Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ex Libris: Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World

When I traveled to the US for the first time several years ago, I had the strangest realization. Moving from one state to another, I felt that US as a country-- for all of its traditions and age-- was still a young one.

I came to this realization because my first travels abroad were to Asia and Europe. In those countries, you could feel the history of the land in every step you take where the next corner held a castle or temple. (Well, except for Singapore, which felt relatively "new" but you could sense that its traditions were more than likely borrowed from its neighboring countries.) In the US, you could say their mythology flourished in the early days of its industrialization, before science and technology cleared away all ambiguity and mystery.

I make this point because if there's one subgenre I'm fascinated, it's the fantastical mirror of American history of the Old West, which some have tagged as "Weird West". (Digression: I say "mirror" here in the same sense that epic fantasy supposedly mirrors-- however distorted-- the European Medieval period with its kings and wars and dragons. It may be funny to say this but I actually gained a sense of history of other countries because of the fantasy genre, which mostly focuses on the European kind.)

Two examples of the Weird West subgenre that easily come to mind is Mark Sumner's Devil's Tower (which had magic coming into the world during the American Civil War) and Stephen King's Dark Tower series (which mashes up the Old West as a Byronic fantasy land with six-guns). Unfortunately, this American mythology rewritten into a type of Old West fantasy comes in few and far in between. Fortunately, now there's Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World, which makes a good try in envisioning a steampunkish/Weird West.

In The Half-Made World, there are two factions vying for the making of the newly-shaped Western lands. On one hand, there is the Line, a dark retelling of the industrialized American North circa the Civil War under the influence of dark gods of order in the shape of demonic train engines who lay tracks across the new territories. Though these gods offer their followers a science that drives the smoke-belching engines of the new age, the price of the new order leaves their worshipers nearly mad.

On the other hand, there are the Agents of the Gun, a cult-like loose group of outlaws and murderers (both men and women) who bear supernatural spirits in their totem-like guns. These guns bequeath their Agents powers, from strength and speed, fast healing and near-invulnerability (though they can be killed). These Agents sow chaos across the land in the cause of their singular independence from any authority-- and sometimes even from their own guns.    

As the story opens, a third faction has just been crushed by the Line and the Gun, a group of towns that called themselves the Red Republic and had gloriously refused to align themselves to either factions. In the dying days of the Republic, its famous general had been driven mad by the bombs of the Line just as he discovered a secret that could give either factions a power against each other-- or destroy both of them completely.

Into this story comes Doctor Liv Alverhuysen, a psychologist escaping the death of her husband and her sheltered life in the civilized cities of the East by treating the maddened victims of the war. Crossing her path is John Creedmore, an Agent sent to find the general, even as the forces of the Line go on the march.  

Like other works that have preceded his, Gilman creates a creative analogue of the American Old West mythology that envisions the clash of the anarchy and free spirit of the Wild West against the Age of Industrialization that had descended on the US. Moreover, Gilman plays no favorites among the two factions: Liv has equal chances of being killed by either the lone gunman Creedmore or by the low-level Line officer Lowry and the army he leads.

However, even the characters carry the externalized conflict of the Gun and the Line (i.e. order versus chaos) within them as Gilmore avoids the easy generalizations. Creedmore may be an old Agent, a feat worthy of the description for the simple reason that despite their powers, they are still too few against their enemies and they can still die. But Creedmore is disillusioned by the freedom given him by his demonic overlords and wants only to be free of their control. On the other hand, Lowry is a cog in a giant machine. But like Walter Mitty living in an Orwellian 1984-like society, he rationalizes away his drive for glory by going after Creedmore and Liv as simply "following orders".

But The Half-Made World isn't just about conceptualization and world-building as Gilman deftly writes a good story, juggling the main narrative with enough flashback scenes to flesh out the characters. He then brings up the level of drama to compensate for the slight drag in the chase scene partway through the book, giving us a look at how Creedmore and Lowry would act separate from their gods. Sometimes it seems like Gilman is rambling far too slow with his story but he ties the narrative back together again.

All in all, Gilman scores high points with this book, from the main idea to the story. Though he fills in the external background of Eastern cities in rough sketches, he more than makes it up by creating a stark picture of the new Western lands in the process of being born despite the ravages of war, easy violence, slavery, and ignorance. Likewise, he easily fields questions about the price of free will and the blind worship of gods (whether supernatural, scientific or philosophical) via the characters' expressions and actions.

A good read. (Three paws out of four.)   

UPDATE: Here's a more recent review by Kirkus of Weird West stories out in the wilds.

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