Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City tell a familiar story in an unexpected way. There is a fantasy world. There is a fantastic menace plaguing it. There is a magical weapon that could destroy that menace. There is a plucky hero, or heroes, who undertake to retrieve that weapon. There is a war that emerges from, enables, and/or complicates their efforts.
It’s a story we all know, which Gilman seems very much aware of; in his telling of it, he seems determined to confound the expectations that emerge from that knowledge. For one thing, our heroes are neither particularly plucky nor, until forced to by the most utter extremes of circumstances, particularly heroic. One of them, John Creedmoor, is in fact a servant of The Gun, one of the Powers whose defeat is the books’ business. A former idealist who bounced from one cause to another, Creedmoor took up the Gun’s service after realizing that he lacked the strength of character to commit to any moral cause (and certainly not any that might require him to stay firm in his beliefs in the face of mockery and humiliation). Throughout The Half-Made World, he needles Marmion, the spirit animating his magical revolver, who has endowed him with strength, healing powers, and longevity, over the senselessness of the violence it asks him to commit. But in the end he always carries out his masters’ orders—most memorably, the kidnapping of the young daughter of an industrialist, which is so bungled that the child dies before her father can even be approached for ransom. As The Half-Made World‘s villain, Lowry, astutely puts it, Creedmoor is the kind of person who demands “to be admired both for his loyalty and for his disloyalty [to the Guns], and for his oh-so-tortured indecision between the two.”
For all his claims to independence, Creedmoor in fact doesn’t choose to turn his backs on the Guns in The Half-Made World. He’s forced to by the novel’s other protagonist, and the other unlikely heroine of this duology, Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, when she destroys his gun and breaks his connection to Marmion at the end of The Half-Made World.[^fn1] Despite this decisive action, Liv, too, is far from a heroic figure. A psychologist from the civilized East to which the half-made world is a frontier, Liv is characterized by short-sightedness and self-absorption. She accepts a post at a frontier hospital in part because she feels at loose ends after the death of her much-older husband, and in part as a sort of middle-aged voyage of self-discovery.[^fn2] For most of The Half-Made World, however, Liv remains blinded by the self-protective lies she’s brought with her from the East. Though a psychologist, she refuses to admit that the laudanum on which she’s dependent is anything but a “nerve tonic,” and when the healing demon at the House Dolorous, the hospital where much of The Half-Made World takes place, takes away the pain of her mother’s murder (the effects of which have reverberated through Liv’s life, leading to a mental breakdown, a loveless but safe marriage to a friend of one of her doctors, and finally the aimlessness that led her to the House Dolorous) she switches her dependence to it, all while insisting that she is conducting scientific research.
It’s only in The Half-Made World‘s second half, when Creedmoor kidnaps Liv to be the caretaker of the man in whose ruined mind might lie the secret to the weapon that could destroy the Gun and its opposite number, the Line, that she begins to look outside herself. But though The Rise of Ransom City occasionally gestures towards Liv as a heroine—when we meet her in that book, she has dedicated herself to the cause of finding the weapon and ending the war—this person sits uneasily with the frequently selfish Liv we knew in The Half-Made World. The folk figure that coalesces around her, half saint, half angel of deliverance, is so at odds with the real person that it undercuts our ability to take her seriously as a heroine. When we finally meet the real Liv again, towards the end of The Rise of Ransom City, she’s been shunted off to the war’s sidelines, muttering darkly about the leaders of the rebellion, to whom she gave her weapon.
The person who meets Liv at the end of The Rise of Ransom City, and who narrates that book, is perhaps the closest that either of these books come to a classic heroic figure. Harry Ransom is an inventor, a dreamer, an avid believer in the power of the individual to shape and remake his world, a person who believes—and who has the charisma, wit, and general affability to persuade others to believe—that he has been touched by destiny. In short, he is everything that the hero of the kind of epic fantasy we’ve been talking about needs to be. The crux of The Rise of Ransom City is Harry’s arrival in the great metropolis of Jasper City, and like Dorothy Gale when she arrives at that other city named for a precious stone, he is primped, pampered, and made much of, embraced as a conquering hero simply for the promise—in Harry’s case, a promise he makes himself—to deliver the city from looming danger. When Harry finally gets to meet the wizard, however—or in this case, Mr. Alfred Baxter, head of the Baxter Trust and Jasper City’s top businessman and entrepreneur, whom Harry has admired and emulated since childhood—he finds not simply a fraud, but a puppet of the Line, a role that Harry himself is soon forced to assume, delivering Jasper City into the Line’s hands. “I never said that this would be a story of triumph,” Harry tells us. “For the most part it is not.” And indeed, The Rise of Ransom City is mainly an apologia directed at an audience that views Harry not as a hero but as a traitor and a collaborator.
On top of having no traditional hero figure, the books defy the expectations raised by their story in the way they tell it—or rather, in the way they refuse to tell is. The Half-Made World is all about finding the weapon that could defeat the Line and the Gun, but in the space of the novel itself, no one actually finds it—though they often come tantalizingly close, only for it to slip through their fingers. This tendency, in fact, is carried to an extent that almost feels like Gilman trolling his readers—in one scene near the end of the book, Creedmoor is about to hear from one of the Folk, the magical natives of the half-made world who may be behind the weapon, what all their games and manipulations have been about, but just at the moment that she’s about to reveal all, a stray bullet blows her brains out.
In The Rise of Ransom City, meanwhile, Liv and Creedmoor’s journey to finally find the weapon and use it against the Powers happens in the margins and background of Harry’s narrative. The two crusaders’ path crosses Harry’s early in the novel, and he helps them escape from a pursuing Agent of the Gun. But after this adventure, the three characters part ways, leaving Harry to make his own idiosyncratic path to Jasper City, during which his concern is not the war but finding a job and rebuilding his invention, the Ransom Process (the first prototype of which was destroyed during his encounter with Liv and Creedmoor), with which he hopes to forge a partnership with Mr. Baxter. For the rest of the novel, Harry gives us brief and vague reports about Liv and Creedmoor’s progress—towards the end of the novel, for example, there are dark hints about a terrible and bloody battle at Log Town, but no details about it are given. This is presumably because Harry—who is writing several years after the war—and his editor, Elmer Marriel Carson, who has compiled Harry’s writings after several decades of painstaking work, are both assuming that their readers are natives of the half-made world, and thus know the broad outlines of the war’s progress. For Gilman, however, it represents a deliberate and repeated choice to tease a certain, very familiar story, and then not tell it in such a way that draws attention to his refusal to play by the rules.
As a literary tactic, this deliberate contravention of fantasy’s tropes and expectations is both familiar and a little old-fashioned. China Miéville pushed it into the limelight a little more than a decade ago with Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002), and for a while it was all the rage. But while some of the changes Miéville introduced to the fantasy genre in these novels have taken root—mainly his insistence that even in the genre of secondary world epic fantasy, issues of economics and politics should be paramount—the metafictional approach of calling attention to the genre’s conventions and then defying them hasn’t done so. It’s far more common, nowadays, for fantasy writers looking to defy the conventions laid down by Tolkien and his imitators to do so through George R.R. Martin-esque grittiness, also known, more pejoratively, as “grimdark,” in which all heroes are morally compromised and often abhorrent, and stories are frequently rife with senseless violence and rape.[^fn3] If Perdido Street Station ended with the shocking revelation that a heroic, sympathetic character whom our genre expectations had trained us to assume had been falsely accused of a crime was actually a rapist, a modern grimdark fantasy would probably deliver this revelation much earlier, and then challenge us to keep rooting for this character.
Gilman—whom it is no surprise to find following in Miéville’s footsteps, since his debut novel, Thunderer (2007), owes as much to Perdido Street Station as Miéville’s debut King Rat (1998) owes to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996)—joins a relatively small number of writers working in the Miévillian mode, a group in which we might also include Steph Swainston’s Castle quartet (2004-2010), the first volume of David Anthony Durham’s *Acacia* trilogy, The War With the Mein (2007) (and possibly also its sequels, which I haven’t yet read), and perhaps most blatantly, J.M. McDermott’s debut Last Dragon (2008), in which the tropes of epic fantasy and a decidedly un-epic reality are so muddled in the characters’ minds that not even they are sure what kind of story they lived through.
Where Gilman sets himself apart from Miéville and these other writers is the fact that he is playing with the conventions of not one but two genres. In this, he is again no trailblazer—the deconstructed Western has become so ubiquitous that one simply doesn’t see the regular kind made anymore, and the combination of narratives of Western expansion or 19th century Americana with the fantastic (sometimes knows as Weird West) has been a common trope since at least Emma Bull’s Territory, published in 2007, and probably goes back much further than that. If the Half-Made World books are unusual—aside, that is, from being well-written and engaging—it is because of the completeness of their merger between genres. Gilman builds a secondary world in which everything from our history of American Western expansion is present and yet different. Instead of the original, Eastern colonies of the United States we have nations with names like Koenigswald and Juddua. Instead of the Appalachians and their Cumberland Pass we have the Opals and their pass at the town of White Rock. Instead of Chicago and St. Louis, there is the triumvirate of Gibson City, Jasper City, and Juniper City, each of which suffers its own fate in the war between the Line and the Gun. The south is known as the Baronies of the Delta, and the dominant religion is the self-improving Smiler cult.
Alongside these parallels, however, there is one unique trait, the literalized metaphor at the center of the duology’s world. The further one travels to the West in Gilman’s alternate America, the less solid, the less made, the world becomes. The laws of nature break down and give way to magic, and at the furthest reaches of the West, “Sea, sky, land, day, night, [are] indistinguishable, not yet separated. … creation begins, or maybe hasn’t happened yet.” That creation occurs in response to human settlement, which solidifies and finally normalizes the half-made world, but the meeting between human fears and desires and the in-flux world’s magic has unexpected results. It gives rise to the Line and Gun, not just metaphors for capitalism and lawlessness run amok, but manifestations of it with minds of their own, who can conscript and enslave humans to their purpose. And it enables the Ransom Process, Harry’s machine for providing limitless energy which might be a perpetual motion machine, or a window into parallel universes, or a black hole.
It’s in that concept of making, unmaking, and remaking that the fantasy and Western genres intersect. The wilderness, the untamed, unclaimed territory, plays a similar role in both genres. It is where the restrictions of civilization, of the society that made us, can be cast off. It is a blank slate from which we can make whatever we want, remaking ourselves in the process. It is an emptiness that unmakes us whether we want it to or not. The second half of The Half-Made World sees Liv and Creedmoor journeying through the unmade lands, an increasingly surreal landscape that wears away at their defenses—her self-absorbed detachment, his devotion to the Gun. This is a familiar enough story in the Western mode—the civilized, Eastern woman and the uncouth, Western man who are forced to rely on one another in the wild and transformed by the experience—as well in other realist genres that take place on the frontier.[^fn4] But it’s also a common trope of fantasy. There is a very similar sense of increasing detachment from reality about Frodo and Sam’s slow progress towards and in Mordor, in sharp contrast to the rational, carefully described war that parallels it.[^fn5]
The Rise of Ransom City brings these two genres together through Harry, and his dream—after having so many of his other dreams shattered—of building the titular city, a place lit and powered by the Ransom Process, where such abundance is free for the taking, and where there is no poverty or want. It’s a common dream that underpins the drive to the West—the notion that the wilderness can so remake us that in it we can cast aside human weakness and failings and build a new kind of society—and the Half-Made World books contain an example of another attempt at it in the form of the Red Valley Republic, a democracy founded “in accordance with the best possible theories of political virtue.” In reality, however, these principles turn out to be joyless and unyielding. When Liv and Creedmoor encounter remnants of the Republic in The Half-Made World, they are zealots who prefer to face death at the hands of the Line rather than run and live to fight another day. In The Rise of Ransom City, the Republic is resurgent, but its leaders are the ones who cast Liv aside as an impediment to their war. Nevertheless, Harry persists in his dream that he can build what is essentially The Big Rock-Candy Mountains (a concept that, naturally enough, has its own parallel in the half-made world). The framing story of The Rise of Ransom City concerns his journey to the West with a band of followers and believers in the hopes of finding a place where that city can be built, and the final pages of Elmer Carson’s narrative suggest that, in the magic-suffused unmade realms, he may have finally succeeded at making a new kind of human society.
All of which leads to the question: why has Gilman written this duology? What does he hope to accomplish by mixing two genres and turning their conventions on their heads? When Miéville took the top off fantasy with Perdido Street Station, it was with a clearly stated political aim. By reacting against the conventions of epic fantasy, Miéville was striking out against the assumptions that underpinned Tolkien, and his followers’, worlds—that there are such things as clear-cut heroes and villains, that a person can be classed into one of those groups according to their race, that natural, prophesied kings exist and that it would be a good idea if they were in charge, and that an all-encompassing war can be the only way to save the world from endless evil—assumptions that can and still do underpin real-world political thought. The deconstruction of the Western genre comes from a similar impulse, which questions the core tenets—chief among them Manifest Destiny—through which an often bloody and brutal conquest was justified. Gilman’s books often gesture towards such a political awareness, through their nightmarish depiction of the Line, as an endlessly churning, perpetually-hungry maw of inhuman industry that swallows up and destroys humanity in its thirst for expansion, and through the feeling of claustrophobia and limited options that permeates The Half-Made World, and the later chapters of The Rise of Ransom City, as our three heroes realize how small they are not only before the demons of the Line and Gun, but before the political apparatus of the Red Valley Republic.
At the same time, however, these two books are underpinned by a fantasy that is, if not quite reactionary, then certainly a counterpoint to the way that the sources they draw on deconstruct their genres. It’s not just that Harry does manage to build Ransom City, but that he does so because of the very nature of the half-made world, the fact that the laws of nature—and perhaps of human nature as well—don’t apply in it. But the concept of the half-made world is rooted in some of the assumptions that the deconstructed Western tries to combat. By literalizing them in fantasy, Gilman validates notions that the Western has long since abandoned. The idea of the West as an untamed, unpeopled wilderness, which Gilman takes to such fantastic extremes in his books, ignores the very real people who were living there and taming it (even if their ideas of taming might not have been the same as ours) long before the American Western expansion. If the half-made world, on the other hand, only solidifies in the presence of human settlement, then that means that the Folk, the analogues to Native Americans in these novels—novels that otherwise take such care to present a skewed but accurate mirror image of the real West—are not human. This view is confirmed through the little that we learn about the Folk in the two books. Most notably, they are said (and seen) to resurrect after death, seem to have superhuman strength, and are able to comprehend the irrationality of the half-made and unmade lands, being themselves a part of it.
This is sadly in line with the way that narratives of Western expansion have tended to either erase Native Americans or deprecate their humanity, but while that tendency has eroded in the Western genre, it has resurfaced in fantasy. In her 2009 novel The Thirteenth Child, Patricia C. Wrede imagined an alternate North America populated by megafauna, and simply wished Native Americans away. That decision resulted in a fannish uproar, one that I am somewhat surprised that the Half-Made World books escaped, but perhaps that’s because Gilman’s handling of the Folk is more subtle and, sadly, more insidious. There is, for example, no evasion in either novel of the sad fate that awaits the Folk in the war—during which the Line raids their few remaining encampments with murderous abandon, looking for the equivalent to Liv’s weapon or Harry’s Process—or after it, when they can expect little more than enslavement and dispossession.[^fn6] There are also some nicely cutting observations about the treatment of the Folk in The Rise of Ransom City—when Harry takes a job on a riverboat, he notes that the wheel is turned “the old-fashioned way.”
This was what the learned Professors of Jasper City would call a euphemism, which is to say a magic word to make the world seem better than it is. What I meant was that the wheel of the Damaris was turned by a team of Folk, who were kept in chains below.
Later, when the Damaris sinks, a waterlogged Harry encounters its wheel-turning Folk and realizes that neither he nor anyone else on the ship had given a thought to their survival during the evacuation (the suggestion that the Folk are strong enough that they could have broken their chains at any moment, but only did so to save their lives, is raised but not explored by the remainder of the novel). So unlike Wrede, Gilman is acknowledging the ugliness on which his analogue to the West was built. But that still leaves the Folk’s inherent irrationality, and thus their inhumanity. The Half-Made World is a novel about systems of the world, the various ideologies through which the forces in both novels—Line, Gun, Republic—seek to remake the world. That the Folk are left out of this scheme, that they seem to have no system and indeed exist outside of human rationality (something that is also expressed through their being the source of both Liv’s weapon and the Ransom Process, and through the sense in both novels that they are guiding events towards an end to the war and yet that that story can’t be told because humans couldn’t comprehend it) plays into too many conventions of the unreconstructed Western, in which Native Americans are “savages” with no notion of civilization or organized, complex society. While reading The Half-Made World, I hoped that its sequel would complicate this problematic approach, but instead The Rise of Ransom City, in which Harry has closer encounters with the Folk, only to realize how foreign they are to him, and how incomprehensible their worldview, only validates it.
I want very much to like the Half-Made World duology. Quite apart from the fact that these are engaging, well-written books set in a rich and beautifully realized world, they are doing something with the fantasy genre that I hadn’t even realized I had missed seeing. And there is much more to talk about in these books than I’ve touched on even in this long piece—someone should definitely say more about the Ransom Process and the way that it brings touches of surrealism (crossed with science fiction) into this fantastic Western, and there’s certainly more to say about Harry’s sojourn in Jasper City, for example his relationship with the brilliant, psychologically scarred inventor Adela. I hope that some of my fellow roundtable participants have expanded on these topics, if only because I would like to read some more about them in order to settle my own thoughts. But when I sit down to write about these books, I can’t get past the Folk and their inhumanity, or the way that the metaphor of the half-made world plays right into notions that realist fiction has left long behind. Felix Gilman remains one of the most intriguing writers currently working in fantasy, but the flaw in his most ambitious and interesting work leaves me unable to embrace it.
When describing that moment in The Rise of Ransom City, Creedmoor naturally takes all the credit: “‘One thing led to another and I turned on my masters and set their business aside.’ He said that last thing like it was not so difficult to do for a man of his quality, like he wanted me to be impressed by his daring.”
Though in fact Liv is a young woman, only in her early thirties; whether the fact that this is so hard to keep straight in light of Liv’s behavior and the way other characters treat her is a flaw in the novel or a deliberate choice by Gilman is something I haven’t managed to settle to my satisfaction.
Self-declared grimdark author Joe Abercrombie recently launched a wide-ranging discussion of the value and problems with grittiness, to which Martin Lewis offers a (handy guide)[http://everythingisnice.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/true-grit/].
There is in Liv, for example, much of Katherine Hepburn’s character in The African Queen, who like her expects to maintain her civilized ways even in the wild, and is thrust into adventure by the death of a male relative and protector.
Reading these chapters in The Half-Made World, I found myself reminded of a similar interlude in the Israeli children’s novel The Dragon’s Crown (1986) by Uri Orlev. Orlev, best known outside of Israel as the author of the Holocaust children’s novel The Island on Bird Street (1981), wrote what is arguably the first Hebrew epic fantasy with Dragon, in which the princess of a land in which all cruelty and unpleasantness are outlawed is forced to join forces with a prince in whose lands kindness and beauty are similarly forbidden, and with him cross the wilderness that separates their lands. Both are unmade and transformed by the experience, and through their union reach an equilibrium between their countries’ two extremes. It would be surprising indeed if Gilman had intended the reference (especially as The Dragon’s Crown hasn’t been translated into English), but the point is that the trope—a wild man, a mannered woman, a wilderness, a transformation—is common to both Western and fantasy, even in places where the wilderness means something very different than it does in the US.
Another point worth noting is the role that race plays—or rather, does not play—in establishing status and social class among the humans of the half-made world. The characters in both books range over all shades of skin color—Harry, in particular, is repeatedly observed to have very dark skin—while the Folk are described as inhumanly pale. Though an intriguing device, its haphazard application in the books undermines its effect—Durham uses a similar device much more successfully in The War With the Mein.