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.