This reading group guide for The Philosopher’s Flight includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tom Miller. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, heal the injured, and even fly. While he dreams of becoming the first male in the elite US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Department—a team of flying medics—he is resigned to mixing batches of philosophical chemicals and keeping the books for the family business in rural Montana, where his mother aids the locals.
When a deadly accident puts his philosophical abilities to the test, Robert rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school where he strives to win the respect of his classmates, particularly Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned war hero turned political activist. As Robert begins to fall for Danielle, her activism and his own recklessness attract the attention of the Trenchers, a fanatical anti-philosophical group that Robert’s mother fought years before. With their lives in mounting danger, they must band together with a team of unlikely heroes to fight for Robert’s place among the next generation of empirical philosophers—and for philosophy’s very survival.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the structure of the novel. Why do you think that Miller chose to give each part of the novel a title? How do these titles frame the narrative? What effect do they have on your reading of each section?
2. What did you think of Rachael Rodgers? Describe her reaction to Robert’s flight test. Did you think he deserved to be classified as an expert flier? Why is Rachael resistant to do so? How does she view his presence at Radcliffe?
3. Robert imagines the Trenchers “as most young people of my generation did: a lot of rabid, vicious old men.” (p. 47) Who were the original Trenchers? Why did they oppose sigilry? How did the movement change? What do you think caused the Trenchers to oppose sigilry not just in war, but also in everyday life?
4. When Robert is accepted into Radcliffe, his mother is skeptical about the education and tells him, “The proper place to learn sigilry is in the field.” (p. 56) Do you agree with her? Why does Robert originally apply to Radcliffe? What types of lessons and skills does Robert learn in a classroom setting?
5. Why does Gertrude agree to teach Robert? Describe her style of instruction. Did you think that she was a good teacher? Why or why not? Gertrude insists that Robert use his locker in the aerodrome. Explain her rationale. Why do many of Robert’s classmates object to his presence in the locker room?
6. Jake tells Robert, “I’m not your type. You need someone who’s as goddamned serious as you are.” (p. 146) Do you agree with Jake? Why or why not? Were you surprised by Robert’s relationship with Danielle? Do you think that they were well-suited for each other? Explain your answer.
7. Danielle Hardin is referred to in many ways throughout the course of The Philosopher’s Flight
, including the “Hero of the Hellespont” and the “Darling of the Dardanelles.” Why was Danielle given these nicknames? How does she feel about them? Did knowing the monikers affect the way that you viewed Danielle when her character was first introduced? In what ways?
8. Who is Lucretia Cadwallader? Why did she argue in favor of banning all philosophy from warfare, and why does Danielle feel doing so was “an overreach” (p. 186) that paved the way for the Zoning Act? Do you agree with Danielle’s opposition of the Zoning Act? Why or why not? Danielle tells Robert that in order to prevent the banning of philosophy she will “have to engage [those who oppose sigilry]: editorials, debates . . . marches” (p. 188) and that Robert should be doing the same. How is Robert in a unique position to further the pro-sigilry cause?
9. Robert’s mother tells him, “This isn’t a new war. Since the first woman lifted a finger to send a message . . . people have tried to destroy us.” Why have the philosophers historically been so maligned? Describe the ways that Emmaline and her contemporaries attempted to fight those who sought to destroy them. She tells Robert, “we fought the wrong way.” (p. 58) What does she mean? Why do you think their strategy is ineffective?
10. What is the Order of the Chanticleer? Why does Robert decide to join? Describe the other members of the group. Why do you think the Cocks and Hens event that the order participates in is such a popular event on the Radcliffe campus? What effect does it have on the community?
11. When Dar and Robert attempt to see a film together, Dar runs out of the movie theater during the newsreel. Dar tells Robert that she’s furious that “they put a pretty face on [the war]. And that they put me
in one of those newsreels when I came back.” (p. 209) Why is this so upsetting to Dar? Compare and contrast the version of the war in the newsreel with the reality of the war as experienced by Dar and Jake.
12. This quote from one of Danielle’s speeches appears as part of an epigraph: “The causes were bound together from the first days: civil rights, women’s rights, and philosophical rights.” (p. 196) Explain her statement. What do all three of the causes have in common? Can think of any modern-day parallels?
13. Robert says seeing Vivian “dug up long-buried feelings of a different kind.” (p. 260) Describe Robert’s relationship with Vivian. What effect does their trip to their childhood home have on him? What does Vivian disclose to Robert about their family history? Were you surprised? Why or why not?
14. Why is Robert nearly expelled from Radcliffe? Brock tells Robert that Dean Murchison prevented his expulsion by threating to resign if Robert was thrown out of the college. Why does the dean advocate for Robert? Does Robert have any other allies? Who are they? While she is disciplining Robert, Brock tells him, “Maybe you need to hear it. . . . you’re good enough.” (p. 199) What prompts her to say this to Robert? Why might Robert need this validation?
15. Dar tells Robert that the worst the R&E Corps can say to him is yes in response to his statement that “The worst they can say is no.” (p. 369) Explain her statement. Do you think Robert would be a good sigilwoman of the R&E? Why are so many of the people in his life against it?Enhance Your Book Club
1. When Robert sees Unger’s glyph, he says, “[it] was an embarrassingly literal choice, but no one else in her right mind would ever use it, which was the point of a personal glyph.” (p. 78) Describe Unger’s glyph. Why might Robert dislike it? Design a personal glyph and share it with your book club. Did you choose a literal design or something more symbolic? If there’s meaningful symbolism behind your glyph, tell the members of your book club about it.
2. Robert tells Ms. Addams that he has wanted to go out for R&E since he was a child and read Life and Death on San Juan Hill
. Were there any books you read during your childhood that inspired you to take action either by choosing a profession or visiting a specific place? Share the books with your book club, telling them what made those particular books so meaningful to you.
3. Dar tells Robert that the newsreels make her furious because “they put a pretty face [on war].” (page 209) Watch some newsreels from WWI and WWII with your book club and discuss them. How do the newsreels depict the wars? Do they present them in a more appealing fashion than the reality on the frontlines? Is there a value in doing so? What purpose did war newsreels serve?A Conversation with Tom MillerCongratulations on the publication of your debut novel, The Philosopher’s Flight! What has been the most rewarding part of publishing your debut novel? Was there an aspect of publishing a novel that surprised you?
It’s been a very long road, which has been both the most surprising and the most rewarding part. I did the first sketches for the world that became The Philosopher’s Flight
in 2004. After two failed attempts at setting the story in the present day, I put the novel aside until 2010, when I began writing a version set during the Great War. For some reason that one worked. Eight years later, I get to hold the finished book in my hand.From working a
s an EMT and emergency room doctor, you’ve had a varied career. Do you think that your other professions helped you with your writing? If so, how?
Much as my years in medicine have made it difficult to find enough hours to write, I couldn’t have written the novel without them. R&E was directly inspired by my time in EMS and the emergency room. Those professions have allowed me to meet people of every age and background. I’ve also seen how people react under intense pressure: Do you shout at your underlings, cry, crack a joke, lose your voice, try to carry on with quiet dignity? The danger involved in the stasis sigil echoes endotracheal intubation, which is one of the higher-risk procedures I regularly perform. Freddy Unger is an idealized version of many scientists and researchers I’ve met. The injuries and medical treatments in the book are as real as I could make them—scribbled in the margin next to Robert’s collapse in Helena in one draft is pulseless ventricular tachycardia secondary to profound hypokalemia.Can you tell us about your writing process? The Philosopher’s Flight is intricately plotted, moving seamlessly through real and imagined history. Did you plot out the entire series before writing the first book?
It sure didn’t feel seamless writing it! I didn’t have a detailed outline at the beginning. I wrote or revised every day for five years, even if it was only a few lines before bed. My first draft ran 900 pages and followed Robert all the way from Montana to Radcliffe and then through his service in France to the Armistice. It took several readers pointing out that an abrupt change in setting and characters halfway through the story didn’t work well structurally before I decided I was trying to write two books, not one. The advantage of having written so far forward was that as I chopped the book in half and went about rebuilding the plot, I had a good idea what was going to happen in the sequel. In the end, I did assemble spreadsheets and time lines with some events as far out as 1958, though I’ve tried to leave myself wiggle room so that philosophy has room for development in unexpected directions as it enters the 1920s.You dedicated your book to Abby “who once asked why there were so few women in my stories.” What was the experience of writing so many strong female characters like? Did you find writing about women different than writing about men? If so, how?
It required breaking out of what David Foster Wallace once called the “default setting” of thinking. In college and grad school, without ever considering it, nearly all the characters I wrote were men. While writing The Philosopher’s Flight
, I realized I would have to invert that tendency. It was also essential for me to listen to my female colleagues and friends and consider how their experiences might be different than mine. Every female doctor I’ve worked with has been routinely called “nurse” by patients, even when they’re wearing a badge that says physician in inch-high letters; surely Dr. Synge, Professor Brock, Assistant Dean Addams, and Maj. Weekes experienced similar moments. (Though one pities the man who said to Emmaline, “Sweetie, why don’t you send in a real soldier?”) Likewise, listening to friends who have experienced street harassment and responded with Jake-size outrage, witnessing the awful sexual threats directed toward essentially every outspoken female public figure on Twitter, and reading about the challenges faced by the first women to join different specialties within the armed forces helped to shape the characters.The history of the empirical philosophers is so vivid. How did you go about creating it? What was the most challenging aspect of making the fantastical world of the philosophers believable?
The more I sweated the boring details—How many ounces of powder per minute does a hoverer use? Would there still be trains if people could fly? How do
you make silver chloride?—the more real the world became for me. I’ve had a lot of years to invent those details and winnow them down to the ones key to the story. Sadly, my list of Supreme Court rulings affecting philosophical practice and my description of oil paintings that employed the red-green sigil didn’t make the final cut, but maybe I can find a spot for them later in the series.Valerie Sayers praised The Philosopher’s Flight, calling you “a sly wizard, reminiscent of L. Frank Baum on his best days.” Was L. Frank Baum an inspiration? Were there any other books or authors that inspired you? Can you tell us about them?
I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read The Wizard of Oz
. Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
got me thinking about writing American alternative history with fantasy elements and was the clearest inspiration. (I borrow a little of Strange’s magic for the Battle of Berlin in the sequel.) Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, the Harry Potter series (which I read in college), X-Men
comic books, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series also provided flashes of inspiration. Chuck Yeager’s autobiography, which I read in seventh grade, probably gave me a subconscious prototype for Robert.The advice that Robert receives from Brock to “try less hard” (p. 332) proves particularly helpful to him when he is hovering competitively. Did you receive advice while you were writing? What suggestions were most helpful to you?
Well, that line comes from real life. I was a rower—albeit not a very good one—in an eight-man shell in college. I tended to move too stiffly and wasn’t well attuned to the pace and balance of the rowers around me. As I got further and further out of sync with the rest of the boat, my roommate, who sat directly behind me, used to shout, “Relax. Relax!” (There are few better ways to make someone tighten up, by the way.)
The best advice for writing, which I’d heard many times, is to write every day. That was vital for actually finishing the first draft. In editing, it wasn’t until I laid out my three main plot lines (R&E, the Trenchers, the love story) in a color-coded spreadsheet side by side so that I could see which one was carrying each chapter (or being neglected) that I was able to shape the story into its final form. Michael Ondaatje’s book of interviews with Walter Murch, The Conversations,
as well as Murch’s book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye,
helped me to design my organizational system.What would you like readers to take away from The Philosopher’s Flight?
I didn’t write the book with a single moral or issue in mind, but I hope readers will consider how appeals to pragmatism and tradition can become excuses for reinforcing prejudice and institutional discrimination. That’s true for the opposition that Robert faces trying to join R&E, but even more so for the backlash Danielle faces as she tries to break into politics.The Philosopher’s Flight is the first in a series. Can you give us any hints about what’s in store for Robert and Dar and the rest of the philosophers?
Robert has a vital role to play in the final days of the Great War, as does Danielle. Most of the characters in the sequel are new, but a smattering of Robert’s Radcliffe friends will return. Over the course of the series, we’ll see several philosophical breakthroughs and new sigils—and philosophers going to ever-greater lengths to protect their way of life from an increasingly powerful and fearful opposition.Are you working on anything else? Can you tell us about it?
I’ve done work on the third and fourth novels in Robert’s series, which take inspiration from the race to break the sound barrier and the political upheaval of the 1960s.