Book Review – The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

Mr. Blurb says:

A fantastical reimagining of the American West which draws its influence from steampunk, the American western tradition, and magical realism

The world is only half made. What exists has been carved out amidst a war between two rival factions: the Line, paving the world with industry and claiming its residents as slaves; and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence that cripples the population with fear. The only hope at stopping them has seemingly disappeared—the Red Republic that once battled the Gun and the Line, and almost won. Now they’re just a myth, a bedtime story parents tell their children, of hope.

To the west lies a vast, uncharted world, inhabited only by the legends of the immortal and powerful Hill People, who live at one with the earth and its elements. Liv Alverhyusen, a doctor of the new science of psychology, travels to the edge of the made world to a spiritually protected mental institution in order to study the minds of those broken by the Gun and the Line. In its rooms lies an old general of the Red Republic, a man whose shattered mind just may hold the secret to stopping the Gun and the Line. And either side will do anything to understand how.

I thought this was an enjoyable alternate history of the American West, but you have to take it for what it is – a metaphor for the expansion of American settlers from the East of the country to the West.

We treat unexplored land as if it’s not quite real – as if it doesn’t really exist until it’s on a map somewhere – so this book takes that literally.  The parts of the world that haven’t been explored are “the half-made world” which is as magical and fluid and capricious as the explored/settled/civilized world isn’t.  During the 17th to 19th centuries(?) there was (apocryphally) a struggle between the forces of order (represented by the railroad bringing civilization from the East) and the forces of chaos (represented by the gun slinging cowboys of the West).  In this book these forces are represented literally by the Line (demigod train engines) and the Gun (demigod weapons).

Those three metaphors-taken-literally are the basis of the book, although the actual plot takes place with those as the background.

In order to enjoy the book you have to accept its premises, which are that the United States is important to the extent that none of the rest of the world is worth mentioning and that the “wild west” part of American history was important to the extent that it’s worth making metaphors out of.

In order to enjoy it you also have to accept that this is a book about ideas rather than people, so you can’t expect a traditional resolution.  The ambiguous ending may annoy some readers but at the time it seemed appropriate.