The Philosopher’s Flight (2018) is an ambitious World-War-I alternate history fantasy with an unconventional social justice agenda, which only partially caves in on itself. On balance, the story is quite a lot of fun. I have to admit I’ll be looking for more from this talented new author.
This is essentially a coming of age story, and the smarts (and fantasy) of this novel hinge heavily on Tom Miller’s very clever world building around the “science” of empirical philosophy — “sigilry” in layman’s terms. Miller frames up what is effectively magic hokery into a technical discipline mastered only by women, whereby the gentle (ahem) sex execute extraordinary feats of strength (and technology) undreamt of in the WWI era: flight, almost instantaneous mass transit, speed messaging, smoke carving (kind of like explosive alchemy maybe?), medical stasis, etc.
Miller describes sigilry with sleight of hand vague enough to convey zero idea of how the science works while deftly articulating a technical jargon complex enough to convince the reader that at least he understands it — a slick trick indeed. This is world building at its finest.
The mastery of sigilry in its various forms changes how the world works, reordering society, and laying power at women’s fingertips at a time when the world had recently belonged all to men. And the shift in power has provoked retaliation from the “Trenchers,” essentially a violent fundamentalist religion with their own sigilry apocalypse motivated translation of the Bible. Pretty scary.
Enter sweet Robert Weekes, an uncharacteristic underdog, to say the least. Robert was raised by his four time war veteran mama and big bad sigilrist sisters whose early training beat Robert into fair sigilry condition, for a boy. Having survived his family to adulthood, our hero aims to fly with the respected Rescue and Evacuation Corps., an elite team reserved only for the best qualified female hoverers. No male has ever qualified even to test, much less be admitted to, their ranks. Good luck, Mr. Weekes. (I kind of wonder if this name doesn’t have a double meaning.)
The story follows Robert as he embarks on a scholarship to Boston’s Radcliffe College, an all-girls’ school where empirical philosophy is robustly studied, his challenges achieving acceptance and honing his skills among a lively cast of characters against a backdrop of toxic and multilayered gender politics. Pacing is swift, and really, there is hardly a dull moment. I was not overly taken with the protagonist’s romance with war hero Danielle Hardin, but other than that, I found the book hard to put down.
I would have given The Philosopher’s Flight 4.5 stars, but for the exception I take to the underpinnings of its political message. Miller and his protagonist are complicit in the abuse his testo-file mother, sisters, and peer hoverers heap upon him, and wears their harassment like a badge of honor much in the vein of a second wave feminist who treads the hottest coals of a man’s rite of passage and emerges in one piece, never musing on the question of whether the initiation is just or even the least degree humane. Hint: it is neither. And the upshot of the whole deal is that he would perpetuate the cycle of abuse if given the chance. I would have liked him to have stood up to his peer philosophers without buying into the hazing. Thanks for the read, Tom Miller.
Many historical eras ― particularly the Regency and Victorian, with World War II in the mix as well ― have been reimagined through the lens of fantasy and science fiction: alternative history, with magic or superpowers as the focus for recasting historical events. World War I has, I think, been underserved in this genre. Tom Miller’s The Philosopher’s Flight does a creditable job of shedding new light on the Great War era. Miller uses not only magic (here thinly veiled as a branch of science called empirical philosophy), but also the fact that these powers are primarily controlled by women, to enrich the story. Men are at a profound disadvantage in this science, with the women by and large extremely reluctant to allow men into their ranks, if not actively hostile.
Robert Canderelli Weekes is the eighteen year old son of Emmaline Weeks, a war hero and now a county philosopher in rural Montana. Philosophers in this world are not merely academics who study the nature of existence and knowledge; they are people who actually warp the laws of probability using sigilry, magical symbols that enable human flight, teleporting of groups, and other extraordinary powers. Robert has inherited the power of using sigils to fly, assisting his mother in her day-to-day work of responding to accidents and other local problems that require her services. He’s a decent flyer, not nearly as powerful or fast as his mother, but good enough to dream of following in her footsteps and joining the US Sigilry Corps, which assist in wartime evacuations and rescues. Emmaline is dead set against it; not only will the women in the R&E Department almost certainly reject Robert just because he’s a man, but the R&E wartime work has an extremely high death rate.
Robert finds a path that may lead him to his goal of joining R&E: the Contingency Act pays for philosophers to go to college, provided you serve an equal number of years afterwards in an area of the U.S. that’s short on philosophers. He applies and is accepted to Radcliffe College, a woman’s college that is now accepting a limited number of men as Contingency Act students.
So Robert heads off to Radcliffe in September 1917, joining a large group of women ― and a scant handful of men ― who are studying the philosophy and practice of flight. During his time at Radcliffe, Robert makes new friends, falls in love, and diligently works on improving his flight skills. He’s better than all but the fastest women, but still is faced with rejection and persecution from many women who don’t want men to join their ranks. This reverse sexism is a running theme in The Philosopher’s Flight, adding an unusual twist to the tale, particularly since women are the more militant group in this discipline.
On the flip side are the Trenchers, a stubbornly fundamentalist and bigoted group that rejects all brands of philosophical science and insists that women should return to hearth and home, leaving jobs to the men. The Trencher movement has gained power over the years since the Civil War, and its members are now engaged in a bitter and murderous feud with the philosophers. I would have preferred Christianity being left out of the Trencher’s belief system ― religion is too often used as a convenient punching bag in speculative fiction.
Miller makes liberal use of actual historical events throughout The Philosopher’s Flight, weaving them into Robert’s family history and as a backdrop for current events in the novel, sometimes with a few changes to fit the story. The Civil War’s Battle of Petersburg becomes a watershed event in the development of philosophical science and using it (and women) in wartime, when Lucretia Cadawaller used her powers to create a poisonous gas to kill 40,000 defenders of Petersburg. She intended to quickly win the war with a single, fearful blow … but she also inspired the rise of the Trenchers. I appreciated the way history informs the events of this story, with Miller frequently giving them a half-twist to shed new light on topics such as women’s rights and warfare practices. As gung-ho as Richard is to join the Sigilry Corps and the war effort, there are other characters cautioning him against the horrors of war and the likelihood of death or disability.
The Philosopher’s Flight is a well-paced tale, with the blend of magic and science giving it a somewhat retro feel that fits the time setting. Robert’s varied adventures and his developing relationships with others make this an engaging and original read. As far as I can tell this is currently a stand-alone read, but Miller has left the door wide open for a sequel.