Jul 29, 2010

Mission Update: July


Thus ends my first full thematic month here at Steampunk Scholar. Canuck Steampunk Month was a blast for me, being able to focus my writing in a way I hadn't done previously, both because I was too busy with lectures and prep as well as getting articles written and published for journals and magazines. I loved bringing Margaret Atwood to the conversation for Oppel's books, and hopefully introducing many of you to Roger Colombo, who is one of Canada's finest SF critics. Making the discovery of Laurent McAllister's “The case of the serial “De Québec à la Lune” by Veritatus," was a joy, a revelation of an obscure piece of short fiction that fits squarely in the steampunk family. My apologies to those who were looking forward to my analysis of Karin Lowachee's The Gaslight Dogs. I have an article to finish for Locus, and a top-secret project I had to sign a non-disclosure form for, which kept me from attending to Gaslight Dogs. That said, I did start it, and I can already see how it's going to fit into the presentation I proposed to the Eaton SF conference in 2011. I'm doing a comparison of the treatment of First Nations characters in a few different steampunk and alternate history pieces. The Gaslight Dogs brings a great perspective to that table. I'm only a third of the way in, but unless Lowachee messes things up royally in the last half, I can recommend it as good reading. She's got a wonderful prose style that evokes rather than slavishly describes scenes.


Regular visitors to Steampunk Scholar will have noted that I used a different flag in each week in the header image of the Canuck steampunk month. Each of these played a part in the history of the Canadian flag, and when I did my own research, was a bit ashamed to admit I didn't know the Canadian flag was adopted only six years before I was born! Prior to that, we flew a flag incorporating the provincial flags in a shield, and the Union Jack: the Red Ensign. So I wanted to highlight these other flags as a way of raising awareness about Canadian history. Both Cory Gross and I lament the lack of historical awareness in many steampunk circles, despite my own admission that steampunk doesn't need historical accuracy (I'd argue awareness and accuracy aren't mutually exclusive). In a lecture on symbolism, I show students the American flag and then ask them what it means - I never lack for responses: freedom, liberty, number of states, oppression, the list goes on. I then show them a slide of the Canadian flag, and ask what it means. There are few replies. They can tell me how Canada is perceived around the world, but cannot tie the symbolism to the flag. It's interesting to read the Snopes article debunking the "points on the maple leaf corresponding to the number of provinces idea," as it highlights the reasons for the lack of symbolism in the flag. Sometimes even the lack of a signifier can become a signifier! I recommend the Canadian Heritage pages and of course, Wikipedia as well for some extra flag-related reading.

In addition to the flags, I wanted to mention where I got my Mountie's uniform from. I "borrowed" it from Canadian hero Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.  I even stole his mustache. I love Photoshop...


Since I didn't get to my post on Scarlet Riders either, I wanted to give a shout out to the Northwest Mounted Police and the pulp tales they inspired. Here's the stuff we didn't learn in Social Studies class: there's a whole genre of fiction called Northerns or Northwesterns, which are to Canada what the classic Western is to the United States. There was the radio series Challenge of the Yukon which became Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, both as a comic book and television series. There were films with titles like Sky Bandits, Fangs of the Arctic, and Death Hunt (which starred Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin). And while Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders sounds like a promising piece of serialized SF dreck, it turns out only to be Cold War Atomic Invaders.

Here's a page containing a list of Northwesterns for your perusal, an article on Northwestern authors, and of course, a Wikipedia entry for Northern.

Since my readers anticipated Canuck Steampunk Month, a number sent me relevant links: Many thanks to Jack Horner, who I met through The Great Steampunk Debate for passing along this Wikipedia article about the Halkett boat, which has the feel of gonzo tech to it. Jack said he could imagine the Legion of Frontiersmen using this.


For Canuck Steampunks who dig history, here's a link to a PDF detailing the R-100 Zeppelin's visit to Canada, which you can see pictured above, flying over Toronto.

Here's a link to Edmonton author Tina Hunter's site for her flash fiction "Shiny", which features a steampunk Captain who's apparently been haunting Tina's dreams!

It's interesting to me to see how, in this first thematic month at Steampunk Scholar, the mission update evolved from "what I've been up to" to an encouragement to go and do some more reading yourself! Once an educator, always an educator I guess! That said, I do want to include a note about how great it was to move into my very own private office at Grant MacEwan University here in Edmonton. I was finally able to achieve a separation of work and home life I haven't had in a very, very long time. I work on lesson prep and steampunk research during the day, then go home. While at work, I read steampunk. While at home, I read something else. It's been refreshing. I read Emma Bull's Territory, which was mostly good despite a lackluster ending, and have been chipping away at Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, Samuel Delany's Neveryon tales, and Justin Cronin's The Passage, which is the first "buzz" book I've read in some time. I suppose as a first year English instructor I ought to know something about these Girl who Did Something Something books, but I'm too busy enjoying Cronin's riff on King's The Stand to care.

Next month we're back to a mish-mash month, with a number of varied posts about teaching steampunk, steampunk roleplaying, and of course, the usual book analyses, including Android Karenina, and a few long overdue books I read ages ago: Fitzpatrick's War, which I read the year before I was studying steampunk, and El Sombra, which I read last summer. Still getting caught up, it would seem!

Here are some new additions to the growing Secondary Sources list:


Attebery, Brian. "Introduction: The Form of the Content of the Form." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 20.3 (2009): 315-318. Discussion of the fictionality of history - steampunk is only briefly mentioned, in relation to Margaret Rose's article.

Rose, Margaret. "Extraordinary Pasts: Steampunk as a Mode of Historical Representation." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 20.3 (2009): 319-333. (a scholarly look at Nick Gever's Extraordinary Engines anthology)

Jul 23, 2010

Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters

In the essay "Four Hundred Years of Fantastic Literature in Canada," John Robert Colombo constructs the following taxonomy of fantastic literature:
"Fantastic literature" is short for "the literature of the fantastic." I have in mind three literary genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, and Weird Fiction. The three genres are more distinct in theory than in practice, but they do represent different approaches to storytelling. Science Fiction is writing that is realistic and deals with reasonable change that follows the introduction of a scientific discovery or a technological invention or application. Fantasy Fiction is writing that seems closer to legend and myth than to realism; it describes heroic action in a world that is not out own. Weird Fiction, often described as "horror fiction," "occult fiction," or "supernatural fiction," offers the reader a realistic world that lies somewhere between the workaday world informed by science and the world charged with imaginative values; in Weird Fiction, the society and world are recognizably our own, except for the fact that someone finds a miraculous object or develops a strange talent, unexpected and non-scientific in nature. Within Weird Fiction, the difference between the literature of horror and the literature of terror is that in the former the accent is on physical menace, whereas in the latter it is on psychological menace, roughly equivalent to the difference between the physical horror of Frankenstein and the psychical terror of Dracula.
The three genres are easily distinguished, as a consideration of modes of transportation suggests. In Science Fiction, the given mode of transportation may be a rocket ship, spaceship, or starship, perhaps even a flying saucer, depending on the period and the sophistication of the writing. In Fantasy Fiction, the mode of transportation might be a flying carpet or a steed that is the descendant of Pegasus, based on the setting of the work. In Weird Fiction, there might be levitation or sudden appearances and disappearances without rationale. In any prose narrative, the mode of transportation is accepted as the norm, and the reader does not expect to encounter in a given novel or story both sleek spaceships and winged steeds, as consistency and appropriateness are required. Is interchangeability possible or impossible? C.S. Lewis thought it possible, for he once wrote, "I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus." (30-31)
This was written in 1995. Back then, it was a little easier to make rigid delineations: this is Fantasy, that is Science Fiction, that thing over there is Horror (It seems Colombo is referring to what we generally think of as horror, not necessarily the "weird" as defined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy). And yet, Stephen King and Peter Straub had already blurred the lines between Fantasy and Horror with The Talisman. Arguably, Lovecraft had blurred the lines between Science Fiction and Horror nearly a century earlier, and yet, Colombo's taxonomy isn't a bad one. Definitions aren't straight jackets: they're skeletons. In the case of fantastic literature, they help us talk in short-hand about works that don't fit into quotidian fiction.

Current fantastic writers are perfectly comfortable with interchangeability, as Mark Bould notes in his article "What Kind of Monster Are You?" in Volume 30 of Science Fiction Studies. Bould examines China Mieville's genre-blurring Perdido Street Station as a work of fiction that resists restraints. While not nearly as masterful in his prose, Canadian author S.M. Peters is equal to Mieville in terms of hybridity, mixing science fiction, horror, and fantasy in equal doses throughout his debut novel, Whitechapel Gods

The first time I read S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods was in the Spring of 2008, months before I'd made the final decision to do my PhD dissertation on steampunk. I'd spotted it in Chapters, and based on its delightfully enticing cover, thought it might prove a good choice for getting my steampunk-feet wet. I recall reading it too fast, skimming my way through it, and missing an awful lot. I took my time on this second read, giving it my full attention, and realized why I missed so much.

Whitechapel Gods is not a book to be skimmed. It is a book to be read carefully and in its entirety. While Peters isn't a Pynchon, Whitechapel Gods is far better fare than The Affinity Bridge, and more satisfying in its revelations and resolutions than I found Mainspring or Boneshaker. That said, it is dense. Peters' walled Whitechapel is an intricate secondary world, a blend of Dickensian London, the Whitechapel of the Hughes Brothers' film version of From Hell, Dante's Inferno, and Tolkien's Mordor. This setting is Whitechapel Gods' greatest strength and weakness: it's immersive enough to pull the reader into its fictional reality, but is so labyrinthine in its construction that it begs a map, or a diagram, a glossary, or all three. I drew my own as I read it, a three-tiered representation of Peters' Whitechapel. The upper level is the concourse, which is where the more well-to-do denizens of this Victorian hell reside, five stories above the Shadwell underbelly: a giant bowl of concrete supported, as the Concourse is, by a "maze of beams" that have grown up from the downstreets, the lowest level of Whitechapel.

You read that right: grown up. Elements of industry are treated like the flora and fauna of other fantasies, which lends the book one of the its two science fiction elements. Steel beams grow like the limbs of a great tree, and the levels of Whitechapel are constructed upon them. A disease called the clanks has infected the denizens of Whitechapel, so that they sprout industrial, mechanized protuberances, or find their bones replaced by steel: steampunk cyborgs: "The metal grew in a human being as easily as a in a tower or a factory" (61). The reason behind the growing steel and mechanical plague is pure fantasy: a product of the gods of Whitechapel. 

I found it amusing that some detractors of the novel have mentioned a deus ex machina ending. I don't know how shocked one can be at the inclusion of such endings in books that have the word "gods" in the title, especially when the gods are as immanent as the ones in Whitechapel Gods. The first is Mama Engine, a presence of heat and passion residing in the Stack, a great "mountain of iron" (11) that spews forth "smoke blacker than coal" (36), a steampunked Mount Doom, if you will. Her minions are the Black Cloaks, men in black coats and tophats with furnaces where their hearts should be, perhaps nod, homage, or ripoff from the Steampunk comic series (33).

The other God is Grandfather Clock, which I thought a clever take on the idea of a deity as absent clockmaker. Like Big Brother, Grandfather Clock watches over Whitechapel through every clock face, and is the balance to the heat and passion of Mama Engine. His minions are the Gold Cloaks, who are also half-men/half-machines, but are well-dressed versions of Mama Engine's Black Cloaks (33). While some might deem this characterization, it's actually more delivery of setting: the Black Cloaks and Gold Cloaks are representations of the powers they serve, and Peters admirably gives clear visual markers to distinguish them. Grandfather Clock is repeatedly referred to as an incarnation of logic and precision, of the inevitability of a predestined future. They are the dynamo and virgin of Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, the science and faith of The Kingdom of Ohio, the internal tension between SF and Fantasy in steampunk. There's a whole paper waiting to be written on comparing these elements within the context of Whitechapel Gods, I'm sure of it. 

To these Gods we add their servants, Baron Hume and Jonathan Scared. Baron Hume is also a mix of man and machine, formerly an architect whose designs were spurned. He is now a sort of "pope" to the gods of Whitechapel, serving as more immanent hand (though their presences are far from transcendent). His minions are the Boiler Men, virtually unstoppable automatons with high powered Atlas rifles (which seemed to be very advanced machine guns). Jonathan Scared felt much like Steampunk's villain, Absinthe, a madman with a penchant for perversion and torture. An organized crime boss, Scared's army is made up of youthful assassins and thugs he has corrupted since childhood. He is Mama Engine's consort, though his congress with her is never full explained. Scared is often the source of the sections of Whitechapel Gods that feel most like horror, though he is also the focalizer for actions inside virtual spaces that are reminiscent of SF cyberpunk. Scared is able, through a mixture of drug use and advanced mathematics, travel in the same plane of existence as the gods are most manifest in. So in addition to three levels of concrete reality, Peters adds a steampunk Metaverse, Matrix, virtual reality.

It's the only book other than The Difference Engine that shares any tropes of cyberpunk. The drug-induced, mathematically based divination (mathemagics?) engaged in by the villainous Jonathan Scared sends him traveling in ways that recalled Neuromancer's virtual spaces. The transference of resistance member Aaron's consciousness from his torture-shattered body into that of rodent cyborg Jeremy Longshore the Clickrat is a common cyberpunk approach (see Altered Carbon for an example), and the rebellion of Oliver Sumner and his crew of steampunks is the only instance I've come across so far, outside the aforementioned comic books, where a steampunk book has a "punk" resistance. Add to this the similarities between Wintermute as an AI god and the gods of Whitechapel, and I see another paper emerging from this book.

It's as though Peters had been ingesting steampunk from the '80s into the twenty-first century, then took these fermenting ideas and set them to paper. There are typical steampunk heroes: the orphan rebel (whose name is Oliver, as a sort of intertextual nod to Dickens), the hooker with the heart of gold, the Great White Hunter; he incorporates many icons of steampunk: steam men, steam machines, clocks, Victorian dress, manners, and social structures, and when we finally see an airship, it's a German one, delivering supplies to this city-within-a-city, since London stands at its gates, ready to invade if given the chance, to emancipate the people caught under the tyranny of Whitechapel's dark gods. Despite his utterly fantastic setting, Peters gets the Victorian period right in ways many steampunk writers rarely do, with details like the inclusion of Anglicanism (61) and praying before a mission (68). Steampunk has been too quick to throw out the church without letting us know the reasons why, and given the prevalence of religious life in Victorian England, its a conspicuous absence, one I suspect has more to do with authorial attitudes than anachronism. It's the mix of the details with the fantastic that make books like Whitechapel Gods work. As Steffen Hantke said, "the shaping force behind steampunk is not history but the will of its author to establish and then violate and modify a set of ontological rules" (1999 248).

Yet none of these feels self-conscious. It isn't clunky or overly contrived. Consider the following quote from Peters in an interview at Booktionary: "I work in images. I see scenes, in full colour. I know instantly when I get one of these that it will be, somehow, one of the defining moments of the story. I write towards these, hoping that they will happen, hoping that the moment will crystallize as I envisioned it. It’s really not up to me – the words pull me there or they don’t. I’ve always found intellectualizing or planning a story to be counterproductive." Peters works like David Lynch, interested more in giving us a feeling than necessarily delivering a narrative. As a result, there are narrative weaknesses in Whitechapel Gods, and were other readers and I to have a chat about it, I'm sure we'd agree on a number of them.

However, those are the proverbial trees, not the forest. Despite some narrative missteps, S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods is one of the most representative works of twenty-first century steampunk currently in print. No other book is as successful as capturing the secondary world of grit, grime, and gilding that the subculture, art, and fashion have suggested. All those costumes at the steampunk cons involving metal arms or ridiculously huge steam rifles? They belong in the walled Whitechapel of S.M. Peters' imagination.

It's not literary fiction, in the sense that it approaches Big Ideas, but never really completes dealing with them. Despite this, it is a wonderful puzzle box of a fictional world. I recommend reading with a pen and pad of paper at hand. Make notes about the world, read carefully the epigraphs from Baron Hume's Summa Machina at the beginning of each chapter (perhaps even take them and type them in their proper order, and see if there's any basis to those deus ex machina accusations), draw the diagrams and maps the editor failed to include, attempt to place the date the three days of the Uprising occur on. This isn't a novel to be read at the beach - it's a novel to be read in the cold of winter, when there is time to put the pieces of this puzzle together. My first read was frustrating, because I treated Whitechapel Gods like it was just another run-of-the-mill adventure novel. My second read was very rewarding, because I took the time to treat the depth of world Peters created with focused attention. If I were to use the scale I applied to Starclimber, it would get 30/30 for its steampunk-ness. This book is pure technofantasy in a neo-Victorian retrofuture. It is a mix of horror (it's like Clive Barker without the sex!), science fiction (steampunk your cyberpunk!), and fantasy (this uprising is against the highest order of tyranny - the gods!), all rolled into one glorious mess of steampunk joy.

Did I mention S.M. Peters is Canadian?


NOTE: I wanted to make sure to give a huge shout-out for On Spec, the Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic, which publishes all of the genres Colombo mentions in that monstrous quotation I kicked this post off with. In addition, they gave S.M. Peters his first publication with "Ticker Hounds," the short story that was the seed for Whitechapel Gods. Grab the back issue here, or get yourself a subscription to support Canadian SF, Fantasy, and Horror! Take it from a subscriber, it's a great magazine. Not convinced? Check out this sample issue for free!

Jul 13, 2010

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel

ABOVE: The Canadian cover for the young adult version of Starclimber. Truer to Oppel's description of the astralnaut suits, it lacks the steampunk look of the alternate cover below.
Compare the previous covers to the one below, which looks like the same marketing ploy adult versions of Harry Potter attempted. Apparently grown-ups can't be caught dead reading  books about magic or whimsical tales of space exploration.


Before I get into my discussion of Starclimber, the last book in Kenneth Oppel's adventures of Matt Cruse, I wanted to bring attention to the audiobooks by Full Cast Audio. While Airborn was ironically not available in Canada from Audible.com, both Skybreaker and Starclimber were, and I thoroughly enjoyed David Kelly as the narrating voice of Matt Cruse, along with a full cast of character voices. I can't recommend them highly enough. Check out samples from each of the books at the Full Cast Audio site, as well as this YouTube video giving a "Behind the Scenes" look at the process.

Initially, Starclimber felt the least steampunk of all the books. And this wasn't simply due to the switch from airships in the sky to a spacecraft in orbit. Matt Cruse's adventures have taken him increasingly higher, with this final installment set in outer space, but I'm not so thick as to think the substitution of an airship for a spaceship constitutes a move from the science-fantasy of steampunk to science fiction proper. There are numerous steampunk books written about space travel (Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice, Philip Reeve's Larklight series, James Blaylock's "The Hole in Space,"), but the training of the Canadian astralnauts felt too close to the training of real-world astronauts to really constitute technofantasy. However, in hindsight, I realized that the Matt Cruse adventures are a very neat blend of light technofantasy with historical and scientific facts. It would make an excellent exercise for teachers using this series, to ask students to weed out the fiction from the fact, an exercise I proposed for Boilerplate as well.

Throughout the series, there have been elements of technofantasy: the mango-scented hydrium that allows the massive airships to fly; the inclusion of fictional life-forms such as the cloud cats and the aerozoans; in Starclimber, it's in the material used to make Russian scientist Yuri Artsutanov's Space Elevator a reality. Explaining the book's eponymous Starclimber permits me to demonstrate how Oppel masterfully weaves his fiction and fact: Artsutanov's idea was based on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's idea for a massive tower to reach into space. Tsiolkovsky was in turn, inspired by the Eiffel tower: Oppel begins Starclimber with Matt Cruse working aboard an air tug on the Celestial Tower in France, a structure "already...ten times higher than the Eiffel Tower," making a textual nod to the inspiration for Artsutanov's theory. Since Oppel's series takes place in an alternate world with a history similar to ours, he allows Russia to keep its place in the history of the space elevator, with the fictional Dr. Sergei Turgenev as the man who designs the Starclimber's astral cable, with airship mogul Otto Lunardi responsible for the design of the actual Starclimber vehicle. The cable itself is finally where Starclimber skirts the edges of technofantasy. In reality, it was discovered that prior to nanotechnology, there were no materials found on earth strong enough to create a cable for a skyhook approach to space exploration. Oppel gets around this by having the cable made from metal taken from the Badlands Crater: "They found metal that had never been seen on Earth before. It's light, flexible, and, when made molten, can be spun thinner than spiderweb, only a thousand times stronger" (173). However, this approach is very similar to other science fiction writers' means of space travel - dilythium crystals in Star Trek being a popular (albeit poor, given Trek's general lack of hard science) example of fictional fuel sources. Is it technofantasy? Yes, but it's coupled with passages that teach science facts such as Kepler's theories about the refraction of light on the earth's atmosphere, an approach Oppel takes in all three books: fantastic elements are paired with realities of the physical sciences, so that the world Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries inhabit gains a sense of verisimilitude a purely fantastic work like Larklight lacks.

In this sense, Oppel's "steampunk" books aren't as steampunk as Larklight or Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls, at least, by my definition of the current steampunk aesthetic. It permits me the opportunity to playfully try a sort of charting approach to the "steampunkness" of a book, an idea that I've been thinking about using here, but have been hesitant about using, simply because I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm dead serious about it. I haven't decided how useful such an approach would be, but here's what it would look like:

Technofantasy: 4/10 Oppel engages in technofantasy as the means to propel real-world scientific theories, or to include fictional life forms. In most respects, the world of Starclimber works very much like ours, aside from the elements of hydrium, alumiron, and the space-ore metal, and the inclusion of the Platonic "music of the spheres."  While there are fictional life forms presented in the text (Kate's aerozoan specimen makes a humourous appearance), they aren't utterly fantastic, but are still grounded in real-world physical sciences (contrast with the alien life-forms in Larklight). The technology is based upon real-world scientific theories that continue to have enough merit to warrant debate.

Neo-Victorian: 10/10 The book is faithful to early twentieth-century social conventions and technologies. Attitudes toward women are accurate, with heroine Kate DeVries' undermining of those conventions constituting  Oppel's commentary and criticism of those attitudes.  

Retrofuturism: 8/10 Both the astral cable and the Celestial tower are built on past conceptions of how to travel into outer-space. However, the training of the astralnauts felt too much like the training NASA astronauts undergo to be fully retrofuturistic.

Steampunk Score: 22/30 = 73% brass content! Very likely a book steampunks will enjoy! Once more, I want to remind readers I'm not altogether serious about this - please don't spam my comment section with how I'm ruining steampunk by my heartless academic taxonomies and evaluative rubrics. It just makes for a neat shorthand form of assessment. It should in no way construe my attitude of the quality of a book, as books of low quality might be thoroughly steampunk as well as throroughly shite, while books of great quality might score quite low on the steampunk scale and still be brilliant.

A few final words about Starclimber: Oppel seems to be aware of how well his readers know these characters, and plays with that familiarity, engaging Kate and Matt in a number of spirited and humourous adventures in the first few chapters that play off inside jokes and prior storylines: an incident between Phoebe the Infant aerozoan and a poodle, an irate park security guard with an obsession for park bench chits, and a light lampoon of French and Canadian relations are all part of the opening act in Paris, and they regularly brought a smile to my face.

I was surprised to find how Canadian this last book was, revealing that Lionsgate city, "all ragtime and jazz," with suffragette marches--"It's those ladies who want to vote, sir!"--in the streets, is Vancouver, making Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries fellow Canadians. Oppel makes little or no mention of their nationality until this last book, and it was a pleasant surprise. The Starclimber is the achievement of Canada, which is perhaps a nod to our own Space Agency, and the contributions Canada has made to space exploration in partnership with other nations. My hat is off to Kenneth Oppel for being the only other author besides Lisa Smedman to set a steampunk work in the Great White North.

At least, I thought they were the only two, until yesterday.

While perusing Arrowdreams: An Anthology of Alternate Canadas, I came across Laurent McAllister's “The case of the serial “De Québec à la Lune” by Veritatus," which co-editor Mark Shainblum describes as:
A snap history of nineteenth-century Québec liberalism, a mysterious author and his equally mysterious tale featuring Catholically correct resurrections, and an alternate history of an independent Québec that wants to add the Moon to its territory... Need we say more?
Laurent McAllister is the symbionym of French-Canadian writers Yves Meynard and Jean-Louis Trudel, and the work was translated for inclusion in the anthology. While it certainly belongs in a collection of alternate Canadian histories, this short story plays with a number of steampunk elements in its whimsical, satirical look at a past that never was. It clearly engages in technofantasy, with Dr. Victor Beaulieu, "just back from pursuing medical studies at the Sorbonne," inventing a "new science of life" which restores mortally wounded men to full health. This process involves "home made machinery, powered by steam boilers" which throw off "impressive electrical sparks," A succinct and accurate assessment of most literary steampunk tech. The resurrection is only fully achieved when the parish priest "provides a scapular, a cloth badge with the likeness of the head-carrying martyr St. Dennis" and places it on the patient. To this, Dr. Beaulieu adds a blessed medal, the removal of which results in death (175).


This is only the beginning of Victor Beaulieu's ambition (note the obvious borrowing of Dr. Frankenstein's first name for a French-Canadian doctor!): with the resurrection process, "he wishes to assemble an army of (quite literally) born-again Christians in order to win Quebec's independence by force of arms!" Once the unstoppable army achieves this, Beaulieu reveals his "third and most daring dream: to send a cannon shell to the Moon and thus annex the Lunar Territories to the R.C.Q.!" (177). The reference to Verne's De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) is obvious, and the story shares the tongue-in-cheek irony of Verne's classic story, which is more a satire of the American preoccupation with ballistics than a serious speculation of lunar exploration. Here too, satire is clearly the goal, with the villain Renaud de la Chevairie (who discovered "two new elements, both lighter than hydrogen: primium and legium," which he uses to "build a peerless aerostat with which to further his ambitions" (177)), who forces one of his victims to commit unspeakable acts such as drinking sangria and reading Voltaire! I won't spoil the rest of the story, but I wanted to include it as a late addition to my Canuck steampunk month, not only because it's set in Canada, but because it constitutes one of those "hidden gems," and in this case, very nearly a lost one, since Arrowdreams is likely out of print. Track down a copy from Indigo, Amazon or your local library and enjoy some space-bound Canadian steampunk as a companion to Oppel's Starclimber

A link to the official Starclimber website

Jul 9, 2010

Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel


In her somewhat overstated (and likely very tongue-in-cheek) post "The Fallacies of Steampunk as a Genre," Alexandra Victoria Hollingshead gives would-be steampunk writers some advice, including the proscription, "Airship may only be used once if the story does not take place on an airship at any point." I laughed when I saw this, because it seems more a reaction to the fan-culture of steampunk than the literature. In the 30+ novels I've read now, plus a few comics and short stories, I can't think of one where airships were superfluous affectations. It's one of the lessons I learned participating in the Great Steampunk Debate: there's a world of difference between steampunk on paper and steampunk on the street. I want to say more about this in an upcoming post, but for now I'll limit my comments to saying that in email correspondence with Polish cartoon writer Krzysztof Janicz and I have been discussing how steampunk is often (mistakenly, I would say) conflated with people who "are" steampunks, which causes people to equate the guys in goggles, politicos with pocket-watches, and lolitas in lace with the fiction. This is why I continue to approach my study from an aesthetic perspective - once steampunk becomes an ideology, we're in Max Weber's backyard, and while that may prove an interesting study for someone, it won't be me.

In short, I'm not sure what fiction Hollingshead's blackballing of brown and censure of airships is reacting to, but it certainly wouldn't be Kenneth Oppel's Skybreaker, which, aside from Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, is one of the best steampunk airship books currently available. I don't say this because Skybreaker is necessarily highly original or powerfully literary. Rather, it's the high level of derivation Oppel engages in that makes it so much fun. The book is pastiche and homage of Victorian Science Fiction, of the numerous Verne knock-off adventure films of the 1950s and '60s, written in the same spirit that Spielberg and Lucas were channeling when they made Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The continuing adventures of Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries begins with the discovery of the Hyperion, a ghost-airship, floating above 20,000 feet over the Indian Ocean. Matt is the only member of his oxygen-starved crew able to withstand the high altitude, and after rescuing them and their training vessel, becomes embroiled in a number of attempts to salvage the Hyperion, which is rumored to have vast treasure aboard. He is the only living person who knows the coordinates the Hyperion was last seen. When Cruse agrees to join the mysterious gypsy girl Nadira aboard the airship Sagarmatha, he is engaged in a race against other nefarious parties to reach the Hyperion first.

The book is great fun, with the same pacing Oppel used in Airborn. Of all the Matt Cruse books, Skybreaker is my favorite, since unlike Airborn which departs the setting of the airship, Skybreaker remains aloft for the majority of its adventure. I was impressed by Oppel's idea to use Tibetan Sherpas as the crew of the Sagarmatha, a skybreaker airship capable of flying at higher altitudes than regular airships. These Sherpas are so well-rendered, that when Matt and two of the Sherpas encounter an aerozoan, a species of sky-mollusk with electrifying tentacles, the reader is genuinely concerned for everyone's safety. These aerozoans are a wonderful monster, a threat that Oppel delights in repeatedly throwing at his cast of characters. Oppel never relents in his series of serial-like cliffhanger chapter endings, and the book rockets along, page after page-turning page.

Like I said in my post on Airborn, the mature reader knows Matt Cruse will survive. The older reader is less interested in whether Matt Cruse will survive than how he will. Further, Matt Cruse's survival isn't simply physical - it's spiritual, or shall we say, linked to his growing up. I hate using high-falutin' terms like bildungsroman for books like Skybreaker, not because I don't think the book deserves elevated terms, but because it somehow takes away from the way in which young adult adventure stories present coming-of-age tales. These aren't stories about how one really grows up, but they are rather hyperbolized versions of that. They are, to use Joss Whedon's term, "Life writ large." As in Sunnyvale, where Buffy Summers grows up with vampires and werewolves and demon principals, Matt Cruse is becoming a man, and Kate DeVries is becoming a woman while soaring far above the earth in airships, battling aerozoans and sky-pirates. Their teenage romance is thwarted by these physical dangers, as well as more real emotional challenges: jealousy, petty arguments, the intrusion of guardians, the considerations of class distinctions (which aren't all that unimportant even today). Their romance is far less bile-inducing than that of Meyer's Twilight, which can never really shed fully the fact that a one-hundred year-old bad boy is dating a teenage girl. For those who prefer less titillation in their teen romance, Matt and Kate's relationship is true to period - while the skybreaker airship might be considered anachronism, Matt and Kate's chaste courtship is not. Kate's chaperone is but one of the challenges the two youths face in falling in love.

But love isn't all that's on Matt Cruse's mind: he comes from a background of low means, and he sees the possibility of treasure aboard the Hyperion as a way to break free of the constrains of a life of near-poverty. Through the plot of Skybreaker, Matt undergoes a transformation of sorts, moving through the basic victim positions Margaret Atwood outlines early in Survival, her book on Canadian literature's preoccupation with obstacles and hostility resulting in the need to survive.

At the outset of Skybreaker, Matt attempts to deny his Victim position, trying to impress Kate by meeting her at the Jewels Verne, an expensive Paris restaurant (which is a wonderful joke, since only North Americans pronounce the French writer's name this way). He is repeatedly faced with his low-status, both in his inability to order anything more than a water while waiting for Kate to arrive, and in the waiter's contemptuous treatment of him. Matt moves from denial to Atwood's second victim position: "To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim, but explain it as an act of Fate, the Will of God...or Economics..." (37). Matt believes he will never truly be able to woo Kate unless he has money, since she is from a family of considerable means. Thus, he accepts he is a victim, but thinks this is the result of economics - if only he had the opportunities the rich do, he would have a better life. When he meets Hal Slater, captain of the Sagarmatha, he assumes Hal came by his wealth easily, only to later learn that Slater had to work hard and is still in peril of losing the Sagarmatha to the banks.

While Slater performs the role of competing suitor for Kate's attention, he also becomes a sort of accidental mentor to Matt, which ultimately leads to Matt moving to victim position three: "To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim but to refuse to accept the assumption that this role is inevitable" (37). Matt grudgingly sees his own possible future in Hal's reality of owning his own airship - Matt wants to someday become an airship captain, but wants to fast-track that through the treasure aboard the Hyperion. Atwood states that it is in this position is about "repudiating the Victim role," moving from anger towards oneself or fellow-victims to "energy channeled into constructive action" (38). This is when Matt is able to finally move to Position Four, "to be a creative non-victim."

Once Matt can get past being a victim of finances or social position, he is able to make the sacrificial decisions necessary to survive the traps and tribulations once the adventurers board the ghost-ship. While Oppel continually uses convenient coincidences to rescue his hero, the reader doesn't mind, because Cruse's most crucial tribulations are emotional, not physical. We thrill to the near-death episodes, but are most moved when Matt gets over his petty teenage proclivities. Some readers may find Cruse's propensity for jealousy frustrating, but I'd guess they'd be folks who hate revisiting what it felt like to be fifteen. For those who either are in the game of surviving adolescence, or for those who are looking for a trip of nostalgia, into a past that never was, or perhaps just down memory lane into their teenage years, Skybreaker is the ticket into a high-altitude take on "life writ large."

And it has more airships than you can shake a steampunk at, with every last one of them more than justified in the action. Watch for the escape from the airship hanger for a scene that just begs someone to film it.

Check out the Skybreaker website, including Kate DeVries's drawing of an Aerozoan - it's awesome!
Click here for a Skybreaker teacher's guide.

Jul 6, 2010

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

Over at the Steampunk Fashion livejournal site, macaodghain posted a well-written exploration of the "Victorian in Steampunk." While I don't agree with the contention that Steampunk is essentially Victorian, I love how macaodghain characterizes the Victorian era:
The Victorian era was a time of incredible development in terms of manufacturing, technological development, and discovery. From the Jacquard Loom (a very early punch-card-controlled device) in 1800, to the steam locomotive in 1814, to the diesel engine in 1892, and all of the various strange and wonderful things in between, it was a time of what appeared to be unlimited potential.
Steampunk poses the question, "What if that potential had indeed been unlimited?"
This seems to have been the motivating question behind Canadian author Kenneth Oppel's world-building for his wonderful young adult novel, Airborn, as well as its sequels. Airborn conveys a "golly-gee-whiz!" sense of adventure, positing an early twentieth century with a future horizon of unlimited potential instead of World War I, the sinking of the Titanic, and the Great Depression. Airborn's opening line "Sailing towards dawn" reminded me of the last line of Pynchon's Against the Day, "They sail toward grace." And if there was ever a spiritual brother to Pynchon's "Chums of Chance," it would be Matt Cruse, the boy-hero of Airborn. Matt was born on an airship, the literal reference of the book's punning title, and as a result, feels no fear while aloft. The open sky seems "the most natural place in the world" to him (14).

Unlike the airship of The Year the Sky Fell, the airship Matt Cruse serves aboard is the result of unlimited potential, of retro-futuristic imaginings: the Aurora, including cargo and passengers, "weighed over two million pounds" and measured "nine hundred feet from stem to stern, fourteen storeys high" (31-32). This makes it both longer than the Hindenburg, the largest airship to ever fly, and capable of a far greater amount of gross lift. Oppel explains this amazing engineering feat in technofantasy terms, through the invention of the fictional gas, hydrium: "There's fancy math to explain all this, of course. It had to do with hydrium being the lightest gas in the world. Much lighter than helium and even lighter than hydrogen" (32). This is what the Hindenburg could have been without concern for the cost of fuel, without the national tensions Germany faced before and during World War II. It is the Zeppelin, developed without the shadow of the Nazi party.

This is all possible because Oppel places the Aurora in a time before the cynicism and doubt the Great War produced. This is the Gilded Age, this is the time of Victorian optimism. It is an adventure tale of hair-breadth escapes--but they are always escapes. Despite the certainty Airborn shares with the Saturday matinee serials of yesteryear concerning the fate of its hero, the reader continues to turn the pages to see what happens next. For younger readers, this will be to see if the characters survive. Older readers will be savvy enough to recognize the inevitability of survival by the fact that Matt Cruse is the narrator. It is difficult to relay one's near-death adventures if one has gone beyond just being "near" death. So what would motivate an older, more mature reader to read Airborn?

Oppel himself has admitted he was surprised by the number of awards Airborn received, given that he didn't consciously seek to invest it with the same depth of Big Ideas he did in his earlier Silverwing Saga. Among the awards Airborn garnered, it received a Governer General's Award, the most prestigious of awards for Canadian literature. While taking a course on Canadian women's fiction, I read several "GG" winners, and did mental comparisons to those books while reading Airborn, trying to puzzle out why this high-flying adventure had netted such a high-altitude award.

It could have been the writing, which is both immediately accessible to the young reader, without "dumbing down" the content. It could have been the characters, with Cruse's coming-of-age story, or the cross-class romance between Cruse and the wealthy Kate DeVries. Or it might have been the way in which Airborn (and its sequels) is a hyperbolized version of Margaret Atwood's theory of Canada's "single unifying and informing" literary symbol: Survival.
For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of "hostile" elements and/or natives: carving out a place and a way of keeping alive...hanging on, staying alive...Our central idea is one which generates, not the excitement and sense of adventure or danger which The Frontier holds out, not the smugness and/or sense of security, or everything in its place, which The Island can offer, but an almost intolerable anxiety. Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience--the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship--that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life. (32-33)
Oppel's Airborn reads like a narrative version of Atwood's theory for young people: Cruse's expectations of life is the American Frontier, born of dreamy optimitsm; Kate DeVries acts with the certitude of the British Island, of things being firmly in their order; but their adventures require them to shatter these concepts repeatedly in order to just survive. Oppel's approach is far more optimistic than the examples Atwood cites in Survival, and Cruse and DeVries are not the hopeless victims of Atwood's study, but the thematic core of survival remains, and is in some way subverted. Oppel gives Canadian fiction a survival story that isn't as bleak as the Franklin expedition. It is a steampunk exploration of the theme of survival (limited) in a world of endless possibilities (unlimited). The back and forth of these tensions produces the push to keep reading. 

Oppel not only operates at the literal level of physical survival, but also engages Atwood's idea of spiritual survival, wherein it is life itself the person fears: Matt Cruse is consistently filled with the self-doubt inherent to the early teen years, and while certain cynical readers will bemoan Cruse's hesitations and missteps of self-esteem, those who can remember will applaud Oppel's masterful rendering of Cruse's survival of one of life's greatest challenges: adolescence, the time in life when "fear of obstacles becomes itself the obstacle, and a character is paralyzed by terror" (33), largely from perceived, rather than actual threats. It is in the emotional obstacles Matt Cruse faces that older readers, nostalgically recalling their first love, first kiss, first amorous blunders and successes will press on. In addition to the mind-fields of young love, Oppel adds the quest for a father, since Matt Cruse is an orphan of sorts.

While I don't think Oppel self-consciously set out to include any intertextual references to Atwood's Survival, Matt Cruse's adventures, both physical and spiritual, mirror Atwood's "basic victim positions," moving from denial of being a victim, to acknowledging being a victim (but blaming it on a higher power), to refusing to accept the assumption that being a victim is inevitable, to becoming a creative non-victim. I'll explore these various positions in the following posts on Oppel's Skybreaker and Starclimber, with examples from Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries' further adventures. 

Teachers! Go here to download a free PDF novel study for grades 6-9. 

Jul 4, 2010

The Year the Cloud Fell by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

It's Canuck Steampunk month, and here I am on the American Independence Day posting about an American writer's alternate history of the United States. I had no plan to post about The Year the Cloud Fell any time soon. It was in my "associated with steampunk" stack: books I've collected that come close to being steampunk, but likely aren't. In the wake of reading The Apparition Trail though, I needed something for contrast and comparison. How did another writer handle an alternate history where airships flew over the frontier? Further, while The Year the Cloud Fell is about the American frontier, the issue of First Nations in speculative fiction, especially alternate history, is a particularly Canadian issue.

I'll begin by recalling the attitude towards Native Americans and First Nations prior to the release of Dances With Wolves (I personally prefer the use of the term First Nations to refer to indigenous peoples in all of North America, though I am aware that some people in the U.S. still refer to these groups as Native Americans - I'm also aware that many First Nations people self-identify as Indians - as a Canadian, I'll be using the ostensibly Canadian term) . I grew up with comic books like The Apache Kid and The Rawhide Kid, when we still called indigenous North Americans Indians, when they were still "Redskins" and "Savages" in Westerns. Sure, there were overtures toward certain Indians (like Tonto) being "good guys," but most were bad guys. When you played Cowboys and Indians, the unspoken rules dictated that at least one of the Cowboys would be the Last Man Standing. I was very lucky to have my mother as a guiding force in this reading. She loves Westerns, but since she was a child, had wanted to, in her words, "be an Indian." She identified with First Nations people, and not in a New Age healing and meditation sort of way. There was no appropriation in my mother's love for First Nations people, unless you count the time she and my father went to one of those Wild West Photo Parlours and she wore the buckskin dress. As a result, the violent savages of Marvel's Wild West comics were tempered by my mother's love for First Nations culture. Dances with Wolves didn't seem like a huge step to me, but when I consider how it opened the way for a slough of positive films and books about historical First Nations heroes to be released into mainstream culture, I think it was a very good thing.

Yes, there was a certain consumer fetishism to it. With mainstream always comes junk. But the popularity of films like Dances With Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans paved the way for the release and/or re-release of books like Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, specifically Red Prophet, Charles DeLint's Svaha, both of which are listed in Beyond Victoriana's "First Nation Sci-Fi & Technology Resources" as positive contributions to the perception of First Nations people in science fiction and fantasy. Kurt R.A. Giambastiani's The Year the Cloud Fell is also on that list, and I was pleased to see it there.

Before I return to the discussion of First Nations people, I want to make a brief digression into the difference between steampunk and nineteenth-century alternate history. It's interesting that both The Apparition Trail and The Year the Cloud Fell begin with their protagonists in the air, buffeted by storm weather. The difference between how the two handle it is crucial: in The Apparition Trail, the storm is supernatural, the method of flight is a perpetual motion air-bike, and the hero suffers air sickness, but lands safely; in The Year the Cloud Fell, the storm is natural, the method of flight is a prototype airship that does what real early airships do in a storm, and as a result the protagonist is wounded and taken into captivity.

I wouldn't qualify The Year the Cloud Fell as steampunk, because it tries too hard for verisimilitude. The flight of the air-bike in The Apparition Trail needs a perpetual motion machine, which in turn seems to need a different face of the moon to shine on the earth in order to work. The airship Abraham Lincoln in The Year the Cloud Fell works like a real airship does, and crashes much as real airships often did. Compared to the airships in Kenneth Oppel's Skybreaker, Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls, Michael Moorcock's Warlord of the Air, and Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines, Giambastiani's airship is an abysmal failure, flying for less than 20 pages of the novel's 336 before crashing. The airship serves as only one example of many, but serves to support my contention that steampunk is largely concerned with technofantasy, not anachronism. The airship of The Year the Cloud Fell is an anachronism in 1886: historically, it won't exist until 1906. But it will exist, whereas the airships of the other books will either never exist, or may yet exist: they are products of fantasy and future speculation, and as such aren't anachronisms. They belong in the fictional world created for them. The world of Kenneth Oppel's Skybreaker greatly resembles ours, but it still has fictional creatures populating its skies (as we'll see in the discussion of Oppel's books, the trilogy straddles alternate history and steampunk). Giambastiani doesn't need fictional fuels to fly his airship, because it's based in real-world physics. This is not an alternate history where the laws of nature have been changed (as in The Apparition Trail) or an alternate world where the laws of nature are different from ours. It is an alternate history, positing several crucial breaks in history.

One of the most significant breaks Giambastiani posits is that the dinosaurs didn't go extinct. Two species are included in The Year the Cloud Fell, which are called Whistlers and Walkers. The whistlers are a billed/beaked herbivore and are the primary means of transport for the Cheyenne Nation, while the Walkers are large predators, reminiscent of a T-Rex. I'm no paleontologist, so that's where my assessment of the dinosaurs ends, save to say that I applaud Giambastiani for avoiding cramming in a section explaining why they're there. It's ancillary to the action, and would only have bogged the proceedings down in unnecessary exposition.

Giambastiani utilizes a familiar plot line, a technique echoing the familiar history he subverts. Nearly everyone in North America has a sense of the part George Armstrong Custer played in American history, so using his son as the protagonist is the standard defamiliarization of the familiar speculative fiction so often produces. The plot line is Dances With Wolves, but only to a point. While some readers might judge him before reaching the end, they'd be foolish to do so. By the ending, I was convinced Giambastiani uses the familiar white-goes-native storyline to allow his ending to come as a surprise. He leads the reader right up to the door of the standard "final battle" trope of so much adventure fiction, and then subverts that as well, producing an ending that will satisfy almost all readers.

Like other writers I admire, Giambastiani carefully crafts his characters, so that we are not as interested in their battles as we are with whether or not they survive them. There is action, to be sure, but the focus is never gratuitously focused on the mechanics of combat. The Year the Cloud Fell is more concerned with the complexity of the ideas that lead to war, rather than war itself:
"Only a short time ago he, too, had felt as they did, equating the Cheyenne's primitive existence with unabated savagery. But he had discovered instead a people with history, religion, government, and law. Their lives were violent at times and their technology was crude, but their ideas were not, and it was the ideas, he discovered. that defined a people.
Would we have been so proud, he wondered, had we lost our Revolution? Do we really judge ourselves not by the successes of our generals, but by the loftiness of our ideas?
No, he thought. We see only the vanquished and the victor. Ideas are a casuality of war and the commodity of historians." (248)
Giambastiani keeps that complexity in the forefront of The Year the Sky Fell, never allowing a simple solution to salve the reader's conscience of the relationship between First Nations and the rest of North America. This is not an escapist fantasy, a daydream where we can smile and "wish it were so," and feel a catharsis that fools us into thinking we've done away with the complex problems surrounding First Nations' issues. Instead, Giambastiani reminds us that such resolution is a conversation (I wish I could include a pivotal passage about this, but it's a major spoiler. I'll just cite the page number instead: 316). The Year the Cloud Fell challenges us all: those who recognize RaceFail and those of us who fail, alike. It's a challenge I'd like to echo.

Many RaceFail posts and articles lack the subtlety of a conversation. They are textual analogues of a fight where one combatant has been tied up or hobbled. When the rules for the debate silence any side, it is not a debate, it is podium, a pedestal, a pulpit, and ultimately the content of such posts and articles become propaganda. If the champions of RaceFail are genuinely interested in seeing effective change, antagonism and assumption must be left behind. While it is a dangerous thing to do, we must always be open to conversation. It is not enough to say, "you ought to know." Ostensibly, the Colonialists should have known better, but didn't. When I look at the record of history to see which change agents were the most effective in the fight of racial equality, I think of Martin Luther King Jr., of Stephen Biko, of Nelson Mandela, and the current Dali Lama. These are all individuals who sought change, not through silencing their opposition, but in seeking to engage them in the conversation. To my RaceFail friends, I say this: don't ever get tired of explaining the basics. There are far too many people who don't understand where you're coming from, and they won't be swayed by being shown "the hand" and dismissed.

While I promised I wouldn't reveal the major spoiler, I'd like to present this moment between George Custer Jr. (One Who Flies) and Storm Arriving, a Cheyenne warrior as an exemplar of the conversation I'm espousing:
Storm Arriving smiled. "You have changed since I first met you."
"Have I?"
"Yes," he said. "You talk more like one of the People. I understand you much more now than I did before."
One Who Flies laughed. "The same is true for me," he said. "Now, when I hear you speak of the spirits of the earth or the sky, I feel as though I almost understand." He pointed to Storm Arriving's chest and the fresh scars left by the skin sacrifice. "I even think I might someday understand that. Someday."
"But not today," Storm Arriving said.
"No," George said with a sad smile. "Not today." (265)
Conversation means slow change. Revolution brings fast, but ultimately false change. Change the ideas of a person, you have won. Change the rules about ideas, and you've only achieved suppression, which usually leads to further revolution, and no conversation. Giambiastini ends The Year the Cloud Fell with room for a sequel, but this has more to do with his tackling the complexity of his alternate history fairly than it does with simply looking to produce another book. For The Year the Cloud Fell to end other than it does is to seek a fairy-tale ending to a history we know wasn't 'happily-ever-after.'

Giambastiani's book is a wonderful middle-path to journey along. While I read, I couldn't help but reflect upon Ay-leen the Peacemaker's Beyond Victoriana, one of my favourite blogs about speculative fiction and racial issues. Ay-leen's blog is a great example of what the conversation looks like. In her "First Nation Sci-Fi & Technology Resources" article, she demonstrates (without calling it this), a RaceWin list. Rather than targeting books that "fail," Ay-leen holds up the ones that win, and focuses on them. She encourages us to read them, and learn. She invites us into the conversation, and gives enough space for it to occur. Now go and do likewise.

Happy Independence Day to my American friends.

Jul 1, 2010

The Apparition Trail by Lisa Smedman

Lisa Smedman's The Apparition Trail is one of those rare instances in steampunk literature where you can Google nearly all the names and get actual historical information. She's clearly done her homework, and while places like Swift Current, Moose Jaw, and Cypress Hills might sound exotic to readers from outside Canada, evoking images of the wide-open frontier, to an Albertan native like me, they sound like my backyard (they actually were my backyard when I worked in Cypress Hills for five summers in a row). I love that Smedman set The Apparition Trail on the Western Prairies of Canada, and it's the reason I chose her book to kick off Canuck Steampunk Month here at Steampunk Scholar. While all the writers I'll deal with this month are Canadians, Smedman has the distinction of being the only one who sets her story entirely in Canada.

Smedman's writing is very straightforward. She lacks the style more mature writers evince, but that doesn't hurt The Apparition Trail. I found it highly readable, and while it wasn't impossible to put down, at the outset it was easy to pick back up. The novel foundered under the weight of its own ambition in the second half, but this is less due to Smedman's writing ability than her desire to be both historically accurate and yet utilize speculative elements. In the first half of the book, readers are introduced to the vision-prone Corporal Marmaduke Grayburn of the North-West Mounted Police, who is summoned to headquarters in Regina to meet with Sam Steele. He is conveyed there by air-bicycle, a thoroughly steampunk contraption somewhere between a bike and an airship, powered by a perpetual motion machine. When they near their destination, Grayburn and his pilot are nearly undone by a supernatural storm that takes the shape of a monstrous raven. Following his aerial adventures, Grayburn meets with Steele and becomes a member of the secretive Q-Division: "Q-- for query" (16), a sort of Mountie X-Files. Grayburn is sent to investigate the disappearance of John McDougall, a missionary, as well as the disappearance of the Manitou Stone, a Cree holy object. It's a decent premise for a steampunk story set in Canada, and for the first half of the book, it rolls along nicely, with a river-boat ride, meeting spiritualist Arthur Chambers (who Smedman claims is wholly fictional, despite there being a Reverend Arthur Chambers who wrote a book on spiritualism in the early twentieth-century), and arriving at the Victoria Mission. Into these events Smedman weaves more of Grayburn's visions, his recalling of a chilling supernatural experience with First Nations figures Big Bear and Piapot, and more information about the perpetual motion machine. I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I'll summarize the remainder of the book in a broad fashion: Grayburn journeys across Saskatchewan and Alberta (he even gets to my hometown of Medicine Hat, which makes for two mentions of it in steampunk - the other is in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day - this may be appropriate, considering Medicine Hat's historic downtown area, with its 277 period gaslamp-style streetlights, CPR station, and courthouse) by means technological and supernatural. Coincidences increase, as do the historical cast - it's like a who's who of late nineteenth century Prairie history at points. In this respect, I tip my hat to Smedman, since I prefer people to give their alternate histories verisimilitude by infusing it with actual historical references. Where the book falls apart is in seemingly trying to visit as many cool locales as it possibly can, all the while straining the reader's suspension of disbelief. Since her tone is straightforward, she can't get away with the same insanity Joe Lansdale does, transporting the cast of Zeppelins West all over the Pacific Ocean. Further, with the inclusion of so many actual historical personages, the book gets to be a morass of coincidences, leading to a web of connections that made me roll my eyes towards the end. That said, I can see it being fun summer reading for many of you, and you shouldn't go letting my literary superciliousness stop you from enjoying this book as a sort of fantastic travel guide to the Canadian prairies.

In fact, if I had a 'tween or teen who loved reading, and was taking a family vacation to any of the sites mentioned in the book, I'd recommend this as an accompanying read: as I've said, the book succeeds as a fantastic gazetteer and biographic encyclopedia of the Prairies. With further revision, a few less coincidences, and more page space for Arthur Chambers, this book would have been a truly worthy read. As it stands, I still consider it better than other steampunk offerings like Unnatural History or The Affinity Bridge, and encourage those of you who like your steampunk laced with history to give it a try. Make sure not to judge it by its sub-standard comic-style cover by repeat On-Spec artist Jim Beveridge. I can only guess that the publishers wanted to make damn sure readers knew they weren't getting a pure piece of historical fiction and ramped up the hyperbole on the cover. While it captures the state of Grayburn's stomach (and therefore white face) nicely, the colour palette seems too saturated to match the tone of the book. It's not necessarily a bad image, just the wrong one for the cover of this book in my estimation. 

What Beveridge gets right is the look of the air-bicycle, and therefore is successful at letting the prospective reader know they're about to pick up a work of steampunk. While Lisa Smedman's use of First Nations magic into speculative fiction taking place in Canada is nothing new (Charles DeLint's Moonheart and Spiritwalk come immediately to mind), her introduction of steampunk technology is.

Like other steampunk writers, Smedman provides a technofantasy explanation for her steampunk tech. Seven years prior to the events in the novel, a comet had struck the moon, causing the moon to rotate on its axis, so that the moon's dark side now faces earth. Grayburn conjectures that this change in the moon's aspect has lead to the perpetual motion machine finally working, and perhaps also to the realization of First Nations magic. 

Beyond this highly improbable source of both technological and metaphysical change, using steampunk technology in a Canadian setting is somewhat problematic, as Canada is not known historically for industrial technological advancements of this sort. While Smedman knows her Prairie history well, the inclusion of heavy-industrial technology feels somehow wrong--anachronistic, even in an alternate history. In "The Northern Cosmos: Distinctive Themes in Canadian SF," Robert Runte and Christine Kulyk agree with Colombo's assertion that Canadians produce more fantasy than science fiction, contrasting us with "the nation of pragmatic technocrats to the south" and citing a Canadian distrust of technology as an inhibitor to Canadian hard SF. However, this is related to our past, and Smedman gets around this problem by playing with two approaches to alternate history as laid out by Karen Hellekson: she mixes the nexus story, where there is a "moment of the break" from real history, with the true alternate history, which sometimes "posit different physical laws" as the result of the moment of the break (5). The moment of the break is the comet striking the moon, which results in a change in physical laws.

I'd like to suggest a book for aspiring writers looking to set steampunk in Canada: Suzanne Zeller's Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation. In it, Zeller focuses on how Victorian geological, geophysical, and botanical sciences moved Canadian science beyond "the eighteenth-century mechanical ideals that forged the United States" (from the back cover). It strikes me as an opportunity to take steampunk in some eco-directions, as well as a means of breaking out of the cul-de-sac steampunk tech seems to be finding itself in. Gail Carriger and I had a conversation some time back about how Soulless was steampunk, despite the lack of gadgets, because it was centered on medical science, which was a huge part of real-world nineteenth century technological advancement, an area often overlooked by steampunk writers. I think Canada presents a lot of undiscovered territory for steampunk writers willing to do their research. In that same vein, I have one last caveat about this book, for those in the business of writing: 

I was lead to read Kurt R.A. Giambastiani's The Year the Cloud Fell as soon as I finished The Apparition Trail. It's a spoiler, so quite reading if you like surprises. While Smedman does a pretty good job of keeping her First Nations characters from denigrating into caricatures, she does render her ending far too neat and tidy to be representative of the treatment of First Nations people in real history. Its admirable to wish things hadn't happened that way, but I've read warnings from both Jewish responses to alternate histories of the Holocaust and First Nations responses to proposed alt-history white-washing of ugly realities like residential schools. The concern is this: while no one is going to assume this is the way it happened, the writer loses one more chance to draw attention to how it did happen. In this respect, while the endings of The Year the Cloud Fell and The Apparition Trail are quite similar, they part ways in how the concluding conversations between First Nations and the respective governments are resolved. In The Apparition Trail, the First Nations people are granted everything the treaties in 1871 promised, so that Grayburn can ruminate that "the children conceived on this night--and on all the nights hereafter--would never have to go hungry again" (259). Contrast this with Giambastiani's less optimistic ending, where George Custer Jr. warns the Cheyenne nation that they have only delayed their destruction. The United States "still consider this land to be part of their nation. All they have agreed to do so far is not to kill you for defending your homes" (335).

When we re-imagine the past, I believe it's important to treat the dark corners of history with the complexity the real issues resulting from those events demand. This isn't to say our writing need be overly serious: Philip Reeve deals with issues of colonialism in Larklight, and Lansdale concedes the wrongful treatment of First Nations in his Jonah Hex miniseries. These do not detract from the ostensible 'fun' of these works. The Apparition Trail wouldn't cease being fun reading if it lacked such an optimistic, dare I say, rose-coloured ending: it would be fun and insightful as well.

I offer James Morrow's Shambling Towards Hiroshima as an example which masterfully combines entertaining homage to monster-movies of Hollywood's golden age and Japan's post-WWII cinema with a serious reminder of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The novel is written as a memoir by Syms Thorley, a character reminiscent of Lon Chaney Jr. in his film pedigree, who laments that the fan conventions he attends never want him to speak about the need to stop nuclear proliferation, but rather just to rehash anecdotes from his experiences playing film monster Gorgantis. By the end of the novel, the reader will note that Morrow's text does exactly what Thorley cannot, by drawing us in with these anecdotes about a man in a rubber suit. My fan-boy love of Godzilla is what drew me to Shambling Towards Hiroshima, but chapter six, with its numerous real-world references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki got me reading The Last Train From Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back by Charles Pelligrino, which lead to me shutting off the audiobook on the bus so I wouldn't make a scene by crying.

If you read The Apparition Trail (and I hope you do, if for no other reason than the one I'm about to state), I hope you do it with Google and Wikipedia, and I hope your web-browsing leads you to read books on the real history of Canada and the First Nations: of the Fur Trade, of the NWMP, of reservations, and residential schools. I hope that the speculative optimism of Lisa Smedman leads you beyond steampunk tech to Suzanne Zeller's Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of A Transcontinental Nation. I hope that the fantasy ultimately leads you to reality, and in my own burst of speculative optimism, that the conflation of these two lead us toward a bright future for Canada.

Happy Canada Day everyone!

You can read the first chapter of The Apparition Trail at The Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.


Colombo, John Robert. "Four Hundred Years of Fantastic Literature in Canada." Out of this World: Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature. Ed. Andrea Paradis. Kingston: Quarry Press & The National Library of Canada. 1995. 28-40. Print.
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