The Revolutions by Felix Gilman
Science Fiction (2014 - 413 pp.)
The Revolutions is a book I hadn't heard of before buying it last summer on a lark. This is when the dust jacket of a book is important. Victorian England? Secret societies? Arcane code languages? Mars? I was immediately interested in seeing what Gilman could do with these themes.
The first part of The Revolutions sees protagonist and suddenly out of work journalist Arthur Shaw struggle to find a new living in London. Considering the current state of journalism and the high cost of living in London then or now, this is a premise that resonates today. He and his fiancee Josephine Bradman become embroiled with occultist Martin Atwood, a cast nicknamed after celestial bodies, and Atwood's nemesis Lord Podmore.
Along the way, Arthur takes up work under a man named Gracewell, who has Arthur write out codes for long hours but good pay. Arthur barely understands what he is doing but Gracewell assures him the work is worthwhile. The job feels like a cross between investment banking and programming - again, relevant now. I would have enjoyed seeing Arthur's exhausted reactions to the job more. The visible stresses of someone faced with so strange a task are a plot point I would have liked to see linger: "Money without apparent legitimate purpose. Secrecy, codes, conspiratorial oaths. Dimmick, a thug if I ever heard of one. It doesn't take a master detective to smell a rat, does it, Vaz?" (71)
Gilman uses setting well, especially on Mars. A loose grounding in the scientifically verified descriptions of Mars as red and rocky with two moons, combined with an imaginative world including telescopic towers and dragonfly-esque citizens, puts the reader in a familiar yet fantastical realm. Descriptions of Martian constructions, such as "Though the window was empty, looking through it was somewhat like looking through a finely crafted lens" (336), direct the action toward Arthur's understandable shock at most of what he sees. That Arthur handles Mars so well speaks to his experience working for Gracewell.
Gilman isn't afraid to break rules like "show, don't tell", as he does in the selected quotation in the above paragraph, which makes the narrator part of the story. The narrator's observations on the settings and plot, or general narrator snark, act as a running commentary of the unnamed* storyteller's opinions. A phrase like "There were unforeseen difficulties, as anyone might have foreseen there would be" (260) doesn't evoke the vividness of contemporary writing circles - it instead makes the reader feel like the narrator's along for the ride too. It's an interesting narration style that works well in this sort of story, in which so many quirky things happen** it's comforting to have a virtual someone sharing the double-takes.
The fractured journal entries during Arthur's employment allow Gilman to switch between first- and third-person narration, which gives the reader greater perspective into Arthur's thoughts. (68-78) The numbered introduction of Atwood's magical grouping, from Sun to Neptune, draws the reader further into the plot. (168-178) With so many ideas taken, it's not necessarily plot that'll define good writing. Humanoid aliens, to use an example from The Revolutions, have been described so many times as to be trite. Narrative techniques like jumping from character to character, using lists instead of normal paragraphs, or any other devices make stories fun.
***SPOILERS START HERE***
My one problem with The Revolutions is the end. The Atwood/Arthur fall from the sky feels epic, and Josephine's escape has that everything's-once-again-at-risk feel, she and Vaz waking up in Jupiter's house unknowing of what's going on makes the reader feel mystified, but then... nothing. The fast-forward to 1937 felt rushed, and it also answered the questions of what happened to the characters not requiring a large emotional investment. Arthur and Atwood are the characters I felt most strongly about, and Josephine was missing for so much of the book that just knowing the rescue was successful was enough to know about her.
I usually dislike sequels, but The Revolutions was a book that was asking for one. Having Josephine and Vaz launch a rescue mission for Arthur, with Podmore replacing Atwood as the main enemy, would have been an incredible read. Starting the book with Arthur on Mars could have been a nice touch. Now, even if that book is written, some of the suspense will be lessened because the reader knows exactly when Josephine dies.
When the worst thing about a book is that there isn't more of it, that's a good sign.
Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2
*The Revolutions is at least nominally in third-person, so there's no reason the omniscient narrator would be named.
**Our heroine Josephine is transformed into a telepathic Martian dragonfly-like creature for the second half of the book. If that isn't quirky enough for you...