As I’ve mentioned before, I love introducing one change and watching how it ripples through society. So THE PHILOSOPHER’S FLIGHT by Tom Miller was a great pleasure to read.
The premise is that “natural philos0phy” (magic, but it’s implied to have some kind of quantum physics rationale) took major strides in the 19th century, becoming a weapon in the war until one philosopher ended it by the equivalent of a magical Hiroshima strike on Vicksburg. As the average woman is way more qualified than the average man, and the best women are far above the best men, women played a role on the front lines in the war using magic; Abraham Lincoln gave them the suffrage in ’64; and by the time the book starts (1917) we’ve had had a century of women in combat roles (though after Vicksburg, everyone’s agreed not to use direct philosophical attacks on their enemies) and at the cutting edge of philosophical research. It’s a woman’s field.
Other changes include the death of the transcontinental railroad (teleportation, while it has risks, is much more cost effective) and easy availability of birth-control magic. And of course there’s an opposition movement, the Trenchers, combined of a mix of religious anti-magic zeal and sexist backlash against women getting above their place. There’s also a backlash to the backlash — a lot of philosophers are willing to retaliate against violent Trencher attacks with equal violence.
Protagonist Robert Weekes grew up in Montana with an army veteran mother (Hawaiian Uprising, Spanish-American War) who knows handles the various rescue and other missions needed in the county. He’s trained by her, he’s good, and he wants to follow in her footsteps working as a Rescue and Evac philosopher for the military in Europe. The trouble is, R&E doesn’t take women. Nobody would even think he has the right stuff. Eventually, though, he’s able to attend Radcliffe as a natural philosophy student to train himself further. He finds friendship, and love, among the female students, but a lot of skepticism he’s good enough as a philosopher, and a lot of resentment he’s entering woman’s domain.
This kind of gender-flip could easily have gone horribly wrong — if say, Robert turned out to be the best of the best, that would come off ultra-sexist. But Miller threads the needle: Tom’s very good, but he’s not the best. Plus there are many varieties of philosophy, and he’s specializing primarily in flight. It’s not like he’s instantly mastering teleportation and smokecarving (magic with gases) as well.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of witch/mutant hunters, and at times I did get more than I wanted of the Trenchers. But it works here overall, for the same reason it works in Black Lightning: it plays right into pre-existing prejudices, in this case sexism. It wouldn’t be such a big movement if philosophers were predominantly male. And showing some philosophers are willing to be just as militant fighting back makes them more believable than Marvel’s nobly suffering mutants.
One thing I didn’t like was the use of little reference paragraphs at the start of each chapter. Not that I object on principle, but as I went through the book, I started to wish there was a connection between paragraph and chapter (if there was, I didn’t see it). And the ones set in the future (showing what looks like a rising tide of sexism/anti-philosophy) felt annoying (even given the book is Robert’s memoir from around 1940.
Overall, though a really great job. I look forward to Philosopher’s War which just came out.
#SFWApro. Cover by Jim Tierney, all rights remain with current holder.