#tobyreads: Postcards From Certain Surreal Cities

Still from Clayton Cubitt’s trailer for Gun Machine.

Three novels this week, each with thrills and surreal charges aplenty. One features psychic warfare that would make Hüsker Dü proud; another laces a contemporary thriller with hallucinations and meditations on the evolution of cities; and another blends history and metaphor into a surprisingly potent narrative.

To begin: Warren Ellis’s second novel, Gun Machine. Ellis’s novel is, at its core, a smart police procedural with more than a few nods in the direction of Manhattan’s distant history and alternative ways of mapping cities. (Some of those meditations did a fine job of making me even more eager to read Ellis’s upcoming book on urban spaces.) It’s a tense thriller that readers of, say, Rebecca Solnit can nod their heads to; no small accomplishment there. It doesn’t hurt that the book’s villain is a killer who spends much of the novel hallucinating that he’s in the Manhattan of a few centuries ago — i.e. when the city was mostly primeval forest. It’s at times evocative, gritty, and funny, hitting the expected beats in unexpected ways.

A similarly skewed take on contemporary life can be found in Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers. It’s to its author’s credit that a novel featuring an academy for psychics, jarring leaps into a psychic netherworld, and a character known as “the Leni Riefenstahl of France” can feel as familiar as one’s hometown. It’s a sort of detective story, as protagonist Julia Severn is recruited to psychically determine the whereabouts of a missing artist; in doing so, she unwittingly delves into her family’s own fractured history. It’s gripping stuff, even if the abundance of psychic powers prompted the plot to spin on coincidences on more than one occasion.

Neither Julavits’s book nor Ellis’s fits easily into one category: the former has the logic of a conspiracy thriller even as the world in which it’s set seems slightly askew relative to our own, while the latter blends taut procedural elements with musings on information and the ways in which cities can be mapped. Felix Gilman’s The Rise of Ransom City is no different: is it a remixed Western? Allegorical science fiction? I’d read Gilman’s The Half-Made World about a year ago, and enjoyed it considerably. It was an adventure story turned slightly on its head, while the world in which it was set resembled the late-19th-century US, there were some significant differences. There’s an allegorical component in these two novels: the frontier of this continent is constantly in flux; the world is the site of an unending battle between The Line and The Gun. And there’s also a slightly metatextual quality to it that — to bring things full circle — recalls the Ellis-penned graphic novel Aetheric MechanicsThe Half-Made World was something of a chase narrative, feuding parties in search of a person possessing an essential piece of information. While The Rise of Ransom City does continue the story begun in its predecessor, it goes in a radically different direction: here, the narrator is Harry Ransom, an inventor whose skills make him both essential to and on the periphery of a grand conflict being played out over the course of years. It’s told as a narrative edited by a journalist whom Ransom encounters in his travels. Stories within stories, charged with the potential of unspoken and unwritten stories.

I enjoyed The Half-Made World thoroughly, but I’m pretty sure I loved its sequel. There’s adventure and mystery and wrenching episodes of moral compromise; there’s a layered narrative and a deft construction to the whole enterprise. And Gilman understands how to summon the promise of the unknown, and the call of the horizon.

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