Review by Christopher G. Nuttall
One of the fundamental truths of good writing is that the main character must overcome a problem through their own merits, be it an invading alien fleet from outside the solar system or a more personal challenge. The reader is left feeling cheated if one problem is simply brushed aside, even if it makes sense in context. We want – we need – to see our heroes and heroines overcome challenges on their own. In a sense, we want them to show us that we can win too.
This is, very much, an aspect of ‘first to’ novels. A person from an unconventional background steps out of their box and into a whole other world. The first woman to join the military, for example; the first muggleborn to attend magic school … we want – we expect – them to face discrimination and suspicion, for reasons both fair and blatantly unfair, and to overcome them through their own efforts. They must do it on their own. Like it or not, we are wired to respect a person who punches through discrimination and makes it … and to disdain someone who runs to authority whenever someone raises the slightest challenge to their presence. One may understand – and even sympathise with – the little kid who gets his parents or teachers to force the other kids to play with him, but – at the same time – we can understand why the other kids might resent being forced to play with him. It is not fair, or right, but it is human.
Such novels raise all sorts of issues. A young man or woman, raised in the slums, would not fit in with people who were raised amongst the aristocracy. They would regard the newcomer as an interloper, even if the person had earned their chance to attend aristocratic school. The ‘interloper’ would have real problems fitting in, simply because they lack the background to keep up with their classmates. Done properly, these novels can show us how foolish it can be to cling to prejudices, particularly when the protagonist works hard to overcome failings (a lack of breeding or background knowledge, for example) they can hardly help. However, this requires a honest understanding of the factors behind such prejudices. Indeed, are they really prejudices at all? A poorly-done novel rapidly becomes a political football, kicked between people who hold to Ayn Rand’s dictum that the book proves that something can be done because it was written in the book and people who have actual experience, who know that getting something done is a great dealer harder than any writer might suggest. Social prejudices often exist for a reason – and they don’t go away merely because someone suggests that they’re now outdated.
The Philosopher’s Flight is set in an alternate 1916, where ‘magic’ – in the form of Empirical Philosophy – has existed since the American Civil War, when an apparently natural effect was codified into science. The Confederates were the first to make use of Empirical Philosophy in war, according to the background, but the Union rapidly caught up and surpassed the rebels, ending the war in a single blow. The catch, you see, is that the most powerful Empirical Philosophers are always women. Men can use it, to some extent, but none of them will ever be as strong as a woman. By 1916, therefore, the world is very different; women have the vote and serve in the military, racism is rarer and homosexuality (lesbianism, at least) is almost socially acceptable. It is also showing the stresses and strains of coping with the changes wrought by magic. The growth of an anti-magic movement – driven by everything from religious conservatism to massive unemployment – is threatening civil war.
Into this world comes Robert Weekes, the eighteen-year-old son of a retired military heroine (and, we learn, fighter for female rights.) Robert is as good at magic – Sigilry – as any man can be, with dreams of joining the elite Rescue and Evacuation Department, a team of flying medics. When he proves that he can handle a crisis – thanks to his mother’s training – he wins a scholarship to Radcliffe College—once the all-woman’s sister school to Harvard, which, in this version, is a school for Empirical Philosophy.
. In attending the school, he faces challenges that are very familiar to anyone who reads ‘first to’ novels; his fellow classmates dislike him and resent his presence, his learning isn’t up to scratch and he simply doesn’t have the power to compete on even terms.
Matters are complicated when he befriends, then falls in love with, Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned young heroine of the Great War turned political radical. He finds himself on the front lines of a growing power struggle, even as he fights to win the race that will determine if he gets his wish … or is kicked out of the college in disgrace. (Readers of these books will not be surprised to hear that he does, although it comes with a sting in the tail …)
These books almost always stand and fall with the main character himself. Robert is a curious inversion of such characters – he’s a straight white male, rather than coloured or female or whatever – but he manages to convince us that he’s facing discrimination without either charging at windmills or coming across as a whiny little brat. He has the drive and courage to succeed, along with a reckless streak that will probably get him killed one of these days. His relationship with Danielle works, at least in part, because they have a great deal in common; Danielle, being coloured, is not unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of discrimination herself.
His family – and the friends and enemies he meets along the way – are a mix of good and bad characters. There’s the standard school bully-type character, who apparently managed to embarrass herself quite badly prior to Robert’s arrival … she’s probably the weakest character in the novel, leaving us wondering why she was ever put in a position of power. There’s a magical theorist who helps Robert to overcome his weaknesses, raising the issue of overcoming the gender-based limits on magic. And there’s his mother, who is – in another inversion of the standard tropes – very encouraging, to the point where she urges him to leave her behind and follow his dreams.
Tom Miller also put a great deal of thought into developing the story’s background. Indeed, unlike many other modern-day writers, Miller acknowledges that economic shockwaves and disruption fuel resentment and prejudice. The Trenchers – the anti-magic bad guys – draw their manpower from men who became unemployed after women were hired to use magic … a development with unfortunate resonance in the real world. Even more rarely, the main characters – including Danielle, surprisingly – understand that there has to be some degree of regulation, although none of them are truly sure where the line should be drawn. And it should be noted that one positive side effect of magic is a weakening of racism, although not a complete weakening. It seems to have been more positive for women than for men.
Indeed, this leads to some odd contradictions. People don’t bat an eyelid – if they know what’s good for them – when two women hook up. But, at the same time, there is still a great deal of prejudice against unmarried men and women sharing an apartment, to the point that Robert is reluctant to move in with Danielle. There’s also horror at magic being used as a form of birth control, which may be a form of fridge brilliance. Female sexuality was tightly regulated, socially and legally, because the consequences of unregulated sexuality (unplanned pregnancies, for example) were dire. Contraception changed that in our universe; it is possible, perhaps, that it changed it here too.
At base, The Philosopher’s Flight is a school story (although with older characters and an unusual magic system). It works, at least in part, because all of the challenges Robert faces are grounded in reality. School bullies who think he doesn’t belong, teachers who are blind to the problems he faces (and others, who cannot fix the problems because they are caused by politics); the real problems are, as always, caused by people instead of magic. There’s no Dark Lord, save perhaps for the terrorist preacher; the challenges are purely local, rather than global in scope. The greatest issue Robert faces is rival teams refusing to play against a man, which has an unfortunate reflection in our recent past. And when he overcomes them, he wins through his brains, not his muscles, random chance or intervention from higher authority. He deserves his victories.
In some ways, The Philosopher’s Flight reminds me of The Power (Naomi Alderman), but Tom Miller manages to handle the issues magic raises in a far more interesting manner. The magic is a game-changer, but not a game-breaker. There are no ‘Strong Male Characters’ in The Power’s future world, simply because they cannot exist; there can be (and are) ‘Strong Male Characters’ in The Philosopher’s Flight. The Power is too strong to overcome, but Empirical Philosophy is not. Robert starts off with a disadvantage – it would hardly be the same book if he didn’t – but he makes the most of what he’s got to win his place in college.
One of the fundamental truths of truly excellent writing is that it must combine pulp (adventure) elements with literature (background) elements. The very best books have always combined the two to great effect. By that standard, The Philosopher’s Flight succeeds brilliantly. It has its weaknesses – some more overt than others – but overall it works very well. And it holds a mirror – a distorted mirror, but a mirror nonetheless – to the prejudices of our own world.