This novel got a lot of buzz in certain circles as a smart steampunk novel; I mentioned it while discussing the Stross-engineered Great Steampunk Debates of 2010. I hate to play the genre game, but I didn’t get much of a steampunk vibe from this novel. There are a few anachronistically-complex war machines in a nineteenth-century setting, but they don’t get much more than an occasional mention. It’s really a metaphorical fantasy novel with western trappings. But now I’m just being pedantic.
The novel takes place in a world much like late-nineteenth century America but with different place names and ravaged by a conflict called the Great War. On one side is the Line, powered by the Engines. The Engines are giant mechanical beasts with their own intelligence, and, apparently, immortality. They’re like clockwork Lovecraftian horrors. The Line is made up of their human recruits, who conquer territory and spread the Engines' reign with sheer numbers and horrible mind-destroying weapons of mass destruction. On the other side is The Gun, made up of a different sort of supernatural intelligences, embodied in weapons, who recruit Agents to spread anarchy in opposition to the Line. The Line continues to march ever westward, while the Agents of the Gun wreak havoc on the frontier. Beyond the frontier, the world is more surreal (not-yet-made) and inhabited by the First Folk or Hillfolk (somewhat discomforting Native American analogues).
Decades ago, the Red Valley Republic tried to create a civilized, democratic society beyond the power of either the Gun or the Line, but, in 1878, they were defeated in battle, and the heroic General Enver was driven mad by Engine weapons called Noisemakers. in 1889, Enver reappears in a mental asylum, and Gun and Line begin to fear that he knows a secret that could destroy either of them, or both. The Line, under a bureaucrat named Lowry, begins to bear down on him, as does an Agent named Creedmoor. Enver’s doctor, a young widow named Liv Alverhuysen tries to protect him from both.
You can probably tell from my brief description of the set-up that there’s some pretty clear metaphors going on here. The Engines obviously represent the spread of industrial capitalism in America’s Gilded Age with the machinery and the relentlessness and the bureaucracy and the chewing up of workers. The Gun, I assume, represents anarchists, labor agitators, and outlaws (who many historians see as explicitly opposed to industrial capitalism – did Jesse James attack banks for ideological reasons or because that’s where they kept all that money he wanted to steal?). The Republic shows us American ideals at their best, which are then overridden by industrial capitalism. It’s all so clear. A little too clear. The metaphor really overrides world-building here. It’s a thoroughly reductive, two dimensional world; a bleak two-by-four to the head. And, as I mentioned before, things like the depiction of Native Americans as magical fairy-beings in the unformed mystic lands beyond the frontier get downright ugly.
Despite this issue, the characters, especially Creedmoor, were compelling enough to keep me interested, and there’s a lot I like about this world, especially the Western setting. The ending left me thinking a sequel was coming, and I would be interested if Gilman focused on filling in the many gaps in his simple world and adding more nuance.