Jun 30, 2010

Mission Update: May-June 2010

Before I dive into my mission update, I wanted to take a moment to remember Walter James Miller, who passed away on Father's Day from a heart attack. Miller was arguably one of the most important scholars in  Jules Verne academia in North America, as he virtually discovered, and then raised awareness of the poor quality of English translations of Verne's work. His work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was what rekindled my love for that book. If you haven't read the annotated and re-translated version Miller worked on with Frederick Paul Walter, then do yourself a favour.

I briefly updated May when I posted my Full Steam Ahead! projection for the next month (feel free to check out just how inaccurate that estimation was by reading that post), but I never really said what I'd been up to, and what's been happening in the grander scheme of things.

I taught my last course at the King's University College in May. It was a spring session of English 204: Introduction to the Novel and Short Story. I had six students in a compressed timeline of three weeks. It went by like a blur, but it was a very rewarding teaching experience, and a nice way to say goodbye to the institution who helped me get started in my academic teaching career. Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was on the reading list again, and it was a pleasure to find that the positive experience students have of the text wasn't limited the fall semester of 2009. I'll be taking it with me into my English 103: Introduction to Literature course.

With the end of that spring session came the end of gainful employment until July, when I start at Grant MacEwan University full time. I've been doing some MCAT prep teaching, but that's sporadic, so I've had time on my hands to get ready for fall, and attend to my own research.

As regards my fall readiness, I wanted to bring two items to my readers' attention. Neither is steampunk related, but they were big finds for me, and I'm pretty excited about them for my science fiction course in the fall at the University of Alberta. The first is James and Kathryn Morrow's The SFWA European Hall of Fame anthology. It's a collection of European SF stories in translation, which is a boon to a Comparative Literature course in SF: we're expected to teach the genre in a global context, which is no easy feat. I remember my professor lamenting the lack of such works when I took the course years ago. I decided on this book over Lavie Tidhar's equally excellent Apex Book of World SF, only because the Morrow's anthology is focused more on SF, while Tidhar's anthology is a collection of speculative fiction, incorporating horror, fantasy, and SF. I will be using one entry from Tidhar: "Wizard World" by Chinese author Yang Ping, an excellent postcyberpunk story.

The second is Haika Soru press, which I came across almost by accident while perusing the Morrow's anthology at a local Chapters. I was pacing in the aisle, trying to decide whether to buy the book to give it a better read, while lamenting my lack of disposable income due to this month without gainful employment (in the end, it turned out Chapters had the hardcover in their discounted section for $4.99, which solved my problem). A copy of Battle Royale by Koushun Takami caught my eye, and I noted the Haika Soru logo on the spine. In a semiotic epiphany, my eye was drawn to the other titles on the shelf with the same logo, which ultimately lead to me picking up Hiroshi Yamamoto's The Stories of Ibis. It's an incredible collection of short stories strung together by a frame narrative. Ibis is beautifully written/translated, and is going to make a wonderful addition to an already exciting reading list. For anyone who is interested, this is what the final reading and film list for Comparative Literature 342: Science Fiction looks like for the fall:

"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut
2081 (short film based on "Harrison Bergeron")
Viewing of The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
"Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell
Clips from John Carpenter's The Thing
"Call me Joe" by Poul Anderson
Clips from James Cameron's Avatar
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Clips from Solaris and Moon
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Clips from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner
Viewing of Ghost in the Shell
"Burning Chrome" by William Gibson
"Wizard World" by Yang Ping
Clips from The Matrix
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Selections from The SFWA European Hall of Fame
The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto
Dr. Grordbort's Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory by Greg Broadmore

Clips from Starship Troopers, Aliens, Avatar, and District 9
Viewing of Children of Men

Should be a blast. If you're in the Edmonton area and interested in taking it, the course happens Monday nights at 6:00-9:00 p.m.

Now that the agony of decision is over--"Should I include Asimov? What about Heinlein?"--I've finally been able to return my attention to steampunk. I tried reading George Mann's The Affinity Bridge in May, and gave up - I found it to be the worst sort of tired pastiche that people stereotype steampunk as. The Affinity Bridge is everything Philip Reeve complains about in his post on steampunk's stink. I had to read Frank Herbert's Dune to clear my palette before returning to steampunk reading. When I did return, I finished up Chris Wooding's wonderful Retribution Falls, which was thoroughly enjoyable. While I have yet to finish my close readings of Hunt's The Court of the Air, Campbell's Scar Night, and S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods, I neede to turn my attention to Lisa Smedman's The Apparition Trail, as it's my first entry for Canuck steampunk month (which starts tomorrow). While everything in July will be steampunk by Canadians, Smedman has the distinction of having the only steampunk novel set entirely in Canada, which is why she's first on the list. When I finished Apparition Trail, I moved on to Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee, in further preparation for July.

I received an ARC of Android Karenina, which I'll be commenting on in late August. I thought it best to have read the original to make any sort of decent commentary on the mash-up. I also received an ARC of steampunk erotica, which I'll post about whenever I stop getting delayed in reading it (I can only take it bite-sized chunks, or I'm utterly distracted for the rest of the day). To others who have sent ARCs, I'm doing my best to get to them, but I don't want to deviate too much from my themes. I'm hoping to cram Napoleon Concerto, and Wonderdark into August.

Speaking of themes, I enjoyed mapping out the entire year's posts. While I'm sure it will be subject to change, it's nice to have a plan. Both plan and thematic months were inspired by Cory Gross' Voyages Extraordinaires blog. Cory and I were able to finally meet face-to-face back in May, and over Boston Pizza appetizers, I learned that the reason his posts are so erudite is because he plans his blog nearly a year in advance. A smart move, and while it's one I hadn't been able to take advantage of initially due to my insane schedule in 2009, it's one I'm using to drive this blog to mission's end. While there will be new steampunk released in the next year (and yes, I'll read as much of it as I can - ARCs are welcome!), I can at least say I should be done the major reading of primary texts by fall of 2011, when I'll turn my attention to precedents (Verne, Wells, Burroughs, Doyle, etc.), and then finally to secondary sources. I plan to finish before the five year mission projection, but we'll see how next summer goes.

Some links to consider...Matt Delman started up Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders, a new "monthly e-zine focused solely on the proliferation of Steampunk materials. DIY articles, scholarship, short fiction, and whatever your Steampunk heart desires." Go check it out and submit some material! And while I don't think Nancy Overbury's Steampunk Tuesdays really needs an introduction, I'm giving one anyhow, because I think her exploration of the depth and breadth of steampunk culture is worth checking out. Thanks to Piechur for an email that linked some links and then I clicked on other links, which lead me here, to The Weirdside, where it sounds like Adam Callaway and I agree about steampunk being more of an aesthetic, and this post at Fluttering things, which also seems to be leaning in this direction. Jay Lake has been saying his forthcoming Babykillers is an attempt to play with the idea of steampunk as a skin or aesthetic, and I look forward to its October release!

I've been invited back to Steamcon, and while I'm hoping to go, the issue of funding looms rather large. I was also invited back to Edmonton's home-grown Pure Speculation SF/Fantasy convention in October, where I'll be presenting on Steampunk 101, Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" and the 2081 film, Joe Lansdale's Jonah Hex comics, and sitting in on a panel on horror. I'm also hoping to get to Calgary's Con-Version, but we'll see how that all pans out.

I submitted "Steampunk: Technofantasy in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture", the chapter that inspired my Steampunk as Aesthetic post. Pending edits and revisions, it will be released in Contemporary Fictional Repurposings and Theoretical Revisitings of Fairy-Tales and Fantasies later this year, from Edwin Mellen Press. My "Steam Wars" article should be coming out in the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies very soon. I've sent off the final draft, and we're down to editing colons and citations. I've got a few ideas for articles in my head. One will be about the literary context of steampunk - where does it fit, where did it emerge from, etc. The other is going to deal with the fashion, and will likely involve a close reading of the films Moulin Rouge!, the recent Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr., as well as references to Clockwork Coutre, Dark Garden corsets, and the Victoria's Secret fashion show. Between that last reference and the steampunk erotica, it'll be wonder if I get anything done over the summer.

See you tomorrow for Canada Day!

Jun 29, 2010

Full Steam Ahead by Nathalie Gray

I've been putting off reading Steamed by Katie MacAlister, largely because I was sent my copy from a steampunk acquaintance and not Ms. MacAlister herself. Full Steam Ahead on the other hand, was sent to me by Nathalie Gray, and I feel I've been remiss about posting about it and a few other complimentary copies of works good folks have sent me, so I'm going to do my best to make a few comparisons between these books, focusing largely on Nathalie Gray's book. To everyone else who sent me an ARC or complimentary copy, hang in there: August is coming. I also thought it would be good to close off my Full Steam Ahead! theme (a fairly successful attempt to really put my nose to the grindstone) here at Steampunk Scholar with Gray's book, given the shared title.

Gray begins her book with a brief note to the reader, explaining steampunk:
Dashing pirates, odious villains and mouthy heroines fight for survival in this momentous steampunk story. I pulled out all the stops for this one. For those unfamiliar with this awesome genre, steampunk is a delightful mix of Victorian aesthetics and oh-so-shiny fantastical machines. If you enjoy a good historical romance mixed with an action ride that never stops, or a romance that will sweep you into a fantasy world of petticoats and steam pistols, armored dirigibles and floating fortresses, then FULL STEAM AHEAD is for you. Strap on your brass goggles, my lovelies, we’re weighing the anchor and hoisting the mizzen. Ahoy!
It's not a bad explanation of steampunk, or at the very least Victorian Scientific Romances, but I can imagine a number of self-identifying steampunks will cringe at such an introduction. After two months of taking things far too seriously at the Great Steampunk Debate, this is exactly the sort of description of steampunk I was pining for. There's only so many conversations one can have about the ideology of steampunk before you want to read some freebooting, fast-shooting, escapism mixed with eroticism.

If you're hearing a bit of pique or cheek in my writing, then I'm succeeding. I was nonplussed to hear folks at The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition getting down on Katie MacAlister's Steamed, not because I think it's a great work of art, but because they largely hadn't read it. They were mad because of the appropriation of various web images for the book's trailer, which ostensibly conflated their inflated view of steampunk with the book itself, seen by many steampunks as opportunistic dreck. This as the same sort of snobbery that applauds when a laptop is steampunked, but laments when the same thing is done to Mickey Mouse. Before casting stones at writers like MacAlister and Gray, steampunk fans, aficionados, adherents, and acolytes need to ponder why steampunk is popping up with regularity in romance and erotica. Why is the steampunk aesthetic seemingly suited to sexy storylines? Is it just because of the association with corsets, or is there something more to consider?  

I've read enough of MacAlister's Steamed to know that it shares the same approach to steampunk as Full Steam Ahead. Both books are crosshatch fantasies, of which C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles are a famous example: the story involves multiple worlds, and as the Encyclopedia of Fantasy notes, "normally one of these worlds is our own and the other (or others) some form of secondary world" (237). Steffen Hantke, in his crucial article on steampunk scholarship, "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk," states that "Hardly ever is steampunk concerned with the transition from narrative universe into another," setting steampunk into Nancy Trail's "fantasy mode," a typological framework wherein "the natural domain is altogether absent or it is a framing device, a domain...with a very limited function" (footnote 4, 254). Hantke was right about this insofar as pre-2000 steampunk is concerned, and remains largely correct when considering the greater body of steampunk writing. Yet in both cases of steampunk romance listed here, there is a transition from one narrative universe into another.

The story begins in our world, with Laurel Benson, our feisty, independent, mouth-like-a-trucker heroine facing a storm-of-the-century while in the midst of a sailing race. While it's not going to win any literary awards, I have to admit smiling several times at Gray's descriptions of massive waves: "A Hoover Dam made of liquid emerald. The sea was such a beautiful, beautiful bitch" (9). Not having read any of Gray's other works, I can only say that she seems to be some strange mash-up of pulp and romance writer. Maybe it's her military background. It comes as no surprise when a strange vortex opens up in the storm - after all, it was clear this story was taking place in a modern setting, and this was supposed to get steampunk at some point.

Once in this other world, the thoroughly twenty-first century girl meets quasi-nineteenth-century-air-pirate Phineas Hamilton, captain of the Brass Baron (I really hope someone has written a steampunk erotica story called Brass Balls or something like it, about real clockwork lust). The crew of the Brass Baron read like a steampunk-by-numbers gathering of con attendees, with names like the female first mate Dame Augusta and Miss Carmina.  
"She was forced to twist her neck this way and that to keep facing the dangerous crowd. And a strange one, too, with colorful garments fit for Victorian times yet equipped with tools and weapons that clearly didn't come from any era she knew. Jesus, she really was in a hospital somewhere. These hallucinations had to be the drugs' effects."  (17)

"From this angle, the dirigible part looked as if it carried a sort of pirate ship underneath its belly, with a superstructure stuck to the top of the balloon. It seemed so implausible that she rubbed her eyes to make sure she wasn't seeing things...Around her were all sorts of fantastical machines that ranged from boilers to stuff that looked like giant radiators and long narrow water tanks. Steam was omnipresent. It jetted up and billowed, rose in thin spires and whistled out of brass tubes, curled like pig tails and twisted in long ribbons, hissed and wailed and rumbled. Nothing like this existed. Did it? It couldn't." (21)
This returns us to Hantke momentarily. In the same footnote mentioned earlier, Hantke contends that because there is no "ontologically different "outside" to the steampunk universe" there is also no "transitional hesitation in the face of the supernatural, which Todorov speaks about as the hallmark of all fantastic narrative" (though he does cite a few minor exceptions to this rule). One does not find people questioning the steampunk world they inhabit, save in moments where a new break is introduced into the fictional steampunk universe. In Lisa Smedman's The Apparition Trail, the main character does not question the perpetual motion machine which runs the technology of the world: he hesitates in the sense Todorov speaks about The Fantastic only when exposed to First Nations magic, which is heretofore something he had not encountered. By contrast, the First Nations people do not find this strange at all. Yet both MacAlister and Gray come at their steampunk universes via the crosshatch approach, which often results in hesitation.

Further, this is ostensibly an outsider's perspective of what steampunk looks like. This is what Gray thinks steampunk looks like. MacAlister provides another outsider's perspective, though she goes about it with less finesse, clunkily inserting references to Abney Park and cosplay, pushing the boundaries of fictional self-reflexivity to their breaking point. Hantke notes that steampunk foregrounds "the fictionality of its narrative universe" (247), that is, the text is 'aware' of its own fiction, and celebrates this without apology. While MacAlister's Steamed is aware of its fictional quality, it seems to do it in a self-conscious rather than self-aware manner. It's the textual equivalent of someone who knows they're overweight and keeps drawing attention to it in a manner that makes people uncomfortable. By contrast, Gray celebrates the fiction of her world by reveling in the tropes in a playful manner which is truer to the spirit of steampunk than Steamed.

The battle scenes are a mix of Star Trek and Master and Commander, which make them fast paced and fun, though sometimes glaringly familiar to a longtime geek like myself. Gray makes a nod to the two classes of The Time Machine in her opposition of humans and their albino-Viking enemies, the Varangians, though literary aficionados shouldn't go looking for too much social subtext here. The Varangians are caricature villains, made thoroughly contemptible through overdone threats of torture and rape. Gray also uses some very tired approaches to creating a secondary world, referring to pulses and cycles instead of seconds and hours, calling the battleships of the enemy Varangians drekkars instead of dreadnoughts or destroyers - there's only so much spacey or fantasy nomenclature one can take before it starts sounding like a B-movie, lampooned soundly by Galaxar in last years Monsters vs. Aliens. While I'm aware that this sort of writing is the literary equivalent of B-movies, I think Gray's got better chops than that. If the people in your secondary world speak English, don't bother making up words for ones already in the dictionary. That said, for Gray's audience, this might be the right approach. Taking her reader into a steampunk world via a crosshatch device enables Gray to introduce them gently to it - repetition of reading within the same genre builds up a repository of shorthand for the experienced reader. Longtime SF fans don't need explanations of the laws of robotics, or the issues surrounding time travel, or the complexities of contact with alien species, but neophytes do. In that respect, Gray's approach might be far more successful for readers unfamiliar with SF and Fantasy tropes.

As far as the romance aspect of Full Steam Ahead, I'm hardly the best judge. I've not read very many romance novels, so I can't really judge the quality. To that end, I sent the book to a friend who is far better versed in this genre, and she enjoyed it. From my own experience, I found it a much better read than my two excruciating attempts at reading Twilight, but that's largely because Laurel Benson is a character, not a cypher for teenage girls to imprint upon: she kicks as much ass as any of the men in the book. There's an awful lot of swash in her buckle. When she reflects on Phineas' appearance, she gets down to business: "The man was dangerously sexy" (43). In their later sexual escapades, Laurel is the aggressive one, with Phineas exhibiting a stereotype of Victorian propriety: it's a clumsier approach than Gail Carriger takes in Soulless, but is no less amusing if taken within the context of the popular romance genre. As Gray states in her bio, "I write high-octane romance. No damsel in distress." This is right in line with what I wrote about in my Steam Wars article concerning Bjorn Hurri's steampunked Princess Leia: "this Leia would likely have charmed Jabba with her wiles before killing him, so that by the time Luke arrived, she would have been drinking tea while waiting for Han to thaw from his carbonite freeze, the steampunk damsel without distress." Back to the question I asked at the beginning, I think this might be one of the reasons steampunk is working so well in romance: many steampunk heroines are women of agency--unlike Victorian women of history, steampunk heroines not only have a voice (as Laurel does, much to Phineas's initial chagrin), but they can wield a pistol, or fly an airship, or storm into a zombie-infested Seattle to rescue their son. While it won't be heralded as either literary writing or a classic of steampunk, Full Steam Ahead deserves to be included in the library of steampunk fans who enjoy a swashbuckling crosshatch adventure and a steamy romance. While I'm unlikely to be the first person to make this joke, I will nonetheless: maybe these romances are a sub-sub-genre of steampunk...called steamypunk.

Yes, it's a terrible joke, but I'm a professor - what did you expect? For those of you looking for light beach reading with gyrating that involves more than gears and gadgets, pick up Nathalie Gray's Full Steam Ahead. Just be warned, that if you're reading it within boarding distance of your significant other, that you may find your corset or cummerbund in disarray.

Jun 24, 2010

Jonah Hex and Weird West

Why a post on Weird West here at Steampunk Scholar? Aside from the pure opportunism of releasing a post about Jonah Hex in the film version's first release week, there's a growing interest in Weird West in the steampunk community, as I noted in my "Leaving London" article for Exhibition Hall:
Weird West narratives are gaining in popularity: Seattle’s Steamcon made it their theme for 2010, the popular Deadlands roleplaying game is making waves in a re-release; Tess Fowler and Chris Gutierrez are hard at work on their martial arts steampunk western The Seven: Scarlet Fever; and a Jonah Hex movie starring the bankable looks of Megan Fox being released later this year, to say nothing of the success of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series and his Clint Eastwood-as-Aragorn protagonist, Roland. Building on this foundation, writers should find—to use a decidedly American metaphor—a veritable gold-rush of ideas for a steampunked frontier.
My original intention with this post had been to go and see the Jonah Hex movie and comment on it (not just use the increase in interest), but between working on my field papers and being between gainful employment, I've had to settle for talking about Weird West and its relationship to steampunk, via one of the great masters of the genre, Joe Lansdale, and his work on the DC Vertigo Jonah Hex miniseries Two Gun Mojo and Riders of the Worm and Such.

The cover of the second origin-story issues. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to surmise why this part of the story was radically changed for the new film version. More about that in my upcoming post on The Year the Cloud Fell.
I grew up in a family that loved westerns: I dressed up as the Lone Ranger and watched reruns of Gunsmoke. As I grew up, I gained a love of horror as well. I owned Stoker's Dracula in grade four, and read my first Stephen King novel in grade six. So it's not surprising to me that I enjoy Weird Westerns. In fact, over the past month I've kept wondering (though not too seriously) if I should have done my dissertation on Weird West stories instead of steampunk. The term, at the very least, is far more indicative of the content (I don't think anyone is debating the definition of Weird West too vociferously): the EF describes Weird Fiction as "fantasy, supernatural fiction, and horror tales embodying transgressive material: tales where motifs of thinning and the uncanny predominate, and where subject matters like occultism or satanism may be central, and doppelgangers thrive" (1000). I don't think I need to define western for anyone. Wikipedia gives a more expansive definition, basically defining weird westerns as any western blended with another genre. This is a bit too expansive, as I don't think anyone would classify Blazing Saddles or Brokeback Mountain as weird westerns, despite the blending of western with another genre (comedy and romance). I sit somewhere in the middle of this: Weird West is the western merged with the fantastic, either SF, fantasy, or horror, with a dark tone to it. When it treads into SF ground, it sometimes utilizes a steampunk aesthetic. These are not necessarily interchangeable terms though: Not all steampunk set in America can be considered weird western: neither The Amazing Screw-on Head or Boneshaker would be considered a western.

It's interesting to note the absence of overtly supernatural elements in the original Jonah Hex comics. Joe Lansdale reflected on this in his introduction to the trade paperback of Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo:
I remembered reading the Hex stories as being somewhat spooky, supernatural. But when I began rereading those written by Hex's creator, John Albano, I was astonished to discover they were good, tough Western stories, but they weren't any supernatural elements. Nary a one. [...] This surprised me. My memory had played tricks on me [...]The old comics were great, but I decided I wanted to bring in the elements of my false memory, tie them to Albano's creation, and let the good times roll. I wrote my story to reflect the old Hex,[...] but I gave the story an echo of what I thought had been in the early Hex stories, but wasn't. I decided to keep it subtle however, so that the reader could, to some extent, read it either way-- as real supernatural business, or as real-life weird business.
Perhaps the reason Lansdale's memory had played tricks on him was the way in which Hex comics were drawn. I'm thinking specifically of the cover to issue 9, which was drawn by legendary horror artist Berni Wrightson. There isn't anything supernatural about this cover, but I had nightmares about those ants coming for me. If being staked down in the desert as ant food isn't horror, I don't know what is (The quote by Lansdale was scooped from The Geek Curmudgeon's website, which has interesting background information on Lansdale and Hex, as well as a noteworthy anecdote about Rush Limbaugh and Lansdale's Lone Ranger and Tonto).

 Berni Wrightson's cover for Issue 9 of Jonah Hex

I read Jonah Hex as a kid in the '70s. My uncle often gave me his comics after he'd read them, which was very cool, as cases like Jonah Hex, they were comics I'm not sure my parents would have bought for me. The first issue he gave me was #7, which was serendipitously the first in the two-part origin story. I liked Jonah Hex for the same reasons I liked Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and Lon Chaney's take on the Phantom of the Opera: I was fascinated by Hex's scar, by the way in which he didn't deserve it but still came to embody it: Hex is a bit of a monster, not only by appearance, but often by deed. He lives by a dark code of honour, but it's a code that Roy Rogers wouldn't have been comfortable with. I used to grimace in front of the mirror and then stretch silly putty over my grimace to see what I'd look like if I was Jonah Hex. As an adult, I still see myself mirrored in Jonah, but more at the level of action rather than exterior. Jonah's scar externalizes the monstrous side of us all. Like Batman's Two-Face, he represents a dialogic of sinner and saint, monster and human. In issue 1 of Riders of the Worm and Such, he weeps for an old comrade's death, but pisses on his grave.

Lansdale's take on Jonah Hex has been both lauded and lamented. Those who enjoyed the reality-based darkness of the original series were disappointed by the inclusion of zombies in Two-Gun Mojo, and Lovecraftian monstrosities in Riders of the Worm and Such. While the zombies in Two-Gun Mojo do not require a supernatural reading, the Autumn brothers and their Dunwich-horror inspired mater cannot be read as anything but supernatural. Two-Gun Mojo is Lansdale's take on Jonah Hex, but Riders of the Worm and Such is Jonah Hex having crossed over into Lansdale's landscapes of intertextuality and insanity. I haven't had a chance to read Shadows West yet, but even without the third installment, one can already see Lansdale ramping up towards the writing of Zeppelins West: in Two-Gun Mojo's zombie resurrection of Wild Bill Hickock (who will go from a pickled, vivified corpse in Mojo to pickled disembodied head in Zeppelins); in the utterly hideous but also somewhat sympathetic Autumn brothers, confused and abandoned children who are echoed in the beast-men of Doctor Momo in Zeppelins. Throughout all his works, Lansdale maintains a dark and dirty humour of the sort that makes you laugh before you have time to feel bad about what you're laughing at. Landale consistently captures the morbid sarcasm of Jonah Hex's voice, sometimes juxtaposing contrasting image with text that would be benign but for its context. In the opening panels of Two-Gun Mojo, Hex's text-box ruminations inform the reader that "This here story starts one mornin' bright and early with me taking a little trip through the countryside." This text-box is the only text on a page of panels sequentially enlarging the scope of the reader's perspective, to show Jonah being dragged behind a horse to be hung. This gallows-humour runs throughout Lansdale's writing, both in his Hex titles and his Ned the Seal books. Lansdale's writing is like having a taste for hard liquor--those who like it love it, and those who don't do a lot of coughing and choking when they consume any.

An example of Lansdale's gallows humour, as Hex rides into town with a friend's corpse on the back of his horse.
A page demonstrating just how over-the-top Lansdale and artist Timothy Truman get in Riders of the Worms and Such, brought to you sans-colour, just like that fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1
 Artist Timothy Truman utilized a number of period photos for the front page of each issue, wonderfully altered. You can see Hex with "the Kid", incorporating the famous photo of Billy the Kid.
Regardless of whether you find his work contemptible or compelling, Lansdale is undeniably one of the masters of the Weird Western at the crossroads of the fantastic and the frontier. I wish I had time to say more on the subject at this point, but it will have to wait until I expand on it next month in my post on Deadlands: The Great Weird North, my October posting on the Deadlands RPG in general (for my Undead Steampunk month), and for my presentation on Lansdale and Weird West at Pure Speculation, and fingers crossed, Steamcon, in the fall. For the time being, let me recommend a few books and websites to take you further into this untamed and uncanny Old West.

While I'm a big Stephen King fan, and have enjoyed as much of the Dark Tower series as I've read, I was especially appreciative of the story Roland tells his companions in book four, Wizard and Glass. Many people found it slow-moving, but I prefer the world of the Gunslinger without the crosshatch elements from our own, which is what I loved most about the first book. Accordingly, I'm a huge fan of Marvel's Dark Tower comics, which took the story from Wizard and Glass and adapted it as The Gunslinger Born. I'm currently reading the collected editions of the subsequent series, and have nothing but praise for the writing and the incredible artwork. Fans of Weird West who don't enjoy Lansdale's over-the-top irreverence and innuendo should give these a try.

 Some of Jae Lee's incredible art from Gunslinger Reborn

I'm only two chapters into Emma Bull's Territory, but I'm already hooked. Bull mixes the setting of Tombstone, complete with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, with magic. At the outset, it isn't a mix of horror and western, but fantasy and western. Reader reviews on Amazon are largely positive, so while I can't endorse it unreservedly yet, it seems a good bet for the Weird West fan who can't take too much spookiness.

As always, wikipedia provides a good introduction to the topic at hand, but for those who are seriously interested, visit Mark Adams's Weird West Emporium, which is to Weird West what my blog is to steampunk, only less pedantic. It has posts on everything from the recent Jonah Hex movie, to the Will Smith version of Wild, Wild, West, to games, comics, and this year's Weird-West-themed Steamcon. It should go without saying that tabletop gamers interested in Weird West should check out Deadlands.

I'm personally very interested in getting my hands on Caliber, Radical Publishing's Weird West take on the Legend of King Arthur. Check out their downloads page for some great desktop backgrounds. These are the same folks who will shortly release Legends: The Enchanted, a fairy-tale in a supposedly steampunk world (although it looks more cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic to me).

As a postscript, I want to link this great article about What Hollywood Can Learn From Jonah Hex, which sums up many of my opinions about what went wrong in the film's development. Thanks to Western X for bringing it to my attention. And hot on the heels of that link, let me send you over to Western X's main website: a weird west web series. It looks pretty cool, and it has Vernon Wells, who played mohawk-touting psycho-villain in theThe Road Warrior!

For something far more scholarly than my post turned out to be, check out Noah Meernaum's erudite "Wounded Range, Part 1" over at Beyond Victoriana.

Jun 22, 2010

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

My first experience of The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia was an exclusive novel excerpt in the Fall 2008 issue of Weird Tales, courtesy of Ann Vandermeer, who generously gave me a copy at Steam Powered. The serendipity of that issue was manifold: it was an international author spotlight, and for a Comparative Lit major, that's a rare treasure in speculative fiction. Several of the pieces were translated from other languages, and it will come as no surprise to many of you the inimitable Lavie Tidhar was involved in that process. That man needs to be given an award for his efforts in global speculative fiction. As I was starting my work on steampunk, I'm also eternally grateful to Ann for the complimentary copy with Sedia's text, as it contained an idea about steampunk I wouldn't have caught onto as early as I did.

In the opening pages of the book (I read it in its entirety a year after reading the excerpt, in fall of '09), Mattie, a clockwork girl, is commissioned to concoct "a fragrance that would cause regret" (19). As I went to work on my "Steam Wars" article (then only a term paper), those words came back to me, conflated with Lavie Tidhar's post about magical technology in steampunk. Accordingly, I was already thinking about technofantasy that far back, in a discussion of the magical elements in Eric Poulton's steampunk Death Star:
This disregard for the realities of physics or history is taken a step further in Eric Poulton’s Massive Solar-Orbiting Electro-Mechanical Analytic Engine, Mark 6, which imagines Lucas’s Death Star as a moon-sized clockwork hybrid of antique globe and pulp-SF death ray. Poulton’s accompanying text states that the station is the product of research into “Arcane Mathematics, the mathematical study of the Force,” as well as using the Force as its energy source (Poulton 2007).
The magical Force as potential energy source might seem contrary to The Encyclopedia of Fantasy’s limitation of steampunk as technofantasies. However, the Encylopedia suggests “books which fit directly into the form developed by Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter and James P. Blaylock from models derived from Michael Moorcock, Christopher Priest and others” to clarify what is meant by technofantasy (Clute & Kaveny 1997: 391). The inclusion of Tim Powers is revealing. Powers’ Anubis Gates, often cited as one of the original steampunk texts, contains no hard technology. There are no automatons, no ornithopters, and no airships, but there is a good deal of magic. Christopher Priest’s The Prestige is about two magicians competing for the greatest trick, and the appearance of Nikola Tesla does little to dispel the narrative’s metaphysical elements, particularly the inclusion of a sub-plot involving Spiritualism. Newer steampunk works utilize alchemy or occult ritual to develop steampunk technologies, as demonstrated in Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, the story of a clockwork woman who becomes an alchemist. Her fanciful commissions include creating an elixir to extend the lives of gargoyles, and a “fragrance that would cause regret” (2008: 19). To this example we can add the god-like Victorian Wintermute of Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine; the mysterious disease that transforms men into machines in S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods; the magical manipulation of creation made clockwork in Jay Lake's Mainspring; the divining alethiometer of Pullman's The Golden Compass; or mathematics as the power to alter time and space in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
Steampunk technologies require some facet of “magic” in order to be rendered plausible. Based upon these images, it seems that steampunk technology is exposed, not to explain its underlying impetus, but to communicate its purpose through visual hyperbole. While steampunk has long been considered a sub-genre of science fiction, its technology is far closer to magic than hard science. 
I can only imagine how far off track I'd have been with my research without Sedia's bizarre mix of alchemy and engineering to expand my perception of steampunk. If all one had for research was the internet, you'd certainly be lead to think steampunk is just science fiction, focused as much of the art is on technology. Yet without an understanding of steampunk's regular dalliances with technofantasy, the joke of "but it doesn't really do anything" is all too appropriate.

Two comics having fun with steampunk's "useless" tech: Greg Dean's Real Life and David Malki's Wondermark (The Wondermark cartoon is among my favorites by Malki.)

Steampunk technology, on the whole, doesn't do anything, especially in its literary manifestation. That is to say, if you were to bring the technology of steampunk out of a book and into our world, it wouldn't work very well once it ran out of phlogiston or aether, or when you tried to invoke whatever arcane powers it runs on. It's very easy to assume that since the aesthetic device of technofantasy is pointless in terms of physical reality, it is likewise meaningless in its thematic content. Yet consider the relevance of the municipal Darwinism in Reeve's Mortal Engines, the underlying social contract theory of the living airship in Leviathan, and the complexity of constructing gender identities in The Alchemy of Stone.

Mattie considers herself a "female" automaton, because she was "created as one," and because of the clothes she wears: "The shape of them is built into me--I know that you have to wear corsets and hoops and stays to give your clothes a proper shape. But I was created with all of those already in place, they are as much as part of me as my eyes. So I ask you, what else would you consider me?" (18, 83-84). Because she identifies with females, Mattie sees herself as other women in her society, without agency, despite involving herself directly in the the events that are going on around her. This complex balancing act is carried out consistently in Mattie's character: she is intelligent enough to have become an alchemist, yet naive about emotions like love; she is simple and childlike, yet she is also an old-soul, wise about the way in which she has been made. Where others are horrified by the restrictions her creator, Loharri has 'programmed' into her, she considers the way in which that predisposition keeps her from harm. 

The Alchemy of Stone contains one of the best passages about the balancing act of technofantasy itself, nearly allegorized in the polemical relationship between the the societies of Mechanics and Alchemists:
“The Dukes had always insisted that both alchemists and mechanics are represented in the government,” Mattie said. “They represent two aspects of creation—command of the spiritual and magical, and mastery of the physical. Together, we have the same aspects as the gargoyles who could shape the physical with their minds” (Sedia 69).
This echoes the Virgin and the Dynamo of Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, but captures perfectly the tension in steampunk between science and magic. I've included discussions of how alchemy is often used in steampunk because of its historical relationship with chemical science, but in Alchemy of Stone, it operates as one end of a spectrum for changing the world. So long as the Mechanics and Alchemists remain in opposition, there is chaos. There must be a marrying of these minds, an idea conveyed using the steampunk aesthetic. Does this mean this idea is inherent in steampunk? Possibly, but it doesn't come automatically - it seems to require an artful writer to draw it out. Lesser writers using these same elements would simply tell an adventure story, rather than a bildungsroman.

Sedia also uses magical technology for existential questions in the relationship between Mattie and the Soul Smoker, this secondary world's version of a Sin-Eater. Because the Soul Smoker consumes souls at the time of death, he is a pariah--Mattie is the sole source of compassion and community for him, since she ostensibly has no soul. The question of the ghost in the machine is always lurking whenever robots take the stage. The Alchemy of Stone would make a great comparative work to contrast and compare with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. There are some really Big Ideas in this book, delivered in a story of bittersweet emotion. The cover blurb says it's a "novel of automated anarchy and clockwork lust," an assessment which falls so incredibly short of this book's content as to cheapen it. There is anarchy, but it is hardly the focus. Whether there is lust is difficult: there is certainly desire, but I'd argue those words carry very different connotations.

Jha Goh and I have been discussing the prevalence of female vs. male automata in steampunk, and SF in general: are robots feminized more often than men? Are there more androids than gynoids? How are they treated differently? Sedia takes the road less traveled by keeping Mattie from objectified sexual fetish, unlike Pris in Blade Runner, the clockwork girl in Abney Park's Herr Drosselmeyer's Doll, or Emiko in The Windup Girl. Although her maker violates the position of trust, it is in the role of abusive parent, not necessarily sexual predator. This allows a broader base of reader connection: when Mattie is broken and Loharri takes away her eyes, it isn't a gendered crisis - all readers can relate to that moment of fear in darkness, of helplessness. Mattie is a wonderful combination, a Kleistian version of Pinocchio and Cinderella (as the little ash girl, not Disney princess), wondering about who she is, all the while toiling in the dirt to make a place for herself in the world.

Sedia's great accomplishment in Alchemy is making Mattie accessible to all readers, an achievement I'd call a truly feminist piece of writing. Unlike more agenda-driven writers like Atwood, Sedia lets us relate to Mattie's vulnerability, innocence, and questing curiosity about ontological questions without making all men monsters, all beautiful women idiots, and all seats of power corrupt. There is a poetic complexity to Sedia's writing that defies an analysis from one reading. The steampunk tech isn't here as window-dressing: it's more like stained-glass, changing the color and shape of the light as it passes through the pane. It's directly related to the themes of the book, and in that way, this is a rarity. The Alchemy of Stone is definitely a book I'm seeking space for in my teaching, and one I highly recommend, not only for steampunk fans, but lovers of speculative fiction, and those desiring something literary in their summer page-turner. 
I often make mention of covers in my posts, but found it difficult to weave into today's post. So as a post-script, I'll say that I haven't seen a cover of The Alchemy of Stone yet that doesn't convey something strong about the book's tone and themes. 

Jun 18, 2010

The List of 7 by Mark Frost

I'm going to start today's post with an explanation of the way I'm using neo-Victorian in my definition of Steampunk as aesthetic.

I've appealed to the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (EF) a fair amount in putting my definition together.

The OED defines Neo-Victorian in its adjectival form as "Resembling, reviving, or reminiscent of, the Victorian era." I think this takes into account the various ways in which steampunk accesses the nineteenth century: as resemblance when the story actually takes place in the nineteenth century, as in The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives; as revival when there is a move to being "like people used to be," in future settings like Fitzpatrick's War; and as reminiscence when it feels like the nineteenth century but isn't, in secondary world settings as in The Court of the Air. I chose Neo-Victorian over a number of other possible terms because it was the most inclusive and the least cumbersome. It's also important to note that I consistently say that steampunk "evokes" the nineteenth century. To evoke is "To call (a feeling, faculty, manifestation, etc.) into being or activity. Also, To call up (a memory) from the past." So steampunk manifests the nineteenth century, though not necessarily in the nineteenth century.

I rejected Nineteenth-Centuryism, which the OED defines as "The distinctive spirit, character, or outlook of the 19th century; a feature or trait suggestive of the 19th century," because unlike "Victorian era," the words nineteenth and century are immediately connotative of temporal limitation - while the "-ism" suffix should signify something more than just a time period, it likely wouldn't.

The way in which I use neo-Victorian is as an umbrella term for the Belle Epoque, the Gilded Age, the Victorian and Edwardian era, and fin de siècle, woven together along with speculative elements. Otherwise,  how does one say that without taking ten minutes to explain it all? Neo-Victorian doesn't suffice beyond approximation, but it's as good a place as any to begin. Check out the links for all those terms, and you'll find an overlap of industrial advancement, artistic innovation, social revolution, optimism, and decadence (which I find terribly appropriate for steampunk art and sub-culture in its North American manifestations). I'm going to be studying the Belle Epoque in particular over the summer in relation to steampunk fashion and Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! I'm also suspicious that the way most North American steampunks view the Victorian era is through the lens of the Gilded Age in America, which might explain why most steampunk fans "cut off" the aesthetic at the end of the Gilded Age with the start of World War I.

I wanted to preface today's post with those thoughts, because unlike recent posts on The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Retribution Falls or Mortal Engines, Mark Frost's List of 7 is set in Victorian London, and I didn't want to give newcomers to the blog the impression that I think steampunk is limited to London, or just Victorian culture in particular. I should also inform my readers that aside from a dalliance regarding spiritualism and technofantasy, I won't be engaging in a lot of scholarly analysis with this post. I've been slaving away on my field papers for my PhD candidacy, and I'm all out of SMRT. It could be that, or it could be just that I'm such a fanboy of Mark Frost that I can't talk about this book without saying how much fun it is.

Mark Frost was the other half of the creative team that brought us Twin Peaks. Everyone knows David Lynch was involved with Twin Peaks, which I consider one of the best pieces of television art ever made, but few people are aware of Frost's contribution. I'm actually suspicious that much of what people loved about Twin Peaks is as much (possibly more) due to Frost's involvement than Lynch's. Reading through The List of 7, fans of Twin Peaks my be surprised to find the sort of witty banter between Agent Dale Cooper and Sheriff Harry Truman, now being traded between Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the mysterious Jack Sparks (who the reader is quick to assume will someday provide the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes). In addition to this quick banter, they will find an excellent mystery, and finally, as in Twin Peaks, a supernatural battle between good and evil. You might say List of 7 is a steampunk Twin Peaks with the coffee and pie replaced by tea and biscuits.

The book begins with Doyle's attendance at a séance that goes horribly wrong: it is here that Frost educates his readers on the history of the modern Spiritualist Movement, and allows me a digression to remind readers that spiritualism was once considered a science:
Science's assertion of primacy over the rusting tenets of Christian worship had created a seedbed that Spiritualism took root in like wild nightshade. The Movement's stated objective: Confirm the existence of realms of being beyond the physical, by direct communication with the spirit world through mediums--also known as sensitives--individuals attuned to the higher frequencies of noncorporeal life. (13)
It could be argued that spiritualism is a form of technofantasy - a method of scientific inquiry that we no longer hold to be scientific. It appears often in steampunk, which is appropriate for an aesthetic seeking to evoke the Victorian era. However, technofantasy and neo-Victorian are only one part of the steampunk aesthetic, and Frost uses no retrofuturist elements. There are some interesting gadgets, but they're all within the boundaries of nineteenth century possibility. This isn't the London of The Difference Engine.

This raises a further line of inquiry for me, one I'm remiss to follow: Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, like The List of 7, includes no retrofuturism, and leads me to simultaneously agree and disagree with the EF when it offers Gaslight Romance as an alternative to Steampunk for stories that are "urban fantasies (and other generic fictions) set in the high Victorian or Edwardian period" (391). The EF holds that The Anubis Gates is steampunk because its "principal plot-driver is technological anachronism" (391). I can only assume this is a reference to time-travel in Anubis Gates - the question becomes, is anachronism really a hallmark of steampunk? The OED defines anachronism as "Anything done or existing out of date; hence, anything which was proper to a former age, but is, or, if it existed, would be, out of harmony with the present; also called a practical anachronism. Also transf. of persons." The EF states that "Anachronism" is a "dislocation" which "applies most obviously to timeslip fantasies" (26). There are a number of timeslip fantasies considered steampunk: Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams series, Powers's The Anubis Gates, and Jeter's Morlock Night. These are all instances of early steampunk though, and the timeslip story doesn't seem as popular in later steampunk.

Just because many people have stated that anachronism is a hallmark of steampunk doesn't make it so, and as I've argued here, gonzo technology isn't anachronistic in a secondary world where it belongs. There are numerous instances of anachronism in steampunk to be sure, but it's once again, not a consistent trope. I'm guessing further discussion of this point will be needed in another post, when it's more salient to be discussing anachronism. I'm suspicious that we've used that word incorrectly in regards to steampunk, which is why I chose retrofuturism instead.

Back to The List of 7, our steampunk gaslight romance version of Twin Peaks. As I implied earlier, I was glad for the banter between Doyle and Sparks. It brought a smile to my face, as I'm a big fan of clever dialogue. Frost is expert at balancing nineteenth-century jargon with sharp wit, and Jack Sparks comes across as not only a prototype of Holmes, but an echo of Dale Cooper. When Doyle and Sparks meet for the first time, it is in the middle of a wild chase across rooftops in the middle of a storm.
They made their way to the rear edge of the roof. The street twenty feet below was empty. Jack put two fingers into his mouth and whistled loudly enough to pierce the wind.
"I say, Jack . . ."
"Yes, Doyle."
"Your whistling like that, is that such a good idea?"
"But I mean, their hearing seems awfully acute by reckoning [Doyle refers to their pursuers]."
"Acute doesn't quite cover it."
They waited. Jack unfolded the veil from his pocket, which Doyle noticed was nearly ten feet long and heavily weighted at either end. Doyle heard movement behind them; another gray hood appeared, loping down toward them over the crown of the roof.
"Shoot that one, will you?" Jack asked.
"I'll wait until it's a bit closer, if you don't mind," Doyle said, raising the pistol and drawing a bead on the figure.
"I wouldn't wait too long."
"I'd be happy to let you try--"
"No, no--"
"Because if you think you can do better--"
"I'm brimming with confidence in you, old boy--"
The hood was no more than ten feet away. Doyle fired. The creature, incredibly, dodged the bullet and continued to slowly advance.
"Not trying to be critical, you understand. It's just," Jack said, beginning to twirl the scarf above his head in a tight circle, "they're a good deal quicker than they first appear. Better to lay down a dense field of fire and hope they dodge into it." (71-72)
These moments of sharp banter between our heroes are so frequent, that Doyle will reflect later on the aggravating nature of Sparks's "insouciance" (76).

I can't say a lot about the unraveling of the mystery, as that sort of spoiler just ruins the reading in a book like this, except to say that it may disappoint fans of Sherlock Holmes, while being rather satisfying for fans of writers like Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. There's too much actual supernatural activity for this to work in a "Case of Identity" sort of way. Last year's Sherlock Holmes movie owes more to writers like Frost than it does to Doyle.

I also found Frost's polemic of good vs. evil particularly refreshing, and I get the sense that a number of my readers will too. Gail Carriger has lamented the sort of dreary aspect a good deal of steampunk takes, and as I stated in my post on Retribution Falls, steampunk seems to work best when it's having a good time. While Frost keeps things dark and dangerous (his villain is truly monstrous-his origin as related by Sparks is chilling), he's also savvy enough to keep the story from taking itself too seriously. Maybe it's his years working in television, but Frost really knows how to balance a Big Idea like good vs. evil against moments of comedy and high adventure. If you're a fan of Sherlock Holmes and looking for summer reading, I'd recommend the dark gaslight romance/fantasy of The List of 7 over the steampunk drudgery of George Mann's The Affinity Bridge. The List of 7 is available new from both North American Amazon sites, though it occasionally shows up at used book stores as well, for those of you who enjoy treasure hunting for your summer reading.

Jun 15, 2010

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

In response to a number of conversations, recommended hyperlinks, and posted replies and rebuttals to my post on Steampunk as an Aesthetic, I'm modifying my approach somewhat. I'd like to clarify that this has always been the intention of the blog: to air an idea in a seminar environment; to generate discussion that provokes further thought; which in turn, advances my research. So I owe great thanks to a number of online correspondents and writers who consistently push my thinking, and challenge me to think harder about it: Piechur of Retrostacja and Daniel Hemmens of FerretBrain have been directly responsible for me amending my thesis.

It's a minor amendment, but here it is: I'm conceding that the way in which I use "aesthetic" isn't drastically different from how some use "genre." As Daniel Chandler astutely notes in his well-researched "Introduction to Genre," "One theorist's genre may be another's sub-genre or even super-genre (and indeed what is technique, style, mode, formula or thematic grouping to one may be treated as a genre by another)." He goes on to list approaches to categorization in film theory, which made me wonder if, insofar as narrative media is concerned, I'm simply categorizing a genre by aesthetic. At the very least, I'd like to make sure I'm not confusedly communicating (as Daniel Hemmens' has assumed) that if something is an aesthetic, it cannot be a genre. This is not my point - I've likely been overstating my point, resulting in some confusion.

While Hemmens' analysis of my thesis is a bit premature, given that I promised it would be explained further in future posts, he makes a number of points that really challenged me (and apparently others, as the morass of comment thread following his post demonstrates), but the thought that was most influential on me was the following:
Were I in the mood to construct overly simplistic models for complex phenomena, I might say that genre is comprised of three elements: the aesthetic, the conceptual and the structural, aesthetic elements being cosmetic features like airships and dragons, conceptual features being the kinds of ideas the genre tends to engage with, and structural features being stuff about how the books are actually written. Some genres are defined primarily by conceptual features (horror tends to be scary, romance tends to be romantic) some by aesthetic features (fantasy tends to include magic and swordfights) and some by structural features (a three-volume novel will usually be published in three volumes).
I like that breakdown of genre: conceptual (I'd say thematic), aesthetic, and structural (which I would call technique). So the amendment is minor: I continue to view steampunk as an aesthetic, and insofar as it is expressed as a genre of fiction and art, I view it as a genre defined primarily by aesthetic features. If it has recurring concepts, or themes, that is largely because the steampunk aesthetic is often applied to SF, and consequently borrows SF themes and concepts. What is interesting to me is that these themes are explored through an aesthetic approach that borrows from both SF and fantasy.

Which bring us to today's post on Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding. This novel gets released in Canada tomorrow, but I had the good fortune of being sent a signed copy courtesy of Exhibition Hall editor-in-chief, Christopher Garcia. If you've heard anything about Retribution Falls at all, you've likely heard something to the effect of "like Firefly" or "think Pirates of the Caribbean with ships in the air instead of the water." Neither of those comparisons is wrong, and yet neither quite captures Retribution Falls properly. I've read scathing and glowing reviews, which makes me glad that I no longer write reviews per se. On the subjective end, I really enjoyed Retribution Falls and found that it was a fresh take on tired ground. The basic plot has been done to death, but for a Firefly-fan like myself, I didn't see a downside to the affinities Wooding and Whedon share here. I'll let those reviews be your gateway to plot synopses and opinions on whether Retribution Falls is worth reading.

I want to focus instead on how Retribution Falls works inside Hemmens' genre scheme, slightly revised: aesthetic, themes, and technique. We'll deal primarily with the aesthetic aspects (specifically within the structure of the three recurring signifiers I've posited as comprising the steampunk aesthetic: Technofantasy, Retrofuture, and neo-Victorian), but I'll make commentary on the theme and technique as well.

Technofantasy: One of the major characters, Crake, is a "daemonist," which is effectively an alchemist. Daemonists are contrasted with charlatan diviners in one scene where Crake explains that people want to see daemonists hanged, because what they do works. "It's a science," he tells the sky-pirate Captain Frey (109). This is the approach of technofantasy: it is the science of an alternate history or secondary world wherein the physical laws are radically different from our own. Consider the following description of a daemonist's workshop:
Plome, like Crake, had always leaned towards science rather than superstition in his approach to daemonism. His sanctum was like a laboratory. A chalkboard was covered with formulae for frequency modulation, next to a complicated alembic and books on the nature of plasm and luminiferous aether. A globular brass cage took pride of place, surrounded by various resonating devices. There were thin metal strips of varying lengths, chimes of all kinds, and hollow wooden tubes. With such devices a daemon could be contained. (70) 
A few people have tried to call me on this one, saying that the technology of Star Trek and Star Wars is technofantasy - and they're absolutely correct. It's why hard-SF aficionados are non-plussed about the conflation of these space operas with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov's work. It's why we have terms like "syfy" now. I don't disagree that Star Trek and Star Wars are technofantasy (Wars more than Trek). But in the case of Trek's dilithium crystals, you're dealing with a fictional substance based in scientific speculation. Compare an article on the properties of dilithium crystals with luminiferous aether to see the difference in the nomenclature. Trek is making an attempt to sound scientific. Steampunk rarely tries, and when it does, it's still pure technofantasy. Bess, the powerful automaton of Retribution Falls doesn't have a positronic brain; it is not a droid or robot, it is a golem, created through the Art of daemonism in a ritual mixing equal parts Frankenstein, Cthulhu mythos, and Full Metal Alchemist

As another example, consider the following passage from Frank Herbert's Dune, when Jessica Atreides is taking "The Water of Life," and synthesizing its poison. The passage is a mix of mystical and chemical language: "an abrupt revelation," is understood as the awareness of "a pychokinesthetic extension of herself." And while the mystical elements remain, the process is ultimately conveyed through science:
The stuff was dancing particles within her, its motions so rapid that even frozen time could not stop them. Dancing particles. She began recognizing familiar structures, atomic linkages: a carbon atom here, helical wavering...a glucose molecule. An entire chain of molecules confronted her, and she recognized a protein...a metyhl-protein configuration. (297)
Dune presents an excellent contrast for looking at how technofantasy is used in steampunk, vs. hard SF. Insofar as Dune contains elements of technofantasy, they are woven in with hard speculations about ecology, evolution, human consciousness, and astrophysics. These speculations contribute directly to the themes of Dune. In steampunk, it's hard to identify how technofantasy contributes to themes. In the case of Retribution Falls, daemonism serves only as marker of difference for Crake - daemonism is outlawed, which renders Crake an outsider. This relates to Retribution Falls' central theme, the idea of community and belonging, but this relationship is not intrinsic to how Wooding constructs daemonism as technofantasy. Crake is ultimately an exile from hearth and home because of an experiment gone horribly wrong, not because daemonism is inherently a ritual practice that encourages loneliness. Contrast this with the spice melange of Dune, which is inherently connected to the novel's ecological theme. I'm not implying that the technofantasy of steampunk can't be used to further a novel's conceptual aspects, simply that in the case of Retribution Falls, they don't. In my reading, this seems to the rule, not exception. Consider that Moorcock uses the airships of Warlord of the Air as a signifier of Imperial Colonialism. The airships communicate a period of time when Britain was a significant world power. They aren't just modes of transportation, they are indicators of theme.

Retrofuturism: The airships of Retribution Falls, while also serving as examples of technofantasy, largely operate in the steampunk aesthetic to signify retrofuturism. If a writer wants to convey the future without any nods to the past, they don't fly in airships like a "blubous cargo barque." Airships are a failed technology that require fictional motive power or construction materials to be made viable. Wooding describes the Ketty Jay, the airship of the novel's sky-pirate crew as an "Ironclad," a term that evokes images of the Thunderchild from Wells's The War of the Worlds, or the vessel the Nautilus sinks in the second half of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It evokes the nineteenth century (and thus is a marker of the way I use the term neo-Victorian as well). However, while evoking the past, the Ketty Jay and other ships in Retribution Falls are not merely copies of a Graf Zeppelin, despite references to the Ace of Skulls being "buoyed up with huge tanks of aerium gas," which is refined into "ultralight gas." While the Ketty Jay seems to have the overall  design of real-world airships "an ugly, bulky thing, hunched like a vulture, with a blunt nose and two fat thrusters," and is thus prone to the same threats they are, it is described as having "the notoriously robust Blackmore P-12 thrusters" (159), engines capable of taking the airship through a storm that heavier-than-air craft couldn't handle. Compare this with the opening chapter of Kenneth Oppel's Skybreaker, where the airship is at the mercy of the wind, and you'll understand how Wooding has made his air transport both a thing of the past and the future: The Ketty Jay bears more than a passing resemblance in spirit to Han Solo's Millenium Falcon, as a cargo-combat conversion meant for smuggling. Wooding excels at positing great airship-class names, including the Tabington Wolverine or the Besterfield Ghostmoth.

Neo-Victorian: In short, evoking the nineteenth century, with fuzzy temporal boundaries (I don't mean it has to slavishly remind one of Victorian London, but I haven't found a decent term for this other than neo-Victorian). One of the forum participants at Ferret Brain made a comment about pirate-punk, and I thought immediately of Retribution Falls. What's wonderful about Wooding's novel is that it doesn't immediately come across as having a eighteenth/nineteenth century aspect to it - there is a sense of another world, one which is not my own. Aside from the inclusion of airships, it is only through little details that the reader concludes an antiquated aspect to the decor and implements in this secondary world. Frey carries a cutlass and, along with his crew, uses revolvers (not blasters); the bounty-hunting Century Knights wear armor and carry swords (along with ballistic weapons like "twin lever-action shotguns" (74)) that lend a traditional, ceremonial aspect to their costume, which includes a "tricorn hat" for one (74); at one point, we are in a town where "electricity hasn't caught on here yet" (69); where there is electricity, the bulbs are in a "black iron candelabra" (39); one of the pilots has a "ferrotype of his sweetheart" (49); I could go on: a "black waistcoat" (206), a "single oil lantern" (268); a dreadnought (323). The aesthetic is the past, and taken on the whole, a past in the style of the nineteenth century. Just check out the cover to the forthcoming sequel to see what I mean.

Yet all of this remains aesthetic. Is there a thematic element? The thread that runs throughout Retribution Falls is hardly what one expects from an adventure story with a steampunk feel: relationship and belonging. It isn't the steampunk aesthetic that delivers this--Woodings characters could be in a Space Opera, a Western, a straight-forward pirate tale on the high seas. They would remain a crew with secret pasts revealed slowly, page by page, chapter by chapter, who move from motley to united as the book progresses:
"The Darian Frey they were about to kill wasn't the same Darien Frey they'd set out to frame for their crime. That man had been a failure, a man who had lurched from crisis to disaster at the whim of fate. A man who had prided himself on being better than the bottom-feeding scum of the smuggling world, and hadn't desired any more than that.
But he'd surprised them. He'd turned and fought when he should have run. He'd evaded and outwitted them time and again. He'd turned a bunch of dysfunctional layabouts into something approximating a crew." (343)
This is the core of Wooding's novel. The novel's catchy title has little to do with the theme of belonging, unless it is viewed as an analogue of the difference between dream and reality (I won't say more about this lest I spoil the reveal of the pirate-town of Retribution Falls). While Retribution Falls is mentioned early in the book, it isn't the mystery that keeps the reader turning pages: Wooding's best slow-reveals are character-based. Jules Verne reveals the nature of the Nautilus early in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then turns to Captain Nemo and his motivation to provide the basis of suspense for the remainder of the book. The reader knows Frey and his crew will find Retribution Falls, and so something else is needed to motivate interest. Accordingly, the entire novel acts as a sort of adventurous frame narrative (perhaps my only nod to the technique Wooding employs) for the character development of Darian Frey the freebooter, Crake the daimonist, and Jez the mysterious navigator.  Jez's back-story comes very nearly at the end of the book, at a point when the reader might feel cheated of learning the crew's fate. This is a failing of Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, largely because the characters in Perpetual Motion are so flawed they aren't engaging, unlike the crew of the Ketty Jay, who are flawed but endearing. When Wooding finally turns his full attention to Jez's past, the reader is just as satisfied to know "what happened then" as they are "what happens next." Wooding's novel is certainly Firefly-esque, but if Wooding is riffing off Whedon, it's his character development where he most succeeds in homage. Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn't stay on the air for as many seasons as it did just because people dig vampires: television is most successful when it combines entertaining escapes filled with characters we love.

If Retribution Falls is merely steampunked Firefly, it's not only because it's about a crew of outlaws in a flying vessel: it's because Wooding writes characters as rich and fun as Whedon does, whose dynamic arcs run parallel to an engaging, fast-paced adventure story. On the surface, Retribution Falls is steampunk: technofantasy daemonism, retrofuturist airships, and neo-Victorian sky-pirates. Beneath the veneer, it's a story about relationships and belonging - not in the way Adele Wiseman's Crackpot is, but in the way a summer blockbuster can elevate its material by refusing to just "blow shit up real good." I suspect this is why it was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award...or perhaps it was just because the judges were glad to see someone letting speculative fiction have a good time again.

I'd also like to suggest that Stephan Martiniere is both a blessing and curse to authors. He makes gorgeous covers, but sadly the text inside doesn't always live up to his brilliance. Thankfully Retribution Falls does. Martiniere excels at steampunkish, industrial art, having illustrated the covers of Jay Lake's Mainspring, Escapement, and Pinion, as well as Michael Swanwick's Dragons of Babel, as well as this smokin' cover for the comic book series The Victorian.  Click on those links to see the art.

Works Cited

Herbert, Frank. The Great Dune Trilogy. Bath: Pitman Press, 1979.

Jun 14, 2010

International Steampunk (Superman) Day

So apparently today is International Steampunk Day. Why? Near as I can tell, because someone on Facebook decided that, in addition to "International Pirate Day, Ninja Appreciation Day, Dress like a Goth Day and Mock an Emo Day," we needed an "Official Holiday" to celebrate everything steampunk. Strangely, the Facebook page says nothing about WHY June 14 was chosen as a date.

I Googled it. I wanted to know why June 14 was chosen. I read forum threads debating other possible dates, usually centered around some famous steampunk inspiration's birthday: Verne, Tesla, etc. Someone posted on a blog that it's because it's H.G. Wells's birthday, which perturbs me to no end, as, not only is today not Wells's birthday, but the man wrote scientific romances, not steampunk.  I personally think it should have been in April, which is the month in which Jeter's unsuspecting coining of the term occurred.

Someone's going to tell me I'm taking this too seriously, but...seriously! How can you have an "official" anything if you can't substantiate your reason for being official? What authority are you appealing to? Why Wells and not Verne? Why choose an author who never wrote any steampunk? Why not choose Moorcock's birthday? I don't really think the world needs another official anything day, but if we're going to impose one, shouldn't we have a better reason than, "Because the Ninjas do?"

While I'm being somewhat playful here, I'm also underscoring the reason this blog exists - to think rigourously about steampunk: to apply academic tools of theory and observation to a pop culture manifestation. But I hope I'm not just doing this off in the corner - I hope I'm inspiring others to think good and hard about whatever they're interested in. I don't think politics or religion are responsible for the evils in our world - a lack of critical thinking is. If you love steampunk, think critically about it. If you want to celebrate steampunk on a specific day, think critically about what day that ought to be. Give it some sense of tradition, or foundation. Stop talking about steampunk like it has no roots.

It's  Harry Turtledove's birthday, but he's never written steampunk...only alternate history. It's also the day G.K. Chesterton died, and for those who enjoy steampunk precedents, I recommend Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. No Vernian or Wellsian tech, but it has anarchists and surreality. It's also the date of Jorge Luis Borges' death: Borges has nothing to do with steampunk, but he's one of my favorite writers, and I'd also recommend you read pretty much anything by him.

For the record, June 14, 1822, was the date Charles Babbage proposed the difference engine in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society entitled, "Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables." Given the infamy of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine as a "seminal steampunk work," I can only surmise this may have been the reason for choosing June 14, but since no one seems to have posted this anywhere in the great wide Web, this is only conjecture.

As it turns out, today is also the day Superman was introduced to the world in Action Comics issue 1. I'm a much bigger fan of Superman than I am of steampunk, so I'm mostly wishing Superman a happy birthday today. Nevertheless, so as not to be a party-pooper, Happy International Steampunk Day to those of you who are observing it.

So, for your enjoyment, here's one of my favorite Sillof creations, a 'steampunk" Superman, as well as links to a number of photos and articles on DC Heroes under the steampunk aesthetic.

Drew Blom's "Steamo Superman" 
Bard Haven's "Steampunk Heroes" (an article on Sillof's Gaslight JLA)
Justice League by Gaslight (another article on Sillof's figure line)
Jared Axelrod's amazing Steampunk Superman costume
and it's earlier iteration

I should also add, for my Dieselpunk and general Retrofuturist friends out there, a link to It's Superman! by Tom DeHaven, and give a strong recommendation to read it to those of you who enjoy bygone years and the Man of Steel.

Jun 10, 2010

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

My aesthetic definition of steampunk has been getting some play over at FerretBrain,. Daniel Hemmens, one of the participants, has been thinking pretty hard about my "steampunk as aesthetic" post, given his extensive response/critique of it. I wish I had more time to properly address Daniel's critique, since he's done me an honour by thinking so rigourously about the aesthetic and its implications. For the meantime, I'll have to limit my response to one of Daniel's comments on the forum thread that inspired his article:
I also find it weird that the guy insists that Steampunk isn't a genre because it contains no single, universal feature. Isn't that like concluding that Fantasy isn't a genre, because not all fantasy novels contain dragons, or that Science Fiction isn't a genre, because not all science fiction novels contain spaceships?
I think the key term here is "narrative." I said, "It is not a genre, because within the literature, there is no recurrent narrative element that one can point to which appears in all, or even most of the books." I then clarified by using airships as an example, so I suppose I earned the spaceship remark. But my point is, I'm not focusing on single objects, items, or locations. It's about narrative threads and themes. Fantasy and science fiction are narrative forms that employ certain favored approaches recurrent within their strains. As I often do, I'll turn to more authoritative sources than my opinion for help.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines Science Fiction as "Imaginative fiction based on postulated scientific discoveries or spectacular environmental changes, freq. set in the future or on other planets and involving space or time travel." In its section on fantasy, it states only that it is "A genre of literary compositions," perhaps eschewing a fixed definitions for the same reason John Clute and John Grant state in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy: "The term "fantasy" is used to cover a very wide range of texts, movies, visual presentations, and so on" (viii) They quote Brian Atterbery as saying that fantasy is a "fuzzy set." Nevertheless, they go on to posit a "rough definition" of what we mean by fantasy:
"A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative which, when set in our reality, tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld or secondary world, that otherworld will be impossible, but stories set there will be possible in the otherworld's terms. An associated point, hinted at here, is that at the core of fantasy is STORY. Even the most surrealist of fantasies tells a tale...Two of our editorial team have argued extensively elsewhere that fantasy art is, at its heart, a narrative form." (viii)
Both science fiction and fantasy have an inherent narrative quality the steampunk aesthetic doesn't inherently share. What narrative quality can one derive from steampunk jewelry, modded computers, or fashion?  The now-iconic steampunk keyboard made by Jake von Slatt has no inherent narrative. Just because I could construct one doesn't mean the art demand I do so, whereas Myke Amend's "The Rescue" demands a narrative from the viewer, since it depicts a scene in media res: we almost automatically conjecture what happened before and after the pictured moment. Both the steampunk keyboard and "The Rescue" are considered steampunk. One can be analyzed sans narrative, while the other, while is could be analyzed at a compositional level, is more about what is happening in the image than how that image was constructed.

Further, while it could be argued that a "science fiction" or "fantasy" aesthetic could be applied to other genres as I suggest steampunk can, it wouldn't change the fact that both science fiction and fantasy already exist within generic traditions which utilize recurring themes and tropes. Steampunk texts do not have recurring themes and tropes in the way that SF and fantasy do. Instead, steampunk is an aesthetic applied to fantasy and SF texts which continue exploring the themes and tropes of SF and fantasy from a new perspective, via steampunk style. When Ekaterina Sedia asks questions about gender and identity through her automaton protagonist in The Alchemy of Stone, it isn't because steampunk as a genre often explores gender and identity, it's because science fiction has been looking at gender and identity through artificial lifeforms for the past century, from Asimov's I, Robot, to Heinlein's Friday, to the Cylons of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, to Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. When Kenneth Oppel writes a coming-of-age story in his Airborn trilogy, it isn't because coming-of-age is inherent to steampunk: it's because he's working off a much larger tradition of adventure stories. The Court of the Air has orphaned protagonists; Boneshaker has a mother pursuing her son to rescue him. There are revolutionaries against the established order in Whitechapel Gods; there are loyal agents of the Queen in The Affinity Bridge. There is alternate history in The Difference Engine; there is an alternate world in Perdido Street Station. These are found in SF and Fantasy in general: steampunk does not utilize these narrative elements -- it merely changes how they look and feel.

I'm not saying "because airships don't show up in all steampunk, it's not a genre." I'm saying that at the level of narrative, plot, and theme, there is little to no repetition, save those borrowed from existing genres. There is a lot of adventure in steampunk texts, but is that because steampunk is a genre that always utilizes adventure? There are a lot of steampunk romances, so is steampunk always romantic?

And if steampunk is a genre, then what the hell do we do with The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer? You won't likely find Palmer's first novel in the SF or Fantasy section, nor should you.  The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a good example of how the steampunk aesthetic can be applied to something other than SF and Fantasy. Palmer's book is a novel of ideas with a brass veneer. But unlike Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, where the steampunk aesthetic is utilized as homage, The Dream of Perpetual Motion uses steampunk to convey a sense of emptiness about technology and progress. Steampunk elements do not act as a reaction to modernity here so much as embody the emptiness of modernity's faith in technology.

As a novel of ideas, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is quite an achievement (it struck me very funny that I had just finished writing Leaving London, Approaching Albion on the future of steampunk where I stated that we might just see a steampunk novel of ideas, and next month, this was on the shelf). The passages I highlighted while reading could each stand as a mini-commentary on technology, modernity, commercialism, and ultimately, the steampunk aesthetic itself. Consider this quotation from the opening pages, one of "endless lunatic" musings of the protagonist's love interest, Miranda:
Soon our culture's oldest dreams will be made real. Even the thought of sending a kind of flying craft to the moon is no longer nothing more than a child's fantasy. At this moment in the cities below us, the first mechanical men are being constructed that will have the capability to pilot the ship on its maiden voyage. But no one has asked if this dream we've had for so long will lose its value once it is realized. What will happen when those mechanical men step out of their ship and onto the surface of this moon, which has served humanity for thousands of years as our principal icon of love and madness? When they touch their hands to the ground and perform their relentless analyses and find no measurable miracles, but a dead gray world of rocks and dust? When they discover that it was the strength of millions of boyhood daydreams that kept the moon aloft, and that without them that murdered world will fall, spiraling slowly down and crashing into the open sea? (2-3)
This passage echoes the fact that almost all the technological speculations of Jules Verne had come to their fruition by the end of the twentieth-century, as Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter state in their introduction to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: The Completely Restored and Annotated Edition (vii). It creates a conversation with James Blaylock's The Digging Leviathan, with Giles Peach's imaginations made real, and Greg Bear's Petra where the world is only held together by thought in the wake of God's demise. It addresses the longing inherent in retrofuturism, the underlying seriousness to the flippant question of "where's my rocket pack?" It introduces the polarities of SF and fantasy that steampunk holds in tension in technofantasy - the liminal space between technology and belief, which the novel explores at length. At its core, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is an exploration of the ideas in technofantasies: it's very title references technofantasy by claiming that an object once thought scientifically possible has been deemed nothing more than a dream. Further, Palmer utilizes character names from Shakespeare's The Tempest, most saliently that of Miranda's father, Prospero Taligent, a brilliant (but mad) inventor who keeps his daughter locked in a tower (Yes, there are numerous fairy-tale references in Dream of Perpetual Motion, as well as intertextual nods to Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz). The steampunk character type of mad scientist is conflated here with a wizard: a maker of magic, not science. In the chapter I've submitted to Contemporary Repurposings and Theoretical Revisitings of Fairy-Tales and Fantasies, I quote the following passage, in which the space between technology and belief is made metaphor between the Virgin and the Dynamo:
The Dynamo represents the desire to know; the Virgin represents the freedom not to know.
     What’s the Virgin made of? Things that we think are silly, mostly. The peculiar logic of dreams, or the inexplicable stirring we feel when we look on someone that’s beautiful not in a way that we all agree is beautiful, but the unique way in which a single person is. The Virgin is faith and mysticism; miracle and instinct; art and randomness.
     On the other hand, you have the Dynamo: the unstoppable engine. It finds the logic behind a seeming miracle and explains that miracle away; it finds the order in randomness to which we’re blind; it takes a caliper to a young woman’s head and quantifies her beauty in terms of pleasing mathematical ratios; it accounts for the secret stirring you felt by discoursing at length on the systems of animals.
     These forces aren’t diametrically opposed, and it’s not correct to say that one’s good and the other’s evil, despite the prejudices we might have toward one or the other. When we’re at our best, both the Virgin and the Dynamo govern what we think and what we do.
     Instead of seeing these two kingdoms of force as diametric opposites, always in conflict, as this industrial age has taught us […] we have to find a way to allow them to coexist. We have to find a way to marry the Virgin to the Dynamo. (187)
Again, this passage could become a conversation with a number of texts: the opposition of the Mechanics and Alchemists in The Alchemy of Stone; the self-reflexive nature of Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio's statement that it is a story "about science and faith, and the distance between the two" (6); the statement near the end of Pynchon's Against the Day that "Fumes are not the future...burning dead dinosaurs and whatever they ate ain't the answer" (1031), but rather an embracing of mystery and love as the heroes "fly toward grace" (1085). It comes into academic conversation with Victoria Nelson's Secret Life of Puppets, when she speaks about postmodernity's rejection of scientism, the "one-sided worldview" dominating Western culture in the past three hundred years. Nelson advocates for the blanace of idealism and empiricism, not a rejection of one at the expense of the other.

Palmer's novel can be brought into conversation with another one of Nelson's criticisms of modernity, that "our culture's post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment prohibition on the supernatural and exclusion of a transcendent, non-materialist level of reality from the allowable universe has created the ontological equivalent of a perversion caused by repression" (19). The father of the novel's protagonist delivers several speeches about the disappearance of miracles, that "there's nothing left that's miraculous anymore, and that's your loss for being born too late" (35). He goes on to contrast the difference between miracle and invention by stating that inventions can be ultimately understood, and miracles can not. Miracles imply a lack of complete understanding about why something works the way it does. If a the workings of a mystery to one man can be understood by another, it is not a miracle - it is an invention. With the death of miracles--God--the world becomes more frightening because it can ostensibly be understood, and yet ultimately--isn't:
"But here is a paradox: that mysteries such as these provided not disquiet for us, but comfort. Because they granted us permission, and in fact made it necessary, to believe in a God to Whom all mysteries had solutions. With belief in God comes the certainty that the world that He masters has an order. That every single thing in it at least makes sense to Someone [...] When the machines came, and when they drove away the angels from the world, they ruined everything [...] And without a God to comprehend this world in its entirety, what surety do I have that at its heart it is not chaotic and [...] therefore meaningless?" (36-37) 

There are points at which it comments on our contemporary desire for media bites, the lack of interest in "scrolling down" a blog post as epic as most of my posts at Steampunk Scholar are: "Storytelling--that's not the future. The future, I'm afraid, is flashes and impulses. It's made up of moments and fragments, and stories won't survive" (97). At other points, it is terribly aware of its retrofuturistic setting, and how that is popularly perceived: "What I say is [...] if you're gonna go to all that trouble to build a flying car, why not go the distance and put some guns on it too. Flying cars with no gangster typewriters on 'em get the raspberry [...] Pfffbbt" (52). When Palmer is using his novel to communicate ideas about modernity and postmodernity, he's very successful. I owe this man a huge thank-you for providing me with a novel that I can use to seriously engage with steampunk as a reaction to modernity.

When Palmer is just writing the story of a boy and a girl and the girl's disturbingly protective father, he is less successful. I didn't enjoy The Dream of Perpetual Motion as a story, which is why I haven't bothered with a synopsis. I appreciated as modernist critique. I appreciate it as grist for the mill in the academic conversation on steampunk. It will work wonders for my dissertation. However, as a story, I couldn't wait to be finished so I could get back to something that was...well, my colleagues will loathe me for saying this, but...fun.

Cherie Priest has it right when she says that if you aren't having fun when doing steampunk, you're doing it wrong. Serious steampunk doesn't seem to work very well. I may be jumping the gun by saying this, but I suspect that the aesthetic works best when it is turned to romanticism. And while The Dream of Perpetual Motion reflects on romanticism, it's not an escapist piece of writing. Perhaps others will disagree with me, but I think if steampunk is going to engage with serious matters, it needs to do so with a sense of irony, understanding its own limitations to effectively comment on real world big ideas. Palmer understands the limitations of the aesthetic he's chosen - there are inner critiques of it. But the book lacks enough whimsy to buoy its ideas above the weight of their lunacy. When I got to the last page, I found myself dubious as to how we'd arrived at that ending. There were hints towards it, but the book's repeated dives into grotesque fates for both of the major female characters didn't roll towards the last line of the book. It was like inverted Mieville. The book demanded a less upbeat ending. Or perhaps this was Palmer's stab at marrying the Dynamo with the Virgin, of bringing the miracle into the story. It's an emotional deus ex machina that belongs there. But then the miracle should have been a more complete miracle. I digress though - I'm talking about the book I wished it had been, which is something I warn my students against.

Ultimately, while I know some of you come here as fellow students, interested in academic discussion, you also want to know whether the book is worth reading. To those who love postmodern fiction, who enjoy a novel of ideas, who don't mind having narrative digressions when the plot should be in full page-turning mode, the answer is: yes. It's worth reading. Is it any fun? I didn't find it to be. I found it on the tedious side. And like so many "serious" novels, it felt like it couldn't fully embrace the story it was telling. It was too busy disseminating ideas to be concerned with blowing shit up real good. To each their own, but I'm fond of what my political novel professor said about didacticism and art: the more didactic a work, the worse the art. This reads a bit like an Ayn Rand novel, except with a hell of a lot more flair, and much better dialogue (for the record, I loathe Ayn Rand - she's the epitome to me of how terrible fiction is when it turns didactic).

One final note. Jonathan Mayberry, author of The Dragon Factory is quoted as saying that "Steampunk comes of age with this book." I disagree. Steampunk came of age when Thomas Pynchon wrote Against the Day. Pynchon mixed Big Ideas with great plot and great characters. And he was a hell of a lot more fun to read.

Go here to check out some fantastic art inspired by the book, especially Myke Amend's pieces.
There was an error in this gadget

My Blog List