Saturday, July 04, 2009

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

Here's a conundrum for you to chew on: is a derivative work worthwhile if it's successful in its derivation? Felix Gilman's debut novel, Thunderer, gives the unmistakable (but, it must be noted, perhaps mistaken) impression of having been written as a result of its author reading China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, turning the last page and saying 'I can do that.' And the thing is, he can, and has. Thunderer recalls Perdido Street Station (and to a lesser extent The Scar) in its plot, characters, setting, and most of all its tone, but it also recalls its quality. Like Perdido, it is a sprawling, multithreaded narrative which coalesces into a rip-roaring adventure. Like Perdido, it is the story of a place--a city--which is illuminated through its inhabitants, both natives and newcomers, and the story of how those people are changed--elevated, broken, or simply made different--by that city. Like Perdido, it describes a society in a moment of flux, whose weaker members are on the brink of achieving real social progress, and the forces arrayed against that change. Like Perdido, it features magic being transmuted into science, quantified and made ordinary, but also still so much stranger and more dangerous than the people investigating it realize. There is, in short, very little here that hasn't already been done, but Gilman carries off his own iteration so well that it seems--especially when one considers that Miéville himself has long since moved on to other things--more than a little churlish to complain about his unoriginality.

All of this is basically to say that Gilman--who is nominated for the Campbell award this year, and is certainly my choice for the win--is a very good writer, and wastes no time in proving it. Thunderer's first chapter is a panoramic introduction to the novel's main characters as they experience the event that sets each of them on their path throughout the novel--Arjun, a traveler arriving in the city of Ararat; Holbach,a scientist getting ready to conduct the most important experiment of his career; Jack, a teenager preparing to escape from the workhouse in which he's spent most of his young life; Captain Arlandes, about to experience the defining tragedy of his life--but it is also an intensely kinetic scene. The narrative swoops in and out of the lives of the different characters because it is following the Bird, one of Ararat's divinities which is gracing the city with a visitation. Holbach's experiment is an attempt to capture some of the bird's magic and use it to his, or rather his patron, the Countess Ilona's, ends--to raise her warship the Thunderer into the sky, thus cementing her dominance over the city. Gilman's description of the Bird's arrival and Holbach's experiment is suffused with motion and activity, and at points quite overpowering (it also put me in mind of several similar scenes in Miéville's novels, most particularly the capture of the avanc in The Scar).
The Bird curves itself in space toward the balloon, leisurely, as if curious about this bright clumsy challenger. Then it rushes suddenly forward, its presence sharpening into a line across the sky. The balloon leaps and the Countess's men are dragged from their feet and let the ropes slip from their burnt and bloody hands. Lucia shrieks. The Bird soars close past the balloon and the feathered cloud following the Bird engulfs it for a second. Half obscured by the flock, the balloon seems to turn itself inside out, and for a moment it becomes a great pair of wings, sixty feet of azure taffeta spread out on the wind. The wings beat once, then the fabric falls slowly to the ground, curling smokily in the air. The basket drops, not slowly. The little menagerie of birds in the basket takes flight, their wings whole again, and joins the god's flock.
(It is perhaps worth noting that all of the characters mentioned here are men. Though there are women in the novel, they tend to stand out less. The Countess is more an éminence grise than a character. More central than her is Holbach's attorney Olympia, who is mentioned obliquely in this chapter but not introduced for several more. She, however, is the only main character without a trajectory of her own, and spends the novel advancing the agendas of others and getting caught in their wake.)

The main plotline of Thunderer reads very much like Perdido Street Station retold with Yagharek as the protagonist. A newcomer from a foreign culture arrives in the city looking for help--Arjun is a devotee of the god known as the Voice, whose presence has receded from the monastery at which he's spent his life. He's come to Ararat, the city of gods and a sort of gravity well for divinity, in the hopes of finding it again. To this end he approaches a scientist who is associated with a bohemian, freethinking set--Holbach's efforts on the Countess's behalf fund the Atlas, the definitive portrait of Ararat through which its compilers hope to expose the city's workings and spur its inhabitants to improve on them. This group is a target of the city's authoritarian rulers--in Ararat, mainly the censors who view any attempt at cartography as heresy, but also the ruling powers of the city who fear the change the Atlas might bring about. The scientist's investigations (or, in Thunderer, Arjun's pursuit of the leads Holbach offers him) inadvertently unleash a dangerous being into the city, which menaces its population and finally threatens its very existence, placing both the scientist and the newcomer at odds with the city's rulers even as they scramble to save it. A secondary plotline follows Jack after his escape and draws on a different literary source, as Jack, whom the Bird has gifted with the power of flight, becomes an emblem of freedom and gathers around himself a band of similarly lost boys who spend their days thumbing their noses at authority. The blatant Peter Pan reference seems to be the only reason for the existence of a third plotline, revolving around Arlandes as he captains the Thunderer and sinks further and further into depression following the death of his wife during its raising. Despite showing us Arlandes's growing detachment and his willingness to perform greater acts of cruelty on the Countess's behalf, his story ultimately fizzles out, and the character seems to exist mainly to act as the Captain Hook to Jack's Peter.

Of course the true main character of the novel is the city itself. Gilman has the knack of making Ararat seem not only believable--complete with different neighborhoods, each with its own flavor and social set, theaters and music halls, restaurants and cafes, businesses and warehouses, a vast array of temples and places of worship, parks, prisons, statues and landmarks--but incomprehensibly vast. This vastness is brought home by Holbach's Atlas, which, in its fourth edition and comprising dozens of volumes, still can't capture the true form of the city, which anyway changes faster than it can be described. Though most of the characters in the novel make some attempt to shape Ararat, the sheer size and complexity of the city means that their efforts have chaotic, unpredictable effects, and even the most powerful characters such as Ilona and her political enemies find themselves powerless before the mass of the city and its collective will. As in Perdido Street Station, it is Ararat's survival that is the novel's primary concern. The monster Arjun releases into the city--a demented river god who spreads disease and turns people into zombies--is a threat not because it kills people but because those deaths threaten to send the remaining population away, to turn Ararat into a ghost town. Like Perdido, Thunderer ends with its main characters dispersed, damaged, and for the most part frustrated in their goals, but the ending is nevertheless a satisfying one because Ararat has survived.

Gilman's one original touch in Thunderer is the god angle. Ararat is home to a thousand divinities, each with its own followers and places of worship, and each with its own irrational affect on the city--the Spider, whose followers receive cryptic instructions to change their lives according to a master plan they can't see; Tiber, a pillar of fire; The Spirit of the Lights, whose appearances blind some of those who see it, and leave others incapable of seeing anything "but colors and glitter and star-blaze." It is precisely this proliferation of gods, however, that leaves Ararat's natives intolerant of Arjun's single-minded devotion to a god who has abandoned him. They view it as a selfish obsession, an addiction, and Arjun himself begins to question his devotion after his encounter with Typhon, the river god he inadvertently infects with humanity and turns into a monster. The loss of self Arjun experiences with Typhon is so similar to his single, life-changing spiritual experience with the Voice that he begins to question his faith, and to wonder whether the gods aren't simply, as Holbach describes them, forces of nature, to be studied like the tides or the weather.

It's an interesting approach, but it feels underdeveloped. Though Gilman contrasts Arjun's devotion with Holbach's scientific approach, there's very little comparison between Arjun and believers within the city, so that the notion, raised several times throughout the novel, that Arjun is fundamentally different from a native of Ararat because he isn't accustomed to a profusion of gods is left unexplored. Gilman also doesn't do enough to distinguish the Typhon from any other kind of supernatural menace--for example, Slake Moths--and only introduces, but doesn't really explore, the idea that it's the touch of humanity that turns the god monstrous and makes it loathe its disciples. There are a lot of bald statements when it comes to religious attitudes--mainly Holbach, Olympia, and even Jack's belief that Arjun's faith is a selfish addiction--but very little explanation of them, or exploration of their subtleties. Ultimately, the religious theme is overpowered by the novel's plot. By the end of the story, when Thunderer's plotlines tie into one another and become the single story of Arjun and Jack's last stand against the Typhon, the monster's divinity feels almost incidental.

A sequel to Thunderer, Gears of the City, was published late last year. The brief excerpt from it which appears in Thunderer, and its plot description, give me hope that it both moves away from established Miévillian plots and does more with Ararat's unique characteristics--not only the proliferation of gods but what appear to be gateways to alternate dimensions or past and future versions of the city, through which Arjun learns to navigate. Whether or not it does, I think that Thunderer establishes Gilman as an author to watch. It is, despite being derivative, an excellent, exciting, and extremely well-written novel. Though I certainly hope that Gilman goes on to make his own unique mark on the genre, he's done enough to earn my attention and wholehearted recommendation.

5 comments:

Standback said...

I've not read Perdido nor Thunderer, but I would like to say that a little derivation isn't such a bad thing - especially as it sounds like the original McCoy hasn't undergone many iterations yet. There's a limit how much novelty you can expect from a new story just in order to be "acceptable," and it sounds like Thunderer surpasses that in spades...

The thing is this: if you don't let author A play around with author B's unique themes and ideas, you'll never evolve beyond 1) the already-tired established tropes everybody's deriving from already, and 2) the rudimentary new ideas each fresh new author has. 2 may be more to your taste than 1 - but 2 can be developed, built upon, added to by many fresh, new authors, until it becomes so much more than what any one author is capable of. Me, I'm in favor.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As I said, it looks as though, having used Mieville's setting as a sandbox and his plot as a foundation in his first novel, Gilman is going to move in his own direction in the second novel. I also agree that it's only natural for there to be cross-pollination between different authors, and for more innovative authors to inspire others who are perhaps less innovative but no less talented. I just found Thunderer's ratio of original to derivative material a little too low for comfort.

(And, you know, let's not forget that Perdido Street Station was Mieville's second novel, and that his first, King Rat, was quite derivative of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.)

Terry Weyna said...

I think you'll find that Gears of the City is far darker and more focused than Thunderer. It's a wonderful book, but so different from Thunderer that they seem almost to be written by different people with very different aims. I'll be interested in reading your review once you've gotten to Gears.

Matthew David Surridge said...

This was a really strong review, and as a reader I appreciated this angle on the book. I picked up Thunderer earlier this year, and loved it; I voted for Gilman for the Campbell on both ballots, and the book was on my list for best novels. I never made the connection to Perdido Street Station, which I read some time ago and thought (and apparently I'm alone in this) was good, but not great. So it wasn't really in my mind when reading Gilman's book, but I do like the connection you make.

That said, I think the similarities you point out in your first paragraph are general enough that I have no particular problem with them. I think there's a reasonable argument that at least two of your points -- a book about a city seen through the eyes of its citizens, a society in flux -- apply as well to something like Bleak House (and much other Dickens, as well). For me, as I read Thunderer, I was thinking of much of the writing of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, and the way they present London. Now, Miéville has said something about wanting to do for his fictional cities what Sinclair does for London, so that's not far away (and I believe Moorcock, another Miéville influence, is interested in both Ackroyd and Sinclair, so there are a number of connections to be made).

I suppose what it comes down to for me is that I found Thunderer to be more successful than Perdido Street Station (I haven't read any of Miéville's other books). I thought the character work was sharper and more memorable -- I can't recall anything about any of the characters in Perdido, for example -- and that the convergence of the plot was less overt; it felt less forced. I thought the writing was better, or at least I found Gilman's style more engaging. Most importantly, though, I thought that Gilman did a much better job of making his Ararat a real place, a credible city.

That's interesting because on the face of it Ararat is impossible; fantasy is built into the nature of it. It sprawls over a vast area, it's unmappable, Gods take a hand in defining it. But Gilman gives each of his characters, even those we only meet in flashback for a few paragraphs, a distinctive voice. He makes them real, so that the book becomes the place where these diverse voices collide; by extension, so does the city of Ararat, which makes it work as a city. That's a pretty good trick to pull off.

I haven't read Gears of the City yet, though I'm looking forward to it. I'm growing increasingly interested in the turn the city-based fantasy has taken -- Gilman, Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Alan Campbell, people like that. Different writers, different levels of accomplishment, but a similar tone; it feels like an emergent sub-genre. I can't call it "urban fantasy", because that term seems to refer mainly to fantasies mixing magic elements with real-world cities; I'm thinking instead of stories about fictional cities in a secondary world. The obvious precedent is Fritz Leiber's Nehwon, but there seem to be strong elements of Gormenghast in a lot of these books. So ... I expect I shall be reading more Miéville, as well as Gears of the City, in the coming days.

At any rate, I wanted to post to say that I appreciated what I thought was a very perceptive review. I read your blog regularly, and appreciate your writing even when (as here) I don't fully agree with it. This review is a good example of what I like in your criticism -- perceptive, well-written, I don't so much disagree with your perceptions as find that they strike me slightly differently. Which is always intriguing to see.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matthew:

Though you make some good points about Miéville's flaws in Perdido Street Station (some of which have been addressed in his later novels) I still think I prefer it to Thunderer, and not simply because Miéville got there first. I think Perdido does a better job with its adventure aspect, and that Miéville writes much better action scenes - the attack on the Glasshouse in Perdido, for example, blows the rather similar attack on the Rose in Thunderer out of the water, and the final defeat of the villain, which in Thunderer felt a little anticlimactic, is a terrific, pulse-pounding scene in Perdido. All that said, I'm extremely fond of both novels, and I think that Thunderer works very well despite being a slightly less successful story.

You've right to point out that Miéville was drawing on his own set of inspirations, both within genre and outside of it, when he came to write Perdido Street Station, and it could very well be that at least some of the similarities I see between it and Thunderer have to do with him and Gilman drawing on the same sources rather than Gilman using Perdido as his template. Still, beyond the thematic similarities there is the similarity between the two novels' plots, which I find too great to dismiss.