Never respond to reviews, they tell you, in the fiction-writing community, or at least my little part of it. This is probably good prudential advice, but also in its way quite satisfying; self-effacing and self-aggrandizing at once, in a Delphic sort of way. One adopts a posture of: lo, there it is, the book, it speaks for itself or doesn’t, if there was more to say the book would have said it. They don’t let you get away with that sort of thing at the day job. Anyway this is now so ingrained in me that it actually feels vaguely transgressive to write this, like standing up to object at a wedding.
I am of course tremendously grateful to all of these very smart and thoughtful and talented writers for expending so much of their smarts and thoughtfulness on my books about Evil Trains; with particular gratitude to Henry Farrell for putting this together. There’s more here than I can possibly respond to, and many interesting ideas that I need to spend more time thinking about.
All the posters may well have read these books more recently than I have, certainly the first one, which is now ancient from my perspective; plus, they remember only the books that were actually written, whereas I also have in my head all the things that got cut, or were meant to go in but for one reason or another didn’t, and thousands of changes of mind. It’s very strange to go back to them.
Abigail Nussbaum’s Part III points are well-taken and obviously important. Henry pretty much anticipates most of what I would say in response. I see these books as trying to create a sort of version of the settlers’ dream-world, myth-world, in a reshuffled and parodically exaggerated and grotesque-ified way – trying to make this familiar historical stuff seem – as it is – really deeply strange. It is also a partial and limited viewpoint on the world.[^footnote1] There are other stories going on at the same time, other points of view. The existence of these other points of view is – I hope – presented through implication, through calling attention to gaps, through pointing offstage; the books try to draw attention to the ways in which another/other perspective(s) is (are) repressed, excluded, distorted. This one-sidedness is may be one of the things that the “half-made” title is supposed to imply and acknowledge (I say may because I don’t remember precisely when I came up with the title, and have ascribed a lot of different meanings to it during the course of writing). Henry captures what I think are the roots of my reluctance to go further, to present a fully articulated and fleshed out alternative perspective, a detailed how-it-really-is with respect to the indigenous Folk — my feeling that I cannot and should not, let’s say, ventriloquize – and in particular that I cannot flesh their culture out in the same broadly parodic and not especially kind way that the elements of the settler culture are treated. (It would be different, I think, if these books were set in the real world; or even if they were set in a made-up world, but one which is supposed to be more straightforwardly realistic, less absurdist).
So yes, Harry’s encounter with the Folk in the swamp is supposed to be one of the moments that nudges the reader’s elbow and points outside the frame of the story, to show the existence of other perspectives from which the protagonists’ perspectives appear small, incomplete, inadequate. (Not that I suppose the imagined reader needs to be told this as if it is startling news; it’s more a matter of acknowledging that the issue is there and how it functions within the book). The scene is not supposed to come across as validating the idea of insurmountable alienness or irrationality.
For what it’s worth, though we certainly never get enough information to grasp their culture (or even what they call themselves), their motivations are not intended to be fundamentally alien or inscrutable. My set of background rules for writing their scenes included: (1) what we see are fragments of a pre-existing culture(s), whose pre-existing centers of habitation are gone or hidden (but the General visits one of their cities); (2) various different factions and individuals among them are trying various strategies to topple, or slow, or reform, the existing Gun/Line/Nameless Middle Third power structure; (3) some of these strategies include collaboration with promising-looking elements within the settler culture(s), e.g. the strategy of helping (creating?) the Republic; (4) they’re not all-wise and they don’t control everything. Their strategies are not very effective during the period of the books – there is no magic bullet that can fix things — but there is a tiny hint, in E.M.C.’s postscript at the very end of the second book, of slow progress and a different kind of relation between the indigenous population and the settlers, in the form of the Treaty of [arbitrary date a decade later]; (5) they generally understand the settlers better than vice versa, though by no means perfectly, and one of the things they understand reasonably well is how they are perceived; (6) they are inconsistent because there are different factions, geographically and culturally dispersed, and with different ideas about what to do (and many groups are just focused on survival). The project of collaborating with the Republic is not universally considered to have been a good idea, and at the time of the first book the key figures involved in that collaboration have been dead for a long time.
So – back to the swamp stand-off – the group Harry meets as a boy in the woods are not the same people as the group he meets years later and hundreds of miles away in the swamp. Even he recognizes they really can’t be, before convincing himself that, well, maybe, what if they were? Therefore Group 2 can’t answer his question — whether he was given the secret of the Process for a reason, and if so what reason, or whether he sort of stole it — because they don’t know. And really why should they explain anything to this man who they’ve just met in a swamp in the dark who has almost immediately started rambling at them about how important and special he is and asking for their validation of his megalomania? They’re not laughing at Harry because they’re inscrutably alien; they’re laughing at Harry because he’s being ridiculous. Similarly, Group 1 back in the woods are laughing at Young Harry because this kid they’ve caught trespassing has just puffed himself up and started promising to teach them the real meaning of things he’s literally just read painted on the walls of their own houses.[^footnote2] I, too, would laugh at him. Though to be fair to Harry, in both cases he’s terrified; also when he meets Group 1 he’s only a boy, and when he meets Group 2 he’s probably in shock after the boat sinking, and besides what can he say to them? – bearing in mind that his most immediate concern, outnumbered in the dark as he is, is that they will be mad at him — “Sorry” isn’t going to cut it (this is what he means when he recognizes that he cannot talk his way out of this problem; he has nothing adequate to say).
But also, then, when Group 2 laughs at Harry, it’s not that there’s a profound mystical secret beyond comprehension or anything like that; there is in principle a straightforwardly communicable answer to Harry’s question, Harry’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time to get it. Also he probably wouldn’t listen to Group 2 even if they did take it upon themselves to sit down and work through his problems with him, because the most probable answer to Harry’s question is that his notion of being chosen by Group 1 for some important purpose is all in his head. He doesn’t want to hear this – he’s still upset that Mr. Carver’s last words to him were accusing him of stealing the idea for the Apparatus. What he wants to hear is that he’s a chosen hero, though he will settle for being told that he was being chosen for some dreadful purpose which perhaps he might kick against; and neither of those is definitively ruled out, but neither is probable (IMO).
Most probably Group 1 let him go because he was just a kid.[^footnote3] And if that’s so, then it was just chance that he saw some aspects of their science/art/magic that gave him ideas, and he’s on his own. The fact that he was then able to combine those ideas with the ideas he got from encyclopedias to build his Apparatus is mostly because Harry’s a wizard, Harry.[^footnote4] This is a world that bends (up to a point) to strong imaginations; the Folk have what we would call magic (or some of them do) but the settlers have whatever the hell the Apparatus is, magical pianos, Evil Trains, celebrity gunfighters with literal super-speed, and so on; magic is in the air here. The frontier is not uninhabited, not not-yet-made but contested and in flux.[^footnote5]
It may well be that this doesn’t work, in a lot of ways, including but not limited to: (1) that I have tried to have things both ways by structuring all this around fairly conventional fantasy adventure plots, which implies to the reader a different kind of worldbuilding; (2) that the line between acknowledging this thing and just embodying it again isn’t really there, or it is there but the books fall on the wrong side of it; (3) that I executed it too clumsily; (4) that this structure is too rigid and oversimplifying; (5) that we don’t really need more stories about the settlers’ point of view, and certainly not at such appalling length. It seems to me that one of the big things that ought to be fleshed out, and whose absence bothers me, is why exactly the settler culture(s) was able to so thoroughly militarily dominate the indigenous culture(s), which otherwise appears as inevitable rather than a contingent historical fact; it clearly has something to do with the rise of Line and Gun among the settlers as stand-ins for industrialization (and its discontents) but why then and there exactly? I have some ideas along those lines but have not found a way of fitting this distant history in or making it readable (“it’s like Guns, Germs and Steel! Only for completely made-up magic!”)
Anyway that was the thinking.
Francis Spufford — and in fact more or less everyone — points to the books’ various refusals of closure and clarity. Trolling, if you will. Yes; there are so many of these that they sort of form the structure of the book – if I had a dry-erase board and a marker I could probably do an outline of what gets promised but not delivered at various stages. A lot of this is just basic good-sense-when-writing-about-monsters; not giving too much detail about the Evil Trains so that they don’t tip over into utter goofiness. Or, closely related, not-explaining-the-joke. Some of it is because I think it’s an effective way of building tension. It annoys some people but I personally enjoy encountering it as a reader; I like having the football kicked away; it’s masochistic, I suppose. Part of this tendency toward refusal is thematic: because the books are both about the frustration of different kinds of utopian early-days-of-modernity hopes.[^footnote6] (We don’t see Ransom City, but then it doesn’t really ever exist). A big part of this tendency is because of the centrality of the gap/refusal touched on above, re: the Folk and the sense that this is a partial and unreliable story and there are other stories we’re not seeing; which gets mirrored throughout the structure of the book at various levels, probably more often than I was intentionally aware of. Part of it is that I (as a reader) can never really enjoy the sort of fantasy that purports to offer a comprehensive and consistent explanation of the rules or nature of its world. My experience of the world is that I do not fully understand most of its systems and processes outside of small, sort of trivial areas, and the important things that happen happen for reasons that seem largely opaque and inexplicable. Fantasy worldbuilding that purports to be transparent and not confusing and full of weird gaps doesn’t feel real to me.[^footnote7]
An initial draft of Rise of Ransom City tried to follow Liv and Creedmoor’s story more directly. But it wasn’t working. They’d become too central to things, and they knew too much about what was going on, and I wasn’t interested in them any more. I couldn’t relate. So successive drafts pulled back the focus more and more until the thing slipped into first person, and they slipped off into the background.[^footnote8]
(My current goal in editing a new thing is total transparency, for a bit of a change).
“Claustrophobic” isn’t a word that would have occurred to me but now I think about it I absolutely see it. And this possibly also has something to do with the limitation of perspective discussed above, the sense of a line that is not being crossed; or perhaps at this point I’m pattern-hunting.
There is history in the sense of things happening one after another, the map moving about, towns coming and going, the conflict entering hot and cold phases in different places, but not a lot of overall progress. Partly that’s a function of the very-high-altitude view of the world the books provide. Partly it’s a hazard of made-up worlds. If I tell you that the center of empire has shifted from Rome to Byzantium that’s a big deal, but if I tell you that it’s shifted from Zarquon-IV to Squabblaxxx-VIII, well, who cares? The people who live in Zarquon-IV care but to the reader it’s not history, it’s just words; at least not unless a lot of the focus of the story is put there – which takes focus away from other parts – so local history can be developed but sweeping background history is hard. I would have liked to have built in more of a sense of change. It’s meant to be implied, I think, somewhere, that the Gun-Line conflict has not always been as hot or as all-encompassing as it is “now;” that it took a century for either power to fully appear, and another couple of centuries for the war to become what it is.
But certainly they’re stuck now, and have been stuck for a very long time. Presumably the world has to be a lot bigger than ours for all this history to fit in it, but they’re running low on room to expand (the frontier is not infinitely open; in fact Liv and Creedmoor almost reach the sea.) They’re in the grip of ideas that nobody is really entirely happy with, but nobody knows how to get rid of – except on the “vast scale of structural change,” as Maria Farrell puts it.
I said above that this is a world that bends (up to a point) to strong imaginations, but as Miriam Burstein observes, it’s more that the world bends to language, to stories and names; so that naming and defining and describing things can be a weapon, and speaking your enemy’s language can be a trap. The Line has lawyers and machines-that-type-in-triplicate and endless secret files and so on; the Gun literally speaks inside your head and tells you what you think. Stories – the Gun in particular is nothing but a collection of bullshit stories – take on lives of their own, and do things when you’re not watching.
John Creedmoor’s initials actually are a coincidence, or at least not intentional on my part. I liked the sound of “Creedmoor” and I liked “John.” On the other hand, it’s quite likely that the reason the name just seemed so right to me is because I grew up reading so many Michael Moorcock books, whose fondness for J-C names for his protagonists is intentional, if my understanding is correct.
There is a sort of Bible analogue in the world; the Sisters of the Silver City have a very Bible-like holy book. But that holy book doesn’t make any actual appearances on the page, I don’t think, and it’s just one religion among several. The Smilers peeled off a lot of the popular crowd-pleasing bits.
I will not say what the MacGuffin is, but it is the case, as Maria Farrell points out, that the idea of the possibility of the MacGuffin is at least as effective as the thing itself, and possibly more.
Yes! Harry Ransom most certainly does have theories on child-rearing and the state of nature. Nothing would have made me happier than to somehow shoehorn in Harry’s theories on education, which are advanced, forthright and significant. But it was very sporting of my editor to let me include 1,000 words on Harry’s nonsense exercise regime, and there’s a limit to how far you can push these things.
I love “The Wild West As Will And Representation” and want to steal it.
I don’t really have a conclusion
[^footnote1]:Even with respect to the settlers it is very very incomplete, of course.
[^footnote2]: Group 1 do appear to be holding long regular conversations with Harry’s dad, though.
[^footnote3]: Though Harry discounts this idea. Or because they hoped, wrongly but not unreasonably, that by returning him they could avoid the wrath of East Conlan over the whole incident and in particular over what happened to the other kid, the one who we last see panicking and starting a fight before somebody knocks Harry out. Or a little of both.
[^footnote4]: Then Mr. Carver gets wind of what Harry’s doing, and decides it’s important to keep an eye on him. I will not say exactly who or what Carver is, except that he’s clearly somewhere in the middle, culturally.
[^footnote5]: Harry promises at the beginning of part II that when he builds Ransom City there will be fair dealing with the people who live there already, because he is an honest businessman. I think he means it; but EMC has noted (Ch 4) that even before he gets to the border, he probably doesn’t have as much control over his followers as he imagines.
[^footnote6]: It’s also suggested at the very end, in E.M.C.’s postscript, that Gun and Line are now in the dustbin of history. Which is nice, but if the world is slowly coming to resemble the actual early twentieth century, it is obviously still far far short of perfect.
[^footnote7]: (And really, how could I offer up such an absurdly reductive scheme of history as Gun v. Line without acknowledging its incompleteness?)
[^footnote8]:That draft had other problems too. I never want to try to write another “Book Two” as long as I live.