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 book[^ransom], 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.
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.