Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Felix Gilman - The Halfmade World

The world blurred, and a sudden and surprising mood of exhilaration seized her. Koenigswald and the Academy and her old life were ten thousand miles behind her, and the world was a blur, the world was a dream, the world was unamde. Anything was possible. Wasn’t this what she’d come here for? She could hardly wait to step out into the world again and begin to remake it.

She noticed a shanty town out on the salt-flats. Little black dots of shacks – were those laborers bent double in salt-traps? – rushed up close and vanished at once behind. Perhaps the Engine had obliterated it with the boom of its passing, Liv thought. She let the blind fall again; the flare hurt her eyes. She blinked in the dark oc the cabin, but the bright crude shapes of the world outside were burned into her vision.

Within the hour they’d left the salt-flats far behind.
(p. 129)

The Halfmade World is a conflict between the Gun and the Line, between the past and the future. John Creedmore, Agent of the Gun, is driven by bloodlust and haunted by conscience. He stalks across the west and battles for independence with every step, and he seeks a brief escape from his life in the romance novels that he devours. Lowry, Subaltern of the Line, is a cog in the machine, going over his reports again and again until he has eliminated every trace of pride. Indoctrinated by motion pictures and pushed to fanaticism by the roar of the engines, his life begins and ends with the inexorable advance of the Line.

The conflict takes place in the west, a world where the age of the soil under your feet is measurable in decades and where, over just a few horizons, you get to where things aren’t yet finalized, not quite stabilized. Through it all, the Line pushes relentlessly west, and the Gun falls back again and again amidst the havoc and destruction that it’s caused.

There’s a single glimmer of hope in this barren land: the Red Valley Republic, trying to fight for a mankind governed by other men. The Republic’s a tenuous ally of a select few Hillfolk, and one of those strange creatures has given the Republic’s General Enver the key to winning the war. There’s just one problem – that hope is annihilated in the prologue, the Republic’s armies shattered, the General driven insane, the secret trapped in his shattered mind, his mad body lost on the battlefield.

Or, as it turns out, not lost. General Enver’s in a bizarre hospital, guarded by a powerful spirit, on the edge of the west. It is to there that our main character, Liv, is called, and it is there that the Gun and the Line both race, determined to get the old, broken man’s knowledge at all costs.

The Halfmade World is a novel of different perspectives, with one man’s heroics looking downright ludicrous in another, one nation’s way of life a bizarre abomination in the eyes of their fellow viewpoint characters. The Republic’s last stand is heroic to those in it, but foolish and suicidal to those watching. Creedmore’s protests of redemption are convincing to those following him, but are rejected as nothing but talk, as they well might be, to those later listening.

Gilman does not just create one setting. When the novel proper begins, we are not in the West, but rather in the civilized East, with Liv as she contemplates her trip. The East is an almost dreamlike place of muted emotions, by far the closest thing to ourselves in Gilman’s world, yet alien due to their almost quaint apprehensions and foibles in a world that the reader knows contains so much more. Those easterners, Liv amongst them, dull their feelings with a nerve tonic, refusing to face the world on its own terms.

Later, we journey to the still in construction far west, and everything shifts again as the two titanic powers – Gun and Line – are pushed increasingly out of their element, the affiliations of the various characters gradually coming to mean less and less as they leave their world behind.

Gilman uses the variety of his settings to circle back on events and characters and change their meaning. In the civilized East, Liv’s simple minded but towering assistant, Maggfrid, is considered almost normal, is banished to the sidelines where he acts as a janitor, out of sight and mind. In the west, Maggfrid is an often remarked upon curiosity and a disturbingly effective fighter, saving the entire caravan on occasion and earning the respect of all those around him. At the end, though, we’re shown that lasting changes can’t come from within, because, when he returns to the east, he is back to his unspectacular role of janitor, more noticeable now due to his temporary absence but still ultimately ill-fitting and unremarkable.

The same kind of environmentally triggered change can be seen in Creedmore. Creedmore is always uncooperative with the demonic presence in his mind, but his muttered dissent has never translated into action. Now, running further and further into unmade lands, Creedmore’s given the chance he’s always implied that he wanted, to break free from his masters and their perpetual atrocities. As he tells this to Liv while escorting her through the west, he being her only chance of survival, the reader is shown a prior episode in Creedmore’s life, where he thought much the same thoughts of salvation, of saving others, of finally going his own way – and failed to save anyone but himself. His circumstances are different, now, but the man is still the same.

The only character that proves immune to circumstance is Lowry. The members of the Line that pursue Creedmore into the wilderness refuse to change or adapt to their environment in any way, and, as a result, they die like flies for most of the book. Still, when they eventually reach their destination, the reader realizes that it’s not the individual Linesemen that matters, not even the squads that managed to survive. The Line is unmalleable and always spreading, and it might be that very refusal to shift that’s allowed it to spread so universally.

Gilman’s prose forces the West down the reader’s throat, making it impossible to ignore and coloring every scene of the novel with its atmosphere. Though there is the occasional anachronistic phrase (This land was broken badly, like a china plate hurled by a very angry woman.[p. 140]), Gilman’s writing is usually highly evocative and descriptive. Some of his prevalent rhythms from Thunderer and City of Gears can still be found in the way that he breaks up descriptions with punctuation and bursts of emotion, but The Halfmade World is very much its own beast. Gilman infuses Creedmore’s chapters with a frantic urgency and even managing to breathe an oppressive magic into the mechanical Line:

The noise! Inside the station there a constant din of machinery. The roar of vast furnaces, the clatter of intricate clockwork. No wonder the Linesmen looked so pale and haunted! No wonder their eyes were so dull!

Everything smelled of coal and oil and smoke. There was nothing natural in the Station, except the occasional rat. It was an ecology of machines. Somewhere at the heart of the structure, the Gloriana Engine lived, and its mechanical dreams shaped the world around it.
(p. 108-109)

The Halfmade World is Gilman striking off into new territory and bringing all the experience he’s gotten from his two prior books with him, the beautiful writing of City of Gears welded to a gripping plot. Comparing it and any Thunderer is like comparing night and day -- and that’s coming from someone who really liked Thunderer.

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