Meanwhile, in Jasper City…

by Maria on May 13, 2013

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.



rm 05.13.13 at 7:19 pm

I think these novels are very unredrepublican and ought to be banned in all right-thinking schools. They portray General Enver as senile and weak and surviving long after the Battle of Black Cap Valley, which is just ahistorical garbage. I was taught in school that he heroically faced up to the Line and fought them off single-handedly long enough to allow the Remnant of the Red Valley Republic to escape to the West and found New Design, sacrificing his life so that we all could live in Freedom today. He was a man who could never tell a lie but in these books he has secret help from an ungodly Folk wizard. These books portray Captain Morton and even President Hobard as fools, and Creedmore as a scoundrel and murderer who had once worked for the Gun. I looked it up in my history book just to check, Creedmore was a trapper and frontiersman who stumbled across the Red Valley Republic’s New Design out west and was so taken by its ideals that he helped them march back East and inspire the whole world to rise up for Democracy and Freedom. He is the hero of so many classic Western tales, but these novels make him seem more of an evil character. These books are also very insulting to the Smiler religion, which insults me personally. And they make it seem like the Line and Gun were defeated by some magic Folk weapon rather than by freedom-loving patriots like our Founding Fathers.

In short, these books are poison to young minds. No wonder the world has fallen so far from the great moral example of our ancestors when young people are reading this dreck instead of patriotic tales or General Enver’s moral system. If we would allow Smiling back in our schools we could reverse this decline.


Maria 05.13.13 at 7:58 pm


One of the things I loved was how genuinely odd the legalistic tradition is made to appear. One of the best bits of defamiliarisation I’ve seen.


common reader 05.14.13 at 3:53 am

Does the fact that Harry Ransom was a much-honored, even revered, Chancellor of the University of Texas have anything to do with this? Back in the days before Texas was a vulgar word.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.14.13 at 12:54 pm

On the odds of Harry being succesful… who knows. If the remnant of the Red Valley Republic could survive and build their own obsessive-compulsive utopia out there…

Of course there are several hints that the Ransom expedition to the unmade lands is.. not precisely staffed with trustworthy individuals. But again, who knows, thats the deal, the frontier is there to try your new ideas about life, if you survive it…


rm 05.14.13 at 1:43 pm

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Ransom’s wonder when he first picked out the city site and said “This is the place.” He had come a long way to this uncreated land and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the Red Valley Republic rolled on under the night.

Ransom believed in the Perpetual Light of his Process, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


uair01 05.14.13 at 5:11 pm

I have just started reading “The half-made world” but I have read all the discussions. Am I the only one who is constantly reminded of China Mieville’s book “Railsea”? Where the rail companies, in their battles for dominance, ultimately covered the whole world in a self-maintaining rail system?


Maria 05.15.13 at 8:05 am

Stop it already, rm. You’re making me do that fond grin I thought was reserved for Alan Bennett.


Maria 05.15.13 at 8:08 am

uair01; sort of. At least literally, what with the trains going everywhere. But in Railsea I didn’t get the same feeling of the railtracks being a totalising and inexorable force that the Line has. Just more of the whole ‘Moby Dick in trains’ vibe. It’s a very good yarn, but I don’t think Mieville’s political ambitions were as grand as Gilman’s, in this case.

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