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Dark Matter and The Half-Made World - The Ex-Communicator

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November 19th, 2010


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09:45 pm - Dark Matter and The Half-Made World
I was busy this week so I didn't read much. I did get pissed at a beach bar and read Four Quartets, which was a bizarre and intense experience. But anyway, I finished the short horror novel Dark Matter, and it was as jolly good as I had expected it to be. I do recommend it to anyone who likes frightening ghost stories - there aren't that many new ones that are any good - plus it is a touching portrait of an all-male arctic expedition, which is another little niche I like.

I have also begun The Half Made World by Felix Gilman. This book has a fascinating premise, which is very well worked out. It's not the type of book I would normally read - it's a combination of steam punk and magical realism - but it got a glowing review from Ursula Le Guin
"Vivid and accurate prose, a gripping, imaginative story, a terrifically inventive setting, a hard-bitten, indestructible hero, and an intelligent, fully adult heroine -- We haven't had a science-fiction novel like this for a long time."

So I thought I would try it. It is well written, though I always find magical realism quite hard going. I must have said this a million times - I like each page, but I don't feel a compulsion to go on to the next page.

The premise, the conceit if you like, which underpins the book is a good one, really intelligent and complex but consistent. I think all magical realism is a metaphor within a spirit-infested world for the development of a country, usually a colonial nation. This is the most effective magical realist metaphor I have ever read about the opening up of the American west.

The 'New World' is conceived as literally new, coalescing into existence out of nothingness from the East outwards, and in its unformed state full of raw creativity and demons. I think the suggestion is not that the world is coming into being, but becoming perceptible, and fixed, as the Easterners move out into the prairies, from some precursor state of potentiality. There are indigenous peoples, the Hill Folk, who are sometimes like Native Americans, or perhaps Mountain Men, with their long beards. Like the continental land itself I feel they are coming into focus, or perhaps becoming fixed and diminished, by the perceptions of the colonists.

In this forming world two bands of demons have possessed the colonists and are using their human slaves to act out a continent-spanning war. The two types of demon manifest respectively as guns and as locomotives, their peoples lone psychopathic gunslingers on the one hand and regimented slaves of industialisation ('the people of the Line') on the other.

If there is any hope in this world it lies with the indigenous peoples, who have their own demons, and with the democratic and rationalist 'Red Valley Republic' - defeated (in a way very reminiscent of the Firefly Browncoats) at some last battle years ago.

I think you understand this metaphor, and in this book it is worked out beautifully, in scene after scene, each image or incident interesting in its own right, and readily mappable as a commentary on the forces of brutish individuality and brutal conformity.

Here is a short Crooked Timber review of Half-Made World.
If The Half-Made World fits into a line of thought within f/sf, it’s less steampunk, then a set of arguments which come out of Gene Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus and go through Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide and Paul Park’s Celestis about the ways in which colonialists imagine the aboriginals that they are violently displacing, and the ways that the aboriginals imagine them. I’ve no idea whether any of these books are conscious or unconscious influences on The Half-Made World – but it’s helpful for some purposes to think about them together.

(NB Celestis was published as Coelestis in the UK I think - brilliant)

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