Book review: The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

(cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

Flights of imagination are gloriously good and wonderful things.

Flights of imagination that come with a fully-realised, beautifully rendered world, compelling characters and a bravely moralistic backbone that isn’t afraid to tackle some substantial issues are even better.

Something like Tom Miller’s exquisitely good, The Philosopher’s Flight, a novel that is billed on the front cover as “Half science, half magic—entirely fantastic” and which more than delivers on its breathlessly creative tagline.

By any measure, The Philosopher’s Flight is an epically thrilling piece of writing.

For one thing, it dares to re-imagine the United States of the 1910s with the kind of vivacious ambition that means we don’t just enter an alternate version of America, we LIVE it.

This America is a place where empirical philosophers use the natural laws of chemistry and physics, and sigils that are commonly used in ritual magick – though Miller is at pains to make it clear that the world of The Philosopher’s Flight is rooted in the natural world and not a Harry Potter-esque world of magical otherness – to transport people across great swathes of the US and the world (thus rendering all other forms of transport superfluous), where medical care comes from the sky by people actually flying themslves (not a plane in sight) and where the productivity of crops can be significantly increased with the simple application of a judiciously used sigil.

“A little more than than five decades after Mrs. Cadwallader ended the Civil War, I was eighteen years old and lived in Guille’s Run, Montana, with my mother, Maj. Emmaline Weekes, who served as our county philosopher. In her official capacity, Ma responded to all manner of accidents and natural disasters. The rest of the time, she earned a decent living doing the kind of dull, ordinary sigilry that was in constant demand—short-haul passenger flights, koru glyphs for enlarging crops, simple smokecarving cures for asthma and pleurisy.” (P. 9)

Miller makes it all seem so possible and alive and entirely reasonable that you reach the end of the novel almost convinced that this is the way things must have been and we simply lost all the ability along the way.

The world of The Philosopher’s Flight is so tangible and real that you can reach out and touch it, in part because Miller goes to extraordinary lengths to base his entirely fictional history of the United States in the world we know.

It’s that authentic setting, that sense that we know this place and time already that lends this vivid rush to the heavens of possibility feel so grounded and possible.

In this history of America, the Civil War still takes place (though it ends quite differently; not in who wins necessarily but how they win) as does World War One, and many of the social mores and practices of the time remain very much in place.

Except for the fact that the practice of empirical philosophy is almost exclusively the domain of women, who show a natural aptitude for the practices to such an extent that the idea of a man entering that world seems unthinkable.

Tom Miller (image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

Someone like Robert Weekes, for instance, an 18-year-old from rural Montana whose mother is a decorated empirical philosophy war veteran and who is currently the county philosopher for her part of Montana, an indispensable part of the community who contributes a great deal to making America the vibrant, innovative country it is at the time.

Robert has wanted to be a philosopher since he was a child, and when the chance comes to attend Radcliffe College in Boston, and maybe even make it into the US Sigilry Corps’ rescue and Evacuation Department, something no man has ever successfully done, he grabs it with both hands and transforms his life in the process.

In many ways The Philosopher’s Flight is a coming of age tale, the story of one young man coming to grips with the fact that his dream is possible and can be realised, even in the face of trenchant opposition, but also thankfully with a great deal of support too.

For like anything different and unusual, even something like empirical philosophy which is entrenched in US society in profound ways, there are those who see it as perverted and unnatural such as the Trenchers (their name makes sense once you’re into the book), or those who are within the camp and can’t see how anyone other than those already in the know can even begin to practise the craft.

In other words, it’s the age-old battle between virulent opponents, the rusted-on status quo and those who dare to challenge the so-called natural order of things that gives this stunningly imaginative piece of work so much of its intellectual and social heft and emotional impact.

“Then she laid herself down on the ground. ‘Prove you’re worthy the effort. I’ll play the role of your casualty. As fast as you can, I want you to run into that building, kit out, and grab whatever style of harness you intend to fly me in. Then launch, take me two miles out to sea, turn, and land back here. And, oh shoot, you happen to be out of silver chloride this morning, so fly me awake. Clear?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘Then run!’ she bellowed.

I grabbed my harness and sprinted for the aerodrome.” (P. 219)

The Philosopher’s Flight is not simply riotously marvellously clever in the world it imagines, it also has something truly meaningful to say which it delivers in such a way that it never once feels even remotely preachy.

That’s largely because even as Robert and close friends like Freddy Unger and Gloxania Jacobi, and the love of his life Danielle Hardin, who is singlehandledly responsible for rescuing everyone from Gallipoli, work against some frighteningly intimidating and dangerous forces, both from within and without, they do so with great humour, warmth of friendship and the love and sense of belonging that can only come from a found family.

This infuses this often action-packed book with a great deal of accessible and affecting humanity, meaning that the expansively lush imagination that is visible throughout never feels like a hollow and empty, if dazzlingly impressive, construct.

If anything, The Philosopher’s Flight is one of those rare, genius-level novels that manages to feel both prodigiously precocious and yet warmly human simultaneously, a rare feat which stamps Miller as a writer to watch.

With the sequel, The Philosopher’s war just released, it is evident that Miller has created a eye-grabbingly sense of time and place in The Philosopher’s Flight that is instantly and utterly memorable, rich with storytelling possibility, characters who you come to care for deeply and completely and an astute socially observant mind that appreciates that every good and worthy thing in this world will attract detractors and must be fought for but that that is an entirely necessary thing if we are ever to have anything of worth to our name as a species.

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