Thursday, October 29, 2015

Felix Gilman: The Half-made World

Felix Gilman:  The Half-made World

This is the first book I've read by Gilman, and it's a great advertisement for joining book discussion groups.  I probably never would have read this except that it was a selection by an SF book group that I belong to.  I was sufficiently impressed to look for the second book set in this universe which apparently focuses on a character mentioned only briefly in The Half-made World.

The characters are mostly humans, with a few demons around (or so they are referred to in the novel) and a sentient race that is now in decline as a result of human interference, either inadvertent or deliberate or both.   Little is told of either the demons or the Hill People so far, but that may change in later novels.

There are three narrative threads.  One follows the adventures of Liv Aylverhuysen, a psychologist who specializes in working with victims of brain trauma.  She has volunteered to leave her hospital for a remote clinic, the House Dolorous, which is in a neutral zone between two warring factions:  The Line and The Gun.  She is a neutral in the war, and, therefore, she feels she will not become involved in the war.  She is wrong, of course.

The second narrative thread follows Lowry, an employee of The Line, one of the two contending forces on this world, which is probably best described as corporate capitalism as seen by its enemies.  Its primary symbol is the train, which is inhabited by a controlling demon that is in contact with thirty or more other trains, also controlled by demons. Decisions are made through group consultation involving all of the engines/demons.  The scenes describing the areas controlled by the Line are horrific and seem to be based on the worst portrayals of late 19th and early 20th century workshops, sweatshops, and factories.

Lowry is searching for a general of the Republic who was mindwiped in a battle years ago.  He is looking for him because of rumors that the general had known of a weapon that could defeat the Line.  The Line, by the way, is slowly winning the war.  Lowry's task is to determine if there is such a weapon and to prevent any others, especially the agents of the Gun, from discovering the nature of the weapon.  Killing the general is considered the optimal solution.

The Line's enemy is the Gun, and just what they are is hard to characterize, except that they are opposed to the Line.  Perhaps they are a symbol of individual freedom, perhaps even of anarchy, and their symbol is the Gun which is carried by each of the agents of the Gun.  The Gun, like the train, is also inhabited by a demon, and like The Line, the Gun is seen through the eyes of its enemies, the Line.  This novel will never reach the NRA top ten favorites list, for here Guns do kill people.  And, to a considerable extent they control their agents, through pain if necessary.  However, they do make the agent faster, stronger, and more agile than normal, and the demons have miraculous healing powers that make it extremely difficult, but not impossible, to kill an agent.

John Creedmoor is an agent of the Gun, and his half-hearted adherence to the Gun is his only saving grace.  He has been sent to abduct the general and learn the secret of the weapon.  If he can't learn the secret or if the Line gets the general first, he is to kill the general.  Creedmoor is marginally more human than Lowry, but his reluctance to really make the effort to break free keeps him under the control of the Gun.  Where he is a reluctant and obstinate agent of the Gun, Lowry is an enthusiastic supporter of the Line.

The Gun, like the Line, has little concern for collateral damage and will kill bystanders and non-combatants if necessary.  There really is little to choose between them, although I must admit a slight preference for the Gun, if I had to make a choice.  

As you can see, the three narrative threads will meet and meld at the House Dolorous. 

I mentioned the Republic briefly above.  The Republic was destroyed by the Line, I gather, though I'm not certain about that.  If the Line and the Gun are the bad guys, then the Republic was the good guy.  It appeared to be a much freer society and less harmful to its citizens than the Line and provided a rational rule of law in opposition to rule of  the Gun. 

But, there is more to this novel than what I have mentioned above.  The Prologue is titled "How the General Died  - 1878 - "   That I presume is a year, and, while the planet doesn't seem to be Earth, Gilman has borrowed several elements from Earth history, more specifically US history, and transmuted them into this tale--perhaps an allegory.

To begin, "1878" is during that period US historians frequently call "The Closing of the Frontier" or "The Settling of the West."  The transcontinental railroad, begun during the American Civil War, was finally completed in 1869, nine years earlier, just as the Line's railway is expanding during its war with the Gun.  Also in 1878, the Lincoln County (New Mexico territory) war took place, featuring the West's most famous gunfighter, Billy the Kid.  In addition, the railroad finally linked the territory of New Mexico to the rest of the country in 1878.

In the novel, the Line is expanding its territory through the use of the train.  While the coming of the railroad was hailed by many as the link to civilization  and increased freedom of movement and communication on our planet, Gilman has transformed the arrival of the railroad to a scene of horror as the railroad employees subjugate the townspeople and force them into slave labor and a life of  grey drudgery.  As a side note, it should be mentioned that employees of the Line wear grey suits. 

The Republic, briefly mentioned above, might be the US during the late 19th and 20th century as it struggled and failed at the end to free its citizens from both corporate slavery and the horrors of the lawless faction. 

Also reminiscent of the Old West are the indigenous people known as the Hill People, a humanoid race that was decimated, mostly by the Line or forces of "civilization,"  as the Line sees itself.

The Line is winning at this time, mainly propelled by its numerical superiority.  The sign of the Line moving into a new territory is the arrival of a huge engine, which sounds suspiciously a lot like the arrival of a train as a symbol of civilization.

The nature of the demons has not yet been revealed, and a third type? of demon seems to have adopted the House Dolorous and helps in some ways to protect the House from attack, especially by the Line.  It also has some healing function. 

The Half-made World is an excellent SF novel, functioning on two levels:  the upper level being an action-oriented novel of combat between two opposing forces, The Line (corporate capitalism as seen by its enemies) and The Gun (corporate capitalism's enemies as seen by corporate capitalism).  Underneath that is a satiric view of both sides which is set in 1878 and involves the Closing of the West as civilization moves westward, heralded by the arrival of the train, which is a potent and horrific symbol of The Line's domination of people.

There is a sequel, The Rise of Ransom City,  and the brief mention of it doesn't give me any clues as to where Gilman is going next.  I'm just going to have to read the novel to find out.


  1. Fred, I am intrigued. Your review/commentary persuades me to search this one out at the library. Well, I'm always open to trying new and different reading adventures. Onward!

  2. R.T.,

    Well, it's not great literature, but Gilman does an interesting reworking of some themes present in US politics and in one of the most important periods of US history. I am interested in hearing about your reactions to the work if you get a chance to read it.

  3. My libraries have no FG titles, so I will try used bookstores.
    Off-topic, though, consider this:

  4. R.T.,

    Neither does mine, so I ended up getting it and the sequel from