The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman takes us into a world torn apart by war between two immortal forces, the Line and the Gun. Amid the chaos, Harry Ransom seeks to escape his humble and tragic origins to found a great and peaceful city of the future. By way of his ‘Ransom Process’, an invention founded on the principles of science and magic, the young inventor hopes to free the people of the world from the tyranny of the eternal forces of darkness.
The war for this world has gone on for as long as anyone can remember, because the machines that rule the wild parts of the world, big and hulking iron monsters that ride the rails and guns that kill without regard, are sentient. They have agents with human faces, but the demons that control them are immortal. Only the hosts can be killed, but their masters return again and again to menace humanity
In the background of this world, almost an afterthought to the human populace, live the Folk. The science of their race, the magic of ours, is based on symbols of the forces of the world. They live on the edge of human settlements, in the forests or the mountains or – the unlucky ones – captured by men and forced into servitude.
When Ransom invents his ‘Process’ based on his limited knowledge of Folk magic, it’s impossible to know if the Folk mean for him to save the world or destroy it. Ransom invented his ‘apparatus’ to bring free light to the world, thereby freeing humans from servitude to the machines, but his invention might also destroy the eternal spirits that hold the world in darkness. Burning with the brightness of youthful dreams and ambition, Harry Ransom sets off with his invention to found his perfect city of the future.
This alternate history of the old West combines the excitement of exploration in an age of scientific discovery with the old magic of an ancient and mysterious people. The Agents of the Gun are humans aided by demons, given mystical powers that make them seem superhuman as well as evil incarnate. Yet the Line, sentient machines of massive scale filled with a cold, inhuman intelligence, are the stuff of nightmare. I’m not ashamed to say that I had disturbing dreams after reading some chapters.
The story is told in the form of long lost pages of the autobiography of Harry Ransom, typed on a marvelous invention – the triplicate typewriter – that he salvaged after the historical events he wished to set straight for posterity. Every so often his former acquaintance, the person who assembled the disparate parts of the narrative, adds editorial notes correcting small errors or noting his own point of view on a particular event. The result is an intriguing narrative, a wondrous world populated with interesting characters and enigmas to be unraveled.
The action, though interrupted with musings written at different times which disrupt the story’s linear flow, steadily builds to an explosive and violent climax sure to capture the reader’s attention. In fact, the switching between time periods lends the story the wisdom of hindsight, even while relating the events with the thoughts Ransom remembered from the time they happened. And though the fantastic tale is told plainly by the main character, it is believable within the narrative.
Only once, in the entire novel, did I have trouble suspending my disbelief. In a particular scene, the overly cautious and security-minded villains are unconvincingly incompetent. Given the excellence of the rest of the story, I found this disappointing but forgivable in its isolation.
The novel blends elements of Steampunk seamlessly with those of Westerns and Fantasies. The protagonist is both an idealistic genius, as well as naive and stupid. In other words, he’s very human. In a world of terrifying machines and mysterious magic Folk, his plight and his quest to build a better world make him all the more sympathetic. The Rise of Ransom City doesn’t disappoint.