The Half-Believed World

by John Holbo on May 7, 2013

I was going to get started listening to Ian Tregillis, Bitter Seeds today. It’s book 1 of a trilogy whose conclusion is getting a boost on Boing Boing:

Milkweed began in 2010 with Bitter Seeds, an alternate history WWII novel about a Nazi doctor who creates a race of twisted X-Men through a program of brutal experimentation; and of the British counter-strategy: calling up the British warlocks and paying the blood-price to the lurking elder gods who would change the very laws of physics in exchange for the blood of innocents. These elder gods, the Eidolons, hate humanity and wish to annihilate us, but we are so puny that they can only perceive us when we bleed for them. With each conjuration of the Eidolons on Britain’s behalf, the warlocks bring closer the day when the Eidolons will break through and wipe humanity’s stain off the universe.

Sounds like fun!

But not today! Henry tells me I’m late to The Rise of Ransom City. Which is, come to think of it, probably similar, rock and hard place-wise. In this faux-19th Century America fantascientifiction alt-history, and the previous installment, The Half-Made World, Gilman’s human protagonists spend most of their time on the run, or watching for their chance to run, or just laying low, for fear of being crushed between sinister, inhuman, vaguely unworldly forces of Line and Gun. The Line is technological, but also demonic – demon trains, running on rails laid down by regimented, reduced human servants. And how long are such masters likely to need even such machine-servicing specimens as we humans can be made into? I listened to Audiobook versions of both books, so I can’t flip through to transcribe tasty quotes. I’ll just crib from Hermann Melville, The Confidence-Man, which is public domain and – eh, close enough:

“About that matter,” exclaimed the impulsive bachelor, going off at the hint like a rocket, “all thinking minds are, now-a-days, coming to the conclusion — one derived from an immense hereditary experience—see what Horace and others of the ancients say of servants — coming to the conclusion, I say, that boy or man, the human animal is, for most work-purposes, a losing animal. Can’t be trusted; less trustworthy than oxen; for conscientiousness a turn-spit dog excels him. Hence these thousand new inventions—carding machines, horseshoe machines, tunnel-boring machines, reaping machines, apple-paring machines, boot-blacking machines, sewing machines, shaving machines, run-of-errand machines, dumb-waiter machines, and the Lord-only-knows-what machines; all of which announce the era when that refractory animal, the working or serving man, shall be a buried by-gone, a superseded fossil. Shortly prior to which glorious time, I doubt not that a price will be put upon their peltries as upon the knavish ‘possums,’ especially the boys. Yes, sir (ringing his rifle down on the deck), I rejoice to think that the day is at hand, when, prompted to it by law, I shall shoulder this gun and go out a boy-shooting.”

The very metaphysics of the universe conspires against the continuation of our kind, it would seem.

“Yes, sir: — boys? Start my soul-bolts, what a difference, in a moral point of view, between a corn-husker and a boy! Sir, a corn-husker, for its patient continuance in well-doing, might not unfitly go to heaven. Do you suppose a boy will?”

“A corn-husker in heaven! (turning up the whites of his eyes). Respected sir, this way of talking as if heaven were a kind of Washington patent-office museum — oh, oh, oh! — as if mere machine-work and puppet-work went to heaven—oh, oh, oh! Things incapable of free agency, to receive the eternal reward of well-doing—oh, oh, oh!”

The forces of the Line are opposed by those of the Gun. Again, I’ll just quote Hermann Melville:

… while another peddler, who was still another versatile chevalier, hawked, in the thick of the throng, the lives of Measan, the bandit of Ohio, Murrel, the pirate of the Mississippi, and the brothers Harpe, the Thugs of the Green River country, in Kentucky — creatures, with others of the sort, one and all exterminated at the time, and for the most part, like the hunted generations of wolves in the same regions, leaving comparatively few successors;

The Gun are few and the Line are many. There’s a romance to the Gun but, really, all these demons do is select a few humans to render nigh unkillable, driving them forth to wreak destruction on the Line, and any innocents caught in the crossfire. Agents of the Gun appear dashing and distinctive, compared to dreary drones of the Line, but beneath the surface, the bloodiness is just as much an awful, alienating sameness – unsuitable as a model for a human life. (Strictly, Gilman’s Line-Gun struggle is three-corner, with that weapon left behind by the mysterious First Folk playing a crucial role. Not to mention Harry Ransom’s somehow Folk-related Process. But the First Folk – metaphysicalized analogs of Native Americans – are just as alien and inscrutable as Line and Gun, if less sinister.)

It’s a good trope: tear back the veil of the world to reveal clash of cosmic forces, drawing our hero out of his or her formerly snug, or at least ordinary life. But, rather than cosmic revelation giving the hero’s life Meaning, converting him or her into the linchpin in some struggle between good and evil – the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived, the Ring Bearer (hell, Dante’s Divine Comedy) – the glimpse of forces from beyond only makes for an especially anxious bystander experience, rubbernecking metaphysics. It’s like Dante’s Inferno meets The Lonely Crowd.

Harry Ransom, inventor, makes his rambling, enthusiast’s way through the land, always close enough to events to get his eyebrows singed. He does great things in his way, or at least stumbles onto them, but never quite understands or even sees the big picture, even though he’s very much a big picture-type guy. (It would be fun to write a really classic, Lord of the Rings type trilogy, all from the point of view of someone who is the sort of guy/gal who sort of craves a good quest, but nevertheless doesn’t happen to be part of the Fellowship. He/she just sees the indirect effects the unfolding quest is having on the world.)

Now I know what you’re thinking: wow! if there’s, like, a section of Melville’s The Confidence-Man in which our boy heroes, on the run from the sinister Hoosier Bachelor and his infernal, cider-powered Boy-Husking Device, fall in with the Harpe Thugs of Green River, who aren’t dead after all, and there’s a shoot-out in which the cider explodes, taking out Bachelor and Thugs, leaving our heroes stunned and wandering in the wilderness …

No, no. The Confidence-Man is not about Gun versus Line. It’s about the dangerous potency of belief, and the hazards of its manipulation. Confidence-Men are the threat, and yet the only salvation. Jesus was the original Confidence-Man. Belief is what makes us. And yet the things we believe, when they take solid shape, are so alien and deceiving – even demonic.

And really that’s what Gilman’s novels are about as well. The Wild West as Will and Representation. The world made by the wash of belief against some inscrutable, metaphysically primordial shore that both is and is not already us. (Did we make Gun and Line or did we delve too deep and release the awful stuff?)

In the first novel, we watch an agent of the Gun, Creedmore, racing against an agent of the Line, Lowry, out into the unmade West, seeking after [REDACTED: plot-spoilers]. Liv Alverhuysen is our accidental hero, caught between Line and Gun. But Harry Ransom is, in some ways, an even better prism through which to view this world, because he’s a Confidence-Man who believes in what he’s selling. In a world half-made of belief, he’s a cross between Don Quixote and a wizard who can tap into forces beyond his ken that are, perhaps, best not meddled with.

The novel isn’t really about the Rise of Ransom City, by the way. That’s just Harry’s dream. Or is it?

In some ways – maybe this is a stretch – it’s kind of a upside-down “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. In that classic film, the railroad is colliding with the savagery of the Wild West. What ordinary folk need, at the point where Gun and Line meet, is a kind of humanized higher synthesis of these two forces; which are, after all, human forces, even if they are, individually, extreme and one-sided. (Plotspoiler: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance didn’t shoot Liberty Valance!) Gilman’s book, like the film, has an outer frame of journalistic revelation about a story of a glorious battle long mis-told, and the rather accidental hero in the middle of it.

I was thinking of comparing Gilman’s books to The Sixth Gun, which is a really, really great comic, working somewhat similar thematic terrain: demon six-shooters, most notably. But I’ve probably said enough.



Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.07.13 at 9:32 am

In the end both forces are similar, but I can see why people would go to the Gun. Not so sure about how they go to the Line – living under the Line is misery. A misery the Linemen seems to be eager (trained?) to perpetuate, as they live in a hierarchy of fear, submission and contempt. Seems their whole society consist of hurried up angry people living in fear of the moment they will fail their superiors and looking forward to torture and humilliate whoever is down them. There simply seems to be no room, at all, for a sane human relationship in the Line.

The Gun at least lets you play at your vices – till you get other ideas.


Steve Ruble 05.07.13 at 10:55 am

Odd coincidence: I just finished the Milkweed trilogy yesterday and am about to check out The Half-Made World based on the “Gilman’s Claustrophobic West” post. I enjoyed Milkweed in part because of the way Tregillis transforms a familiar genre – the spy thriller – into Lovecraftian horror, and it sounds like Gilman does something similar to westerns in his series. I’m looking forward to it.


Abigail 05.07.13 at 12:52 pm

One of the things I thought The Rise of Ransom City did well was to explain the answer to that question, Jesús, after its being raised by The Half-Made World. Harry Ransom’s reminiscences of his early life make it clear that no one chooses to ally with the Line – they slide into through economic necessity. The Line makes itself the only game in town (in the case of Harry’s home town, through a combination of manipulation and strong-arm tactics) and before people know it they’re living in a Line outpost.


John Holbo 05.07.13 at 1:27 pm

It’s true that the Line is superficially less attractive – and I don’t want to give anything away – but they might sell, like, business books or something. And people might like those.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.07.13 at 1:57 pm

Abigail, I got the idea that that kind of expansion of the Line is not really about making the people part of the Line.

That is, the surrounding towns will be mercillesly exploited for the objectives of the Line, but they will not be “Linemen”.

Or thats what I got, but I cant say exactly where in the book I got that idea, so maybe is me.


rm 05.07.13 at 2:00 pm

The Line manufactures all the luxuries and comforts of modern life. Once you get used to them, you don’t want to go without electricity and a bathroom again.

And, there’s this:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, — both what they half create,
And what perceive; . . . .

Except that in this book, what you half-create and half-perceive turns into a god that rules over your life and takes over everything. And its Presence is Disturbing not with the joy of elevated thoughts, but with dangerous monomaniacal obsessions with Power or with Order.


And, to turn from the sublime to the ridiculous for a moment, about the bewildered-bystander-protagonist thing, I’d say that’s what made the first three (the real) Star Wars movies work — bystander protagonists, who even when they saved the universe were working offstage from the main war — while the prequel (fake) movies do not — protagonists who are sitting in on the central planning sessions.


Abigail 05.07.13 at 2:02 pm

I think the books do suggest a difference between people who live under the Line and actual Linesmen like Lowry – who are bred and raised in Stations and untaught their humanity – but they don’t explain where the latter come from. Perhaps the latter are only born in Stations, or in towns that have been under the Line’s control for a long time?


rm 05.07.13 at 2:04 pm

Jesús, I think that’s right. Linesmen grow up in dormitories inside the Stations. Towns withing Line territory are ordinary towns whose lives get disrupted by the invasion of industrial technology. Linesmen move in, take over the hotel and City Hall, and begin demolishing neighborhoods and raising up factories and laying down rails.

I said it in the last thread, but I’m struck again by the similarity to the West in the Jarmusch film “Dead Man.”


BJN 05.07.13 at 2:28 pm

Abigail is right. There’s some brief mention of Lowry’s upbringing in The Half Made World, growing up in a tunnel away from light, having to scrap just to get by. It’s almost like growing up in a gilded age slum, where the few who get out do so by their adherence to the whims of the market world, and therefore are the strongest advocates for it.


Shelley 05.07.13 at 3:45 pm

Do any of these alternate history novels deal with (derail, expose, tear hair out about) the rising power of corporations?


Rich Puchalsky 05.07.13 at 3:51 pm

No one has mentioned China Mieville yet. I haven’t wanted to, since I’ve read none of Gilman’s work. But _Iron Council_ was all over this Western rail-as-icon-of-modernity thing.


Rich Puchalsky 05.07.13 at 3:51 pm

No one has mentioned China Mieville yet. I haven’t wanted to, since I’ve read none of Gilman’s work. But _Iron Council_ was all over this Western rail-as-icon-of-modernity thing.


rm 05.07.13 at 3:54 pm

Shelley: yes.


Manoel 05.07.13 at 9:10 pm

Well, to me it’s quite clear that the line is Das Kapital, linesmen like Lowry are (small?) capitalists and all the rest subsumed to the line are workers. Consider this for a moment: What was the factory in the 19th century and why any sane human being would choose to work and live there?
We know what economists of the time said, since it’s a free exchange, among equals in a trade deal, it must be because they’re better off with the deal.

Or imagine this. Working 8 or more hours a day at a job you hate, spending 2 hours to go from home to work, 2 more to go back, one hour at lunch time eating fast food, 1 more hour for personal stuff (taking shower, going to toilet etc.), 1 hour for house cleaning, 1 hour for dinner… Let me see: 8 + 4 + 1 +1 +1 = 15. Plus 8 hours sleeping, and you have one hour left, probably watching TV. Why on earth would people chose such a misery life? I dunno either, but that’s what most of us do everyday!


David 05.07.13 at 10:40 pm

The elder gods always strike me as so petty. In any case, seems to be just another take on Stross’ Laundry series. And probably nowhere near as powerful as Swanwick’s Jack Faust.

Comments on this entry are closed.