Oct 31, 2010

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

Here it is, Halloween, and I'm at the end of an exhausting month. The pumpkins are carved, the kids are picking out which costume to wear (yeah, they have that many), and I'm wishing my wife liked horror movies more, so we could watch one of the many I own tonight. I had originally hoped to tie in a review of Joe Lansdale's Flaming London with the anniversary of Orson Welles's radio broadcast/unintentional hoax of War of the Worlds, but I've learned my lesson this year: No more grandiose plans for the fall...OR...write all the blog posts in the summer, when I have nothing but time for reading and writing.

Nevetheless, I did get something done that has a Halloween bent to it: my review/reflection of Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World for Tor.com's "Steampunk Fortnight." It's all about Weird Westerns, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson...
Demons and Deities in Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World: A Review of Sorts, With Academic Shenanigans Throughout

Wikipedia gives an exceedingly expansive definition of the weird western as “any western blended with another genre.” This seems rather too expansive, as I don’t think anyone would classify Blazing Saddles or Brokeback Mountain as weird westerns, despite a blending of western with comedy and romance, respectively. I prefer a more stringent line of demarcation: Weird West is the western merged with the fantastic, either science fiction, fantasy, or horror, with a dark tone to it. When it treads into SF ground, it often 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 nor Boneshaker would be considered a western. Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World, on the other hand, is pure weird western, with a whole lot of steampunk thrown into the mix.

Half-Made World has got all the elements of the steampunk aesthetic. Technofantasy? How about the spiritual brother of Roland of Gilead, who doesn’t shoot with his eye, mind, or heart, but with a revolver housing a demon in addition to six bullets: “The weapon—the Gun—the temple of metal and wood and deadly powder that housed his master’s spirit—sat on the floor by the bed and throbbed with darkness.” (39) The Gun and its demon provide this gunslinger, Creedmoor, with Wolverine-like healing abilities, preternatural senses, and Matrix-fast, bullet-time reflexes. Without it, he is only an old man. With it, he is one of many Agents of the Gun, in the service of the spirits of the Gun. Gilman is unclear about the motivations behind the Gun’s machinations, keeping the cabal of spirits outside the frame of action in a “Lodge” that made me think immediately of Twin Peaks, the Black Lodge, and the strangeness therein. The opponents of the Gun are the Line, and they too have powerful spirits inhabiting technology, thirty-eight immortal Engines who are viewed as Gods by members of the Line.

Check out the whole article here.

Oct 12, 2010

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

The UK cover, which I'll be tracking down a copy of...
The trouble with writing about Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth from an academic viewpoint is deciding what aspect to focus on. Reviewing it? No problem. It's great. It expands on the world introduced in Leviathan. The political tension leading up to World War I is increasing, as is the, dare I say, romantic tension between Deryn and Alek (complicated here by a Twelfth Night love triangle). There are wonderful new beasties, innovative new (and really old!) Clanker machines, and an even-handed presentation of the setting of Istanbul/Constantinople. Behemoth is another compelling page-turner in the Leviathan trilogy.

But reviewing books isn't really what Steampunk Scholar is about. This blog was set up to act as a first draft of my dissertation: it has become a space for bashing out the theoretical ideas, and since bias is always present, I think my opinion of the books will always creep through. Even when reviewing Cherie Priest's Dreadnought for Tor.com, I engaged in some academic repartee by applying my aesthetic theory. Reviews of books abound on the Inernet. With a series as popular as Westerfeld's, you won't lack for people's opinions on its quality. Instead of reviewing, I prefer to subject the work to a critical evaluation, as always engaging the theoretical structure of the steampunk aesthetic. In the case of Behemoth, looking particularly at the masterful use of technofantasy.

In Leviathan, I argued that the massive ship was a metaphor for an ethic of the commons, a way of seeing life as a web of complex connections. In Behemoth, the technofantasy elements continue this theme, but build further upon one of the other ideas the Darwinist beasties and Clanker machines represent: embracing difference.

This idea was already in place at the end of Leviathan, as the wounded airship/whale returned to the air through the aid of the exiled Clankers and their Stormwalker engines. Behemoth opens with the Leviathan flying southward to deliver Dr. Barlow's yet-mysterious cargo of eggs, still relying on the Stormwalker engines for propulsion. The opening scenes are focalized by the exiled Austrians, Alek and his guardian mentors, the latter continuing to display disgust at the fabricated creatures that make up the Leviathan. By contrast, Alek already finds himself wondering if he's "turning into a Darwinist," admiring the beauty of the Darwinist technology during a battle with Clanker ironclads (13). Even Klopp seems to admire the Leviathan itself as it turns away from the danger of a "real" Tesla cannon--the epitome of a steampunk infernal device if ever there were one--commenting that "The beast knows it's in danger" (27). Despite these movements away from the polarity of the Clanker perspective, Count Volger replies to Alek's inquiries about trusting the Darwinist with his characteristic suspicion.

Yet upon arriving in Constantinople, it is the Darwinist Deryn whose point-of-view is challenged: she has "never seen a Clanker city before," and finds it difficult to conflate her affection for Alek with her mistrust and apprehension about "a place like this, full of machines and metal, hardly alive except for human beings and their bedbugs" (96-97). The idea of difference is pushed from the alternate world of Clankers and Darwinists, as Westerfeld engages in a masterful infodump via dialogue between Deryn's ship-mate Newkirk and Dr. Barlow:

"Do you reckon we'll find corned beef in Constantinople?" Newkirk asked hopefully.
"Is-tan-bul," Dr. Barlow said, tapping her riding crop against her boot once for each syllable. "That's what we must remember to call this city. Otherwise we shall annoy the locals."
"Istanbul?" Newkirk frowned. "But it's 'Constantinople' on all the maps."
"On our maps it is," the lady boffin said. "We use that name to honor Constantine, the Christian emperor who founded the city. But the residents have called it Istanbul since 1453."
"They changed the name four hundred-odd years ago?"
Deryn turned back toward the windows. "Maybe it's time to fix our barking maps." (99-100)
In Leviathan, both Clanker and Darwinist settings were largely focalized by characters who saw that space as normative. For Deryn, the living airship-ecosystem is the way things should be, and the same is true for Alek in his cramped Stormwalker. In Behemoth, both characters are forced to see the value in the technology of the "other side." In particular, the beastie hatched from Dr. Barlow's eggs is noteworthy, since both Alek and Deryn find themselves interacting with it at length at different points in the book. To avoid spoilers, I won't reveal details about it. It was one of my favorite elements of the book, and would be sad to have spoiled the surprises it brings. I will quote this spoiler-free moment that underscores Westerfeld's theme of difference, as an Ottoman character has done something with a fabricated creature neither a Clanker nor Darwinist ostensibly would:.
"You named it Bovril?" she asked Alek.
"I named it in fact," said the girl in slow, careful English. "This silly boy kept calling it 'the creature.'"
"But you're not supposed to name beasties! If you get too attached, you can't use them properly."
"Use them?" Lilit asked. "What a horrid way to think of animals." (330)
The irony of this conversation is how attached Deryn is to The Leviathan, which is named, after all. She's blind to her own affection for the ship, owing perhaps to its size and complexity. Bovril's diminutive size permits a micro-engagement with a fabricated beastie, and from that emerges a problematizing of "using" fabricated animals as technology. Bovril is unlike The Leviathan or Behemoth: you can't fly in it, or ride on it, or use it as a weapon - and readers will agree with me that this particular beastie would most certainly defy even the most callous individual to not name it. So while Clanker technology is bad for all its cold dispassion, one begins to wonder at the ethics of the Darwinist nations and their living tech.

Technofantasy as signifier of difference is furthered by the space of Ottoman territory, which is neither entirely Clanker or Darwinist. The Ottoman airship utilizes Clanker technology, but its design is Darwinist, imitating the shape of a falcon. The Orient-Express is described as "a strange crossbreed of Ottoman and German design" with an engine suggesting "a dragon's face" and "unadorned" "mechanical arms" that "move as smoothly as the wings of a soaring hawk" (307). I noticed this mix of animal and mechanical metaphors for the two sides while reading Leviathan, and Westerfeld faithfully takes it a step further here. What came clear to me in my reading was how essential the Leviathan trilogy will be for the section of my dissertation on technofantasy: essential for any steampunk scholar writing on the subject.

Academic musings aside, not all the technofantasy elements of Behemoth are meant to underscore difference: Westerfeld is first and foremost a teller of tales. Deryn's Spottiswoode Rebreather, "the first underwater apparatus created from fabricated creatures" is a wonderful Darwinist invention, "practically a living creature a set of fabricated gills that had to be kept wet even in storage" (255). It's like Verne meeting H.R. Giger. I find myself smiling regularly at Westerfeld's seemingly limitless imagination in adapting the fiction of Darwinist technology to new applications. I can imagine this as a useful creative writing assignment for teachers interested in incorporating the Leviathan trilogy into their curriculum: "create a Darwinist equivalent to a modern day item of technology."

Keith Thompson's art plays a more dynamic role this time, going beyond simply rendering visual versions of Westerfeld's prose. In the two-page panorama on pages 110-111, Thompson subtly drops a hint about an upcoming action piece, which can be corroborated by comparing the image with that on page 121. His grim depiction of actionon page 262, which I won't detail because of it's spoiler nature, only adds to the horror of the proceedings. Which brings me to a brief digression on the cover: the ARC I was sent features the Photoshop-style cover, an approach I loathe. Photomanipulation can be done really well, but even the best Photomanipulation would pale by comparison to the front cover of the Hardback edition of Leviathan I purchased here in Canada. I'm hoping I can track down a hardcover of the UK edition for my shelf, as long-time readers of the series will know how much I loved the first book in hardback. I guess Simon Pulse figures a teenager on the cover will help sell the book to the "right" demographic. As to what the right demographic for these books are, Simon Pulse needs to be aware it isn't just YA readers who are in expectation to either get around to reading Behemoth, or looking forward to the release of Goliath next year.
Adult covers like the ones released for Kenneth Oppel's Airborn series would be a nice treat here in North America.

The Cover I already own, and the one you'll likely end up with unless you spring for UK shipping.

i09 declared Behemoth a "pure escapist rush," and I suppose it could be read that way. But Behemoth, like Leviathan, is a hell of a lot smarter than just an adventure story. In addition to hitting all the usual notes of a YA novel (growing up, troubled love, high adventure, episodic chapters), Westerfeld plays with some Big Ideas, in the way good speculative fiction should - not as an in-your-face manifesto on human nature, but as a book that can be read at different ages for different reasons. As I kid, I'd have thrilled to the action. As an adult, I still do, but I'm also consistently impressed by how intelligent this ostensibly "kid" series is.

Leviathan remains my first recommendation for people getting into steampunk. I'm glad to see I can go ahead and tell folks to run out and buy the sequel as well.

Oct 1, 2010

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

We’re told to never judge a book by its cover, but we often do anyhow. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker was a book I judged by the cover: it had one of the first self-consciously steampunk covers, depicting the heroine wearing brass goggles, their lenses reflecting airships in flight. It veritably screamed steampunk. Scott Westerfeld’s cover blurb said the book was “made of irresistible,” while Mike Mignola quipped it was a mash-up of Jules Verne and George Romero. There was no steampunk book released with more hype in 2009 than Boneshaker, and steampunk enthusiasts, myself among them, placed it at the top of their “to be read” pile. Perhaps I was the victim of ridiculously high expectations resulting from the gorgeous cover and the pre-release hype, as I was ultimately underwhelmed. I wondered if I’d missed something. After all, many readers loved it. It was nominated for several prestigious SF awards. It won a Locus for best SF novel. At that point, I was convinced I’d missed something, and vowed to let Wil Wheaton and Kate Reading read it to me on audiobook at my earliest convenience. I needed another experience of it, since I’d speculated in my review of Boneshaker that since, “Priest still has the hands-down best short description of steampunk in existence, I’m hopeful she may yet write the hands-down best-steampunk-with-intention novel.”

My “earliest convenience” to revisit Boneshaker is yet to arrive, but I’m not sure it matters anymore: Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought just tied Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan for my “best-self-conscious-work-of-steampunk.”

Click here to read the rest of the review at Tor.com!
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