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Gears of the City by Felix Gilman

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 Rise of Ransom City.

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

I have written book blurbs. It’s a mildly diverting game to capture the essence of a book and sell it to potential customers in the shortest possible number of words. The trick is to reassure potential readers that their money will be well-spent. So every book becomes the latest novel channelling Tolkien, Enid Blyton or some other literary heavyweight. As a recent experiment, I asked a question on LinkedIn, “If The Waste Land is a below-par gardening manual and Portnoy’s Complaint is about a diner who gets a poor meal in a five star restaurant, which works of literature do you find inspiring?” It was intriguing to find that half the answers were serious recommendation of favourite books. Obviously, any descriptive reference to a work of literature is potentially true and people “trust” what they see in print.

Most recently, I observed the adjective “Dickensian” rolled out in support of Thunderer by Felix Gilman. Perhaps it’s a reaction to time spent in school when I was forced to read him as a literary giant of the Victorian Age. Coming to an author out of choice always predisposes you to think better of him or her (until the reality of the reading overcomes initial optimism). As a rebellious teen, the well of resentment rose with buckets of scorn to pour over the teacher’s choice. As a social commentator, I concede that Dickens was reassuringly preoccupied with the problems of his age. But his prose style was often overwrought and the narrative shaped to the dictates of episodic publication. Although stated simply, the plots and their characters achieve some degree of timeless universality, they are mired in the language and sentimentality of his times. I have enjoyed some of the more modern BBC television adaptations. But, as someone to read with modern sensibilities, I do not recommend him.

Coming to the Thunderer, the plot may be stated simply. A man on a quest to find the voice of his god comes to a great city and, after some difficulties, manages to save the city from a great danger and, incidentally, stays hopeful that he will ultimately find what he is looking for. This takes some 527 pages. Let’s clear the decks for action. I am not against long books. All I ask is that the length is used constructively for driving the narrative forward. Thus, if a work is full of incident, I am prepared to accept a reasonable amount of background information to offer colour and context for these excitements. But this book is full of the worst kind of padding. We have a multiple point-of-view narrative structure with sequential chunks of text devoted to each major character. This is standard and the usual convention is that time starts to run at the first page and then continues sequentially or with some overlap until the last page when some or all of the characters have met and served their purpose as fixed by the author. In Aristotelian terms, this gives us unity of time and place as the author moves towards a logical (and, sometimes, moral) conclusion.

In this case, the primary protagonist is called Arjun and the first chapter enjoys unity of time as key players react to the arrival of a magical bird over the city where all the significant action occurs. Except the second chapter is largely Arjun’s backstory, simply dropped into the middle of the narrative as a lump of exposition. All of this content could have been slowly drawn out of Arjun as he meets different people in the city and explains why he has come. But this sets an unfortunate trend. Whenever we meet someone new or visit another part of the city, we get these information dumps. In the “good old days”, we praised most world builders, making exceptions for the obsessives like Tolkien whose interminable ramblings have been immortalised in uncountable numbers of posthumous books capturing his notes. But this modern drive to satisfy the apparent desire of readers to get “value for money” is leading to grossly overwritten texts. It is a reversion, but of the wrong type. The reason why Dickens put in so much background is because he had a word target to meet for each episode. So rather than rushing the plot to its conclusion (killing Little Nell had to be delayed as long as possible), he dallied in the descriptions and so maintained his income stream over the maximum possible number of instalments. The bean counters in charge of modern publishing houses also want the maximum number of words for the buck, regardless of the quality of those words.

The result is a book that could have been interesting if an editor had hacked away the unnecessary text. It is a work of metaphors. The city is mutable, shifting and changing its nature through space and time. At any one location, one might meet people out of time or from the future. It all depends on how you look. In this unmappable city lurk supernatural beings and those who would exploit or benefit from their power. Jack becomes a symbol of anarchic freedom. Arlandes becomes a symbol of raw oppression invested with tragic impotence. Then there is Holbach whose intellectualism marginalises his access to power and Shay whose various machinations destabilise the existing order of things. Among all these cyphers walks Arjun who vaguely follows the dictates of his quest until he is diverted by the appearance of a pestilent threat to the city. Frankly, I didn’t care very much what happened. The threat uncoils slowly and without much sense of menace. It kills people in increasing numbers, but that is it. It is perfunctory, a mere plot device because there must be something for Arjun to confront as a delaying tactic in the pursuit of his grail. The resolution is neither victory nor defeat. It is an ending in the sense that a cul-de-sac is an ending and so brings us to the end of this first instalment of journey in what will turn out to be a trilogy or more. Dickens would have approved of this device as a means of selling more books.

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

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