all that, we never see it, and Line territories aren’t where the rest of the westerners come from — as I said in the post, there’s no place where “Go West, young man” might have been said, and no segment of the population who seems to have acted on an exhortation of that sort.

10

FRauncher 05.06.13 at 3:49 pm

I have just finished “The Half Finished World”. This is the first of the fantasy western genre that I have ever read, and I doubt that I will read any others, except maybe for Ransome City. I read this first one only because someone at Crooked Timber thought it was worth a seminar. Maybe so.

That said, I found it quite well-written. The plot holds us to the end, and the quality of the prose further stimulates our interest.

The symbolism of the various forces portrayed in Gilman’s parallel world is a bit too obvious. There is a certain historical development, but as LizardBreath wrote, the 400 years of the Line and the Gun are essentially a static representation of our civilization’s present dilemma.

We see the unstoppable advance of the industrial Line which must either grow or die, and in it’s path pollutes and destroys everything and everyone it touches. There is nothing at all positive in Gilman’s portrayal of the Line.

The Gun/Mafia, however, from time to time exudes a certain romantic attraction, especially in Creedmoor’s personification.

The Red Valley Republic seems too idealistic to survive, especially in it’s ossified last remnants.

What we see of the dull, pacified East is a series of academic ivory towers, which apparently have little or no influence on the men of the Line, the Agents of the Gun, or the isolated cities, baronies and farm towns.

As the first book ends, the only hope of humanity is the isolated duo comprising the rational Alverhuysen and the liberated, romantic Creedmoor.

This seems a pretty accurate allegory of our present day world, but it all seems too discouraging to merit much further reading. Perhaps I shall continue with Ransome City just to see if anything positive turns up. Otherwise, it looks as if humanity will surely die out and leave Gilman’s parallel world to the Folk, who are certainly much better beings than we are.

11

FRauncher 05.06.13 at 3:51 pm

Sorry about that apostrophe in ‘its”.

12

Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.06.13 at 4:09 pm

I agree with LizardBreath – the “East” is not a symbol of the US East. It seems that communication and migration on both directions is not common. Also, it is not one country, but a mix of countries, Liv comes from some kind of German or Nordic principality, there are hints of the others being somehow like Britain (or Ireland?) and French and the black population comes from an independent partner in the initial colonization effort.

While technically thats the East it really feels like is even more remote than Europe was during the time of the Wild West.

13

Moby Hick 05.06.13 at 4:14 pm

As the first book ends, the only hope of humanity is the isolated duo comprising the rational Alverhuysen and the liberated, romantic Creedmoor.

So basically Star Trek without Bones & Scotty.

14

Abigail 05.06.13 at 4:14 pm

This is stepping a little on my forthcoming piece, so just briefly: claustrophobia is the prevailing mood of The Half-Made World, and as LB notes that mood makes for a stark contrast with the more familiar treatment of the West as a region of limitless opportunity and scope for reinvention. What Gilman stresses in both books is that it’s human presence that creates that claustrophobia. The unmade lands, where humans haven’t yet settled, do indeed embody that limitless potential – which is why Harry Ransom sets his sights on them in the framing story of The Rise of Ransom City – but when humans settle them (in both senses of the word) they impose their systems of the world upon them (including the Line and the Gun), and those systems are stifling.

I do, however, think it’s worth noting how much the main characters, as much as the world and its cosmology, contribute to that feeling of claustrophobia. The entire second half of The Half-Made World takes place in the unmade lands, and yet the mood of claustrophobia doesn’t lift. The Rise of Ransom City, on the other hand, though telling a story no less (and arguably more) hopeless than its predecessor’s, is full of hope and the belief in a bright future. If Liv and Creedmoor feel trapped in the unmade lands, Harry Ransom is free, and dreaming of a better tomorrow, when he’s trapped in his crippled body, in a barely mobile wheelchair, in one of the biggest stations of the Line.

15

Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.06.13 at 4:27 pm

#13, by the time of The Rise of Ransom City Creedmor is not precisely “romantic”. Bitter would be more like it.

16

Francis Spufford 05.06.13 at 4:36 pm

Yes, Creedmoor’s romanticism is surely pegged rather definitively as a part of his self-indulgence, his desire to have it both ways in relation to the Gun. When we first meet him, reading a romantic novel in a deck chair on a riverboat, the effect is of a nasty old roué playing at innocence. His acquaintance with Liv is (among other things) an education in not thinking too well of himself.

17

LizardBreath 05.06.13 at 5:02 pm

Right, and that romantic self-presentation is a conscious, active part of how the Gun controls its agents and presents itself to others. Marmion’s name itself is from a Romantic poem (unless I have my periods confused. Scott counts as Romantic?), and its repeated injunction to Creedmoor that “We like our servants joyful” seems to fit as well: that even while the Gun is actually controlling its agents with pain, it’s falsely presenting itself as a force for the kind of happy freedom that’s absent from the world of the books.

18

FRauncher 05.06.13 at 5:27 pm

@15 I haven’t read Ransome City yet, but I guess we romantics do get bitter when we are old and defeated.
@14 It’s not the human presence that gives me the claustrophobic feeling, as much as the presence and the inexorable advance of the Line. The Last part of the Half-Made World for me is one of menace rather than claustrophobia.We humans even outside of the Line are all restricted to various extents by the bonds of our communities; nevertheless, the remnants of the Red Valley Republic seem relatively free.

19

rm 05.06.13 at 6:12 pm

@18, I’ve even heard that all romantics meet the same fate . . . cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.

Regarding Ransom as a con man/Horatio Alger hybrid, and the connection to the play “The Rainmaker,” there is an extremely charming introduction to him in Gilman’s novella “Lightbringers and Rainmakers,” which was sort of a teaser in between the two novels. It’s full of classic high comedy, and it was a bit disheartening to get a much more serious tone in The Rise of Ransom City. But that’s part of the brilliant subversion of genre narrative.

The claustrophobic, industrialized West reminded me of the film “Dead Man.” LB mentioned that the setting is more important than the plot. I think that’s true of most of the best fantasy and SF. I like that the heroic quest-with-magic-mcguffin plot happens offstage and that we get the story of this war through the eyes of a pawn.

20

clew 05.06.13 at 6:15 pm

the frontier as a place that’s anything but open and free, and is instead only temporarily open before being imminently consumed by rival horrors

The Internet!

21

Dan Nexon 05.06.13 at 8:06 pm

#19: “LB mentioned that the setting is more important than the plot”

As is the case with Thunderer (and, to a somewhat lesser extent), Gears of the City. Gilman is extremely talented at fore-fronting setting and mood.

I didn’t meant to suggest that there’s a direct analog to the US east in HMW and RoRC, but that (1) there are fewer direct analogs in these books than some readers might realize — many of the elements are cobbled together from different source materials — and (2) there was something a bit off about LB’s description of the old world — the “old world” is not entirely inaccessible… it is just removed, like any core is removed in time, space, and sensibility from the periphery.

22

Abigail 05.06.13 at 8:17 pm

@18 Ah, but the Line is, if not entirely a human invention, then certainly the result of human presence – either brought into the world by human delving into the half-made world, or actually a product of the encounter between the two. That’s why I say that it’s systems of the world that trap the heroes in The Half-Made World. The Line is one such system (its representative in the novel, after all, is a person, who has been shaped – or rather perverted – by growing up within the Line’s system). The Red Valley Republic is another, and it also perverts its members, making them so rigid in their beliefs that they can’t let go of them even when their lives depend on it.

23

FRauncher 05.06.13 at 9:34 pm

Abigail, you said it better than I did: some systems are more claustrophobic than others.

24

rm 05.07.13 at 2:14 pm

In the novels, First Colony is definitely analogous to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In “Lightbringers and Rainmakers,” Ransom visits a town where the leaders are descended from the First Families, and they have a portrait of the original First governor that is basically John Winthrop surrounded by the dark satanic woods filled with the Devil and His Indians.

The lands East of the mountains are not the American East, but instead are Europe and the rest of the Old World. Ransom’s ancestors, if I recall correctly, are kind of North Africanish. Ransom is dark skinned. Liz is from someplace like Lichtenstein.

Some of the more eastern cities are New York or Pittsburgh-like, and some are kind of Kansas City-like, and there is a Delta plantation south. These are the areas where nature has settled down into ordered shapes, either many generations ago or within the last few decades, in contrast to the frontier where everything is still in flux.

25

Abigail 05.07.13 at 2:44 pm

On the other hand, White Rock pass (the pass through the Opal mountains that opened the unmade lands for colonization) is a pretty obvious parallel to the Appalachians’ Cumberland Pass, whose discovery enabled Western expansion.

I think the books are (perhaps deliberately) slippery on the question of whether the East represents Europe or the American East. There are, as has been pointed out in this thread, arguments on both sides.

26

Western Dave 05.07.13 at 8:50 pm

So who are the Indians? Who are the Spanish moving up from Mexico? Who are the Metis?

In other words, I know it’s just a comment thread but you all are making me awful nervous with what seems like an inability to distinguish between the fictive West and the actual American West. (The notion that the Cumberland Gap enabled European settlement West of the Applachians is so charmingly outdated, one doesn’t even bother to call out it’s basic wrongness see Richard White’s The Middle Ground for the book that rewrote that chapter of US History so thoroughly that many HS textbooks now have sections on the Upper Mississippi and the Metis. ).

27

LizardBreath 05.07.13 at 9:00 pm

I think you’re kind of missing the point of the discussion. What’s interesting (at least to me), once you start with the assumption that Gilman is writing about the “American West” in some sense (which really is pretty solid), is picking apart what he kept and what he discarded — where his setting can be matched to either the actual history of the American frontier, or to prior fictional versions of it, and where it can’t, and how that makes his setting work.

This would be a pointless, silly discussion if we were talking about two things that had an accidental resemblance, and getting overinvolved in the details of that resemblance. Where one is a deliberately distorted portrait of the other, on the other hand (while the discussion is still probably pointless and silly, given that this is a blog comment thread) thinking about how the distortions work by comparing them to the model can tell you something interesting about the portrait.

28

Abigail 05.07.13 at 9:26 pm

Dave: there are Indians analogues in the half-made world, which are arguably the most problematic aspect of its construction, but that is stepping on my essay so I’ll leave it at that.

As for the Cumberland Gap, I came to these books in the unusual position of having grown up outside the US and learning most of the little I know about Western expansion from the narratives that sprang up around it. However, in the half-made world at least, the pass through the Opals is the gateway to the West. That could be Gilman being misinformed, or an indication that the half-made world is as much a response to the narrative of the West as to its reality. As LB says, the fact that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence doesn’t invalidate the analogy.

29

Francis Spufford 05.07.13 at 10:27 pm

Hang on – just working by memory here, without a copy of either book in front of me, but aren’t the Atlantic-analogue mountains the World’s End range, with the Opals a separate chain further west, in analogue America? Not, as Abigail says, that the correspondences need to be exact to work.

30

Cool Bev 05.07.13 at 10:37 pm

I haven’t finished reading, but aren’t the Folk pretty clearly American Indian analogs? And I made White Rock Pass for something more in the Rockies than the Appalachians. And Jasper City more St. Louis than Chicago, due to the river location.

But there’s lots of wiggle room here.

31

bianca steele 05.07.13 at 10:40 pm

I’m so tired I deleted a sentence from this post because I couldn’t think of the right word, and I’m sick (not half-sick) of comments threads, but (as someone who read a lot of SF as a pre-teen and is only reading somewhat more now, by choice as opposed to having individual books pushed on me by classmates or colleagues) I wonder how this allegory is supposed to work. Is it supposed to say something about America and the West particularly? Or is it supposed to say something about Empire using traditional Western tropes? Or about the tropes themselves? Or, well, what?

Also, I haven’t read the book and feel presently kind of prejudiced against this kind of appropriation of US history for pointmaking re. European Empire; frankly, my next SF is likely to be Mieville, who at least doesn’t do that. And also, Against the Day (which for me is probably Pynchon’s most satisfying of Pynchon’s novels, though it’s long).

32

Dan Nexon 05.08.13 at 3:12 am

“I haven’t finished reading, but aren’t the Folk pretty clearly American Indian analogs? “

Nah, they’re an amalgam of images of the indigenous other — particularly, but not exclusively, colonial European ones.

33

Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.08.13 at 8:56 am

I dont really see any “appropiation of US history” in the books. They are sets in their weird own world, that resembles the West and is not the US West at the same time. In some things it is absolutely too “politically correct” to be the US West (there is no racism against blacks, being sustituted by “racism” against something not really human), in others it is closer to things that happened but uses them as alegories or just atmosphere (the con-man roaming the frontier selling dreams and hopes).

34

Sancho 05.08.13 at 9:05 am

I love that CT hosts essays and discussions like this, which diverge from the usual terrain of politics and economics.

That said, I reserve the right to furiously disagree with anything or everything said on any topic and make arbitrary judgements about the ideological alignment of everyone.

35

Western Dave 05.08.13 at 1:36 pm

I think Bianca gets at my discomfort better than I did: “I wonder how this allegory is supposed to work. Is it supposed to say something about America and the West particularly? Or is it supposed to say something about Empire using traditional Western tropes? Or about the tropes themselves? Or, well, what?”

As someone who is a historian of the American West, which also necessitates being a historian of the Myths of the West, I’m trying to figure out if this is something I’m going to enjoy or throw against a wall. So far, I’m going with throw against a wall.

36

Abigail 05.08.13 at 1:59 pm

That’s an interesting question, Bianca and Dave. Off the cuff, I would say that the books certainly seem to be more in conversation with the American West (and its myths) than with the whole notion of Empire (which is less present than I think people have assumed based on entries so far).

But on the question of what Gilman is trying to say about the American West through the half-made world, I’m less certain. LB might be getting closest to it when she points out the way that he reverses the supposed sense of freedom associated with the West and replaces it with claustrophobia, though as I’ve pointed out, that’s more a trait of The Half-Made World than of the duology as a whole.

37

Western Dave 05.08.13 at 2:13 pm

Abigail,
I really enjoyed your review. For other interested CT readers it can be found here:
http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2013/03/the_rise_of_ran.shtml

38

jwp 05.08.13 at 2:30 pm

“I wonder how this allegory is supposed to work. Is it supposed to say something about America and the West particularly? Or is it supposed to say something about Empire using traditional Western tropes? Or about the tropes themselves? Or, well, what?”

I read it as more using the tropes of the west as a setting for a whole amalgam of allegories which sit uncomfortably but interestingly alongside each other, such that the war represents, for example, Enlightenment vs. counter-Enlightenment, or the Cold War (or at least national myths about the Cold War). It’s also worth pointing out that while the setting is obviously based on the mythology of the American West, it’s not supposed to be the American West, given that there’s already an America analog in the form of the Republic.

My favorite element of the world, though, is the fixation that happens at the frontier. I don’t know if this is what Gilman intended, but it’s always struck me as if he took postmodernist and post-structuralist critiques of positivist epistemologies and made an extremely literal reading of those critiques the foundation of his world.

39

bianca steele 05.08.13 at 2:36 pm

Thanks Abigail.

Based on what I’ve read in preview, The Half-Made World is reminding me of The Killer Angels (about the battle of Gettysburg, focusing largely on officers on both sides who’d been West). Shaara was primarily an SF writer, and I have half-formed notes on the novel as SF that I may get around to completing some day. Some of what makes me see it this way is actually the way the prologue to TKA echoes themes that sound like they’re present in these two of Gilman’s books.

re. where are the Indians, on this point, fwiw: Shaara’s description of the rebel yell–—“inhuman screaming of the onrushing dead”–makes me wonder whether it’s meant to also describe an experience from the Indian Wars, which Shaara wasn’t willing to put in print.

40

bianca steele 05.08.13 at 8:39 pm

@jwp para. 2: Crossposted, but this is about how I read these things (or like to). But if the book is “about the matter of America,” is that an entirely separate, alternate interpretation? Or, does it mean enlightenment/counterenlightenment, etc., is the matter of America, “America” is a standard metaphor for it all, etc.? IOW, if I say, I don’t think it’s about the matter of America, I think, [what jwp said in the second paragraph of @38], is the answer I get back, “ah, but, . . . just think about it a little more, and you’ll realize I have it right”? But I think that’s my own peeve and not really on topic.

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