The Half Made World is a good book which is not much fun to read. Gilman writes well, and brings his world and characters to life. And he’s had some great ideas, or more accurately one really great idea and some stuff to put in front of that idea and shine some light on it. I bought to book on the strength of the summary on Amazon; weird wild west is an easy sell for me.
Let me try to put it all into context. I got a big kick out of Red Country because Abercrombie mashed together the spaghetti western and his fantasy universe in such a seamless way. Fantasy has been running on sub-Tolkien medievality way past the point of diminishing returns, and more and more writers are trying out the same nonsense in new “historical” frameworks, a job which it used to be that only Tim Powers seemed to be doing. So when I saw the blurb for The Half Made World I was hoping for something of the same cleverness; use the American West as a jumping off point for something lawless and fantastical.
Gilman had a slightly different idea of lawless and fantastical than I’d let myself expect; in The Half Made World, the American West is literally unformed, a chaotic dream-like wilderness which has to be tamed and brought into line not just with the rules of civilisation, but the laws of science. In less disciplined hands, this could have turned into a boring acid-trip, but Gilman keeps a lid on it, throwing in just enough unsettling imagery to keep the read off balance but not so much that I got put off the book completely.
So, who is bringing order to the chaos? Horrible people, that’s who. Far off to the East it all seems peaceful and bucolic and dare I say European, but out on frontier, the battle is between the Line and the Gun. The Line are horrible people imposing a grisly mechanised dystopia on the expanding frontier, crushing everything in their path and replacing it with mills which appear to be literally dark and satanic. Running their show are the Engines, a group of demons who’ve taken physical form as trains. Clearly, these are the bad guys. Nope; over in other corner are the Gun, a bunch of anarchists wrecking everything for the lulz, each a crazed and almost indestructible individual possessed by a demon-infested weapon, every last one of them an anti-hero in business for himself and whatever it is that the Lodge of the Guns is planning. So they’re the bad guys...
Everyone is bad guys. There’s an asylum for the wounded of this endless war, and it’s under the protection of a guardian spirit, which seems quite promising and non violent at first, until you discover that the spirit feeds off misery and suffering and is only guarding the hospital the same way that a farmer guards his cattle.
But it’s still an arresting and individual vision. Creedmoor, our protagonist for the Guns, is an antihero who in any other book would be on the road to redemption, or at least some kind of bastardry so magnificent that it saved the world by accident; in The Half Made World he just goes right on being despicable despite his half hearted best intentions. Liv Alverhuysen’s well-meaning psychiatrist has her very own Hodor, who would be her stalwart companion through all adversity in any other book, but gets left behind as soon as the going gets tough in the back half of this book. And is probably all the better off for it, too. Liv’s the nearest thing we get to a good guy, and she’s an opium addicted basket case who doesn’t know what she’s doing or very much about where she’s doing it. Lowry, our viewpoint into the Line, is a disagreeable cowardly schemer who ultimately proves as interchangeable as any other part of the machine he serves. There’s nothing corny about these characters or the way they get from a to b, but they’re hard to like.
And in the end, having ground just about everything to powder in a chase after the novel’s Maguffin, whatever’s still hidden in the broken memory of a demented former general, the narrative peters out gracefully, leaving us to wonder what’s going to happen next. And yes, there’s a sequel. Which appears to be a jaunty picaresque memoir by a minor character in this book, so heaven knows if there’s ever going to be any clarity as to what happened at the end of this one ….