The Half-Made World (Book Review)

The Half-Made World

The Half-Made World

I’ve long argued that the “New Weird” is not a distinct genre. Its founder, China Miéville, wrote Perdido Street Station explicitly to show that the line between science fiction and fantasy was an illusion and that both genres deserved more creativity. It’s missing the point to create a separate category for these works. However, after reading Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, I’m starting to accept that New Weird has become its own sub-genre. Just like steampunk or High Fantasy, it definitely has its own expectations, aesthetics, and fanbase.

Fortunately, the New Weird is not likely to become a stagnant literary ghetto like High Fantasy. After all, its central tenet is wild inventiveness and the undermining of any clichéd expectations. The Half-Made World uses the American Western as a foundation for its setting, but with little-understood spirits twisting the familiar archetypes into something new. The larger-than-life outlaws are servants of a demonic cabal named The Gun. The railroads may be bringing civilization and order to the land, but under the auspices of a force called The Line, which sees humans as no more than disposable cogs in a machine. These two sides are at war, and the ordinary people who live in simple, dusty towns have no love for either of the destructive powers.

While the setting is entirely his own invention, Gilman is definitely inspired by Miéville. Not only is the world the book’s biggest selling point, but it rejects the simple answers and black-and-white morality of most fantasy. (The three main characters are an Agent of the Gun, an Agent of the Line, and a prim woman from civilized lands. Needless to say, they do not get along.) The narrative sympathies are humanistic and anti-authoritarian, but even in his fantasy the author worries that evil will triumph. And the story isn’t afraid to disrupt the status quo, no matter how the reader may want to see it continue. Unfortunately, some of Miéville’s weaknesses come through as well: The plot is slight and driven by coincidence, and the the conclusion is unsatisfying. (In fact, Gilman seems to have made a conscious effort to avoid wrapping anything up neatly.)

What truly makes this New Weird is that the setting becomes less familiar as the book progresses. Rather than doing some world-building and then moving on with the plot, it turns out that the similarities to our Old West exist on the surface only. This setting has centuries of history, and the land becomes stranger and less bound to physical laws (literally “half-made”) the further west one goes. Gilman’s prose does a masterful job of setting the scene, laying out just enough details to bring these strange elements alive, and slowly building up the concepts that underpin the world so that the reader comes to appreciate them without needing them explicitly explained. (This is also true of the characters, who remain interesting and reveal themselves through action rather than narration.)

A great environment, good characters, fair plot, and mediocre ending: That’s a pretty concise summary of the New Weird. And despite its weaknesses, The Half-Made World is a stunning and memorable book. I would love to read more stories set in this world. I may wish that innovations like this had been more integrated into standard genre writing instead of forming a new sub-category, but I can still enjoy the results that it produces.

Grade: B

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