Tom Miller envisions his career as a pair of cross country skis. One ski is his career in medicine — a former EMT, he now works as an emergency room doctor at UW Hospital.
The other ski is writing fiction. This week sees the release of his first novel, the historical fantasy “The Philosopher’s Flight,” which he has been working on for over a decade.
“When you move one ski, the other goes back,” Miller said. “Maybe that means I was never a great cross-country skier. They certainly have moved in parallel.”
Miller, who lives on Madison’s west side with his wife and two young children, will read from “The Philosopher’s Flight” at 6 p.m. next Monday, Feb. 19, at a A Room of One’s Own Bookstore, 315 W. Gorham St.
“The Philosopher’s Flight,” is set in World War I-era America where a new breed of scientists called “empirical philosophers” can use magical symbols called sigils to heal the sick, summon weather and even fly. Nearly all these “philosophers” are women, which reactionary fanatics called “trenchers” see as a threat to the patriarchy.
The novel follows Robert Weekes, the son of a powerful philosopher who yearns to join a sort of flying medical corps to serve in the Great War. Robert gets a scholarship to attend an all-female Ivy League philosopher’s college, where, in addition to learning how to fly, he learns more about the struggle between philosophers and trenchers with the help of Danielle, a war hero turned political radical.
Miller said the idea of a male attending an all-female school originally struck him as a potential source of comedy. But the more he wrote, the more he saw a more serious connection to the ongoing struggle between reactionary and progressive politics that continues to this day.
“It started out as much more comic and fish-out-of-water,” he said. “But the harder I leaned on the gender politics and the more it became the center, and the uglier that became, the more interesting it got.”
The book follows Robert’s attempts to prove himself to his skeptical female colleagues and instructors, as well as his growing realization of the peril that those colleagues face in an America where men still control politics and business, and feel threatened by powerful women.
“As much pushback as the protagonist faces, it sort of pales in comparison to what Danielle, who is trying to break into politics, is facing, and what a lot of philosophers in general are facing,” Miller said. “It’s one thing when people are mean to you in study hall, and another when you’re getting death threats.”
Miller said he stopped and started two different modern-day novels set in this world, always struggling with how to map out an alternate history of America in the century after World War I. He ultimately decided the answer was to set the novel back in World War I itself.
While the characters may fly around in the sky, Miller tried to keep the historical events of the novel as grounded in reality as possible.
“I practiced the principles of conservation of history, which is that if things could stay the same, I generally tried to leave them the same,” he said. “While you had this rising class of professional women, Woodrow Wilson is still the president and Congress is overwhelmingly male.”
Miller said “Philosopher’s Flight” will be the start of a four- or five-book series. He’s working on revisions to the second book, which is planned to come out during the summer of 2019 and will be set in France during the waning days of the war.
He plans to continue his medical career as well, and says that the worlds of writing stories and taking care of patients aren’t so far apart.
“What we do in medicine is often storytelling,” he said. “You sit down with somebody for 10 minutes and do an exam and ask them questions, and when you call a psychiatrist you decide what details to include and what order do you tell them in. There’s a lot of editing and storytelling.”