Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) defies easy classification. On one hand it is a standard sort of second-world fantasy that somewhat fits the definition of epic fantasy– though the standard quest is shared by 2 enemies and manages to sweep up an innocent bystander. On another hand, it’s a sort of fantasy western with a modern take on Manifest Destiny-style attitudes, unchecked development, indigenous rights, etc., and with the inclusion of machine-based technology, The Half-Made World is made for slapping the __punk label to it, though I’ve most often seen cyberpunk or steampunk thrown about, which is a bit disappointing as I’d expect it to be more of westernpunk, petropunk, six-shooterpunk, or some other more creative punkness attribute. But most often The Half-Made World is considered Weird, or perhaps Weird Western. I can’t help but agree that the weird label fits it best, though I must admit that it chafes a bit that I’ve decided to utilize labels to frame start of this review.
 
In The Half-Made World physical laws don’t really exist to same extent as in most second-world fantasy, instead Gilman builds his world based on thematic laws. The world is only half-made, and the world only becomes made when ‘Western’-style development occurs, when humans expand their control of the world, and the world is most fully made once control moves from the hardy (and unsophisticated) pioneers of the frontier to the full order of the Line. The world is less made, or even un-made where humans haven’t yet penetrated, where the Folk (think indigenous people) exist with their indefinable magic and symbiosis with the land. Opposing the order of the Line is not the disorder of the un-made, but the near-nihilistic (or perhaps anarchistic or libertarian) Order of the Gun.
 
It’s in this worldbuilding that Gilman really shines – yes, this is a wonderfully built world in the sense of second-world fantasy, but it’s also thematic building. Gilman makes the worldbuilding so much more than just a setting, but a literary exercise in its own right. And at the same time, he playfully subverts himself – for his fully-realized and built world, is only ‘half-made’. The resisting force to order, is the Order of the Gun. This playful use of language to subvert the expected and even what Gilman is attempting to achieve, occurs throughout the book, but is perhaps most recognizable in the first half or so.
 
Balancing the study on worldbuilding is a study on character, with three focus points, and arguably a fourth. Liv is the equivalent of psychologist focusing on madness who unexpectedly (and irrationally?) journeys west for an opportunity of study. Of course, she is recovering from her own mental illness and has an unrealized addiction to opium. Creedmore is a charming, charismatic, and deadly Agent of the Gun. He fills the role of anti-hero as at times he has an apparent heart of gold, yet he kills with abandon, destruction follows his path, selfishness rules whenever possible, and yet he’s always beholden to his the spirit-like force of the Gun and their agenda. Lowery is member of the Line, he is order, he is conformity, he is the face of the unstoppable force. He struggles with self and the paranoia of completely controlled environment. The wild-west doesn’t just unsettle him and the Line, but is its antithesis. A fourth character is the focus of the quest – The General. The General is mad and damaged beyond repair from the forever war waged by the Line. The General also is in possession of the MacGuffin – something that the Line and the Gun both need to win their ever-ongoing fight and both need to keep out of the hands of their bitter enemy. This knowledge is buried inside his madness.
 
This character study is not as fully built as the world in terms of the thematic laws that govern Gilman’s creation, though it’s strong enough to support a balance. And it throws into view, something I haven’t really discussed yet – plot. Yes, there is a plot. The plot is strong enough to drive the story, motivate the characters and survive the world, yet it’s arguably not the point. Perhaps the plot is the actual MacGuffin here, I’m not sure. It sort of makes me want wonder what M. John Harrison would think of it all – after all, this book is either a giant ‘FU’ to Harrison’s views on fantasy and genre, or it’s the logical next step. It’s probably both, and it’s a bit weird as well, which generally makes his sort rather pleased. But I digress.
 
Since The Half-Made World was originally released in 2010, there are quite a few reviews and other reactions that can be found. After looking through a few I noticed that the ending is often panned, or at least highlighted as a relative low point in the book, with almost every one working in the ‘clever’ half-made ending (or similar) comment. I can sort of see why, though I think mostly it’s simply that people want an ending to be a resolution rather than the beginning of yet another adventure. However, remembering that the building blocks behind the world, the characters and even the plot are truly thematic blocks, I think that the ‘half-made ending’ can only be considered entirely appropriate. Though perhaps it functions as a third MacGuffin to which I can only react with maniacal giggling. Anyway, it’s worth noting that The Half-Made World is not a stand-alone and the sequel, The Rise of Ransom City (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), is available, so hopefully the half-made ending will now just be an enticement to continue on that much sooner.
 
Gilman is an author I’ve been hearing good things about for a number of years now, and The Half-Made World has shown me why. It encompasses much of what it means to be genre, yet subverts the stereotype by thematically building everything such that everything has meaning – and the craft that it takes to make it all work is impressive. And work it does – The Half-Made World can function as a fun, fantastically weird western and as a stylistic novel with great thematic depth to be delved, parsed, examined, and even re-made. In that, the appeal is wide and this book should be widely read. So what are waiting for … punk!?
 

3 comments:

Paul Weimer said...

Think you are going to go on to read The Rise of Ransom City?

Neth said...

Eventually, yes, though the truth is that I finished this book back in December and am only just now getting around to the review part.

Pabkins said...

Alright you got enough punks thrown in there? You got me I'll give it a go..I think I have something else of his laying around on my shelves unread.
Www.myshelfconfessions.com

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