On the Meeting of Epic Fantasy and Western in Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World Duology – Abigail Nussbaum

by Abigail Nussbaum on May 9, 2013

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

[^fn1]:
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.”

[^fn2]:
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.

[^fn3]:
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/].

[^fn4]:
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.

[^fn5]:
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.

[^fn6]:
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.

{ 37 comments }

1

Metatone 05.09.13 at 9:21 am

I haven’t had time to read the books, but I think the intersection of economics and Manifest Destiny is an interesting angle. Modern economics is shot through with assumptions based on the existence of a wild frontier. There’s an assumption of an escape valve for those who want it – you can be self-sufficient on the frontier. There’s an assumption about “more resources than we can use” that underpins the idea of an economy as an equilibrium that benefits humans. (When you have a wild frontier, then humans are the one thing that remains in short supply.) From this we also get the obsession with wage inflation…

2

ajay 05.09.13 at 9:39 am

Very good essay – and I agree with your uneasiness about the way the Folk are treated. There aren’t any real Folk characters, they’re all stamped from the same mould.

I’ve just finished reading, of all things, Flashman and the Redskins which avoids this trap masterfully; some of the (American) Indians he meets are sadists, some of them are monsters, some of them are very appealling and kindly, some of them are masterful politicians and some of them are idiots, but they have divergent motives and feelings and personalities in just the same way that the white (or black or Indian or Afghan) characters do. Tragedies don’t become less tragic because their victims are imperfect people.

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)

It goes back further than that – most obviously, to Terry Pratchett, whom (minus the humour) Mieville resembles so closely. For example: the very first scene of the very first Discworld book is written from the viewpoint of a hulking barbarian swordsman, Bravd the Hublander, and his sly, thieving partner in adventure, the Weasel, who are standing on a hilltop outside Ankh-Morpork watching the city burn. Then a completely unheroic character wanders up to them and asks the way – and, when he moves off, we follow him, because he’s the protagonist, and for the next thirty books we never hear anything about Bravd and the Weasel again.

the point is that the trope—a wild man, a mannered woman, a wilderness, a transformation—is common to both Western and fantasy

And to romance, no?

3

FRauncher 05.09.13 at 9:49 am

A masterful analysis, Abigail!
This is my first exposure to the fantasy western genre, and I haven’t even read the second book. this makes me wonder if I should even chime in here, but …where angels fear to tread.

I disagree strongly with Abigail only on her judgement of the Folk. I would certainly not characterize them as “inhuman”, that is, lacking qualities of compassion and mercy. These qualities are perhaps reserved for their own kind and for those humans who appreciate them. I suppose she meant “inhuman” in the sense of un-human, which they are, of course. but the author’s treatment of them as not human is not necessarily degrading.

I also differ with most other commenters in that I do not see the separation of the academic and scientific East as a primarily a physical separation, but essentially a moral and psychological separation. The rational East seems to have little or no influence on the dynamic West, which, in return, seeks no help or advice from the East–as if their learning and theories were irrelevant. This is an obvious analogy to part of our present human dilemma, perhaps too obvious to deserve comment.

In fact, the whole story, or interlocking stories, is/are a dynamic metaphor for the present state of the human dilemma in which we have trapped ourselves over the last 400 years. Over this time we have built this infernal machine with bits and pieces of utility, growth, progress, invention, work ethic, discipline, religious calling, etc., and now it is bigger than we are and we don’t know how to stop it. Even the most progressive of our worldly philosophers/economists see only growth (ultimately all-consuming and destructive) as a way out of our worldwide stagnation and/or chaos. (Stiglitz, however shows signs of seeking another exit.) Thus even the most admirable of these progressives wind up compromising with the beast.

In the books, the different protagonists, all try different ways to fight the Line, but due to weaknesses in their characters or methods, they must either fail or compromise. It seems strange that the various positive forces often resist combining their efforts, or choose instead to work with the Gun/Mafia, which also inevitably turns out badly.

Again, perhaps this symbolism is so recurrent in fantasy westerns, that it has become obvious to all adherents of the genre and no longer merits comment.

It seems that Gilman has said he will not turn these two books into a trilogy. It looks to me that at he has already laid out most of the elements of our dilemma in a diabolical, though admirable metaphor, and that he simply sees no solution.

Me neither.

4

ajay 05.09.13 at 10:06 am

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.

Back to 1948, at least… here’s Johnny Cash.

5

Abigail 05.09.13 at 10:34 am

ajay:

Good point on Pratchett, though I think his use of parody (the early books you mention are a direct riff on Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books) paradoxically undercuts his argument in a way that Miéville’s isn’t – we know that this is a joke so we don’t expect the story to go the way it’s “supposed” to. Miéville writes in deadly earnestness – and the moments where he pulls the rug out from under the readers’ expectations are the ones where it hurts the most.

It occurs to me that though I stressed the twist ending of Perdido Street Station, The Scar has a twist that might be more relevant to these books and the difficulty posed by the Folk. One of the secondary characters in The Scar is a spy who is being pursued by a race of water-dwelling magical creatures who throughout the book are tagged as Other – scary, incomprehensible, quick to turn to violence. When they come for him, the heroine tries to buy his life by returning to them some ceremonial doodad he’d stolen – the unspoken assumption is that these creatures are savages who are behaving violently because of their irrational attachment to a fetish item. But it turns out that they actually want the man, who has stolen trade secrets and information that threatens their economic superiority, and they throw the object back at the heroine with derisive laughter.

FRauncher:

You’re probably right that I should have used the word “un-human” or “non-human” rather than “inhuman” to describe the Folk. And I agree that Gilman’s treatment of them in both books is not degrading. I don’t, however, think that that gets around the fundamental problem of creating an analogy to the American West (however imperfect that analogy, as we’ve discussed in previous entries) and choose to represent Native Americans through creatures who are, as you say, not human.

6

ajay 05.09.13 at 10:52 am

But it turns out that they actually want the man, who has stolen trade secrets and information that threatens their economic superiority, and they throw the object back at the heroine with derisive laughter.

Possibly the most unintentionally hilarious line in the entire book – “You were doing a feasibility study!”
And, of course, they drag the spy away for the traditional Fate Worse Than Death but don’t make sure to take his notes as well which implies that they aren’t actually very bright.

Miéville writes in deadly earnestness

Boy, does he ever. You wouldn’t have thought that you could write the scene of a bunch of naiads going on strike (and using their mystical water magic to dig a trench across the river so the ships couldn’t get past) without acknowledging how hilarious an image it is, but he manages. And I think I’ve noted before that he owes a considerable but unacknowledged (and probably unintentional) debt to Wallace and Gromit.

7

Metatone 05.09.13 at 11:10 am

@ajay – thanks for the image! Thinking of Mieville as a humourless Pratchett explains a lot to me about my reaction to his books.

8

Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.09.13 at 12:13 pm

Hmm… the angle of “Natives as impossible to understand savages” was one I really didnt thought about. But I can see how it can be looked at that way.

My main problem with the First Folk (apart from some metacommentary in my head about how the black/native-american substitute is made of “bone-white” people) is that they have all the problems of the supernatural powers in this kind of fiction. I really cant see how they became enslaved, or why do they need any help to stop the Line and the Gun. Here the “incompleteness” strategy that Mr Spufford mentioned fails, because what is shown, specially in the last book, is that the Folk are so mysterious they have the means to resolve the plot all the time and just simply refuse for … who knows what reason. In The Half-Made World one could think that the “weapon” was lost to them and they needed help from the Red Valley Republic and later Liv and Creedmor to cross the enemy lines and go to the site. That somehow humans took them unaware and they need now human agents to reach the site.

By The Rise of Ransom City we know that they have been sitting on powers capable of killing Gun and Line demons and … just did nothing. At all. Neither to free themselves, or to stop the advance of those factions into their no-lands, or anything. Just keep an eye on Ransom and see if he manages not to burn himself and the surrounding areas playing with half-misunderstood Folk knowledge.

9

ajay 05.09.13 at 12:22 pm

It’s a problem with genre-crossover books. You can write a great serious book about trade union politics, and many have; you can write a great serious book about malevolent magicians, and many have. But once you write a book about a shop steward in the Amalgamated Sodality of Sorcerers, Warlocks, Necromancers and Allied Trades, you risk heading into Pratchett territory.

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chris y 05.09.13 at 12:56 pm

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I believe Sir Terry will leave his family provided for.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.09.13 at 1:21 pm

In one of the previous threads for posts on these books, I mentioned another connection to Mieville — the train as icon of Western modernity that figures so strongly in _Iron Council_.

But if we’re talking about genre heroes that are revealed to be unsympathetic — in the context of British leftist SF — we should go back to Iain Banks and _Use of Weapons_. I’ve always thought it was a bit more serious than what Mieville did with _Perdido Street Station_’s criminal hero, because his after all was personal crime. _Use of Weapons_ has a leftist revolutionary action hero whose crimes are very much part of the revolution. Mieville never got to the point of depicting those of his revolutionaries who were animated by ideology as anything but brave heroes or martyrs, even in betrayal.

But then the influence becomes Michael Moorcock, who wrote genocidal fantasy heroes much, much earlier. It was the basis for his whole early multiverse, much less the more advanced work in his later career.

Which is to say that I thought this was a good review, but saying that Mieville pushed this subversion of genre expectations into the limelight in 2000 seems off.

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ajay 05.09.13 at 2:28 pm

_Use of Weapons_ has a leftist revolutionary action hero whose crimes are very much part of the revolution.

Does it? I thought that the hero’s crime (if we’re thinking of the same thing here) was committed before he encountered the Culture, in the context of an aristocratic civil war.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.09.13 at 2:52 pm

A rebellion against an aristocratic society in which the hero was very much on the leftist side.

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ajay 05.09.13 at 3:05 pm

Oh, was it? I’d forgotten that. Fair enough then. I thought it was just a fairly non-ideological struggle between two lots of aristocrats.

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rm 05.09.13 at 3:39 pm

Wow, great analysis. I am persuaded to critically examine the fannish delight I took in these books. I think I was aware of the problem with the Folk in the analogy, but I found myself weakly defending it to preserve my reading pleasure. One of those weak defenses is that the Folk are not analogous to Native Americans at all, but to any “inscrutable other” in the mythologies of imperialism — especially Australian Aborigines, since the half-created landscape is so often a red rock desert, but really any indigenous group that the invaders mythologize as mystical, inscrutable, irrational, etc. However, then one is still left with the absence of Native Americans. And with the problem of whether literalizing the imperialist myth of the Other creates for the reader a critique or an endorsement.

Okay, but I also have to argue fannishly and loudly and with great certainty against a minor, almost irrelevant point in Abigail’s post on which I can see her meaning but still have to say — no, the Opals and White rock may be the Appalachians/Cumberland Gap but that doesn’t mean Koenigswald and Juddua are the American east. The World’s End Mountains stand in for the Atlantic. The discovery of the pass through the World’s Ends is like Columbus’s voyage. Places like Morgan City are the American east. Koenigswald is a Central-Europe-esque place, and Juddua is an Egypt-or-Algeria-or-Arabia kind of place. Creedmore says he has an Irish-sounding ancestry. West of these countries are the World’s Ends, and then the new world. As you go West in the new world you get to various rivers and mountains that are American-like. And Han shot first, dammit.

Finally, I’m glad this post mentioned Adela and the science fiction elements of The Rise of Ransom City. Adela has invented a player piano that looks to me like it’s actually a Difference Engine. It may even have a mind of its own — it seems to play original tunes by itself. I learned from reading Neal Stephenson how much the original ideas for computers evolved out of the technology of weaving looms and pipe organs, and how much the design of textiles or the mathematics of music can be related to computer code. Adela’s piano — which Ransom meets first and tinkers with, and which is destroyed before Adela is introduced as a character — is a wonderful transformation of this idea. Everything in this setting is a fun-house-mirror of something from the era of westward expansion, and the earliest theorized mechanical computers, like the Difference Engine, were contemporary to that. That matter has become a common topic in science fiction, so for Gilman to bring it up here — and then to sink it in the river and close off a major potential plot direction — is one more example of his deliberate frustration of a genre trope.

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TheSophist 05.09.13 at 4:33 pm

Regarding The Scar referenced by Abigail in #5, Mieville notes in an interview I read once that he actually identifies the Maguffin as the “Magus fin” throughout the book.

On the matter of skin color, I have often suggested to students that a society is truly post-racial iff skin color becomes as relevant as hair color – an identifying detail, but no more. It seems that Gilman has created this, and that his refusal to explore the skin color issue more does in fact reinforce the post-racialism of the society. (Maybe post-racialism isn’t even right here, because I don’t recall indicators that there was a racial past to be post”.) It seems like I’m being obtuse here and ignoring the Folk, but it seems like their otherness is too absolute to be explained simply by race.

But thanks to Abigail and to the other contributors for their careful readings and thought-provoking responses.

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ajay 05.09.13 at 4:47 pm

Did anyone else make the link between the Line and the Gun on one side, and the Union and the Confederacy on the other?

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Rich Puchalsky 05.09.13 at 5:07 pm

“Oh, was it? I’d forgotten that. Fair enough then. I thought it was just a fairly non-ideological struggle between two lots of aristocrats.”

Now you’ve made me uncertain enough so that I’ll have to look back at it. It was clear that his individual background was aristocratic, but then so were those of many leftist revolutionaries.

I should read Gilman, but I have to write just from these reviews that the idea of an American mythos — not an alternate America, but something that’s supposed to draw on the American historical myth — in which there is a “Baronies of the Delta” but in which race has been erased does seem like a very wrong authorial turn.

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bianca steele 05.09.13 at 5:40 pm

Abigail:
Not to derail, but since you mention Uri Orlev . . . is there any Israeli fantasy being translated? I wanted to read something by Hagar Yanai and was disappointed that it was only out in Hebrew.

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Piers 05.09.13 at 5:46 pm

Really great analysis. Two observations:

As you say, Gilman is not the first to use this idea of the unformed nature of the West. Although we can perhaps trace his descriptions back to Milton’s description of Satan’s voyage through Chaos in Paradise Lost, one important intermediary that is perhaps closest to his image is Michael Moorcock, whose Elric saga includes at least one short interlude in which heroes are carving new land out of Chaos on the edge of the world.

Also: the use of the Folk to drive the wheel of paddle-boat is one of several instances in which they stand in not for Native Americans, but for African slaves. I have similar reservations to yours about how they are depicted, but does this ambiguity add anything to what he is doing or does it make them even more problematic?

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Abigail 05.09.13 at 7:04 pm

Jesús @8: That’s a good point that I hadn’t considered. I suppose you could argue that the Folk are taking the view that humanity unleashed the Line and the Gun, so humanity can go to the trouble of stopping them, but that still doesn’t explain why, if they have access to that much power, they haven’t driven humanity out of the half-made lands entirely, or at least made some efforts to halt the humans’ progress.

Rich @11: Moorcock’s influence on Miéville is profound and widely-acknowledged, but the effect I’m talking about goes beyond the anti-hero (who is, for example, a staple of modern, “grimdark” fantasy). I’m talking about an approach that confounds readers’ expectations of how an epic fantasy narrative proceeds. In the example I gave, Perdido Street Station, you have a character who is noble and selflessly on our hero’s side, yet riddled with self-loathing over his banishment. Our genre savviness teaches us to expect the discovery that he was falsely accused, or that his crime had some justification. Instead he’s not only guilty, but guilty of a crime that can’t be justified. The point isn’t that he’s morally compromised (as I say, if that were Miéville’s purpose, he would have revealed the truth much earlier in the novel) but that the story doesn’t play out in the way we expected it to because of its genre. Miéville might not have been the first person to do this as well, but I think he was the first to do is so completely and so successfully.

(By the way, my recollection of Use of Weapons is the same as ajay’s – the war was between two aristocratic families. But then I’ve always found that segment of the novel’s background to be lacking in ways that critically impact my enjoyment of it.)

rm @15: I wish I could have found more to say about Adela, either here or in my review at Strange Horizons, because she is an interesting (and interestingly messed-up) character who in some ways embodies Gilman’s playfulness with genre conventions. I really liked, for example, the segment in which Harry responds to his interim readers’ assumption that he and Adela were lovers (an assumption that we can be expected to share) by explaining that actually their relationship was almost entirely platonic until quite late in the novel (and even then it’s a romance that is never consummated). I do wonder, however, if that same playfulness doesn’t end up shortchanging the character – the abruptness of Adela’s death is intended to play on our genre expectations, but it undercuts her importance and leaves her character arc unfulfilled.

bianca @19: I’m not very knowledgeable about Israeli authors in translation, but to the best of my knowledge no Israeli genre writers (of which there isn’t a large amount to begin with) have been translated into English. There are, however, several Israeli authors of literary fiction whose writing contains magical-realist or fantastic devices, who have been translated, such as David Grossman (The Book of Intimate Grammar), Orly Castel-Bloom (Dolly City), and Etgar Keret (several short story collections).

Piers @20: You’re right that the Folk’s predicament has much of African slavery about it, as well as Native American disenfranchisement. On the question of whether that makes their handling better or worse, I’m inclined to say it doesn’t matter – for all the slipperiness of the Folk’s depiction (in much the same way that the novels’ East is both Europe and the American East) their correlation with Native Americans feels much stronger and more central to the novels. Making them slaves as well feels as if it’s more about sparing yet another complication to an already intricate setting – especially since, as far as I know, slavery didn’t play as important a role in American expansion across the Western territories as it did in the East.

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MND 05.10.13 at 12:01 am

I always find Abigail Nussbaum’s writing very insightful, but I really think it’s misguided to reject these books because of offence on behalf of North American indigenous persons. As Piers noted, the Folk have aspects of African slaves and are not a straightforward representation of any particular indigenous group. Anyway, I thought Gilman was intentionally playing with the trope of magical and mysterious others. It’s certainly hard to see how the Folk are depicted as “savages” with no notion of complex, organized societies. That may be how some of the books’ characters perceive them, but I don’t see how the author has endorsed that view, even if the Folk’s social structures and beliefs aren’t explained to the reader.

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Alison P 05.10.13 at 7:10 am

I also think Abigail’s analysis is terrific, but I have strong feelings that The Folk are not supposed to represent Native Americans in a simple one-to-one sense. Instead I think they represent the externalisation of attributes that we project onto romanticised ‘Others’ who are (supposed to be) still in touch with the powers and weaknesses that we have denied in ourselves. In this sense they are Vulcans, slaves, women, mountain men, working class people. They belong in the landscape while we feel ourselves outside of it. They have instinctive wisdom and uncontrolled passions. Their significance is what they give to us, how they die and leave something for us. None of these things are true about real people, but they are a myth we project outwards onto the people who we do not see as ‘us’.

In that respect I think it would be satisfying if The Folk did not exist in the land until settlers from the east came upon it, and called them forth from it. Just as ‘noble savages’ did not exist in the world, but were only perceived by westerners looking on other people whose actual being they did not see.

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ajay 05.10.13 at 8:47 am

The courageous fighter for the rebel state that is defeated and flees into the West, pursued by the pitiless forces of industrialisation, to become either a gunslinger or a frontiersman, is very much part of the American mythos, though. It pops up in pretty much every Western movie. All the classic heroes are former Confederates who fought for the Noble Cause and were defeated. Missing out the whole “slavery and race” issue is very much in keeping with the stories Americans used to tell themselves about their past. And it sidesteps the really thorny issue: that the long-knife soldiers who massacred families at Washita were the same men as Sherman’s Fifty Thousand who freed the slaves on the march through Georgia. Gilman’s telling a much simpler and hence, maybe, more malignant story.

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Cian 05.10.13 at 11:55 am

I think the book is meant as an allegory of ‘how the west was won’, but is more playing with the mythos. Which is why some historical aspects are present, while others are rather pointedly left out (the extreme religiosity of much of the US during the C19th – no the smilers are not the same; the civil war, etc).

As for the folk… Well we always see them through other’s eyes, so their portrayal is largely indirect. However there are hints and possibilities which may complicate some of Nussbaum’s criticisms. Firstly, while the characters tend to assume that the folk are in some way a unitary force, nothing in the books states that this is in fact true. They may have conflicting interests, goals and politics – just like the humans. Secondly, there are some hints that they may change as the human’s encroach into their lands. Thirdly, while they have the weapon that can be used against the line, they may not be able to wield it directly (perhaps it does to them what it does to the line/gun), or perhaps they’re afraid of what it would do to them.

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BJN 05.10.13 at 4:39 pm

I’m late to the party, but I think calling Mieville “humorless” shortchanges his work pretty severely. Looking at his run on Dial H, I think that it’s more like he is willing to put in the jokes, just not the laugh track. His “heroes” are frequently shlubs, and act like such, and you’re free to laugh at them for it, but the funny parts, in classic dark humor fashion still have repercussions. It’s all part of the refusal to segregate genres into neat packages. To use your example, the strike at the docks is obviously political, but that also informs us some of the politics of Bas-Lag, which informs us of the whole setting and reality of the world which is vital to understanding the plot. Mieville is good precisely because he isn’t JUST interested in telling stories as parable. In an interview with Boing Boing last year he said “So the difference between a fantasy novel and a rather heavy-handed magic realist novel is that in the magic realist novel, the dragon represents whatever it may be—hope, despair—while in the fantasy novel it represents whatever it may be and it’s also a giant fucking scaly lizard.”

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shah8 05.11.13 at 6:23 am

Agreeing with MND and Allison P. The Folk are cutouts of the gaze of white men. There’s the kind of contradictoryness that’s usually present–scary strong one way, weak another way, usually *entirely* at the convenience of the teller. Dumb as a rock one way, in touch with the deep divine, able to provide The One Ring in the other way. Again, entirely at the convenience of the teller. The can’t be identified, just the same face in the crowd, unless one insists on having an identity–one that is useful to the teller. So on and so forth.

Also note that Stephen R Donaldson is the original grimdark author.

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Barry Freed 05.11.13 at 1:59 pm

And it sidesteps the really thorny issue: that the long-knife soldiers who massacred families at Washita were the same men as Sherman’s Fifty Thousand who freed the slaves on the march through Georgia.

Your larger point is well taken but come on, you’re tarring an entire army with the actions of a company or two .

Also note that Stephen R Donaldson is the original grimdark author.

Yes, this.

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ajay 05.13.13 at 12:54 pm

Your larger point is well taken but come on, you’re tarring an entire army with the actions of a company or two .

Actually I am kind of doing the reverse: if you’re writing a story about how a railroad-based military force spread across a thinly disguised American West, massacring the natives as it went, it kind of spoils the simplicity of your plot if you have to admit that exactly the same force was more or less simultaneously fighting to liberate thousands of people from slavery.

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Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.13.13 at 1:32 pm

Problem is, thats not the story of the Line. The main massacres of the Line are against anybody in the way of the line – the previous set of colonists establishing small towns or confederacies like the Red Valley Republic.

Thats why I’m so adverse to try to find a 100% isomorphism between the setting of the book and the history of the American West. The book is not meant as such. The book has things that echo, things that are born from one aspect of reality and then go to where the author wants. The “obligation” to be a 100% faithful retelling of what really happened in the West is never there – and frankly why would it be there? This is fantasy, not an history book.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.13.13 at 2:12 pm

I never felt like people really got this point. There is no “obligation” to be accurate in any way, much less 100% accurate. It’s a fantasy, not a history book, and not even an alt-history fantasy. So why does this matter?

It matters because there is a historical myth that the book is drawing on for part of its force. That myth, the myth of the American West, was classically presented in such a way as to make other parts of the American myth selectively invisible. If you follow along with that part of the Western myth — if you have Baronies of the South, but no black human slaves, except insofar as they are subsumed into the same othering that Indians get as part of the Western myth — then you’re implicitly following along some of the worst parts of the myth instead of reusing it in a way that goes against them. Black people aren’t there, except incidentally, in a classic Western because it was part of the appeal of the Western to white audiences that their immensely important presence in all of American history wasn’t there. If you reuse the myth so that they literally aren’t there because they’re nonhuman, yes, thats a problem. Much more of a problem for me than the problem of othering native americans, for whom you can much more convincingly sort of throw up your hands and say that there’s no way to use the Western myth without othering them, either as violent, inexplicable savages, or as Noble Savages with an innate connection to the land that our civilized ways have forgotten. (Sounds like the books do some of each.)

Take Mieville for example, again. There’s discernible influence on Mieville from Tolkien. He has various races that are really different species, all competing over the same lands, and a lot of them are played for grotesque exoticism. But he didn’t do the Tolkien thing of making it part of the world that some of them were innately evil. He reinterpreted the myth while finding a way to reject parts of it that he didn’t want to implicitly have creeping in.

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Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.13.13 at 2:31 pm

Of course the books derives part of their force from the parallels with reality. But the parts the author want to focus on, or feel capable to focus on. It simplifies and in some areas simply dont follows reality – it reduces and focus on some parts and leaves the others behind, because there is no need or want of them in this tale of this fantasy world.

Which would be criminal in a history book, but on a fantasy? Thats the whole deal, you reduce elements, simplify, and focus. Would the Line be more effective as a device if it was “realistic” and commented on union issues? They dont need to – they are “Mordor” as much as “industrialization”.

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Ronan(rf) 05.13.13 at 2:33 pm

From reading the posts it seems Gilman is attacking the myth through the unreliable perspective of those who were creating the myth? As such he has to deal with the simplified myth they create on its own terms?
The review has convinced me to read the book though, looks really good

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Rich Puchalsky 05.13.13 at 3:09 pm

“It simplifies and in some areas simply dont follows reality – it reduces and focus on some parts and leaves the others behind, because there is no need or want of them in this tale of this fantasy world.”

But that’s exactly the operation involved in making the Western myth in the first place. There’s “no need or want” of black people in that fantasy. But that is not like writing a medieval fantasy that leaves out some of the European nations that want to leave out. It’s a tremendously charged, ideological operation, given how important black people are to the American myth, and given the reasons why they were left out of the Western.

I’m not claiming that the book has bad ideology in some sense. Just an unfortunate authorial decision. It might have sort of gotten by without comment if the world of the books had been just the West, with no suggestion that other parts of mythic America even existed, but that’s clearly not the case, and so it hasn’t gone without comment.

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Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.13.13 at 3:20 pm

All that applies to the Western myth of media selling a mythology to the American public. I’m not so sure it has to apply to Mr Gillman books.

We have, in those same books, black characters that are considered exactly the same as all the rest – no hint of that racial discrimination at all. Because the foundation of the West there was not the foundation of the US here. And while the theme may be interesting, and more than interesting, fundamental to an understanding of this reality, is not there, in the Half-Made World, where the more defining problems are “are this demon things something we found or something we created” as a metaphor for forces that grow out of our control. Other factors, themes, issues are alluded or not even addressed to give a centrality to the ones that are.

Or to take it from other angle, I think you can take bad “fantasy” used for propaganda and mythmaking in this reality, with all is political agendas and uses for evil, and just write them “as true” in your fantasy setting without implying you believe them true in reality or have a duty not to take that thing “seriously” for your completly not-real setting. Othering the native americans == bad, having a mysterious Other fill the role of that real (and pernicious) myth in your fantasy == just a choice.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.13.13 at 3:50 pm

“We have, in those same books, black characters that are considered exactly the same as all the rest – no hint of that racial discrimination at all. “

Yes. Black people in America do not exist in the books, and only people whose skins happen to be darker-colored remain.

You can’t control how a book is read by erasing part of the same context that determines how it’s read. That’s not “just a choice” that it’s possible for any author to make.

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shah8 05.13.13 at 10:48 pm

One of the characters was cast out of the Delta Baronies because she created robot laboring devices and didn’t really understand why people might not like that…

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