If Horatio Alger, rather than Mark Twain, wrote the sequel to Huck Finn (though keeping Twain’s wry humor) after he lights out for the territories, and if Huck were possessed by the spirit of Nikola Tesla, and if the Wild West were the Wild West except that the trains and guns were all hosts for demons battling for supremacy while haunting both sides is the possibility of a sort of doomsday device, well, then you just might be close to approximating Felix Gilman’s The Rise of Ransom City, a kinda-sorta sequel to his The Half-Made World, which I had on my top ten list the year it came out. The Rise of Ransom City might not be quite that good, but it doesn’t fall far short.
In The Half-Made World, we were introduced to a West being ravaged by a war between The Line (incorporeal and seemingly eternal spirits hosting in locomotives) and The Gun (similar spirits inhabiting, um, guns). The Line is a sort of order-obsessed, fascist, industrial state while the Gun epitomizes chaos and a kind of anarchic independence. John Creedmoor, an Agent of the Gun, turns on his masters and with Liv Alverhuysen sets out for a fabled secret weapon with the agents of both the Line and the Gun in pursuit. And that is pretty much where we left them at the end.
I said The Rise of Ransom City is only a kinda-sorta sequel because while it does continue Creedmoor and Liv’s story, they are mere tangents in this slant-wise sequel. Rather than give us your typical pick-up-where-we-left-off follow-up, Gilman chooses instead to give us the story of autodidact Harry Ransom, creator of the unpredictable Ransom Process (bringing light to the world!), slayer of spirits, leader of Jasper City, fugitive from both the Line and the Gun, changer of history (at least four times he tells us), founder of the utopian Ransom City, and composer of this autobiography we’re reading. But Ransom’s story itself comes to us slant, filtered through the lens of a journalist named Carson who once met Ransom and who has spent years compiling the various pieces of Ransom’s autobiography (with only partial success) and tracking down stories about him. So what we end up with is an unreliable manuscript (unreliable because it is not complete) composed by an unreliable narrator.
Gilman obviously is taking a big chance here, changing his character focus, his structure, his style, and his tone in a sequel that one assumes is aimed at readers familiar with his prior book. It’s a chance that, I’m happy to see, completely pays off. The largest reason for his success is the first-person voice of Harry Ransom, which is wryly humorous, folksy, sometimes self-deprecating and other times just a bit arrogant. It’s a folksy, warmly conversational voice that carries you through the novel quickly and smoothly, the kind of voice you’re more than happy to pull up a chair next to and listen to for a few hours. And because he’s telling his story looking back, it’s also at times teasingly suspenseful (“I’ll have more to say on that later,”) and poignantly rueful (“Maybe then things might have gone differently with Adela.” Gilman pretty much had me from the get-go with Harry’s voice and he never lost me. When we do finally meet Creedmoor and Liv, it was nice to check back in and see what had been happening with them, and to follow them for a while, but to be honest, I would have been fine without them.
While Henry is a compellingly winning central character, the side characters vary somewhat in their depth. Mr. Carver, Harry’s partner, is surprisingly captivating considering how few words he speaks. Adela, whom Harry meets when she challenges him to a duel, is another strong character, while several who have many fewer pages come to life equally vividly, including Mr. Carson, a magician’s wife, and a few others. Liv and Creedmoor, on the other hand, are surprisingly flat considering our experience with them in the prior novel.
The plot of The Rise of Ransom City is picaresque in nature. We follow Harry form rim town to rim town as he tries to sell the frontier people on his Ransom Process, an unpredictable, quasi-science, quasi-magic bit of work (he calls it “The Apparatus”) that creates seemingly free light but also messes around with gravity, magnetism, and who knows what else. His competition is the mercenary Northern Lighting Corporation, headed by his rags-to-riches idol Mr. Albert Baxter (similar to Tesla’s battle with Edison). And behind everything lies the great war between the Line and the Gun, which Harry eventually gets caught up in. Once when he meets Creedmoor and Liv, later when his apparatus turns out to also have appallingly destructive capabilities as a weapon, still later when he becomes part of the Battle of Jasper, and finally when he is present at one of the last great conflicts of the war. Throughout it all, Harry would rather just work on his process, bring free light and energy to the hard lives on the frontier, and spend some time with a girl he becomes romantically entwined with. But as his autobiography makes clear, our lives seldom go the way we wish, and he is not always the master of his choices; when he is, he doesn’t always choose the “storybook” ones; and even when he does, they don’t always get the storybook results.
The Rise of Ransom City, therefore, does not shy at all from darkness; murder, mayhem, betrayal, cruelty, slavery — they all rear their ugly heads. There’s also a nice helping of politics, economics, sociology, and philosophy, adding depth to the already thought-provoking premise — the metaphors of the Engine and the Gun, their primal dichotomy and everlasting war with one another, metaphors carefully constructed so you can read into them just enough to feel grounded but not enough so that they feel restrictive or overly didactic.
As much as I absolutely loved Harry’s voice, I will say that the first-person narrative did feel a bit restrictive when we reached the latter stage of the book, as perhaps a little too much happens off-stage and events come hurtling at us a bit too quickly. But we’re talking only a few dozen pages maybe, making this a relatively minor complaint. Some might find fault as well with how Gilman leaves a lot of points up in the air — exactly what was the Process, exactly what are the Line and the Gun, what exactly happens after the war, what exactly happens to Harry? Personally, I thought this level of uncertainty fit right in with this sense of the edge of the world where people are still making and re-making themselves, where towns and countries are still creating themselves and finding their identities, a world and people still raw and unformed and in flux. A true frontier in other words.
Revisiting the same world, The Rise of Ransom City couldn’t be as strikingly original as The Half-Made World, but it’s original in a different fashion, creating a wonderfully inviting character. As I said, I was with Harry from the very first pages and I was sorry to leave him behind at the end. I don’t know if Gilman will come back to this world of his (it is, after all, only half-made), but if he does so, I’ll happily sign up for the return trip. I heartily recommend you hop aboard as well.