The Revolutions by Felix Gilman
The Revolutions by Felix Gilman is slightly frustrating. It starts off like an express train. Some of the language is at a level of delight not even dreamed of by any other book I’ve read in the last twelve months. We’re recreating the world of an alternate history late Victorian London so the prose style borrows many of the stylistic touches of the period and updates them for modern consumption. If this had been done straight, it would quickly have grown boring. But Gilman has invested such wit into the language, his sheer playfulness carries us through the great storm, through the first meeting of our romantically entangled couple, and into the meat of the initial action. Unfortunately, we then get caught up in a less dynamic section of plot which, by comparison, falls rather flat. The best way to understand the problem is to see our two lovers. As is required by the social etiquette of the day, this is the Victorian version of Chaucerian courtly love with the couple falling in love with the idea of each other but not doing a great deal about it other than walk out together whenever they have the chance. So when Arthur gets sidetracked by an increasingly obsessional interest with earning enough to pay off his debts, he effectively cuts off Josephine. Out of desperation, she makes a monetary deal hoping to buy his intellectual and financial freedom only to find herself trapped “somewhere”.
To understand the problem, let’s briefly survey the situation. Lord Padmore is the British media magnate who owns all the major newspapers and represents the conservative forces, i.e. he prefers the status quo to prevail against the forces of revolution represented by Lord Atwood and his rather more cosmopolitan followers. There’s a nice joke that the newspaper owner turns his editors into mindless zombies who follow every command of their owner. This transient state is introduced by a ritual drinking of printer’s ink which has been spiked with the appropriate magic juice. In many ways this is typical of the patchy quality of the metaphors at work. Some ideas work well, but others fail to take off because the characterisation is thin. This makes the ideas rather more wooden than living. Put simply, the book describes a fight for political power between groups who believe magic is real. So when the great storm hits London, one side is convinced the other invoked the storm to throw off their magical calculations for astral projection to other planets. It’s possible Josephine really has been able to master astral projection and is genuinely stuck out in the spheres, or she was hypnotised and is now catatonic but dreaming. The editors really may be controlled by magic or value their jobs sufficiently to act like thugs when their master calls on them. In other words, for much of the book, there’s an ambiguity about whether the use of magic is anything other than self-delusion or a very strong group belief system. Only at times, e.g. the fight in the Savoy dining room, does the magic seem to be shown as real.
So let’s now assume the entire psychic science is real and the magic works. Where does this leave us? Well, through Josephine’s eyes, we get to see both of the moons of Mars in their post-apocalyptic state after a war of magic wiped out life on the surface of Mars. If we go back to the devastating storm that hits London in the first few pages and then imagine such climatic events endlessly repeated until civilisation is smashed into the ground, you have the right picture. As is usually the case, Mars the planet offers a cautionary warning of the effects of long-term war. In theory, this is what Lord Padmore is trying to avoid on Earth. Having read about the decline and fall of Rome, he’s aware empires can sow the seeds of their own destruction. He’s therefore out to prevent Atwood from pushing his revolutionary ideas of interplanetary travel. So this nicely encapsulates the problem with the plot because both are prepared to fight the war to stop each other. Now we could say this is a classic example of willful blindness, that neither side wants to consider the possibility their own actions may precipitate the end of Earth’s civilisation. Or it could be hubris. At an individual level, it never occurs to the leaders of either side that they cannot win the fight quickly and easily, i.e. they believe the war will do no lasting damage. Or raising this up to the level of humanity, each interested party from France, Germany, America, China and Britain assumes their own sphere of influence will be unaffected if there’s fighting. Unlike Rome, their empires will never fall. All this could be made to work if Atwood’s motives for wanting to explore strange new worlds was made explicit. Then we could judge the extent to which the fighting might actually have some real meaning. As it is, Atwood and Padmore seem to be disputing the right to freedom of action without consideration of the potential downsides. Atwood wants to push the boundaries of science to explore or, perhaps, because he’s a dupe. Padmore considers it his duty to prevent any extraterrestrial exploration. Quite how he might be aware of any dangers is unclear. The book would be greatly improved if we understood the point of the fight and could make an emotional investment in the outcome.
So there are some good ideas and some of the prose is spectacularly good but, somehow, the book fails to cohere. Because of the general lack of interaction between our couple, there isn’t quite the spark we would expect from a love interest. We understand why Josephine makes her bad deal and why Arthur feels driven to pursue her, but it lacks a real emotional connection. Some of the recreation of the science fantasy worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and similar authors is fun, and there are odd moments of excitement as magicians duel. But, again, there’s a certain lack of tonal consistency. There’s great wit in the opening sections of London’s devastation, but the rest of the book is rather more serious. Overall, this means there’s much to admire about The Revolutions but, in the final analysis, it’s not quite as good a book as I was hoping for.