The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman is a novel that, had it been written before the flood of self-publishing and mass-generated science fiction, could be required reading in high schools or colleges. It is that good. There are seeds of A Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged, even The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While Ransom City very much appears to be a fictionalized version of the life of Nikola Tesla set in an alternate timeline, Gilman does a fantastic job of recreating his fantasy Tesla in the form of our novel's hero: Harry Ransom. The Rise of Ransom City actually takes place after Gilman's previous work, The Half-Made World and brings along a loosely associated storyline but it can stand alone and needs no outside introduction to any of the characters or events it contains. Ransom City is the story of Harry Ransom's rise in fame and popularity as the creator of the Ransom Process (told through a series of correspondence): a semi-magical, semi-mechanical engine that is reminiscent of a cross between the Tesla coil, Tesla's AC dynamo-electric machine, and possibly his supposed "death ray." Much like Tesla's misunderstood inventions at the time, Ransom's creation is attributed at various times to basic mechanics, magic, madness, possibly even a hoax. Ransom's stated goal is to bring free energy to the world; meanwhile nefarious and opposing factions are out to stop him by any and all means necessary. The story of a semi-magical, mystical energy device is interesting enough on its own but Gilman's superb writing makes The Rise of Ransom City complete as a great novel. Sample if you will a piece of the author's wit when Ransom meets with another character in the novel for the first time:
"He raised one eyebrow. I don’t know if I mentioned his eyebrows before but they were as impressive in their own way as the mustache. Throughout our conversation they bristled and flattened as he spoke so that they could express good humor at one moment, curiosity the next, fulminating wrath when necessary. Sometimes I felt I was conversing with the eyebrows and he was merely taking notes."
A great story such as the story of the Ransom Process is hard enough to come by but good writing is increasingly harder to come by and Gilman gives us that rare combination of both. Ransom City is a page burner but set aside all distraction for the story will become complex at times and subtle nuances which are easy to miss and essential to the experience help to give the story a distinct but light voice.
Published by Tor Books
Published by Tor Books