Posts Tagged ‘Smallcreep’s Day’

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

February 26, 2011 1 comment

In two recent reviews, I’ve been underwhelmed by an allegory (1) and a postmodernist novel (2), finding their execution without real meaning or purpose. In a single sentence, my objections would be: there was no internally consistent explanation of what was going on and why. The title, The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, captures the problem in the construction of any allegory or metaphor. All authors of fiction send out their characters to explore an imagined “place”. Publishers impose limitations on word count. We readers only have a limited amount of time. The result? Authors exploring every last nook and cranny would bore us to tears with their attention to detail. With a limited number of words to describe this fictional “world”, the poor writers cover as much ground as possible offering mere hints and allusions. The best pick their areas of interest carefully and then ruthlessly explore them. As an example of the best in allegory, Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown gives us a factory as a simplified model of society with two or three clearly-drawn individuals as archetypes for major groups of people in the real world. The whole becomes a microscope through which to view the world.

In this book, Felix Gilman offers us a world that, at its Western edge, is literally still being made. This is a physical process with land being created out of “nothing”. The idea that something is not yet complete tempts us to believe there cannot be a consistent explanation of what is happening. Yet, even with everything unfinished, we can look beyond the physical process and see underlying principles at work.

However, since this is another duology like Thunderer and Gears of the City, we have to wait for part two to see exactly what Gilman says has been happening and why. This review is therefore provisional just in case I need to be wise after the event when I get to the end.

For now, I take the central metaphor to be that all cultures and subcultures are works-in-progress. Societies are dynamic and continuously evolving as different factions and groups compete for dominance. Underpinning this process are the forces of the mind. Both consciously and unconsciously, we are driven by primal emotions. Fear of attack by outsiders encourages unity. Love of an idea like “democracy” or “libertarianism” drives political movements. Jealousy of others’ success leads to ghettoisation and pogroms. As Gilman explains, the volksgeist or spirit of the people creates reality out of these emotions.

“We made Gun out of our spite, and Line out of our fear, and this poor thing out of our sorrow.” p. 233

This is a parable about America. It began life on a small, and so manageable, scale in the North East. But, when explorers reported a wilderness in the West, the “country” was thrown into a ferment. It has been continuously remaking itself, trying to integrate all the different contending forces into a single nation. The railways physically opened up the wilderness by enabling rapid transport across vast distances. The lines symbolised progress and a commitment to future expansion. Settlements were founded and the discovery of mineral wealth encouraged further Western migration. Industrialisation began to accelerate the growth of wealth. Capital relies on freely available labour with just enough education to serve its ends and no more. Knowledge for its own sake is unnecessary and potentially encourages labour to be dissatisfied with its lot. Slavery and indentured labour maximise profits. And the gun has major cultural significance. It’s the means of independence, having driven out the European states that would have continued their old dominance in the New World. With the development of the revolver and winchester, one man could have the firepower of a small army. It was also the means of suppressing the aboriginal inhabitants as settlers demonised the Red Indians, scapegoated and then exterminated them.

So which is the best system? The order imposed by a Republic, the communal or hive-like social structures surrounding resources or factories, or the rugged individualism that explores new territory? Think of the Luddites who burnt down mills and destroyed the machines. The movement grew out of the discontent of the English working class in seeing the destruction of its lifestyles and enslavement in factories. It only takes one or two agitators to tap into this anger and you have an army. Maverick individuals like John Creedmore will always be a destabilising force, undermining the structural hierarchy that best supports the capitalist system. They are usually idealists who become focussed on defending themselves from the organised world and, in their own self-interest, defending others from exploitation.

Lowry has been socialised into a world of work. You might expect him to show symptoms of alienation or anomie, assuming Marx, Durkheim et al were correct, but he’s determined to fit in and get ahead. Even though he knows the system expects depersonalisation and the subordination of self for the benefit of the owners, the practical reality is that the owners need people who can think for themselves and show initiative when the unpredictable happens. Worse, the owners expect their operatives to be ruthless in suppressing, if not exterminating, the cause of any problems. So Lowry is monomaniacal within the structured environment of the stations. Send him into the field and he has no conscience when it comes to collateral damage, destroying whole towns and communities. He’s even prepared to lead from the front in a little hands-on torture. This is the ultimate soldier, prepared to read the Riot Act and lead his troops in a killing frenzy when faced by unarmed civilians. But what happens when he is pitched into an environment where technology does not work? Strip away his lifeline of communication with the owners and deplete his troops, what are we left with?

Our third principal is Liv. She comes all unworldly from the ivory towers of education, full of presumption to believe her knowledge can reshape the as yet unmade social world. When she finds a rump of the old Red Republic, she’s told, “There in the old North, the world is long since made and ordered, and perhaps you may take it for granted.” (p 364) In the dynamic world being remade, the fixed political structures of the Red Republic were a hindrance. What holds back progress must be pushed aside by those with the wealth and power. Think about a modern banking system out of control, ignoring the political structures and wrecking a country’s economy in the pursuit of private profit at any cost. Equally, there may be others with a different political philosophy who fight against the order and structure of big government. Their fears and suspicions fuel a desire to dismantle the apparatus of a state, to return to a simpler version of life in which people can be more self-sufficient.

Psychology can take a mechanical view of the mind, defining it in terms of different cognitive functions, or it can be skewed towards behaviour and the interpretation of how people interact. While in the House Dolorous, Liv meets different archetypes who see the conflict outside as merely the product of their own imagination, or whose behaviour becomes so autistic that they cease all interaction and, when they tire of the world, they will themselves to die. People are the sum of their life experiences and, as groups, they are socialised into conformity with the prevailing norms of society. If this means “leaders” can convince the group they are being stalked by terrible beasts, their fears will make those beasts seem real. They will modify their behaviour accordingly. Perhaps a major symbol from the past, like an old General, long thought dead, could rekindle interest in reforming the systems in play. Before the half-made world is finished, it might be nudged into a more benign form, say, through a process of death and rebirth.

The Half-Made World is completely fascinating, cloaking some very sophisticated ideas in a reimagined version of the Wild West. The hidden hands of wealth and power are represented through animism — engines and guns are the physical presence of supernatural agencies that dispute control of the land and its people. Our three leading characters (plus the General) come together in the partly made land, leaving everything to play for in the concluding volume. Judging by Gilman’s performance so far, each book has been an improvement on the last. I am hopeful he will prove to be one of the best of the writers of what we might call fantasy shading into weird. I had the same hope for China Miéville, but that’s not looking so good these days. Gilman may avoid Miéville’s self-indulgence and become the more reliable purveyor of edgy and thoughtful fantasy.

Jacket artwork showing an evocative ornithopter by Ross MacDonald.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City

(1) Meeks by Julia Holmes.

(2) The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

I suppose that, in real terms, we must be the people we remember ourselves as being. Memory is the mechanism that supports identity. Supposedly, it’s the past that informs the present. Thus, we only repeat or deny prior decisions if we recall what we did. Should something interfere with our ability to store or recall information, we are diminished as human beings — hence our dread of the creeping loss of self caused by Alzheimer’s disease. I had this not terribly profound insight while reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry. As I read through the opening chapters, I was in full retrieval mode, finding myself reminded of previous books and films. Generally, I find this echo phenomenon most active when the stimulus text is rich in ideas. The interest created in the current mind resonates through the information stored in my memory and triggers associations.

The novel is set-up in the style of a detective story where the key source of person-power to serve and protect the community is an Agency. It’s easy to see this work as Kafkaesque because the bureaucracy of this Agency allows reality to be rewritten (and potentially distorted) because Mysteries are passed to the Detectives whose work is then edited by clerks on the fourteenth floor and passed on to Solutions for filing. Because each function is separated by Chinese walls, there’s no way of knowing whether the Detective actually investigated the mystery he or she was given. Nor is there any way of knowing how the clerks shaped the Detective’s reports before passing them on to their final resting place in the Archives. In the end, each part of the Agency will remember what it did but, perhaps, only the clerks see more of the information as they whittle down their Detective’s reports into the case files the Agency will remember.

However, for me, the final resonance is not with Kafka, Se7en for the rain that pours continuously throughout the investigation or more surreal explorations of the interface between dreams and reality. Rather, I am reminded of an almost unknown work from the sixties called Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown. This is a surreal and somewhat macabre satire on the implicit worthlessness of human existence, particularly as experienced by factory workers. After some sixteen years of curiosity, the eponymous Smallcreep abandons his work station to find out exactly what function his component plays in the finished product. As he journeys through the factory, he comes to recognise the futility of his life. Love and humanity are shredded and replaced by a despairing anomie.

So it is that Unwin, a clerk from the fourteenth floor, finds himself pitched into a journey through a cityscape to find the palindromic Travis Sivart, the Detective whose work he has so meticulously edited over the years. The interesting feature of Unwin’s quest is that he remembers all the details he has edited out of Sivart’s reports. In a sense, he becomes the memory of the Agency in seeking to solve the latest Mystery. So just as the author suggests the “criminals” may rely on ageing elephants to remember important facts, it’s the meticulousness of Unwin’s ability to memorise that will finally build a bridge between the perceived and the actual worlds.

The whole is a metaphorical, not to say allegorical, investigation into the nature of the world we believe ourselves to perceive. For some, a dream can be so vivid, they forget whether the imagined events actually occurred. Did they dream about something that had happened, was happening or would happen? If they remember their dreams, does that make them any more real than the physical experiences of a sleepwalker who gets up, makes breakfast and drives to work, only to wake in the carpark still wearing pyjamas? It’s convenient to believe that we all see the same world and can distinguish fantasy from reality. Indeed, those with the appropriate credentials and the status of psychiatrists make a living out of designating different gradations of mental illness if the perceptual line between the real and the unreal becomes blurred in the minds of their patients. But Jedediah Berry would have us think about this. His novel is populated by a stock of iconic cyphers. Their characters are presented ambivalently, challenging us to decide whether their actions are real or imagined, whether what they do is the product of free will or directed by some Svengali.

For a first novel, this is very good because it contrives to maintain plot momentum without sacrificing the quality of the ideas. There are also odd flashes of a wry sense of humour at work which leavens the mood of the writing. Overall, I think it goes on marginally too long. I confess to finding myself slightly jaded as I approached the end. It also lacks the mordancy of Smallcreep’s Day and ends on too sentimental a note. But, for those among you that enjoy something more cerebral, this is well worth a look.

As an additional note, The Manual of Detection has won the Dashiell Hammett Prize 2010.

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