All Aboard for the Moon on Simpson's Electric Gun - The following article appeared in the July 12, 1908 edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper. Not unlike modern science journalism, a relatively modest ...
5 days ago
"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.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.
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)
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.
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).
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.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).
Steampunk poses the question, "What if that potential had indeed been unlimited?"
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.
"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.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.
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)
Storm Arriving smiled. "You have changed since I first met you."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.'
"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)