Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Felix Gilman - Thunderer

In his mind he was composing a letter to his mothers and fathers: here we begin at last. The city is a puzzle box to be cracked open. Let me describe it for you…But he wasn’t sure how, yet.

Felix Gilman’s Thunderer begins as the Bird, god of flight and freedom, returns to fly over the city of Ararat. Ships collide in the harbor as the crews stare at the sky, people across the city pick this moment to escape both prison and circumstance, and the faithful leap from the roofs on multicolored wings, eager to fly in the wake of their god. Ararat seems immeasurably vast, incomprehensibly wonderful, and impossibly strange in these opening moments, and the reader no doubt assumes that the book’s power will come from ever-increasing knowledge of the city, like a child given a marvelous, complex present and slowly figuring out how to make it work. This is not the case.

In an interview, Gilman said:

There are different kinds of world building. There's the kind that focuses on making the physical details real, and the texture of the culture the characters inhabit. That's something I want to do, and I think it's really interesting trying to create textured worlds in that sense -- which is very different from the huge architectural level of deciding, 'This goes here and this goes here; this is the continent with the elves, and this is what dragons do.

The quote goes a long way to summing up Thunderer’s world building. The world feels vibrant and alive; you can imagine the people milling around you, and you can hear the recitations of the poets and smell the dark waters of the river as you walk along behind Arjun or Jack. That being said, you never really get an idea for what Ararat is. It’s a bit like trying some new delicacy. You savor the taste while eating it, but, if asked afterwards, to describe it, all you can say are meaningless words like textured, interesting, etc.

Early on, the reader learns that the city is so vast that, after showing an appreciable portion of whatever area they live in, mapmakers just draw a question mark to show that they don’t know what lies beyond the city (or if it even ends at all). Gilman’s city is unknowable in more ways than just the geographic. Despite its immersive nature, Gilman’s city is difficult to ever really comprehend. As we follow the characters, we experience it as if we were there. Take even a step off the road, though, and everything replaced by that massive question mark. It’s the difference between admiring a work of art and understanding it; the reader is only allowed through the gate when they’re shown by the hand.

This style of world building is obviously, both in its advantages and its flaws, a conscious choice by Gilman. In an earlier quote from the interview, Gilman says:

The things that interest me in world building are the entertainment or culture of the world, or the academy, or the newspapers: what are they like? Or the politics in the sense of the day-to-day ideas and ideologies and unexamined notions and slogans people carry around in their heads. And to develop these things through contrasts, through things knocking and rubbing against each other. The denser and more knotted the more interesting.

The unknowable nature of the city is itself a major part of the novel and ties into one of its most interesting elements: Atlas, a group of mapmakers and encyclopedia-ists that seek to document all of Ararat. Their attempts, and the city as a whole, are not the plot focus of Thunderer, but the two influence almost everything that transpires.

The reader is grounded in Ararat through the characters. Of the three leads, all are well drawn but only one manages to fully live up to his potential. Arjun, arguably the main protagonist, is obsessed with searching for the Voice, a deity that shows itself through audio perfection. A calm, melodic symphony of wind and earth heard from atop an isolated tower. Arjun goes to Ararat to try and find his god, but it’s never totally clear if his real goal is to search for the Voice or to escape its absence. Once in the city, he discovers that the Voice – if it is even there – is lost amidst literally hundreds of other gods, and his personal quest is drowned out and steered by the demands of the city and the people within it. He can be quite self centered, he’s prone to fixations and obsessions, he’s a bit naïve, maybe just a tad cowardly, and somewhere in the midst of all that Arjun comes alive on the page.

Jack is only one of many to gain their freedom on the day of the Bird’s return, but he becomes unique when the Bird’s gift and drive do not depart. He turns a group of outcasts into his own freedom fighters and plans to bring liberty to everyone in Ararat. For a time, his arc is the most fascinating part of the book. Jack’s righteous drive clashes with the practical survivor-mentality of Fiss, and Jack’s most ardent devotee, Namdi, seems headed for disaster. As Fiss and Aiden, the original leaders of the group, point out: Jack’s plan simply cannot work. Unfortunately, this arc is weakened when, at the last moment, Gilman pulls back and denies the characters the climax that their actions necessitated.

Arlandes woke from a dream of Lucia, dancing. In all of his dreams she was either dancing or falling, or sometimes both.

Arlandes steals the spotlight for the first third or so of Thunderer. Arjun’s characterization is excellent, but he is more of a cumulative experience than one defining moment, and Jack doesn’t come into his own for some time, leaving the initial promise of Arlandes’s storyline to reign unchallenged. He is the captain of the countess’s new super weapon: the floating warship, Thunderer. As the ship was raised, Lucia, Arlandes’s love, was killed. Throughout the countess’s domain, Arlandes becomes a tragic hero. He is the star of countless plays and poems, standing in black and tormented by loss. Arlandes himself scoffs at all of these cheap imitations. His life is composed of misery, and his only solace comes when firing the Thunderer’s mighty guns at some helpless, grounded target. Sounds like the start of a fascinating narrative, no? Unfortunately, a start is all it is. After the groundwork is set, Arlandes merely regresses to a state of depressed near-incompetence. Yeah, I suppose that’s a bit more realistic than, say, homicidal rage, but it’s a bit of an anticlimax to have the most intriguing character fade into a mopey absence after the first bit.

The plotting is fairly uneven. At its best, it’s character driven and surprising. At its worst, it’s meandering and a bit bewildering. Despite that, things come together very well for the ending, and Gilman finishes the book by pushing the Weird Level up to about a hundred and five, leaving the reader with a nice mixture of amazement and satisfaction.

Throughout the novel, Gilman’s prose is excellent:

Some days he felt like he was beginning again; that, after many mistakes and wrong turns, he had found himself back at the start of thing, unencumbered, full of promise. Some days he felt that he was at the end of things; past the end, that all the orchestra’s lively and noisy themes were finished, for better or worse, and the he was a mere coda, a single note repeating quietly, in measured isolation, soon to be stilled.

I expected the book’s style to be divisive, of course. It’s filled with oddities and is very much Gilman’s own. All the same, I’ll admit I was a bit shocked when I discovered that Rob (of sffworld) not only disliked the prose, but considered it a deal breaker…and then quoted a passage that I had thought excellent to prove his point:

Sometimes Arjun went down to the waterways. He never had to walk too far in any direction before coming to a canal, a reservoir, one of the ornamental lakes of Faugére, or on of the shallow marshy ponds that formed on condemned ground north of Fourth Ward — and the River itself, had he ever been brave enough to face it, would have been only a few hours’ walk to the east.

Rob goes on to say in his review: There was no real cadence to the narrative because it seemed every statement was interrupted by a comma or a hyphen, changing the flow of the sentence with varying degrees of bluntness. It’s odd, because I can’t really disagree with the statement. In fact, it’s a pretty good description of why I found Gilman’s prose interesting. Picture a river, flowing, serene. Then, imagine that it changes course, flowing down an unexpected channel, but doesn’t lose any of its natural grace. That’s something like how Gilman seems to construct his passages, sliding into and then back out of our expectations. I think that the reader’s enjoyment will really come down to whether they consider these course changes intrusive or not.

Brandon Sanderson summed up Thunderer best, I think: Recommended for any who want to sit back for a spell and just dream. Thunderer is a novel with flaws, yes, but one that I feel more than makes up for them. I can’t guarantee you’ll love Thunderer, or even tolerate it, but I think it’s something you need to try for yourself anyway.

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