There’s a famous painting by John Gast called American Progress in which a giant white woman garbed in gossamer leads American settlers Westward into an ominous, uncreated world. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilman didn’t have that very picture as a screensaver when he penned his New Weird Western novel, The Half-Made World. The ominous, bleak tone of this work also brings to my mind a song by the gothic/worldbeat Dead Can Dance, a song called “Frontier.” DCD’s female lead singer is known for her ideoglossia—Lisa Gerrard, like Elizabeth Fraser and Jonsi of Sigur Ros sing in private languages on the phoneme-level. On this song, however, she sings one recognizable phrase: “I see the bloodstains on the floor.” Or, I think that’s what she’s singing. I bring this up, because this novel is about the bloodstained mythic past.
The plot of the novel has been explained by others—or you can read the cover flap copy. The Half-Made World is chase and quest novel, complete with a MacGuffin. On this level, it is suspenseful and has the juggernaut-like pacing of both cinematic and literary Westerns. But it is the world-building and more importantly, the trope-twisting that is truly fascinating.
Gilman presents the West as a literally uncreated landscape, where creatures and plants are in their experimental or “beta” phase. Land and sea haven’t resolved themselves as separate entities. This part of world is stewarded by the First Folk, who may or may not be human or may or may not be immortal. They are described as long, pale black-maned people with red eyes and seem to live in a kind of amorphous Dreamtime existence. (The First Folk seem more modeled on Aborigines than on Native Americans—and even here, there is a interesting trope-twist). The settled West presided over by two rival faction demonic Spirits. Controlled by sentient Engines, The Line wants to colonize the West and turn it into a grim industrial land. (The current, real-world issue of fracking resonates here). The Gun is an anarchistic organization, who seem to worship chaos and destruction. They possess their Agents and almost become symbionts with them. (The spirit-symbionts live in their Agents’ supernaturally powered Guns; unhoused Gun spirits return to a Lodge—which reminds one of the creepy otherworld lodges referenced in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series).
In fact, the whole novel has the dark surreality of a Lynchian film. It puts the phantasmagoria into fantasy. It’s a rare novel that manages to be both high-low and pulpy at the same time.