In The Rise of Ransom City, Felix Gilman attempts a couple of tricks one really shouldn’t try at home. First, he shows rather than tells how history is made by economics, politics and changes in popular belief, not the bravery of heroes. Second, he keeps much of the plot-driving action off-stage. The narrator Harry Ransom is a charismatic storyteller with a knack for coming close to the action but never quite bending it to his will. He says at the outset that he’s changed history four times. But when he explains how, you realize Ransom’s usually a part of someone else’s plan or that it’s something he failed to do that changes how things turn out. It’s all quite subtly done and my first read-through was spent in a fog of mild frustration. It wasn’t until I realized that Ransom is more Forrest Gump than secret agent that I started to get along with this book.
Ransom first turns up in The Rise of Ransom City’s predecessor, The Half-Made World. He’s the snake oil salesman hawking a light-show around the tiny, cut-off towns of the American West when an Agent of the Gun, John Creedmoor, triggers a battle with the rival forces of the Line. The town of Kloan is destroyed and everyone flees. In The Rise of Ransom City, Ransom is still on the road and teams up unknowingly with Creedmoor and an East Coast psychologist, Liv Alvurhuysen, who are trying to find a secret weapon that can destroy the god-like Gun and Line, and end the centuries long war between them. A classic quest, you might think. Except that it turns out – obliquely – that the rapidly spreading belief that the warring super-human powers can be destroyed could be more potent than the weapon itself.
The Rise of Ransom City is very good at rushing you from one adventure to the next, while slyly confounding expectations of what will be explained. The ever-changing settings of Ransom’s mishaps are terrific fun. They include a gambling river-boat, a doomed town on a snowy mountain pass, a high class brothel and a lonely industrial penthouse suite. There’s lots of lovely steam punk with a self-playing, perpetual motion piano and its maker Adela, and a convincing slave economy built on the whipped backs of the native Folk, who may or may not be manipulating the action. The real players, Creedmoor and Liv, break off half way through and continue their adventures elsewhere, but there’s plenty to admire and enjoy while you try to figure out what’s really going on.
On the face of it, Harry Ransom is a great narrator. He’s a self-mythologising showman who stumbled as a teenager onto the intuitive mathematics of the Folk’s ability to tap a source of perpetual energy. Ransom takes his light-machine on the road, hawking at the same time his System of Exercises, vegetarianism and the blue-prints for a surprisingly modernist utopia to be built in the jungles of the Half Made World. I suspect he also chews his food one hundred times and has wild theories on child-rearing and the state of nature, once you get him going.
But Ransom’s hard won self-knowledge and rueful noticing that he’s lapsed yet again into self-promotion mean that he’s far from a one-note character. He makes funny, under-stated asides, especially about family life. His most endearing act is to defy expectations regarding a romantic interest and to more deeply mourn another character who seems to be peripheral. But Ransom is a frustrating narrator when you get thinking about what you’re not being told. He’s self-obsessed, never thinks ahead and he evades hard questions about what anything means:
“I have that cast of mind that can only think about a problem when it can be solved.”
Well, that’s convenient if you don’t want the storyteller to reveal anything too soon or even at all!
Although the novel’s setting is an epic conflict between the forces of gun-toting individualism versus the rationalizing logic of the locomotive, Ransom is on his own quest; to meet his great hero and businessman, Alfred Baxter. Baxter is a self-made millionaire industrialist (all hard work; no luck) whose autobiography is Ransom’s bible. Ransom is convinced Baxter will recognize him as a kindred spirit and back the mass production of the perpetual energy machine. It never occurs to him that the very last thing a robber baron wants is a technologically disruptive entrepreneur nipping at his heels.
When Ransom and Baxter finally meet, it turns out that individuals don’t count as their publicity would lead you to believe. It’s more self-made myths than self-made men. Baxter a mere figure-head of the industrialising current of structural economic change. Worse still, Ransom becomes just such an imprisoned figurehead himself. I expected him to somehow talk or trick his way out. But, again, the story defies expectations. Our canny hero is well and truly crushed. He listens lovingly to the sound of his own voice and signs his name to deeds history won’t forgive unless it can forget him entirely. He fails to find a way to triumph or even, for too long, a way out. And in the meantime, elsewhere, epic forces confront each other. Battles are won. Friends are lost. And somewhere, far offstage, Creedmoor, Liv and others continue the real struggle.
One of the first things Ransom ever tells us is that he’s a victim of circumstance. It’s probably the truest thing he says. Yet like the dying General Enver of The Half Made World who had;
“… taken the mere words of politicians and philosophers and he’d beaten the world into their mold”,
Ransom is obsessed with staking out his place in history. He’s convinced that readers of his story will live in an era when the war is almost forgotten – though he’s hazy on how that will actually occur – and that the fame of Ransom City will ensure his immortality.
But this is not the kind of novel where the satisfyingly obvious is allowed to happen. Plucky schemes to find secret weapons are dispatched by random happenstance and the sheer force of opposing numbers. Where ideas, technology and the sheer, vast scale of structural change are what count, individuals are irrelevant. Heroism exists only in self-improvement manuals and children’s storybooks. This canny huckster’s claim for immortality is likely to be denied.