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Gears of the City by Felix Gilman

July 9, 2009 1 comment

As age has taken away the essential vitality that used to encourage me to action as an entrepreneur, I have turned to this strange new virtual medium. I come from an antediluvian world of publishing in which typesetters were the masters of hand compositing. Their work was the essential precondition to the printing of physical copy. In those days, we all knew the costs of what we did at every stage of the process of snatching words from the aether and transforming them into text. Now, with an amused detachment, I watch the accretion of millions of my words in this paperless environment. For my commercial output, I know who commissions and buys my words, and I understand how their business models work. But the economics of free sites like this puzzle me. The costs of the servers and bandwidth cannot be absorbed out of altruism. Yet, in sites like this, the masses have access to a virtual publishing system with no apparent costs. It’s as if we have suddenly strolled from a real world into a metareality where different rules apply and the machinery of commerce works in a counterintuitive way.

The Gears of the City by Felix Gilman is a sequel to the Thunderer and I confess to some trepidation when I picked it up. Having been less than enthusiastic about the first, you may raise an eyebrow in surprise that I should even bother with this second volume. But, despite its flaws, I had seen enough in the quality of the writing to hope that Gilman would rise above the episodic and overwritten recycling of old plot devices.

To my surprise, Gilman has returned with a seriously good book. Gone is the insistence on extravagant gestures. There are no giant birds capable of sharing their power of flight with escaping boys. Pestilence does not literally walk the streets. Instead of juxtaposing set-pieces, he adopts a carefully understated form of narrative in which the development of events is more natural and flows more coherently from the initial proposition.

It seems that our primary character from the Thunderer, Arjun, has ben able to penetrate the defences of the mountain in search of his lost God of music. This was a distant and enigmatic peak, always somewhat out of focus in the first volume. Since he could not find his God in the city, the mountain would have been the next logical place to search. Yet he has not only lost his memory, but he is also pursued by implacable enemies — presumably guardians of the mountain. From this starting point, a taut plot operates as a form of mirror image of the first book. In Noises Off, Michael Frayn leaves the proscenium arch in place but allows us to see behind the scenery and reveals the mechanics of a stage production — see it in a theatre and avoid the ghastly film version. In some respects, Gears of the City has a similar metafictional aim because, having seen the big magical bird in the first volume, we are now given theories as to what it and the other “Gods” may be and possible explanations of their function. As the title suggests, the author is disassembling the engine that drives the city so we can see more clearly how it works.

Although we have yet to meet the original builders of the mechanisms that power the mutability of the city and provide the opportunity for magical beings to exist, there is a clever exploration of the tendency of both real and metaphysical systems to degrade. This is not, strictly speaking, entropy because the city and its machinery might have the capacity of a Phoenix: out of destruction might flow the energy to create new possibilities — a kind of big bang. Alternatively, the machinery and its current operator may have reached a point where age brings an end to everything. For example, if the city was no more than the dream of a dying man, it would cease to exist when the man died. You may justly find this notion confusing. How could the characters in a possible dream affect the direction of the dream? Some day, you must ask an author whether the characters of the protagonists in a work of fiction determine the narrative arcs involving them or set the ending of the novel.

Thus, this book is on a mission to rescue the excesses of the first in what could become a successful series. More clearly rooted in a dystopic version of the city sited in the foothills of the mountain, Gilman is exploring the idea of how we perceive the world around us. In the real world, there is a structural layering of tangible and intangible values. Neighbourhoods vary in the physical quality and amenity of their local environment. The commercial values of the properties reflect the desirability of living in each area. Cultural and class boundaries overlay the physical structuring. Yet the majority of citizens remain largely oblivious to all the socio-cultural rules that restrict their freedoms. This gives the few who “see” their surroundings clear opportunities to transcend the rule systems. This may result in manipulation to preserve the status quo or represent a form of rebellion. How much progress in any direction a given group of activists makes is determined by their strength of will.

The main characters in this novel are archetypes including an organiser who builds for the future, a senior police officer who believes the end of stability justifies all means, a debauched man who seeks insight through excess, a pilgrim in search of his God, etc. Each character represents a virtue or a vice and it’s through their interaction that a satisfying conclusion is reached. With this second book, Gilman demonstrates a better command over the craft of writing and deserves watching in the future. It’s a shame you have to wade through the first to get the greatest enjoyment out of the second. But that’s all part of the cost you have to pay to get to the metareality.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City.

Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

As I sit here, peering uncertainly out of my window at a night sky polluted by light, there is nothing but darkness. Not a single star twinkles back at me. The contrast with my childhood could not be more stark. Long before the development of the high-pressure sodium lamp and its characteristic yellow taint, I grew up in a house overlooking dark tides that sucked unwary swimmers to their doom, the milky way stretching my imagination across storm-tossed seas to other lands of mythic grandeur. I could stand on the headland at night, the looming mass of the gothic keep rearing up behind me and the immensity of outer space spread out in front of me as a smorgasbord of infinite possibility. This, if nothing else, explains my interest in SF and fantasy fiction.

Sometimes an author is overambitious and misjudges what is required to produce good metafiction. It is all very well to want to subvert conventions, but there are times when you can go too far and, rather than produce a literary masterpiece, produce a literary mess. The key problem is always to provide a consistent vehicle for the subversion. In some senses, it works best in the theatre when you watch actors perform a play, e.g. The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard or Sounds Off by Michael Frayn because it breaches the convention that the proscenium arch is a barrier through which no member of the audience may pass. Or on stage, cinema or television when a performer demonstrates awareness of role and steps through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. In literature, we have wonderful examples such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, where the author appears as a character and offers alternative endings to the book.

I muse along these lines because of the entrancing duology by Gregory Frost, Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet. Before coming to the books themselves, a minor gripe. Given the propensity of the publishing industry for profit maximisation, this could have appeared as a brick-sized book. At that length, there is a risk we might have left it on the shelf because of the risk of pulling a muscle lifting it down. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to read the work as a continuous whole rather than wait months for the publication of the second volume. Then we come to cost. A single work costs marginally less to buy and ship. Two volumes, even though in trade paperback size, cost more to ship separately and at a retail price of $28 for both, are at the edge of prices for a single hardback volume. Continuing the gripe, there is a slightly dead patch quite early in the second volume. If an editor had been working to produce a manageable length for a single printed book, that would have been tightened up. As it is, I suspect it was left in to make a better balance between the two volumes as a page count.

That said, this is an author at the top of his game. He has constructed a story about a young girl who makes her living as a puppeteer, moving from span to span on the ever-widening network of bridges that magically encircle this world. In each new place, she captures a local story to make her puppet dramas resonate with local cultures. Thus, the narrative is continually interrupted by the telling of other stories that illuminate the history of the world and the all too human condition of its peoples. This sets up a subtle interplay between the mythic universality of some of these stories and the current dilemmas of the protagonists. In turn, this braiding of narratives threads eases us through the novels. They intertwine and, significantly, assume direct parallels with the myths we know so well on Earth. Indeed, the structure of the narrative comes to have three strands: the narrative arc of the primary characters that ultimately becomes the stuff of myths in its own right, the increasingly complex stories of mythic characters who can affect the primary characters’ actions, and the potential for the first two strands to become a retelling of a familiar Earth myth. Or perhaps that should be the other way round. Perhaps the Earth myth as a character directs the actions of the people in the story so that what happens to them transcends their place and time, achieves universality and matches the original myth.

So at an intellectual level, this pair of novels is magical. It equally involves the reader’s emotions because the main characters remain so true to their own fallible natures. It is all too common in fantasy for there to be hero figures who, when in danger, pull out a sword and hack the opposition to pieces. Frost has created real people who have greatness thrust somewhat arbitrarily upon them. Their lives are made extraordinary by accident or design depending on your point of view. Having been forced into excellence, they must rise to the occasion as danger comes looking for them. They become players on a wider stage, seeking something more than survival as they care for and fight for each other. The outcome, in the literal sense, is the stuff of legend. For me, this was the best pair of fantasy books for 2008 and I cannot recommend them too highly.

For my other reviews of books by Gregory Frost, see: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Fitcher’s Brides.

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