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Felix Gilman on His Novel, The Half-Made World

Felix Gilman's new novel The Half-Made World is a powerful reimagining of the West with amoral characters and a hard-edged Steampunk feel that puts the "punk" back into the subgenre with a vengeance. It also features a strong and compelling female main character in the person of Lyvset Alverhuysen, tons of mad invention, and an ingenious plot. The evocations of landscape, the conflict between the servants of the Gun and the servants of the Line, both of which involve either the supernatural or super-advanced science, the interactions between the characters, are all masterfully written.

Advance praise has been equally effusive, including this blurb from Ursula K. 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.”

I asked Gilman if he'd tell Omnivoracious readers a little bit about the genesis of the novel. Here's his answer...

       Cover-world

Gilman on his novel...

So if the moon-laser thing has worked out OK, everyone will already know all about the book. Just in case it hasn’t let me explain. The Half-Made World is a western, or almost-a-western, an alternative world western set in a fantastic, exaggerated, mythic and surreal and absurd version of the western frontier. The world is in flux; there’s a great war between the forces of modernity and industry and the forces of, well, everything else. There are evil trains and guns that talk to people (but only bad people). It’s steampunk - not in the sense that there’s a lot of actual steam, but on the other hand there are ornithopters. (There’s one on the cover).

I gather there are a number of other western-themed fantasies or fantastic-themed westerns around right now. (Cherie Priest; Julian Comstock; Emma Bull’s Territory; the towering Against The Day; and so on). There are even “weird west”-themed conventions. For the first time in my life I may be accidentally in sync with a trend of sorts.

I’ve seen people asking: why the resurgence of interest in the west and the frontier within sff fiction? Why this stuff, why now?

I suppose I should have an answer. I don’t know. Probably lots of reasons, and probably what it feels like for everyone who’s written such a book is that their story was cool, they had a character in their head nagging at them who didn’t belong anywhere else, etc.

The first answer that comes to mind is that there would have been more of this sort of thing before now, but it took a decade for everyone to get over that awful Wild West West movie.

The second answer is: all of this stuff--steampunk generally--is fiction about the future, for people who can’t really believe in the future right now. The future is closing off, the natural world dying, technology no longer looks very optimistic to a lot of people. SFF looks back to the birth of modernity, the birth of technology, and imagines how things might have started off differently--what went wrong--how things might have been better, or maybe worse -- but either way it imagines alternative paths, there at the beginning. And if that’s what you’re into, then America, the west, the frontier, is inevitably where you’ll end up. The most open and optimistic of beginnings, the moment of greatest perceived potential; and the moment when the original sins of civilization are at their starkest.

Anyway. A while ago I was on a panel at a convention somewhere, talking about the uses of history in fiction. Someone (I think it was Delia Sherman) told a story about a long-dead British author who’d decided, back in an earlier peak of the western’s popularity, to try his hand at the genre. He wrote detailed and loving descriptions of the great plains, the big skies, the magnificent Rockies, the coyotes circling overhead.

Well, how could he have known? There aren’t a lot of coyotes in England and Wikipedia wasn’t invented yet. How humiliating! He probably had to shoot himself. If only the “weird western” had been around back then he could just have said they were magic coyotes, and bluffed his way out of it...

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