I have great respect for writers who can create entirely different worlds without succumbing to the need to explain every little detail of the world’s workings. Felix Gilman accomplishes this with The Half-Made World. His world is nothing like our own. There is the barest patina of the Wild West to it in the set dressings and costumes: frontier towns, guns and lawmakers, the looming spectre of industrialization, and disillusioned soldiers from a forlorn war. But this world has no connection to our own; it is as fantastic as any other high fantasy book, just more mechanistic in its setting. Gilman skilfully tells an adventure/chase story while touching on deep motifs, such as loyalty, one’s duty to history, and the ability for a single person to make a difference. It’s a half-made world, but it’s not a half-baked world.
(I’m so, so sorry.)
Gilman’s success at creating such a rich world and telling such a brilliant story is due in large part to the characters who carry its weight. He succeeds in that difficult task of portraying a cast whose goals are at odds with one another, yet every character is sympathetic in their own way. This puts the reader in the unenviable position of watching one or more of their “favourite” characters fail in some way. Not all of Lowry, Creedmoor, and Liv can succeed. But thanks to the way Gilman introduces and develops them, we develop a measure of sympathy for each.
Lowry is the closest thing The Half-Made World has to a human villain, and I’m almost tempted to say he’s an anti-villain. He believes in the order brought by the Line; that this belief is the result of indoctrination does not diminish its power to shape his actions. As the book’s chief representative of the Line, Lowry shows us the dark side of an industrialized, bureaucratized superpower. He is repeatedly compared to a cog in a machine: when his superiors expire from incompetence, he is promoted by inheriting their positions because he is “not significantly less adequate” for their task. The Line is all about depersonalizing and removing an individual’s sense of self or accomplishments. Lowry, despite his desire to be a good little Linesman, has a stubborn streak of pride that keeps him from staying under the radar. (Incidentally, this is the second book in a month where I’ve encountered the word “Linesman”, in entirely different uses!)
In contrast, Creedmoor is definitely an anti-hero. Dedicated to the more chaotic forces of the Gun, Creedmoor is not a nice man. He has killed and will kill again and will let innocents suffer. Yet his allegiance to the Gun and dedication to its irreconcilable animosity towards the Line is tenuous: he joined up because he was attracted to the power of the Gun, not its motives. Unlike the true believer that is Lowry, Creedmoor questions and chafes against the orders of his inhuman masters. He is Liv’s sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy, helping and hindering as he sees fit. This provides for no end of entertaining conflict and contributes to the richness of the characterization here.
Liv Alverhuysen is the closest we come to a protagonist. She is of the unlikely variety, in that she does not set off to get involved in this war. It’s only by chance she ends up in a position to be kidnapped by Creedmoor along with the General, in whose precious but addled mind might lie the key to ending the war between the Gun and the Line, once and for all. Liv quickly proves her mettle though. She sets off from her cushy Ivory Tower with a friend, the cheerful but childlike Maggfrid, and in no time at all negotiates herself into the business side of a trader’s operation. Soon enough she arrives at the House Dolorous to work with mentally ill patients, which is where she meets Creedmoor and the General. As the three of them flee farther west into the unmade parts of the world, Liv’s even-tempered compassion is an essential counterweight to Creedmoor’s manic bouts of trigger-happiness and restlessness.
It’s this perfect balance between this trio of characters that makes me smile so much. The Half-Made World isn’t just an adventure story or a chase novel; it’s an adventure story and a chase novel with three viewpoints that all see the world in radically different terms, and by exposing us to those viewpoints, Gilman provides a more complete picture of that world. Liv’s naivety and aloofness when it comes to the Gun and the Line is a tonic for the embedded ideas of Creedmoor and Lowry’s that this war is inevitable and eternal. Similarly, Creedmoor’s anarchic tendency to buck his master’s commands and chafe at his mission parameters finds a parallel in Lowry’s decision to press forward, no matter the cost, in pursuit: both show traces of individuality and remind us that even when in thrall to inhuman forces, human free will is a powerful determining force all on its own.
The chase and its ultimate goal of uncovering the weapon hidden within (or pointed to by) the General’s mind proves somewhat of a MacGuffin. Its origins lie in the First Folk, Indigenous peoples analogues who are literally immortal and perhaps represent a midpoint between the inhuman demons behind the Guns and the Engines and the briefer, mortal humans ground down in this war. The First Folk regard humans, rightly so, as children (not that it’s our fault). Gilman does little to delve into the mystery behind the First Folk, and I’m ambivalent about that. On the one hand, I appreciate the kind of magical realism vibe that he is going for here. On the other hand, even though the First Folk are not explicitly Native Americans, their analogous resemblance means that this teeters dangerously close to another example of Indigenous cultures being Othered and their spiritual beliefs and practices exoticized for Western consumption.
As far as stories go, though, it is hard to beat the deadly effective combination of a fast-paced plot with a romantically dangerous world. The Gun and the Line are imposing forces wrestling to wrest control of human civilization from human hands. Liv and the other main characters suddenly find themselves at a pivot that could change everything. The stakes increase immeasurably, yet Gilman keeps everything grounded in the goals and motivations of his main characters. The result is something captivating and difficult to put down. I was left with a bit of a Harkaway feel, and not just because the book’s title is similar to The Gone-Away World, which also features a hefty dose of unmaking reality.