The Half-Made World

by Henry Farrell on October 14, 2010

Felix Gilman’s new book, _The Half-Made World_ is out (Powells, Amazon). I liked it very much indeed (but then, I’ve liked everything that Gilman has written since “stumbling across Thunderer”: ). It’s a steampunk-inflected Western, with a fair dollop of HP Lovecraft thrown in (the malignant ‘Engines,’ whose physical appearance is mostly left undescribed, are genuinely unsettling). The writing is lovely, and the main character a genuinely complex and interesting woman.

I’m mildly allergic to steampunk, which seems to me to have become a set of lazy tropes. But Gilman reinvents these tropes – clockwork (and, most particularly, the _sound_ of clockwork) has never been so horrifying. There are strong hints that the bits of the novel that seem formulaic (in particular, the allotted role of the Hill People, who are loosely analogous to Native Americans in the real 19th century American West, as magical-saviours of the white folks) are going to be radically undermined in the sequel. Things are going to get weirder.

Locus “had an interview”: with Cherie Priest last month which summed up a certain approach to steampunk quite nicely.

bq. “Steampunk is a style that’s still searching for myths – the archetypes and icons and tropes by which it will be defined. For example, if you see a book cover and there’s an elf and a dwarf and an axe, you know that’s a fantasy book. If you see a black cover with red letters and fangs on the front, okay, that’s a horror novel. There are these pop-culture shortcuts that we immediately recognize. The airship and the goggles are just trappings. … “I’m going to try to make a world where the trappings of steampunk as we understand them are symptomatic of the world, and not just gears glued on a top hat. If there are going to be goggles, then I would like there to be a reason for them. If there are going to be dirigibles, well, why? How does this work?

There’s another word that would substitute perfectly well for ‘myth,’ ‘archetype,’ ‘icon’ and ‘trope’ in this passage. It’s ‘cliché.’ And clichés which are ‘symptomatic of the world’ that is created to explain them are still clichés. This is probably why I found Priest’s _Boneshaker_ (a book liked by quite a lot of people, including people I respect) very competently written, but completely dead.

What I like about Gilman’s book is that the metaphors aren’t dead. They’re being combined with other ideas and metaphors and reinvented. They are also entirely self-aware, and contingent even inside the text (the two malign forces of the book, the Gun and the Line, are direct products of the imaginative limitations of the settlers). If _The Half-Made World_ fits into a line of thought within f/sf, it’s less steampunk, then a set of arguments which come out of Gene Wolfe’s _Fifth Head of Cerberus_ and go through Michael Swanwick’s _Stations of the Tide_ and Paul Park’s _Celestis_ about the ways in which colonialists imagine the aboriginals that they are violently displacing, and the ways that the aboriginals imagine them. I’ve no idea whether any of these books are conscious or unconscious influences on _The Half-Made World_ – but it’s helpful for some purposes to think about them together.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons that “Ursula Le Guin likes this book so much”: (this has to be the only book in the history of the genre to have received twin blurbs from Le Guin and Eric van Lustbader). This is a really good book. If you like books like this at all, you should buy it.



jackd 10.14.10 at 6:27 pm

Thunderer struck me as less than the sum of its parts, describing a really interesting world but without the strong sense of place and mood that Perdido Street Station did so well. But I’m willing to give this one a chance, since you mention the Wolfe and Swanwick that are a couple of favorites.


Keith 10.14.10 at 8:56 pm

Cherie Priest is a much better theorist about what Steampunk aught to be than a practitioner of what it is. I agree that Steampunk is a genre in search of a canon but Boneshaker doesn’t help lay the groundwork for such a thing. I’m beginning to think the term is more a limiting factor, as the better stories are often described as Stempunkish or having elements of Steampunk in them, but none of the Sp enthusiasts want to claim these hybrid titles as their own. They’re forever in search of the True Steampunk example but keep bumping into the No True Steampunk dilemma.

Whatever the case, The Half-Made World sounds fun. Definitely have to check it out.


Henry 10.14.10 at 9:39 pm

jackd – I did like _Thunderer_ a lot (it had a few first-novel things, but was imo excellent), so read that as you will. If you like the Wolfe and Swanwick, you _really_ have to read the Park too – it is extraordinary.


John Holbo 10.15.10 at 12:42 am

Hey Henry, by coincidence I’m listening to Boneshaker right now. A commute-time audiobook. Haven’t really gotten far enough in to decide whether I agree with you. But I’ll put Half-Made next in line.


nigel holmes 10.15.10 at 6:10 am

The first cartoon here seems relevant. But could someone explain to me this usage of “trope”, which I keep seeing on the internet in contexts where I’d expect something like “generic convention” or “topos”? Is it what everyone learns in university or is it some special usage of science fiction fans?


sg 10.15.10 at 6:51 am

Wow, someone besides me who has read Celestis and thought it impressive!


Pete 10.15.10 at 10:05 am

“Trope” has been popularised by, where it’s used to cover pretty much any pattern, genre convention, cliche, etc.


Alison P 10.15.10 at 1:20 pm

I loved Coelestis. I was praising it to a friend who never reads SF: ‘It’s about colonialism!’ and she said, well, why not just read a book about real colonialism? Something about waking up and seeing things afresh, but it’s hard to explain to anyone outside the genre.


LizardBreath 10.15.10 at 4:27 pm

This post triggered an impulse Kindle buy of the book, and based on the first third, I’m loving it. So far better than Thunderer and Gears of the City, both of which I liked a great deal themselves.


Gareth Rees 10.15.10 at 4:36 pm

The OED says, “trope, n. A significant or recurrent theme; a motif,” with citations from 1975.


SonomaLass 10.15.10 at 7:12 pm

Not a big van Lustbader fan, but if LeGuin liked it, I will give it a shot.

The most interesting steampunkish world-building I’ve found recently is actually shelved as romance. The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook. It is a romance with excellent alternate history and technology.


Henry 10.15.10 at 8:42 pm

Not a big von Lustbader fan either – it’s just that the mind squirbles at a book being recommended enthusiastically by both simultaneously. The demographics of their core audiences strike me as being very different.


Cosma Shalizi 10.16.10 at 7:13 pm

Henry, how could you have neglected to mention that not only did Le Guin and van Lustbader both praise it, the latter did so by saying it “Reads as if it’s the love-child of McCarthy’s The Road and Le Guin’s The Dispossessed”?


LizardBreath 10.16.10 at 8:57 pm

That certainly sounds better than my reaction: “Wow, it’s like those Stephen King Dark Tower things weren’t dumb!”

But I can now wholeheartedly recommend the book, having finished it.


roac 10.19.10 at 5:02 pm

I read “Thunderer” on this site’s recommendation, and while the writing is indeed gorgeous, I was left at the end with the feeling that the book had gone on too long without arriving anywhere in particular. I did not pursue the sequel because of a strong suspicion that it would be more of the same. Somebody tell me I am wrong and I will be delighted to pick Gilman up again, as he is obviously a huge talent.

(One thought I had about “Thunderer” was that the author seemed to have picked up on a bunch of ideas from Discworld and played them seriously instead of for laughs (e.g., the Listening Monks, the multiplicity of gods with limited jurisdiction).


LizardBreath 10.19.10 at 5:13 pm

15: While I wouldn’t have put it that negatively, I recognize what you’re saying about Thunderer — what I thought was that the structure was experimental, and that it could be suspected of incoherence. When I say I liked this one a lot better, it’s because the structure seemed much surer and more coherent. (Although I’m not sure if the ending was deliberately open-ended and doubtful, or a setup for a sequel. I’m hoping for the former.)

a bunch of ideas from Discworld

This seems unfair to me. Pratchett’s parodying a lot of older fantasy (it starts out as a pretty faithful mockery of Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books, and then wanders), and I think Gilman might recognizably pull some fantasy idioms from sources Pratchett also uses, but that doesn’t mean he’s redoing Discworld with a straight face.


roac 10.19.10 at 6:06 pm

My comment about Discworld was observation not criticism. It’s what a writer does with an idea that counts, not where he got it. (If it wasn’t for borrowed ideas, we wouldn’t have no ideas at all.) If Gilman really did take Pratchett’s Listening Monks and run with them, more power to him, because what he did with the theme is very moving.


LizardBreath 10.19.10 at 6:14 pm

I guess, but I think you’re doing the equivalent of listening to a piece of music, recognizing a tune from “What’s Opera, Doc?” and concluding the composer was influenced by Warner Brothers cartoons. Not so much for the Listening Monks — Gilman’s thing didn’t seem close enough to the Pratchett that I would have picked it up as an influence, but I admittedly can’t think of anyplace else that specifically would have come from — but “the multiplicity of gods with limited jurisdiction” is an idea that’s all over fantasy, and tracing it to Pratchett sounds dismissive even if it’s not meant that way.

Comments on this entry are closed.