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April 29, 2014 11:09 PM A Parade of Improbabilities

By Henry Farrell

Felix Gilman’s new book, The Revolutions is out (Powells, Amazon) . It’s very, very good. The novel starts from the strange blend of middle-class self improvement, encounter with (and misappropriation of) ideas from Asia and social change that led to an explosion of occultism in the late Victorian period. In Gilman’s fin-de-siecle London, the theosophists’ view of the universe was actually right (or, if not right, at least possessed of a convincing verisimilitude), allowing him to mix astral travel, lordlings of dubious personal character, ruthless newspaper magnate-magicians with a planetary romance involving diaphanous Martians, now exiled from their ruined world to its two moons. But it’s a Gilman book, hence tricky. The title combines the “revolutions of the spheres,” that occultists must calculate to travel outside the boundaries of the Earth, with the revolutions in human understanding, as people really began to understand the nature of cosmological space and geological time.


The great storm of the book’s first chapter makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

The Museum was a faint haze of light under a black dome; its columns were distant white giants, lumbering off into the sea. The familiar scene was rendered utterly alien; for all he could tell, he might not have been in London any more, but whisked away to the Moon. His umbrella tore free of his grip and took flight. He watched it follow his hat away over the rooftops, flapping like some awful black pterodactyl between craggy, suddenly lightning-lit chimneys, then off who-knows-where across London.

The Revolutions does this throughout. It’s ontologically tricky. The main characters travel, or seem to travel – but where are they travelling to? Is it Mars, or some concretized collective (or even individual) idea of Mars? What is the who that is travelling? The book, very deliberately, refuses to clarify any of this. The lack of any solid foundations, any true underlying scientifictional theory that orders Gilman’s universe allows him to shift backwards and forwards between the slyly funny:

And we saw Mrs Gully turn water into rose-water in Spitalfields, and Mr H. C. Hall lift a spoon by animal magnetism in St. John’s Wood. And together we attended the re- launch of the Occult Review where Miss MacPhail— the actress— said that we were all Exemplars of the Super-Man. Though of course I’m sure she says that to everyone. I saw Brigadier MacKenzie fail to levitate, and I saw Mr Wallace’s spirits play the piano.

and the genuinely alarming (if some of this works, then the foundations of our world crumble away).

For me the best scene in the book is the clash in the Savoy Hotel, where two magicians duel with each other, through the mobilization of prejudice among warring mobs of socialites. The scene is very funny, but also disturbing. Beneath the apparent solidities and stolidities of Victorian London lies a greater cycle of history, in which none of what we care about really matters very much. As the heroine thinks (exiled, by accident, to a partly ruined city on one of the moons of Mars)

Who’d built this city? Who’d built this room, and what was it for? They were gone now; but they too must have their history, must have lived and loved and fought and died long before Mars fell, long before Greece or Rome. Their language was lost. Their city was a refuge for strangers. London wouldn’t last so long if Londoners abandoned it. St. Paul’s might stand for a century or two, and the British Museum, but the house on Rugby Street would be dust in a generation or two. One day London would be gone— or in a thousand years, which was not so very long from the perspective of the universe. Things stranger than she could imagine might settle in the ruins. A parade of improbabilities, green and red and blue and yellow, men like Egyptian gods, with the heads of elephants, parrots and dogs and bumble-bees – taking the place of Londoners, and the Londoners gone who knows where in their turn. A great parade, an endless series of heavenly revolutions, coming and going, passing from sphere to sphere – a universe of vast and eternal flux … she felt dizzy. There was something in the air.

On one level, the book is funny and warm – the two major characters are likable, flawed, exasperating and interesting. Yet they live beneath cold heavens. The tension between the two, and Gilman’s skill in navigating it, make this a very good book.


[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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