The Revolutions, Felix Gilman‘s latest book, reflects the Nineteenth Century novel with a position of respect and love. Like Cherie Priest’s Clockwork century novels or G Dahlquist’s Dream Eaters books, this is a world that immerses itself in its antecedents but is not slavishly bound to them.
In the great storm, Arthur loses his journalistic job whilst at the library. Finding a post as an accountant, he enters the employee of Mr Atwood and becomes embroiled in a strange work. Instructions come in that make little sense, as do the calculations. Meanwhile, he meets Josephine and becomes engaged.
Josephine becomes involved with a group interested in the Occult. During one of the rituals, she is psychically transported to Mars, whilst her body remains earthbound. Arthur takes care of her as Atwood’s Engine is rebuilt.
Gilman revels in the cultural and literary tensions between magic and science that exist in the nineteenth century. Authors such as Bram Stoker explore the boundaries of the belief in magic against the rationality of science in their novels and W B Yeats indulged in the mystical in private. As the century progressed, there was a stronger belief in power of science and its role for improving society, though in a way perhaps in a a way that Fritz Lang might satirise in Metropolis. The lost potential of the Babbage engine powered the Difference Engine and to an extent drives this novel, though perhaps with echoes of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. The calculations echo algorithms with Atwood’s Engine being part of the great work of the century.
Against this rationality and move away from religious belief came a belief in the supernatural in terms of ghosts and the powers of the mind. The rise in mentalism and ghosts suggests wider fear of the unknown, the idea that death is not the end. The Revolutions plays this to good effect through the transporting of Josephine between the spheres. The novel’s structure suggests a more Mediaeval view of the heavens as a gateway to and from the divine. As the journey goes through the degrees, they become a little more like the Inferno or the spheres from which one might approach the divine, suggesting that this mindset was still strong in the nineteenth century, driving obsessions
Alongside Atwood’s Engine, other social notables becomes involved in a magical war, part of which manifested itself as the Great Storm. Gilman leaves it as a subtle social comment on the failings of the leadership which writers such as Kipling would begin to indulge in in books such as Puck of Pook’s Hill. This extends into the wry humour concerning the conspiracy theories such as the Tibetan masters and Atwood’s needing to be backed by them rather than leading naturally.
Josephine adapts to the new society, learning about their ways. Adapting to Martian culture, she works out how to communicate with them, in strong contrast to Andrew and Atwood. There is a wry humour to Gilman’s portrayal of the men and their colonial approach. Gilman begins approaching the question of the alien and who this might be in an anthropological sense. Blish’s A Case for Conscience explores this, as does Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, with equal critical view but the fact that this question needs to be queried again shows that it is still unresolved, that colonial attitudes still remain to be challenged.
In one sense this review appears to be arguing the nothing changes, that culture has not entirely moved on in many senses. The Revolutions is an exciting read that understands the literary culture that it comes from and builds upon it. As well as containing deep ideas, it rattles along with pace. Gilman’s critical love pulls together many ideas and explores them. It comes across as a love song to an earlier set of fantastic texts, in the same fashion as James Stoddart’s False House and High House books. One gets a sense of a writer having a fair amount of critical fun. He never loses his sense of wonder and enjoyment in reading and writing.