For the past two and a half years Arthur had been employed by The Monthly Mammoth to write on the subject of the Very Latest Scientific Advances. He wasn't any kind of scientist himself, but nobody seemed to mind. He wrote about dinosaurs, and steam engines, and rubber, and the laying of transatlantic telegraph cables; or how telephones worked; or the new American elevators at the Savoy; or whether there was air on the moon; or where precisely in South America to observe the perturbations of Venus; or whether the crooked lines astronomers saw on the fourth planet might be canals, or railroads, or other signs of civilization – and so on. Not a bad job, in its way – there were certainly worse – but the Mammoth paid little, and late, and there was no prospect of advancement there. Therefore he'd invented Dr Cephias Syme: detective, astronomer, mountain-climber, world-traveller, occasional swordsman, et cetera. (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Felix Gilman's fifth novel, The Revolutions, is set in that most fertile of alt-history settings, fin de siècle London, that retro-magical place of steam, electrical inventions, and decadent occultism. Gilman takes full advantage of the images associated with this time period, referencing several period pulps, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to the seances often referred to in contemporary penny dreadfuls, to establish a firm backdrop against which his tale of separated lovers and astral projection warfare occurs. The result is a novel that possesses many of the charms and some of the shortcomings of its source material.
The Revolutions revolves around the relationship between the former journalist and erstwhile mystery writer, Arthur Archibald Shaw, and his stenographer fiancée, Josephine Bradman, who has been employed by an occult organization to transcribe their meetings. Arthur and Josephine represent the divides in this alt-London society, as he works, somewhat reluctantly for the scientific community while Josephine's employers employ the dark arts to engage in a series of increasingly violent conflicts with other occult organizations in Europe. When Josephine comes up missing, Arthur employs any means necessary to locate her, including delving into the very secret societies with which he previously held in disdain.
The novel is divided into nine "degree" sections, corresponding to the astrological division of heavenly bodies. As the story shifts and Arthur's search for Josephine broadens from the physical to the utilization of astral projection to locate her, the story shifts from a subtly different London (one in which a "Great Storm" struck in 1893 as the novel opens) to an increasingly strange setting in which Arthur's astral projection ends up on Mars, itself a wasteland of previous magical battles of alien civilizations. As fascinating as the early sections were, with Gilman describing late 19th century England with vividness, the narrative does not really take flight until the action shifts away from the more mundane explorations of contemporary life to the occultists' conflicts and how their secret warfare is related to their discoveries of what is on Mars.
The Martian sections contain some of the wilder scenes in the novel, with dragonfly-winged angelic beings flitting in and out of the picture as Arthur continues his search for Josephine's astral self. Yet Gilman does not abandon the premise he established in the first few "degrees." Arthur and Josephine both view these fantastical scenes through distinctly late Victorian era lenses, as can be seen in Josephine's descriptions of her new surroundings:
She saw everything, but she understood nothing. Did they really have bedrooms, churches, business-meetings, Parliament? She didn't know. Their principal industries appeared to be flower-farming and bead-making, the latter of which took place in a multitude of hot little workshops. She studied this as if she were preparing to make a report to Parliament on the progress of an African mission. She supposed that they made the beads out of the gems they quarried from beneath the waterfall, though she never did quite understand the process; at least, any more than she had ever understood how coal got to London, or how steel was made. (p. 235)
Gilman does an excellent job in shaping his prose to fit the contours of these strange environs. These settings feel realistic, despite their obviously fantastical qualities, due to how well he manages to present everything through the eyes of his protagonists. By grounding the fantastic within more mundane character perspectives, Gilman captures some of the exotic appeal of the adventure literature of the 1890s and 1900s without straying into the more prejudicial excesses endemic in those early pulp fictions. The plot too possesses some kinship with these adventure tales, sometimes for the worse, as the conclusion feels a bit too convenient and light-hearted in comparison to the early chapters. Despite this, on the whole The Revolutions was an enjoyable take on late 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction. It might not be Gilman at his most imaginative, but it certainly is a novel that shows his improvement as a storyteller in the establishment of plot and characterization.