Stories Behind Stories

by Henry on May 10, 2013

The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City are tricky creatures. They object to being categorized. However much you might want to fix them to the corkboard (with a neatly typed label beneath, identifying species, and date and place of capture) they’re going to wriggle off their pins, if they haven’t already fluttered right back out of the killing jar. Books like this are not easily susceptible to chloroform.

The best I can do is to talk a bit about what they are not, and how (I think), they avoid a particular trap. Here, I disagree with Abigail Nussbaum, so you likely want to re-read her arguments again before you read mine. Also, I owe much of this to a long email conversation with Eleanor Arnason, (whom you emphatically shouldn’t hold responsible for what I say, though she equally emphatically deserves my gratitude).

First – what the books aren’t – which is steampunk. It’s easy to understand how they might be overwhelmed by that voracious subgenre – it is obviously rather difficult to keep fantastical books with steam trains, ornithopters and submersibles safely walled away from it. But Gilman is using similar tropes for very different ends. Steampunk is self conscious Victorianism. Indeed, it’s usually a quite specific and unhealthily nostalgic Victorianism, an awkward romantic encounter between starched crinolines and twenty-first century social values, lubricated by a compound of soot and engine-grease. Gilman isn’t even faintly nostalgic, and wants to play a different kind of game.

Borges famously wrote that Kafka invented his precursors. If you read Gilman as having done the same, one imaginary progenitor might be William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. Like Gibson and Sterling, Gilman wants to look closer at the origins of the steel-hard casing of modernity, which was forged in the smithies of the Industrial Revolution, and which we are still confined within today. Even here, any ancestry is uncertain. Gilman’s Ada Lovelace figure, unlike her equivalent in Gibson and Sterling, never quite manages to get her version of the analytic engine properly up and running. It’s sold for cheap and then lost in a capsized riverboat. Ada’s past, or future, or whatever you might want to call it, emphatically isn’t the one that Gilman wants to tell us about.

Instead, he wants to tell us about America. As Cosma Shalizi has already noted, he’s specifically interested in the origin-stories that America tells itself about its own particular form of modernity. The two warring forces of the Gun and the Line in the first book represent two of the core myths of America. Anarchy comes from the barrel of the Gun, a bloody ideal of the West that owes more to Cormac McCarthy than Louis L’Amour (the spirits of the Guns, whispering to their Agents from their invisible Lodge, are surely a related class of daimon to Blood Meridian‘s Judge Holden). The Line, despite its malefic train-engines (never precisely described) is as much a realization of 1930s Fordism, and perhaps even the 1950s ideal of big organization and mass production, as Gradgrindian capitalism. There are motor-cars as well as Heavier-Than-Air-Vehicles. The Line’s name hints at the logic of the assembly line as well as that of the railway. The whey-faced proletariat are Victorian enough but they are very nearly indistinguishable from their immediate superiors, grey Organization Men who direct them towards ends that are both superficially rational and genuinely insane. All are disposable from the perspective of the Line’s tutelary spirits, the Engines, who seem to have no goal beyond seeing their system endlessly propagate itself outwards (just as the Gun has no goal or strategy beyond perpetuating chaos)

The second book canvases another American myth – the self-made man, inventor and entrepreneur who does his best to prevail in the face of hostility and lawsuits from established trusts. Professor Harry Ransom has bits of O. Henry’s Jeff Peters in his personal ancestry, but also L.Frank Baum’s Oz, and perhaps, bits of Mark Twain too (a charming and amiable narrator of uncertain racial background who likely isn’t nearly half as ingenuous as he lets on, and ends up lighting out for the territories). If the first book has the impending displacement of the Gun and the Line by the Red Valley Republic as its backdrop, the second book makes it clear that the Republic’s victory is no better and no worse than an escape into the unpleasantness and banality of America-as-it-is. Professor Ransom, and his unlikely ideal city of inventors, renegades, potterers and ne’er-do-wells disappears into the myth of the Far West, beckoning, but (like the multiple shadows cast by Ransom’s Leaf, and the ghosts of possibility thrown off by the workings of his Apparatus) not entirely present.

As Nussbaum rightly points out, all of this presents Gilman with a problem. These are recognizable versions of the origin stories that America tells itself about itself. But all of these stories radically displace another set of stories – the stories that native Americans had about themselves and their land before the settlers came, not to mention the stories about how the settlers treated them when they arrived. And this makes it difficult for writers like Gilman (who is nearly as pale, and quite as European as I am) to write about the Matter of America without dealing with difficult issues of representation. How do you faithfully reflect the story that got deliberately obliterated in the making of the stories that you are playing off? One choice is to try somehow to smooth the problem away as if it didn’t exist, either absorbing it within the colonial narrative (a la Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker books, where native Americans become a precursor to magic-fuelled Mormonism) or magically making it disappear (as in Patricia Wrede’s books, where a North America full of megafauna is there for the colonials to explore, conveniently free of any aboriginal inhabitants to complicate matters). This is inadvisable. Even when well intentioned (as I imagine Wrede’s books were well intentioned) the consequences are unfortunate.[^slavery]

Yet the alternative – of trying somehow to represent the native American perspective – presents issues that are nearly equally as tricky. Representation, even when kindly intended, can become an act of cultural expropriation. This is especially so in a work of speculative fiction, where one almost inevitably is going to be creating imaginary cultures that cannot really fully and faithfully reflect the cultures that they are playing off. It’s not entirely impossible – there are a couple of writers out there, with deep anthropological knowledge, who seem to me at least to have represented possible alternative perspectives well (not that I should be anyone’s idea of an authoritative judge). Interestingly, the work that seems to me to be most nearly successful is science fiction rather than fantasy (“anthropological” sf such as LeGuin, Arnason, and Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child). Perhaps there’s some lesson one could generalize from here about how the tropes of SF make it easier to avoid boundary confusion than the tropes of fantasy. Perhaps not.

Still, this is really hard to do, and perhaps effectively impossible to do in a pair of novels which talk about the stories that make up America while being very deliberately unfaithful to them. I don’t think that there is enough imaginative distance there to avoid failing badly. Equally, it is impossible to ignore the challenge without at best making your account of the making of America into a strained exercise in pretending away the problem, and at worst a nasty ideological confection.

What Gilman does is something else. He makes it clear that there are other perspectives on his stories, perspectives that reflect parts of both the native experience, and the experience of enslaved Africans in his narrative, but refuses to represent those perspectives directly. Gilman’s “Folk” are both profoundly aboriginal to the land and enslaved by the settlers, when they are not entirely wiped out. They are crucial to the development of both books. Their story is a central one – arguably the central one – in how Gilman’s Half Made World develops and changes over the course of the two novels. Yet it is never directly told, and is only encountered glancingly, through the individually and collectively inadequate perspectives of the settlers. The only place where the Folk’s viewpoint is at all directly represented is a short and highly ambiguous passage towards the end of the first book, which very deliberately doesn’t provide us with much in the way of useful information. It tells us that there is a perspective (and almost certainly, many perspectives) that aren’t being described, and that the Folk are in principle intelligible, but very deliberately doesn’t do more than that. All that we know about the Folk’s actual motivations are vague and contradictory hints.

This allows Gilman to tell us a story, or stories, while making it clear that there is another, more important story that he isn’t telling. The two main protagonists of the first novel, with their all-consuming Quest to defeat the Gun and Line, become bit-players in Professor Harry Ransom’s tall tale about his rise and fall in the second. This story in turn is framed by Elmer Merrial Carson’s on-and-off search over decades for the different parts of Ransom’s tale, which he clearly finds amusing, vexing, more accurate than he might have expected, but not entirely convincing. And beyond all these stories is the deliberately untold story of the Folk, from which all these other stories are distractions.

The most important moment in the two books is in the middle of The Rise of Ransom City, where the narrator, Professor Harry Ransom, encounters a group of the Folk after the riverboat he was travelling on sinks. He tries to justify himself, and his whole vainglorious story about how he has used their knowledge to construct his Apparatus to them, but gradually realizes that they’re all quietly laughing at him. They obviously find him a little ridiculous. It’s a wonderful deflationary moment – and is the moment at which the reader realizes that there’s another story, around which the imaginary world could be pivoted like an axis, to reveal an entirely different understanding of what has been going on over the course of the two books.

Years ago, Michael Swanwick, another very fine writer, argued that the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that the first takes place in a knowable universe, the second in an unknowable one. At the heart of fantasy there is always mystery. The trick of writing good fantasy is somehow to sidetrack the reader’s desire for complete revelation of the mysterious without entirely frustrating it. Gilman does this, very consciously and deliberately, but employs the mystery at the heart of his two books to do something else besides. By making the mystery consonant with the hidden story of the Folk, he avoids having to represent what the Folk mean to themselves. Hence, he solves the problem of acknowledging them without directly representing them.

It’s a risky strategy – and for some readers, it may not work. Clearly, for Nussbaum, it didn’t work. Even so, I’m sure that it’s a risk he’s taking with eyes open and with good intentions. The two books are about both the stories that America tells itself, and the story that it doesn’t, because to tell that story would be to invalidate the others. The former are represented directly, the second only indirectly and ambiguously sketched. I contend that this shouldn’t be read as a statement that the Folk are alien in some deep sense, but rather, a statement of epistemological and cultural modesty. That all that a white British emigre can plausibly claim to represent or truly understand, are those bits of the culture closely related to the one that he himself grew up in. To talk on behalf of the other is to take liberties that he isn’t entitled to take – so all he can do is to acknowledge that they are genuinely different, that they have their own story, and that it is not only a valid one, but plausibly a better and more important one than the stories that he can tell.

There are very similar problems in the representation of the slavery of Africans in the making of America, which Gilman addresses, I think, in similar ways to the ones I identify below; I invite him to talk about this in his response if he wants to.



FRauncher 05.10.13 at 9:13 am

Finally, a broad and deep analysis that rings true. I was never satisfied with anyone’s take on the Folk up to now, but I’m sure you’ve got it, Henry. Congratulations.


Dr. Hilarius 05.10.13 at 9:33 am

Last week I picked up a copy of Gilman’s “Thunderer” on impulse without knowing anything about the author. On the strength of the treatments of “Half-Made World” here at CT I will go to that book directly. And thank you for mentioning Michael Swanwick, a much under appreciated writer.


Abigail 05.10.13 at 10:27 am

I’ve been thinking about this argument since you suggested it to me a few weeks ago, and though I see its appeal, it remains unsatisfying and incomplete. It does not get around the core problem of both books, one that I think you’re too quick to dismiss in your last paragraph.

The Folk are not human. There’s no getting around this. Humans solidify the unmade world. They impose the laws of nature and physics on it. They create demons like the Line and the Gun. The Folk do not do any of these things. Even if you take the solidification of the unmade lands as a metaphor for human civilization and its complex structures, what you end up saying is that the Folk – that is to say, Native Americans – do not possess these structures. That they have no system of the world.

I take the point about choosing not to speak for Native Americans, and I agree that The Rise of Ransom City implies that there is a story we are not seeing. If that were all Gilman had chosen to do with the Folk, I would be willing to consider your argument. But he compounds that choice with the choice to make the Folk inhuman. Or, more precisely, the latter choice is imposed on him by the books’ central metaphor of the unmade territory which solidifies as a result of human settlement – in such a setting, either the West can have no inhabitants, or those inhabitants can’t be human, and there lies the books’ original sin, as it were.

So while I might agree that Gilman’s intent was to be respectful of Native Americans by refusing to tell their story (inasmuch as the author’s intent means anything) I think that what he ended up doing was erasing them, and replacing them with something not human.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.10.13 at 10:37 am

Well, they actually are not human. In “Lightbringers & Rainmakers” Ransom comments he never realized the Folk have an extra knuckle in their fingers.

I’m so sure about not having a system of the world. Everything indicates they have a truer system of the world than humans. What makes them alien is their behavior, what motivates them. We get that they have motives, and emotions – they laugh at Ransom, for example, in what seems to be a “look at the rube playing with this stuff, he got it all wrong!” attitude – but nothing adds to a behavior we can identify or a set of motivations we understand. Why some of them accept slavery so passively and others fight and kill the “invaders”? Why not retreat en masse to the unmade lands? Why not oppose the devils with their superior knowledge of the actual rules of that universe they seem to have?

I think is telling his “others” are “bone white”. I agree with Henry – seems to me there is an intention of distancing his “others” from history at the same time that they represent concept in history. The combination is difficult and maybe at some level unsatisfying. We have “others” that have to be so “other” as not to be an appropiation of some real people situation, but they also are standing for the role of those real people in the same evocative but not direct mapping as the rest of the elements of the book.


Rich Puchalsky 05.10.13 at 11:08 am

“But all of these stories radically displace another set of stories – the stories that native Americans had about themselves and their land before the settlers came, not to mention the stories about how the settlers treated them when they arrived. And this makes it difficult for writers like Gilman (who is nearly as pale, and quite as European as I am) to write about the Matter of America without dealing with difficult issues of representation. “

I don’t think that this (not telling the native american stories) is the most important problem. The particular Matter of America of the Line and Gun is the Western, basically, and Westerns have always had Indians in them as Others. If you’re reworking a myth, you’re reworking a myth, and Indian-as-Other is an integral part of that one.

But — one of the reasons that Westerns were popular is that they could exclude another big part of the Matter of America — black people. Even though a fourth of actual cowboys were black, film and TV depicted them as white for white audiences (there were also “black Westerns” for black audiences). They were American historical myth sanitized of the conflict over slavery and its aftermath through a sort of geographical separation: the story of the Western frontier wasn’t about the story of the settled North and South. In actual fact the question of whether the newly settled states were going to be slave states or not was very tied up with the Civil War and all that it implied, but we’re not talking about history, we’re talking about myth.

It’s taking the myth along with this sanitization that seems problematic to me. I’ve been struck by how much of the reviews of these books talk about geographic areas, and which places in the books stand for which areas of the U.S. The world of the books seems to have been broadened, in some sense, to the U.S. as a whole. And that’s a level as which this invisibility of black people fails. Black culture has just created too much of American culture for a mythic America to treat them as nonhumans. And there’s a whole integral part of American myth that’s about the struggle around exactly that.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.10.13 at 11:18 am

I’m a bit reluctant to assign value judgments or even make a case for how close or not the books should really reflect America or not.

The books are fantasy. The source is reality, and the tale they tell has resonance in our understanding of reality, but I dont think is fair, or productive, to insist on how accurate or complete or incomplete the mapping is (even if it is fantastic material for discussion and I just read here 2 great reviews tackling that)

But, for example, I recently read Under Heaven by Guy Gabriel Kay and while I understand his stance of not using real history and real places in writing , I was very disappointed to find that it is 99% a retelling of a true episode of China history, just with different names. Yes, they are differences, a bit of magic here, and main protagonists that are not history figures, but if you read the book and then read about the Tang Dynasty and the An Lushan Rebellion, the mapping is almost absolute.

Better to have a fantasy that evokes, resonates, or bear resemblance to reality while being its own thing, its own universe, bound to its own rules and not tied to an specific stance in the real world even if it is in part a commentary or point of view of it, I think.


Henry 05.10.13 at 11:31 am

Abigail – I continue to disagree here (while thinking that this is a valuable and useful argument). I think that there’s a kind of elision between two different senses of the word ‘alien’ in your argument. ‘Alien’ can refer to physical difference, and it is clear that the Folk are physically different in some very important ways from the settlers in Gilman’s novel. But you are making a stronger argument, I think, which is that Gilman’s presentation implies that the Folk are so deeply alien, so profoundly different that no meeting of minds between them and ordinary human beings (e.g. the settlers) is possible. And this is what I don’t think Gilman either implies or wants to imply. It is clear that the settlers, or at least those we see directly view them as alien and incomprehensible. But their views are very clearly incomplete – Gilman’s books are demonstrably (and I think you agree here) all about the unreliable narrators, and I think that there is plenty of plausible evidence that their inability to understand the Folk is a result of their own conceptual blinkers . It’s clear that important parts of the story are (presumably deliberately) left out, such as the real relationship between General Enver and his friend and what they had planned together. There are also strong hints that the Folk have their own civilization which is never directly represented (Enver’s dying description of the cities underground). Liv and Creedmoor likely see one of these cities, but we don’t know any more about it. So I think that the Folk come wrapped in mystery in the novels, as does the whole process of change that the two novels indirectly depict. But that is different from saying that the Folk are profoundly mysterious in so deep a fashion that they cannot be understood as legitimate subjects. I think that the reading of Gilman not wanting to reduce their subjectivity, by representing it unambiguously, is the better one. Which is not to say that it is a controlling reading – obviously different readers will respond in different ways.


Cian 05.10.13 at 12:37 pm

The Folk are not human. There’s no getting around this. Humans solidify the unmade world. They impose the laws of nature and physics on it. They create demons like the Line and the Gun. The Folk do not do any of these things. Even if you take the solidification of the unmade lands as a metaphor for human civilization and its complex structures, what you end up saying is that the Folk – that is to say, Native Americans – do not possess these structures. That they have no system of the world.

While you seem to believe that this clearly makes them inferior to humans in the book, I’m unconvinced that Gilman thinks this. In particular I take issue with the assumption that solidfying the unmade lands (a human metaphor, the folk seem to have no problem living there) is a good thing, any more than the destruction of much of the USA’s native ecology was a good thing. The humans are profoundly destructive, and remake a world that they find alien into something they can live in. The folk appear to live in harmony with that world.

The folk very clearly do have a system of the world, and we see hints of it in both books. They also have some form of technology, though again it’s profoundly alien to the human characters. It’s also very apparent that the folk see humans as inferior.

And I do have a real problem with the way in which you and others are trying to literalize this book, so that everything maps onto our world. I really don’t think that was Gilman’s intent. Yes he didn’t show slavery, or the civil war. He also ignored the profound religiosity of the American west. It clearly wasn’t his attempt to create a ‘fantasy’ C19th America. To pick a less controversial example. Look at the smilers. They’re not a stand in for Christian revivalists, but rather an ironic mixture of both the evangelical movement with the self-help movement. Now you could read that as a historical failure by Gilman, but I think that would be a mistake.


rm 05.10.13 at 1:01 pm

In our real-world historical understandings of “America” we have erased a lot of history, and a lot of current research is about trying to represent or bring to attention the perspectives that were ignored or displaced. The example that comes to mind is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s book Silencing the Past, which is about epistemology and historiography, and uses the Haitian Revolution and the circumstances surrounding the Battle of the Alamo as examples of how the received historical narrative is written ideologically.

The traditional Western is even worse about race than Rich describes — it’s not just that they presented white audiences with a slavery-free American story, it’s that the protagonist was so often an unreconstructed ex-Confederate. The story of settlement is often framed as the Progress of the White Race (see the recent discussion at LGM about “The Searchers”).

So Gilman’s problem is indeed enormous — and he probably does as well as possible — and I certainly respond to these novels as works of genius — but I think this discussion is showing that the ideology of racism is baked into the cake. If you deal with the (white) American mythology of America you are dealing with a fundamentally racist vision of a people expanding into open territory, and those people are defined as a race, and the other races involved are not to interfere with their heroic place in the narrative. Gilman makes them all different skin colors, and he makes them not heroic. But he is still working with their story, and the difficulty of erasing race from the story is unavoidable. I think some of us forgive him for this because we are white, and this is about the culture which shaped us, so racism is baked into our cakes too, and we would like to get credit for good intentions.


rm 05.10.13 at 1:10 pm

Cian, I read the Smilers as the movement that William James called “the religion of healthy mindedness” in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He said it was America’s home-grown religious innovation. I think the 20th-century observation that AA is America’s religious invention is an echo of James’s earlier comment. I read all the various sects of these novels as different streams of frontier American religiosity.

Quite true that the act of criticism reduces the unformed chaos of the narrative to settled shapes that the critic is comfortable living in. Most good literature has a metafictional aspect; the metaphor of settlement in the novel may be partly a lesson in how these novels want to be read. Don’t reduce the narrative to shapes; you cannot help reducing the narrative to shapes.

Something still unexplored: the amount of early psychological literature that is at play in these novels. In THMW Liv reads textbook accounts that the novel’s acknowledgements state are passages from a real pscyhological study from 1905. I think William James is a source for this book too.


rootless (@root_e) 05.10.13 at 1:29 pm

Rich Puchalsky @5

Wow: Black Westerns. Didn’t know about them. Thanks.


Cian 05.10.13 at 1:48 pm

Thanks RM, that’s something I’d missed. And I agree about the metafictional aspect. A nice irony perhaps.

I think some of us forgive him for this because we are white, and this is about the culture which shaped us, so racism is baked into our cakes too, and we would like to get credit for good intentions.

Maybe so, but the novel never portrays western expansion, or indeed development, as an unambiguously good thing. Given that, I’m not sure what race/slavery would bring to that dynamic.


Jackmormon 05.10.13 at 2:31 pm

In “Lightbringers & Rainmakers” Ransom comments he never realized the Folk have an extra knuckle in their fingers.

Isn’t that the kind of detail that 19th-century race theorists “see” that then proves their ideas about otherness? It’s very hard to trust much of what Gilman’s narrators assert as fact.


pjm 05.10.13 at 2:45 pm

rm @ 9. Good point about the pro-Southern aspect of the Western. A rather unfortunate consequence of this is how Joss Whedon’s Firefly ends up eerily recapitulating the crap of the Civil War as libertarian morality tale.

Henry, hadn’t heard of the Wrede books, though there is a hypothesis that it was the decline of the megafauna (particularly the now extinct short-faced bear, 7ft tall on all fours and could run as fast as horse) that permitted the expansion inland of the Native American peoples. (Which of course contradicts the theory that Native Americans caused the decline of the megafauna – though climate change seems to be the favored explanation of late).

It looks like I might be the first to raise the example of Ray Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles, as another approach to this issue.


rm 05.10.13 at 3:51 pm

Indeed, I thought of Firefly while writing my comments. And whenever I watch Star Trek — which as you may guess is frequently — I’m struck by how similar the Trek galaxy is to a James Fenimore Cooper world of different “races” each with its “gifts.” Ironically, Trek is an American vision of post-racial utopia, but also an adventure narrative, and as adventure narrative it can’t do without the Hawkeye-Chingachgook-Duncan-Riggs-Murtaugh mix of racially different characters. Just like Star Wars wanted to recreate the magic of old movie adventure serials, and couldn’t do so without disguising Orientalist villains & heros as aliens. The new Iron Man has an Orientalist villian recast as an American corporation. Our racism is baked in, and that flavor comes out even when we are trying to bake up a utopian dessert.

But I had forgotten about The Martian Chronicles. Excellent idea for comparison.


arw 05.10.13 at 3:52 pm

The Half-Made World is excellent. Ransom City, less so. At a thematic/metaphorical level, the Line and the Gun are brilliant. While most commenters here seem reluctant to draw direct associations, I think it’s a possible and valid way to read the books. I agree with Henry and Cosma. To me it’s very Civil War in a Kevin Philips “Cousins War” way. The fight spans centuries and continents, but its core remains.

Gillman’s description of The Gun is very alive today. The spirits that move the NRA and even more radical crowds are just as abhorrent. You literally can’t make this stuff up. The reality makes this fiction tame.

But it is The Line that rules, despite their demise in Ransom, which I think gets it wrong. The disassociative, cold, calculating, power described in Half-Made is right on. It is global corporatism running here on rails, but on fibre-optics in the real world. Fueled by carbon and capital, The Line is not going to be stopped.

One of the unexplored areas in Ransom is The Line. In Half-Made, a most chilling moment is when Linesman Lowry receives a communication from The Engines themselves. Sentient computers have been written about, but sentient heavy industrial beings is a very compelling idea that Ransom could have explored.

The West, the edge, is where the issue of slavery came to a head. Free states or slave? The irony of the real, not imagined, history is huge. The Line and The Gun battle it out much as the Grey and the Blue did. And post war, it continued to shape the American landscape.

And who are The Folk? They hold a magical power, although they are sometimes enslaved. Native Americans believed they could stop Manifest destiny through mysticism, using magic ropes to try to stop steam engines. But mysticism in African-American society, and Ransom’s documentation of enslavement lead me to believe it is an amalgam of the two. One subject to ethnic cleansing, the other subject to human bondage. The underlying damage of this history to the American myth gnaws at our society today – and may hold a “power” to destroy it. And, the power comes from the fact they are human. I totally disagree they are not.

Ransom himself isn’t as compelling as Creedmoor. And the writing in Rise of Ransom City is like something from an old Band song, very WS Wolcott’s Medicine Show. It feels a bit gimmicky after awhile and the plot seems to dance around the core issues raised in Half-Made and that exist in Ransom.

Jesús comments on the value of “…having a fantasy…even if it is in part a commentary…”. This really resonates for me. Gillman’s concept of The Gun versus The Line is masterful. And it maybe the only way we can deal with or discuss the issue at this point in time. Good to great sci-fi/fantasy. Horrible current reality.


bianca steele 05.10.13 at 8:11 pm

I’m enjoying this discussion but on the question of the Folk’s humanity, I’ve gotten a sense from a lot of the reviews that the Line (or the Line/Gun combination) are kind of the Borg. I.e., half-made = not yet assimilated. And since the Line/Gun combination is *US*, plus the language already labels the Folk (or is it just the land?) incomplete, (within the novel) we see the Folk from the Borg’s perspective, assuming the Borg have their own self-image of themselves as not simply parasites and predators. This isn’t uninteresting, especially given how towards the end of Voyager, Janeway and the Borg Queen were played off against each other, with the question implicitly raised whether Starfleet wasn’t more similar to the Borg than we might have supposed.

The idea of the half-made world being similar to Cormac McCarthy’s vision of the West might be so. But then it isn’t the Bradbury, etc., vision, I think: it isn’t the vision that’s usual in fantasy literature.

(There’s a thing that goes, more or less, “the Indians are dead, but we can have the same relation to the land and its spirit they had, and be as virtuous as them, if we treat them as spirit,” and I think it’s a little squicky in its Othering of people who after all aren’t actually all dead. It doesn’t come across quite like that in Bradbury, though, who’s interested in other kinds of forgotten pasts, too. But whether it’s respectful or not, I’m not sure.)


Øystein 05.10.13 at 9:54 pm

Notwithstanding Henry’s ingenious take on the Folk, I think Abigail has it right when she says “The Folk are not human. There’s no getting around this.” bianca @17 suggests(?) that they’re the land, which resonates with how I got much out of thinking of them as Nature – source of the very real-world process; can be tamed for lightning and energy, but is not for complete understanding or control; subverts the human and their creations in the long term; random.


Yahoo 05.11.13 at 4:24 am

The portrayal of the Folk to me – and I’ve only read the first book – reminds me a great deal of Nicholas Roeg’s film version of Walkabout. There, like the Folk in HMW, it’s made clear that the aborigine has a view that is quite different from those we are given access to, but its contours remain mysterious throughout.


PJW 05.11.13 at 12:38 pm

Thanks for the nice post, Henry. Mighty fine exegesis. Your mention of McCarthy and Judge Holden certainly got my attention, “the spirit of the Guns, whispering to their Agents” would have recalled Holden for me as well. Much like when the judge comes to visit the dreams of the jailed kid late in the book: “In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go.” (BM 309) The judge is lots of things and defies being pinned down to any narrow interpretation. He rides on. I think the phrasing “wholly other” is possibly an allusion to Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy and the “wholly other.” I haven’t read the books under discussion but the McCarthy resonance will probably get me to reading them.enjoyed


FRauncher 05.11.13 at 12:50 pm

It looks like this thread has died. Too bad.
It looks to me as though one of the reasons is that confusion reigned throughout, at least in my mind.
One of the reasons may be that no one familiar with the genre intervened to structure the discussion. I guess that is the tradition with this site. Let the discussion flow freely and go where it may, and that is one of the site’s principal attractions.

That said, it seems that confusion reigned because discussion was going on at three different levels of interpretation at the same time, which meant that people were talking past each other, or just not commenting because of confusion. Those three levels are obviously 1) the story itself, along with the quality of the writing, 2) the historical and geographical symbols or parallels which give the story a more or less tenuous connection to reality so that the reader does not lose her bearings, and 3) the philosophical level, and its implications for the present state of the world and society. For me, unless a fantasy writer deals successfully with all three of these levels s/he is not worth following. I have plenty of other worthwhile stuff to read.

Gilman obviously qualifies. I shall probably read more of his work.


Roger Nowosielski 05.11.13 at 2:19 pm

Hope you’re wrong, FR, for there’s a wealth of material to mine.

Right off the bat, bell hooks comes to mind: Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations.


rm 05.12.13 at 7:22 pm

I’m sorry if the thread has died, because I loved reading these books and would like to keep talking about them.

I think the issue of representing the Other, especially Native American history or slavery, is an inevitable difficulty and not a particular problem for Gilman. Treating American myth as fantasy might make it a bit less of a problem because what we’re seeing is so obviously a dreamlike construct, so we’re not being told this vision is true.

That said, treating history as myth from the standpoint of the oppressed group has been done. Ishmael Reed’s early novels mythologized American history using Voodoo as a framework. His masterpiece is Mumbo Jumbo, where Haiti responds to the American invasion of 1915 by releasing a spiritual plague upon America, and the result is the Jazz Age. I haven’t read Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, but that one has cowboys and the Old West.

In Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (round about 1990 or so) a slave ship transports an East African tribe and their god in chains and tragic magical hijinks ensue. I think the god may be Yahweh and the tribe a lost tribe of Israel. The narrator is a bit Ransom-like, a freed slave who is a little bit con man and a little bit naif, and who doesn’t see the whole picture.

I liked Sherman Alexie’s YA novel so much I should go on and read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which from the title seems to deal with this Western matter.


Dan Nexon 05.13.13 at 1:37 am

An excellent discussion, but I think we should keep in mind (as I noted on the first HMW/RoRC thread) that the Folk are not a mapping of Native Americans. They have aspects drawn from a large number of imperial “others.” And this is important, because their elements are cobbled together not from Native Americans, or Aboriginals, or Celts, or whomever *themselves*–but rather from the representations provided by the colonizer, settler, and imperialist. As is only fitting, given the fundamental rectitude of Henry’s interpretation of them and their place in the story.


LizardBreath 05.13.13 at 3:23 am

On one level, they’re fairies — the white-skinned or Fair Folk who live in the hills, magical but powerless when chained by cold iron. I don’t know how to integrate that with the level on which they correspond to Native Americans and to African American slaves, but all three things are clearly going on.


Abigail 05.16.13 at 1:28 pm

Real life swooped in this week and distracted me, so I haven’t been able to keep up with this discussion and seminar. Just briefly, then, to address a point that has come up more than once, in response to my contention that the Folk are not human, Cian writes

While you seem to believe that this clearly makes them inferior to humans in the book, I’m unconvinced that Gilman thinks this

Which is not my belief at all (and I’m intrigued by the fact that at least twice now commenters here have interpreted my problem with the Folk’s inhumanity thus). That the Folk are portrayed positively, and in some ways as even superior to humans, doesn’t get around the problem of their inhumanity at all – it is, in fact, the exact same problem in a different guise. Casting a subset of humans as Other in order to place them on a pedestal is no less problematic than doing it in order to vilify them. In both cases you’re reducing and ignoring their fundamental humanity – the fact that, inevitably, their group will include some people who are bad and some who are good, but hardly any saints or demons.

Several commenters here have pointed out that the Folk also parallel African slaves (and, as LizardBreath says, fairies), and suggested that this fact mitigates the problem of their Othering. Aside from the fact that taking this approach too far brings us into Wrede territory – if the Folk are not Native Americans, then Gilman has scooped that group out of his world’s history and replaced them with magical creatures – I’m not sure I see that this solves the problem. Surely dehumanizing African slaves is just as bad? And while I agree that, as has been pointed out here several times, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between Gilman’s world and reality (or even the myth of the West), it seems disingenuous to pretend that the Folk are not intended, at least in part, to represent Native Americans. The Half-Made World books take their power from the history they are referencing and playing with. You can’t just choose to ignore that history, and claim the books’ world as its own entity, when it’s convenient.


Henry 05.16.13 at 2:08 pm

Abigail – it may make sense to transfer this discussion at this point to Felix’s response-post.


LizardBreath 05.16.13 at 3:11 pm

And I responded to Abigail’s comment there.

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