Some Scattered Points Circling About In Search Of An Argument

by Felix Gilman on May 16, 2013


#### _1._

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.



Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.16.13 at 10:42 am

Thanks for the transgression :-) Really, wonderful reply.

Is amazing that the whole “reduced, incomplete perspective” thing gets to us the readers. Or maybe I’m not so clever as to figure out that “The Folk” is the settler’s name for something that may very well be several different groups, clans, cultures, political entities… They named it The Folk, I read it, and viewed them as one.

Nasty thing, naming :-)


Manoel 05.16.13 at 1:15 pm

Amazing… Really. I liked it very much. I just wanted to say that.


Nabakov 05.16.13 at 1:58 pm

“Fantasy worldbuilding that purports to be transparent and not confusing and full of weird gaps doesn’t feel real to me.”

Yes indeed. James Branch Cabell’s “Jurgen” and Bruce Sterling’s “Schismatrix” spring to mind as other great worldbuilding efforts that employed a lot of ellipsis as scaffolding.

Great books, great seminar, great work everyone. Working on a slipstream novel myself and this has been a very productive masterclass session for me.


LizardBreath 05.16.13 at 2:32 pm

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 thought the exercise regime was terrific, as another angle on Harry as a snake-oil salesman in a world where snake-oil works, if you’re doing it right. The “Become limber and powerful in just minutes a day! Send $1 and a stamped self-addressed envelope for my illustrated pamphlet!” tone of how he describes it, combined with references in the rest of the book showing that it does actually work fairly well, really helped in bolstering a sense of the world as a place where the right kind of wishing does make it so.


LizardBreath 05.16.13 at 3:10 pm

That the Folk are portrayed positively, and in some ways as even superior to humans, doesn’t get around the problem of their inhumanity at all – it is, in fact, the exact same problem in a different guise. Casting a subset of humans as Other in order to place them on a pedestal is no less problematic than doing it in order to vilify them. In both cases you’re reducing and ignoring their fundamental humanity – the fact that, inevitably, their group will include some people who are bad and some who are good, but hardly any saints or demons.

Several commenters here have pointed out that the Folk also parallel African slaves (and, as LizardBreath says, fairies), and suggested that this fact mitigates the problem of their Othering. Aside from the fact that taking this approach too far brings us into Wrede territory – if the Folk are not Native Americans, then Gilman has scooped that group out of his world’s history and replaced them with magical creatures – I’m not sure I see that this solves the problem. Surely dehumanizing African slaves is just as bad?

At Henry’s suggestion, I’m pulling over a comment of Abigail Nussbaum’s from an earlier thread to respond to it here.

Abigail — I think in the fantasy context, ‘dehumanizing’ or ‘inhuman’ isn’t an unambiguous status. To draw from a central example in the modern fantasy tradition, look at the Lord of the Rings, which has obviously seriously problematic racial issues and characters that are dehumanized in exactly the sort of way you’re talking about: the orcs are evil automata because of their species. On the other hand, most of the characters in the books, and the ones whose interior life and individuality we’re most strongly concerned with, are non-human. It seems clear to me that in the Lord of the Rings, orcs are dehumanized in the problematic way you describe, but hobbits, elves, and dwarves, while inhuman, are not ‘dehumanized’. Once you’re in the fantasy context, naming a character’s biological(?) species can’t alone determine whether the book treats characters of that species as something with a moral importance different from that of humans — lacking literal humanity doesn’t mean much as to whether or not a character lacks personhood.

At which point you have to look at the details of what Gilman’s done with the Folk to see if his portrayal of them, as a magical inhuman race, in a position that loosely maps to both Native Americans and African slaves, is problematically dehumanizing. And, you know, I’m not sure how successful he was: the viewpoint characters all do treat the Folk as a mysterious, dehumanized Other. That seems like a fair representation of how white Americans in the milieu being (roughly, vaguely, this isn’t a perfect allegory of 19thC America and wasn’t attempting to be) drawn from would be likely to have thought of slaves and of Native Americans, so that portrayal of the human perspective on the Folk doesn’t seem wrongful to me in itself; it’s a description of a limited viewpoint rather than an authorial judgment about the status of the Folk.

On the other hand, the books don’t give us much else other than that dehumanized perspective to see the Folk through: to put it another way, I’d say it was absurd to describe Tolkien as dehumanizing hobbits, but it’s not self-evidently absurd here to describe the Folk as dehumanized (I think it’s still wrong, on balance, but certainly arguable). Gilman’s description of the encounter between Harry and the Folk in the swamp in this post does more to communicate a sense of them as people than anything I got from reading the books. While that’s likely to have been a failure of my reading — looking back I can see more of a basis for understanding the Folk as people in the sense I’m using it in than I really picked up on in my initial reading — I’d say the books certainly allow you to read them without developing genuine empathy for the Folk.


rm 05.16.13 at 3:55 pm

I would like to post some well-composed, thoughtful paragraphs here, but that will have to wait. I have to thank Felix Gilman for this post and the novels. My feelings are rather like Shawn Spencer’s toward Kurt Smith in this scene from Psych:

Shawn: Why is there a man who looks exactly like Kurt Smith from Tears for Fears playing an acoustic set next to that tree and your swimming pool?
Declan: I’m sorry, I should have introduced you. Kurt, meet Shawn and Gus.
Kurt Smith: Afternoon, gentlemen.
Shawn: Oh dear god. It’s you. The real you. The fleshy you. I love you. Do you have any idea how much I love you?
Kurt Smith: I think I do now.

Thanks, Mr. Gilman.


Dr. Hilarius 05.16.13 at 5:31 pm

I just finished Thunderer yesterday. I picked it up on impulse, largely on the basis that Bantam Spectra has a great track record on new authors. That and the absence of elves. Enjoyed the book greatly for its grittiness and the ambiguous nature of Ararat. As I was reading it, the discussion of Half-Made World started up on CT. Looking forward to another world of complexity and questions. And no elves.


Markos Valaris 05.17.13 at 3:39 am

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),

I remember that when I read the books a while ago that was, for me, the main obstacle to reading them in roughly the way Henry suggests. My own answer was that, just as the settlers have trouble coping with the half-made world, so the Folk have trouble coping with the made world—a world that is frozen between the suffocating industrial organization of the Line and the nihilistic chaos of the Gun. That, I thought, would also explain why the power to defeat the Line and the Gun is given only to the team of Gen. Enver and his Folk friend, and to Harry, a settler boy who stumbles upon a piece of Folk knowledge.


LizardBreath 05.17.13 at 11:49 am

My own answer was that, just as the settlers have trouble coping with the half-made world, so the Folk have trouble coping with the made world—a world that is frozen between the suffocating industrial organization of the Line and the nihilistic chaos of the Gun.

It’s not dwelled on, but something like this is made explicit in the first book; that the Folk have the usual fairy helplessness around cold iron, which can certainly be taken as a stand-in for industrial civilization.


rm 05.17.13 at 1:10 pm

Yes, what LB said. I’m starting to think that the problem and mystery of the Folk in the novels looms so uncomfortably large, it makes the reader prone to thinking about the problem of representing the Other, which is really a good thing. I feel like I should have understood when reading the first time why the Folks in the swamp were laughing at Ransom. I knew he was being ridiculous, but I kind of thought maybe all the Folk across the whole continent knew the same plan — the imperial racist gaze baked into my cake. The characters do not often try to imagine themselves in the Folk’s place, and I didn’t either, but doing so makes it clear why they would have no idea what Ransom is talking about.


rm 05.17.13 at 10:59 pm

If one of the Folk does adapt himself/herself to industrial civilization, does he/she become less identifiably alien — like Mr. Carver, who people seem to take as Not Folk?


Abigail 05.19.13 at 8:01 am

First, I want to thank Felix for this interesting, in-depth look at the process that went into creating these books. It can’t be easy to thread the needle of responding to a review of your own book, especially when you’re trying to offer a counterpoint to a criticism, and this post manages that handily.

Second, I think it will probably not come as a surprise that this post doesn’t allay my concerns about the books. I have a better sense (from Henry’s post as well as this one) of what Felix was trying to do with the books, and I certainly respect his intent as well as the obvious thought that went into the central issues of the setting. But I’m not convinced that the books on their own convey what their author wanted them to. The information we get here about Folk society and particularly its fragmentation doesn’t really come through in the books themselves (as other commenters have noted, it comes through more strongly in The Rise of Ransom City, and particularly the scene after the riverboat sinking, but not as much as it needed to). I see what the author was trying to do; I’m just not sure it worked.

Third, in response to LizardBreath: I’m not sure that a comparison to The Lord of the Rings is that instructive, since Tolkien essentially wrote Hobbits as middle class English people and then gave them a fantastic name and hairy feet. It’s also surely significant that we see Hobbits from the inside, as it were, as opposed to the Folk’s imposed alienness, as is the fact that all the races in The Lord of the Rings to whom we get such a window are clearly analogues to Europeans. The Folk are something very different to this. They are not, as in Avatar (the James Cameron movie, not the Nickolodeon animated series, which is fantastic, nor the M. Night Shyamalan movie of that series, which is awful), Native Americans who have been painted blue, made three meters tall, and given USB connections to their planetary consciousness (not that this wasn’t a problematic representation as well). They are something genuinely alien (notwithstanding Felix’s point that there is a more comprehensible Folk society which the books don’t show us), and what’s most important to me, they literally have a different relationship with the land than humans do.

I feel that I’ve started repeating myself, so I’m going to try to sum up my problem with the way the books handle the Folk. I think the issue is the choice to view the Folk from the outside and the metaphor of the half-made world, in which the Folk do not solidify the land. Either one on its own might not have been problematic. If the Folk were still so alien as to be able to live in the unmade world without solidifying it, but we got an inside view on their society, the argument that they’re not meant to be direct parallels to Native Americans but are original fantasy beings who share some qualities with them (and African slaves, and fairies) would hold more water. If the Folk were opaque to the readers, but more obviously human, it would be clearer that they were being seen from the outside by the characters, not the author. The combination of the two, to my mind, plays into some of the worst tendencies of the fantasy genre when it comes to acknowledging the humanity of native, non-European peoples.


Henry 05.20.13 at 9:06 pm

Again, I disagree here with Abigail’s argument here – not to say that it isn’t a possible reading, but to disagree with her contention (if I get it right from the final sentence about the “worst tendencies” etc) that it is a reading so powerful that it basically overwhelms any other. It’s clear that the books fail in this sense for her, but there are other possible readings, which are not damning, and which seem to me equally plausible (or, for me personally, rather more plausible). The difference between the routinization that happens at the hands of the Gun and Line, and the Folk not solidifying the world can be read just as easily as a metaphor for the differences between the systematizing and rationalizing aspects of West European/US cultures as opposed to other cultures. To say that there is something importantly different between the play of meaning implicit in the Balinese cockfight and the bureaucratic procedures of the nineteenth century Prussian Beamter is not, obviously, to say that the former represents something inhuman or unnatural in comparison to the former. Obviously, there are traps there that you want to avoid – exoticization can be its own set of problems – but they can be avoided. I don’t think that one can read from the implied statement that some cultures impose a different kind of order on the world than others, a strong statement that cultures which do not impose this order are alien and inhuman. And indeed, if there is a normative case in the books that some cultures are perverse, unnatural and inhuman, it is far more easily made for Gilman’s depiction of the Line (which is nothing more than the quintessence of Western organized industrialism – Weber’s iron cage, or steel-hard casing, depending on your preferred translation) than anything else. Or to put it differently – I think that Abigail is quite right that there is a set of common reading protocols among f/sf readers, which might cause readers to skip over these complexities – but I don’t think that these are the only possible, or the intended, or the best set of protocols to read these books with.

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