A man among women

The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

r/suggestmeabook: I want a WWI-era quest by a young man to be part of an elite magical rescue mission group which is only open to women.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 464

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Series: The Philosophers

From the publisher: Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is one of the few men who practice empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, heal the injured, and even fly. He’s always dreamed of being the first man to join the US Sigilry Corps’ Rescue and Evacuation Department, an elite team of flying medics, but everyone knows that’s impossible: men can barely get off the ground. When a shocking tragedy puts Robert’s philosophical abilities to the test, he rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study philosophy at Radcliffe College—an all-women’s school. 

Tom Miller’s WWI-era world where magic is a gender-linked trait is an intriguing analogue to our own. Women have amazing powers through the exercise of the magic—practical philosophy, in the terms of that world—and yet they are still facing misogyny from a group that is eerily similar to the resurgent far right of our day.

Sigilry only came into widespread use around 1750 and right from the start women were better at it than men. That upset a lot of folks, who thought sigils must be some form of witchcraft. Most people, though, saw the usefulness in empirical philosophy and were content to allow it.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

The hero, Robert, is a talented philosopher, but he keeps bucking the status quo by being a guy. The “feel sorry for the man who’s being discriminated against” vibe got to me every so often, although the book is clearly sympathetic to women’s issues and paints the men who are opposed to the women’s power as irrational and evil. But it still bothered me from time to time to read about a man with discrimination issues. He’s not trans, he’s not BIPOC, he’s not gay—in our world, he’d be privileged as hell (except, perhaps, for the fact he’s from Montana). However, it is an avenue for a person who is usually privileged to look at what it’s like to have the shoe on the other foot.

I sampled scoops of vanilla ice cream with an inner layer of insulated chocolate that protected a hot, molten caramel core. There was a ham smoked to taste like peaches accompanied by peaches smoked to taste like ham—more clever than delicious, but that didn’t prevent me from taking seconds.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

On the other hand, in the context of the novel, he has been raised in a family of women with far more strength in their magic and has been marginalized in his own way. It feels churlish to suggest that a man shouldn’t want to excel in a women’s field or that somehow he didn’t suffer because he is part of a privileged group. Comparing suffering as a form of competition generally doesn’t lead anywhere I want to go, and empathy is always the better choice, so, yes, this guy clearly has endured some harassment within the context of the novel. It bothers me, and it bothers me that it bothers me.

This is the story this author wanted to tell, his point of view is sympathetic, so why am I bitching about the fact that it’s from a man’s point of view? My reaction smacks of the attitudes that TERFs have about someone else discussing issues of exclusion, but this isn’t the same thing. I don’t really know, but I was comforted when I discussed it with my daughter and she could relate to the unease.

Aside from that, Robert’s quest to be a philosopher good enough to be in Rescue and Evacuation is well-structured and peopled with likable characters. It’s refreshing that the romantic interest is not objectified in the ordinary way, but is beautiful to Robert because of her character. There are plenty of strong women with different temperaments and personalities, which is a pleasure to read. On the other hand, there are several characters who seem to be created only to meet a particular plot point and not really developed; it would have been nice to either have them more fully realized or to consolidate them into fewer characters.

[I]f you and I hang back and do what’s comfortable, if philosophers wall themselves off and only associate with other philosophers, then the Zoning Act is going to sneak through and we’ll all shake our heads and say, “How did it happen?”

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

For example, Brock and Addams—I had a hell of a time keeping them straight. They didn’t seem to have much difference in personality, and although they were two different levels of academic authority, there wasn’t enough to make each one memorable in her own way.

A remarkable thing, the human hand. The infinite number of ways it fits together with another. Fingers interlaced, first with my thumb on the outside, and then rewoven so that hers was.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

One of my favorite characters, though, is Freddy Unger (I keep wanting to call him Felix, which is probably an age issue). Freddy is the guy who completely gets the theory behind it all, but can’t do anything practical to save his soul—yet he never seems bitter about it.

It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

Issues of class and race are hinted at, but not fully explored—the former particularly surprising, since the bulk of the action takes place at Radcliffe among the elite, and the hero is a relatively poor Westerner. The allusions to race tend to make me feel as though the early women’s movement in this reality was not as anti-Black as the one in ours, but there are enough racial tensions in it to make it an open question. The hero’s lack of exposure to racial issues because of his childhood in a white enclave could be an explanation for the oblique treatment, but it would have been interesting to see it more explicitly discussed.

We fought the wrong way. We always thought that if we killed enough of them—killed the right ones—that they would leave us in peace. All that got us was one cycle of violence after another.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

The fact that I’m wanting this or that out of the book is, however, testimony to the fact that I enjoyed it, and the book that’s there is worth a read. It would provide excellent fodder for a book club discussion, particularly as it confronts a question that is relevant to our current difficulties: How do you come to a peaceful solution when two sides fundamentally disagree on reality?


3 thoughts on “A man among women

  1. I want to say something wise and profound on books that do a “What about if the tables were turned” on institutional sexism but I’ve got nothing other than maybe I’ve yet to meet a book that did it that felt wise and profound.

    Is this more of an action-adventure book, or slow burn talky book?

    Liked by 1 person

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