Dec 30, 2011

Top Steampunk of 2011

Three years ago, I published the first post here at Steampunk Scholar. At the time, I was still amassing my own steampunk library of primary sources. Now, I'm so flooded with ARCs I fall behind in my reviews. Thank you to the publishers who honour the blog by keeping me reading. I'm doing my best to give your authors more than a cursory or dismissive glance.

I think I'm finally back on track with posting for the blog, but anyone who's been with me for more than a year knows how tenuous a statement that is. I struggled this fall with keeping up with reviews and trying to finish a new article for publication, and edit and revise the first draft of the dissertation. While some say I need to drop the blog and focus on getting done, I gently remind them that without the blog, I wouldn't be where I am in my studies. So as an introduction to this post, thanks to everyone who keeps reading and commenting.

In 2010, I made my first "best of the year" list, since previous years simply didn't contain enough steampunk books to warrant such a list. 2010's list contained only five books, and although this year's deluge of steampunk permitted a lengthier list, I decided to keep it to five. This was a tough year in that respect, as I enjoyed many of the books I read, and wish I could include more. There's no point in suggesting "the best" if you're not being exclusionary. I should also note that this cannot be considered a comprehensive list: I haven't read all the steampunk published in 2011. My criteria is simple: the book must utilize the steampunk aesthetic as a core element of the book, it must be published in 2011, and cannot be a re-release. Otherwise, Titan Books' reprinting of Captain Nemo: The Fantastic Adventures of a Dark Genius by Kevin J. Anderson and Anno Dracula by Kim Newman would have made the list.
  1. Steampunk! - Candlewick anthology edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant - check out my review at Tor.com to see why.
  2. Heartless by Gail Carriger - I'll be writing a series of posts leading up to the release of Timeless, the final book in the Parasol Protectorate series. In the meantime, I'll simply say that anyone who has naysayed Carriger's inclusion in the steampunk fold due to a lack of technofantasy should be reviewing their crow recipes. This is the best book of the series since Soulless, and was a delight to read.
  3. Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder - read my review to find out why Hodder is one of the strongest voices in second wave steampunk fiction.
  4. Goliath by Scott Westerfeld - check out my retrospective on the Leviathan trilogy for why this was such a satisfying ending to one of the best steampunk series, and why it shouldn't be dismissed simply for being YA.
  5. Empire of Ruins by Arthur Slade - another YA novel you shouldn't be avoiding, and the reasons why.
Honorary mentions:  

Biggest surprise: How much I love the Vampire Empire series. If I'd had a sixth slot on the list, The Rift Walker would have been on it. While the covers made me think teen paranormal romance, the books are a superior blend of pulp-adventure, romance, steampunk, and neo-gothic elements. This is both a return to the monstrous in vampire fiction, while retaining the courtly machinations of Vampire the Masquerade and the young love story of Twilight. I am not understating when I say these books have everything most steampunk fans love in their fiction.

Biggest disappointment: Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time. See my review to see how this book got lost in translation, even with a map.

Best Audiobook: While the audiobooks for Carriger's Parasol Protectorate and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy continue to be of the highest calibre, the best release on audio this year for steampunk fans was Keith Roberts' Pavane. I don't consider the book steampunk per se, but as alternate history it fits both the inspirational antecedent for longtime steampunk fans, and must-read for new ones. These seven linked tales are a beautifully written (and narrated) alternate history where the Catholic Church still holds significant power in the 20th century: electric power is outlawed in a neo-Medieval Britain, but a Reformation of sorts is in the offing. Pavane is set for print re-release as well, and I'll review it properly when that comes out. In the meantime, check it out on audio.

Best Re-Release: While it was certainly a boon for the steampunk reader to have K.W. Jeter's seminal Morlock Night and Infernal Devices available from Angry Robot, Kim Newman's Anno Dracula from Titan Books is by far a superior work. Arguably, it works with less of the steampunk aesthetic in the area of technofantasy than Jeter's works do, but makes up for this lack with loads of social retrofuturism and dark neo-Victorianism. At the very least, we can say it's a book steampunks will love, and I can't recommend it enough.

Sheer Panache: Lev AC Rosen's All Men of Genius, for the audacity of playing in Shakespeare and Wilde's sandboxes and largely getting away with it.

Best Steampunk Memory: Meeting and hanging out with Gary Gianni at Steamcon. When I picture myself sitting at my sister's dining room table slaving over a term paper on Captain Nemo, I know that guy hasn't a clue how many cool experiences are lying ahead in the next three years. I gave up on getting to know the big celebs in my first year of convention travels, being content with making friends rather than being a fanboy. So I was pleasantly surprised to hit it off with Gary at the Steamcon Airship Awards banquet, and get some really fantastic opportunities to hang out and talk Conan, Doc Savage, Verne, and many other shared interests. It was like an early Christmas present.

A Happy New Year to my readers: I look forward to a leisurely stroll beside and inside the Nautilus in the new year, as well as looking back on two and a half years in Gail Carriger's wonderful Parasol Protectorate series. And, God willing and my schedule permitting, I'll see the end of the five year mission in the fourth year.

Dec 23, 2011

Christmas Past by Jonathan Green

Obviously, this is not the cover for Jonathan Green's steampunk short story, "Christmas Past." However, it is written by him, and is far more festive than any of the Pax Britannia covers. Those are kickass, but not festive.
Having read two of Jonathan Green's novels, his collection of short stories, and now his short Christmas tale, I find him hit-and-miss. I nothing short of detested Unnatural History, and while I enjoyed much of Leviathan Rising, I was nonplussed by its unnecessarily stereotypical treatment of asians-as-villains. I find Green far easier to take in small doses. Green's writing is the literary equivalent of your favorite junk-food - it's bad for you, but you enjoy it anyhow.

"Christmas Past" is one of Green's short works, available for free download from the Pax Britannia site. It's a no-risk venture, but so as not to waste anyone's time, I'll give you a quick sense of its flavour. It's a bloody tale of revenge and murder, complete with a slasher Santa. The mystery isn't half-bad, though not at the level of Sherlock Holmes, though it's clear Green wants his series' hero, Ulysses Quicksilver, to come off as a combination of Roger Moore's James Bond and Sherlock Holmes with a libido. That isn't to say it isn't worth reading - it's a nice diversion, and a good introduction to Green's style - if you like "Christmas Past," you will likely enjoy the Ulysses Quicksilver Short Story Collection. You may even wish to try some of Green's novels, though I can't vouch for them myself. I haven't given up on the man yet, though. He certainly takes things to a gonzo level in his steampunk world, as you'll see when I talk Leviathan Rising in the new year as part of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea series of posts, and I still own one more of his earlier Quicksilver novels (Human Nature, where I originally found "Christmas Past"). I love the underlying ideas Green plays with, but I have mixed feelings about the execution. Who knows, YMMV.

If you enjoy "Christmas Past," here's an idea taken from Gail Carriger's blog, where she suggested the following as a stocking stuffer:
Find some nice sepia tone or other fancy printer paper, buy a $0.99 short story by your friend's favorite author in .pdf form (or whatever) and print it out. Roll up and tie with a little ribbon. Pop into top of stocking, so cute! (Of course, for all the nay-sayers out there, I am not suggesting distributing or profiting from these print outs.)
Perhaps you'll use "Christmas Past." If it wasn't to your liking, why not try Carriger's short story, or Cherie Priest's free short story, "Tanglefoot: A Story of the Clockwork Century"? Or if you have your heart set on keeping it festively seasonal, try "If Dragon's Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear" by Ken Scholes. For those who hate reading, and want some arts and crafts on Christmas eve or morn, try Desktop Gremlins' Steampunk Santa!

Well, it's time to leave the blog until the new year - the year's "Best of" post will be out next Friday, but that's already written and waiting a scheduled posting. The best of the season to you all. Thanks once again for dropping by the blog, and making it one of the go-to-spaces on the web for steampunk reading.

Dec 14, 2011

I'll be Holmes for Christmas, or Sherlock Holmes and the case of the missing holiday

For those interested, the new seasonal top bar contains images from Macy's Steampunk-themed holiday-window displays.


With tonight's release of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and the Christmas season upon us, I decided to kill two birds with one stone, by introducing my Sherlock Holmes series while simultaneously riding one of my scholarly hobby horses, the use or absence of Christmas/Christendom in steampunk.

Doing a series of Holmes posts was inspired by the release of the new Guy Ritchie film, as well as by Titan Books' line of Holmes' pastiches, both in the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, marked by an asterisk below, and in the stand-alone riffing of Adams, Kowalski, and Newman.


 Sherlock Homes: the Breath of God by Guy Adams: Holmes and Crowley!
*Sherlock Holmes: The Veiled Detective by David Stuart Davies: Holmes' Secret Origin!
The Hound of the D'Urbervilles by Kim Newman
 *Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna: Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper!
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Leslie Klinger: Holmes for SMRT people!
*Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds by Manly W. Wellman and Wade Wellman: Holmes vs. Martians!

I'm not a Holmes scholar, nor could I say I'm a die-hard fan, but I've always been interested, and I wanted to take the opportunity to look at the world's most famous detective in earnest. However, there are already many sites dedicated to the canonical Sherlock Holmes, and to avoid needless duplication, I'm dealing with pastiches instead of canon.

As a steampunk scholar, I've had many people ask "Is Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes steampunk?" According to my aesthetic definition, there are certainly steampunk elements. The costuming and Holmes' fighting style are neo-Victorian, trading historical accuracy for stylistic verisimilitude. The uber-weapon in the film's climax has some level of retrofuturism and technofantasy, albeit light doses when compared to most steampunk tech. It's certainly no clockwork steam-spider. But that is the extent of my analysis of Ritchie's Holmes as steampunk, at least until I see the new film.
With that question so quickly answered, I am then asked if I think Downey's Holmes and Law's Watson are any good; people assume that because I deal in steampunk, I must know every work of popular Victorian and Edwardian literature intimately (I don't, but I'm working on it!). Subjectively, I think they're a brilliant spin on the odd couple Holmes and Watson have represented in their many iterations. Objectively, it's glaringly obvious that the letter of Doyle's canon has been abandoned for something closer to spirit. That said, this is nothing new in the history of Holmes onscreen. Just compare Nigel Bruce's "buffoonish portrait" of Watson in the Petrie Wine radio series, specifically "The Night Before Christmas episode" with David Burke's splendid performance in the UK Granada TV series Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which "finally [does] justice to the 'old campaigner' as a man of courage, intelligence, and compassion" (Klinger lvii). Or compare Peter Cushing's performance in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," one of the few surviving episodes of the '60s BBC series with Jeremy Brett in the UK Granada version of the same episode. As Klinger notes, "while Brett is not the Holmes of everyone's imagination, his larger-than-life characterisation will certainly stand for a generation as the screen Sherlock Holmes" (lvii). One might say the same for Downey and Law. But this is not the object of my inquiry either.



In preparing this post, I listened to the radio episode "The Night Before Christmas," read "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," and watched the Cushing and Brett versions of "Carbuncle" on YouTube, these Holmes' tales (the former pastiche, the latter canon) for their seasonal relevance, which resulted in reengaging my ruminations on the absence of Christmas and Christendom in steampunk.
  
Two years ago, I pondered the absence of Christmas, and by extension Christianity, in the majority of steampunk literature. At the time, J. Daniel Sawyer's "Cold Duty" was the only steampunk story I'd read that referenced that most Dickensian of holidays. Surprisingly, of the over one hundred steampunk books on my shelf, less than half include Christendom as a facet of their steampunk world building. Of those that do, Jay Lake's Mainspring and sequels figure most notably, since Lake's alternate world takes the nineteenth century conceit of God as the cosmic clockmaker quite literally.  I recently came across "Christmas Past" in Jonathan Green's Human Nature, where Christmas is simply backdrop. This year saw Lev AC Rosen's All Men of Genius, which appropriately includes a scene of festive cheer in addition to its references to Twelfth Night, as well as the release of A Clockwork Christmas, an anthology dedicated to steampunk holiday tales. Despite these few steampunk settings augmented with Yuletide cheer, references to Christendom and Christmas are less common in steampunk than one might imagine.


This dearth of reference to religion in London is odd, given the "revival of religious activity, largely unmatched since the days of the Puritans" that swept England in the nineteenth century:
This religious revival shaped that code of moral behaviour, or rather than infusion of all behaviour with moralism, which became known as "Victoranism." Above all, religion occupied a place in the public consciousness, a centrality in the intellectual life of the age, that it had not had a century before and did not retain in the twentieth century. (Klinger xx, emphasis added)
Klinger argues that it is this religious revival that provides nineteenth century society with the propriety we see so many steampunk characters engaging in: the unflappable manners of Alexia Tarabotti in The Parasol Protectorate are arguably the result of a society built on this revival of religious activity. Thankfully, Gail Carriger's books feature religious establishments to support Alexia keeping up appearances, from American Puritans in Soulless (140) to the scheming Templars of Blameless.

One might argue more strenuously for references to Christmas in steampunk, since "what we think of as Christmas was actually invented, for the most part, in the Victorian era."
Prior to the 1800s, Christmas, which had evolved from winter solstice festivals, had often been an occasion of raucous, drunken celebration. The publication of Dickens's A Christmas Carol in 1843, with its message of goodwill and charity, helped to transform the holiday into an appreciation of family and community. The words to many Christmas carols were penned in the 1800s, both in England and the United States, and the Christmas Tree was popularised by Prince Albert, who brought the practice over from his native Germany  in the 1840s. (Klinger 198)
Klinger wrote this footnote for "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" in his New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and in returning to Holmes I hope to clarify what I mean by inclusion of Christendom, Christianity, or Christmas in steampunk. Aside from Holmes' reference to Christmas as "the season of forgiveness," there is nothing particularly sentimental about "Blue Carbuncle," unless one finds "the evident warmth of the friendship between Holmes and Watson" (Klinger 197) to be so. Holmes' allusion to the religious significance of Christmas are not the words of a believer: unlike his creator, Holmes is a man of science, not spiritualism. However, as befit the times he lived in, Doyle produced a Christmas story, one which Holmes scholar and writer Christopher Morley referred to as "a Christmas story without slush" (197). If steampunk is set in the Victorian period and London locale, or seeks to evoke said period or locale, than it must needs address at the very least the religion that spawned the holiday, if not the holiday itself from time to time, either by reference to presence or absence thereof.


Steampunk set in an alternate world closely resembling earth needs to deal with the problem of the Church, especially when set in England. Let me be clear: I'm not advocating for a steampunked Pilgrim's Progress or nineteenth century Narnias. Painting the church in a positive light is not the issue at hand: I'm a fan of Philip Pullman's Golden Compass, which goes beyond the church as villain to God as Evil Overlord. I'm simply nonplussed at the common erasure of Church from steampunk: get rid of the Church if you like, but then deal with the ramifications of that absence. Or keep it, and let it be a power that holds back progress, giving reasons for steam technology in the 1960s, as in Keith Roberts' brilliant alternate history Pavane. That said, don't limit yourself to the stereotype of Church as the Big Bad; while certainly involved in numerous historical atrocities, Christendom was responsible for a lot more than the Crusades and Inquisition. If you're going to steampunk the emancipation of slavery, you'll be playing both sides of that coin. Or, you can simply ensure it's sitting in the background, as Kady Cross has in The Girl in the Steel Corset, citing romance fans' eye for historical detail. Obviously, there's no need for references to real-world religion in the fully secondary steampunk worlds, such as the world of Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air and its sequels. Yet even Karin Lowachee's secondary world in Gaslight Dogs has an all too familiar religion bent on colonial proselytizing that creates a instant familiarity with her ostensibly unfamiliar world.

Whatever you do, do your homework, and know your history. Whatever one's attitudes toward institutional religion, it was a major facet of Victorian life. Even if it's only present in blasphemy, as in the dialogue of Cherie Priest's heroes and heroines, ensure you haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or manger straw, for Christ's sake.

Dec 9, 2011

Steampunk: Gears, Gadgets, and Gizmos by Thomas Willeford (2012)

For those who celebrate Christmas, it's Advent, and if you're like many, you're counting the shopping days remaining, or like me, are lighting advent wreaths and opening cardboard doors to find chocolate treats. As ecumenical as I am, I celebrate Christmas, so the blog gets a festive makeover, and with teeth gritted, I emerge from end-of-term grading binges to write a few holiday-themed posts.

We begin our Christmas series for 2011 with Thomas Willeford's Steampunk: Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos, "A Maker's Guide to Creating Modern Artifacts." As anyone familiar with the blog knows, I am not a Maker, nor do I comment much on what Makers are up to. They are an aspect of steampunk for another scholar's academic scrutiny. I must admit, I cringe whenever someone says that steampunk is about making things with your hands, since I live the life of the mind; all my steampunk contributions have been virtual, with my hands involved only in typing on a decidedly non-steampunk keyboard.

That said, I harbor a secret hope for the time and wherewithal to someday mod a Nerf Maverick: I've owned one since before my research interests took me to conventions where I saw scores of the toy guns, day-glo colours buried beneath a patina of paint, and I'd love to try my hand at it, cliched as that may be. Likewise, in looking through Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos (GGG), I'm optimistic I could, with Thomas Willeford's help, make my own goggles.

I have friends who would benefit more from owning Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos, and it was thinking of them that I imagined an alternate history of my life where I had more money and time. In that alternate history, I buy these friends, these amateur tinkerers, people who are much better with their hands than I am (insofar as making things go - I am very good with my hands at a number of other things), a copy of Willeford's GGG. With the list of "Must Have Tools" found on page 8 in hand, I go shopping. I then  shove the coping saw, metal files, rotary hole punch, and fine-point magic markers, along with the rest of the "Tools of the Mad Scientist" into a very large and very durable stocking, and place it under their tree after having broken into their house by drilling out their front door lock with the Electric Power Drill Willeford recommends, in addition to an Electric Rotary Power Tool and Reciprocating Handsaw under "Handheld Power Tools."

Getting the picture? Imagine, instead of buying your favorite burgeoning steampunk Maker a pair of goggles for Christmas, buying them the tools and materials to make their own. Odds are, if they're handy people in a Tim Allen vein, they'll already own half these tools. If they are very handy, they've been eagerly waiting for an excuse to use these tools. Willeford's GGG offers a whimsical solution to the tools collecting dust in your handy friend's workroom.

If that seems too costly, then consider buying the book along with a dead cuckoo clock and allowing that neophyte Tinkerer to enjoy the process of "Gear Mining--Or How to Dissect a Cuckoo," outlined in Chapter 4. Or buy them the materials need to build one project.

Alternately, if your Steampunk-Maker-in-the-Making is someone you have your romantic eye on, buy them the book, and make a coupon book for date-nights to the Antique Shop or Flea Market. Willeford devotes space to collecting all the necessary paraphenalia for the Tesla wannabe.

I recall a nonplussed artist at Nova Albion in 2010, bemoaning the copycat nature of steampunk art. I'm more in Kirk Hammett's camp (yes, the guitarist from Metallica), who once said that "imitation is creation." I'm sure he wasn't the first to say so, but he's the one I remember. I remember because I learned to play bass with Metallica tabs. I learned to draw by tracing my comic books. And I think I can learn to make goggles with Thomas Willeford's help: that, and my friends' tools.  

Head over to Amazon.com to look through sample pages, which include those crucial tool lists!

P.S. Don't take this recommendation from a non-Maker alone! Nathan Hays (@thegeo) of Fortune's Ember, said the following about GGG on Twitter: "I can't recommend this Steampunk craft book enough! Has REAL projects, rayguns/arms/etc . . . It isn't another shitty "Lets take a chain from Hobby Lobby and glue a gear to an octopus pendant and hang it on it. Steampunk!" . . . It is a book of actually cool, useful, unique, and CREATIVE ideas . . . My copy arrived today, once it warms up in a few months I have quite a few things to try out now."

Nov 15, 2011

The Hunter by Theresa Myers


When I saw the cover of Theresa Myers' The Hunter, I thought, "I should get my mom to do the review on this one." She's a huge fan of westerns, and with a tag line like "his father warned him about girls like this," I figured this would be a standard western with steampunk flavors. Besides, the idea of having the steampunk scholar's mom weighing in on a steampunk western seemed fun.

You'll note that she's not the one writing this review, and the story of why begins with the cover for the Hunter , itself an interesting case of reader expectations and marketing strategies, especially for steampunk fans. Rather than the "gears 'n grit" so much steampunk is currently packaged with, The Hunter's cover is very shiny, in a Boris-Vallejo-paints-SF-way. It appears to be banking on the hope that Cowboys and Aliens would do well at the box office. Compare the cover for Devon Monk's Dead Iron to see what I mean. My guess is that some steampunk connoisseurs will turn their nose up at the Hunter, with its neon-glow pistol and gleaming clockwork horse, and maybe that's for the best. The Hunter isn't steampunk written for those who consider The Difference Engine and its direct offspring as quintessential steampunk. Rather, The Hunter is entry-level access to the steampunk aesthetic for neophytes like my mom.


The self-appointed door wardens of steampunk were disappointed when Katie MacAlister's Steamed stormed the steampunk market outside the subculture. I expect Myers is in for some of the same disdain. The Hunter is certainly working with the steampunkaesthetic, whatever criticism supercilious exclusivists may level at it. It takes place in the nineteenth century (neo-Victorian), albeit in America, but any publishers still under the impression steampunk only happens in London need to wake up and smell the phlogiston, because steampunk has been set outside London since Rudy Rucker wrote The Hollow Earth in 1990. Further, even Myers' demon lord Rathe, despite decidedly mythic roots, "part vampire, part fallen archangel," dresses in neo-Vic fashion: "he was dressed like a dapper Englishman, with a great black overcape, freshly pressed black pin-striped suit with matching vest, crisp white high-collar shirt, and blood-red silk tie" (21); the heroine's attitude and desire for freedom displays anachronistic attitudes for a woman in the Old West, even if she is a demon (retrofuturism), and impossible technologies (technofantasy) like Tempus the clockwork horse, vampires' dirigibles that exemplify Arthur Evans' category of Vernian "vehicular utopias," and the ubiquitous goggles, rendered here as "spectro-photometric oglifiers" (16). It isn't literary or high minded: it's mostly good bodice-ripping fun, and while some critics are interested in creating taxonomies for steampunk based in ideologies, I will once again beat the proverbial dead horse here at Steampunk Scholar: steampunk is an aesthetic, an empty tea cup ornately decorate waiting to be filled. In the case of Theresa Myers' The Hunter, it's filled with the smell of leather saddles and gunpowder, mixed with sweat and other bodily fluids generated by the hero rubbing up against a busty red headed succubus a lot. 

And that's why you're not reading my mother's review of The Hunter.

While taking a bright 'n shiny brass veneer approach to the cover will only mislead those who prefer their steampunk gritty, The Hunter's cover misleads those seeking out steampunk that's a little dirty, and by dirty I mean steamy. The Hunter, in addition to being steampunk, is paranormal romance. About a succubus. Perhaps appealing to Cowboys and Aliens fans didn't involve a red-headed devil-lady bursting out of her corset on the cover (much to my disappointment). However, given the level of steam Myers generates in The Hunter, an image of a red-headed devil-lady on the cover might have given me fair warning. Despite my mom's familiarity with Western types, she would be unlikely to recognize the Hooker with the Heart of Gold in Lily the Succubus. Further, I didn't want to have to explain what a succubus is to my mom. That's a conversation for a father and son.

Which brings me back to that tag line: his father had warned him about girls like this. It's clever, because Colt, the male protagonist, really was warned by his father about women like Lily the succubus, a female Darkin. As a hunter, Colt was trained by his father to kill Lily's kind, but in great paranormal romantic tradition, he can't: first, because he needs her to help him find the Book, and second because he wants her. Herein lies the problem for our hero and heroine: "Colt was a Hunter. She was a demon. The two would never mix, so why did she suddenly yearn for it to happen?" (47). He's no choir boy, but she's the Bad Girl turned all the way up to eleven.

This must be a trope of paranormal romance, though I'm no expert: our hero and heroine have a powerful desire for each other, but cannot act on it for fear of starting the apocalypse, or turning one of them into a mindless monster, or something equally bad in a life writ large kind of way, to use Joss Whedon's terms. So while the plot is recycled adventure-quest-for-the-lost-relic, it's ancillary to the real crisis, which is how Lily and Colt can get to the passionate embrace without Lily consuming Colt's soul in the process. As Robert Irwin stated in The Arabian Nights: A Companion, "the romantic and erotic fiction of any culture is always constructed from conventional plot motifs, literary stereotypes and stock themes (Lovers often swooned in medieval diction, but did they do so in medieval reality?)" (161). Those seeking unconventional plot, literary innovation, and challenging themes would do well to look elsewhere. However, those seeking to enjoy a fun romp in the saddle and the sack involving some steampunk adventure along the way to a number of climaxes, both narrative and naughty, would do well to check out Theresa Myers' The Hunter.

Which is once again, why I'm the one writing about this book, and not my mom. I'm not up for a conversation involving "bodies in unison in a run to the finish" (290) with my mother. That's a conversation for me and my wife.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone, then edited in Blogger.

Oct 28, 2011

Victorian/Steampunk Monsters

Above model: Candace Miller Photographer: Richard Fournier
 At the end of this year's Airship Awards banquet at Steamcon III in Seattle, Diana Vick announced the theme for 2012's Steamcon IV: Victorian Monsters. Shortly after the announcement, I told Diana it was "dirty pool" to go having yet another fun theme for the fourth year in a row. That famous quote from the Godfather III is rolling around in my head, given I thought this was likely my last Steamcon: "Just when I thought I was out . . . they pull me back in."

Get yourself one of these Steampunk Vampire Slaying kits from Dr. Jubal at Deviant Art!

I don't know who Diana's planning to invite as Guests of Honor, but the website has further clarified the theme as "All the Classic Monsters born during the Victorian period." Arguably, we're looking at Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, the Martians from War of the Worlds, Dr. Moreau's hybrids, Varney the Vampire, Carmilla, and Dorian Gray. If I'm in attendance, I'll be bringing along a Wendigo from the Great White North, courtesy of Algernon Blackwood. Given steampunks' love for H.P. Lovecraft, I'll be shocked if we don't see the whole damn Whateley family in attendance, or at the very least, a copy of the Necronomicon.

Still, that's a whole year away, and in the meantime, Halloween is just around the corner, and I've been pondering the intersection of steampunk and horror for a week and a half now. To that end, here's a list, in no way meant to seem comprehensive, of books combining steampunk with monsters:



Zombies
Obviously, Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century books immediately jump to mind, with the Dust-driven revenants of Boneshaker, Clementine, Dreadnought, and Ganymede. While they sometimes serve more as part of the setting than overt plot device, Priest's zombies are an interesting twist on the zombie as victim of addiction. Steampunk naysayers nonplussed by the anachronistic inclusion of these mutant offspring of the atom should remember that Priest was not the first to include zombies in steampunk fiction: that distinction goes to James Blaylock, who brought us zombies of a kind in the steampunk classic Homunculus back in the '80s. Gunslinger Johnny Ringo returns from the dead to shamble into Tombstone in Mike Resnick's Buntline Special, while other steampunk works that include the walking dead, or close cousins thereof are Tim Akers' Dead of Veridon and George Mann's The Affinity Bridge.  


Vampires
Dracula, the king of all vampires, makes but a cameo in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula; yet the absence of the big-D is compensated by the sheer volume of nineteenth century vampires parading through the pages of this classic work of horror and alternate history. Titan books reissued Anno Dracula earlier this year, and it's the Halloween treat that will do the trick if you're a fang-fan.

While nowhere near as serious as Anno Dracula, Gail Carriger's paranormal romance series, The Parasol Protectorate, is the antidote to the viral spread of sparkling vampires for that teen who's tiring of Edward Cullen. Carriger's vampires don't lurk in the shadows: they cavort through London in bright coloured waistcoats, setting fashion trends. Her werewolves are an interesting study of machismo and alpha male stereotypes, and her protagonist is a preternatural, a woman without a soul who cancels out the supernatural. Don't let the laughs fool you, though: Carriger can write creepy when the occasion calls for it, from the waxen faced golem VIXI in Soulless to the poltergeists in Heartless 

 While it's not steampunk, fans of steampunk writer Tim Powers will do well to check out his The Stress of Her Regard, which combines a vampire of sorts with the story of how Frankenstein came to be written. Other steampunk novels with bloodsucking include Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam; while I haven't read these yet,  I'm excited to get around to Clay and Susan Griffith's Vampire Empire Series, The Greyfriar and The Riftwalker; finally,  Dracula makes another brief appearance in Joe Lansdale's Zeppelins West.


More Monsters!
China Mieville's Perdido Street Station provides us with monsters galore, and monster hunters in pursuit, in what is effectively a steampunk Aliens/Blade 2/Mimic tale: a bug hunt in a fantastic steampunk setting. Jonathan Green's Leviathan Rising fulfills our fear of giant monsters in the water abysses, and Canadian Arthur Slade takes Quasimodo's monstrous visage and renders it heroic in The Hunchback Assignments.

And finally, while I'd hesitate to call Mike Mignola's Baltimore: The Steadfast Tin Solider and the Vampire steampunk, it has the right look and feel for the steampunk crowd. It's a hybrid homage to classic monsters: a pastiche of Victor Frankenstein's obsessive pursuit of his creation, of the vampire hunters who stalk Dracula, and Lovecraft's Shadow over Innsmouth, with poetic prose references to Andersen's fairy tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier. I haven't had an opportunity to read Mignola's comic series of Baltimore, but the original book was a joy to read. And if a certain con promoter is listening, I think Mignola's the man to have as artist GOH next year at Steamcon IV. Since his tale isn't particularly steampunk, it might fit the bill for "monsters birthed in the Victorian period."

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Oct 17, 2011

Steampunk! - An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

This is the cover on the ARC I received: Not the marketing strategy I'd have chosen for a YA targeted anthology.

Halfway through reading Candlewick Press’s Steampunk! anthology, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, I was pining for a course to teach on steampunk. While some might be dismissive of an anthology marketed toward young adults published by a press best known for children’s books (The lion’s share of my son’s primary readers are Candlewick books), they’d be remiss to do so. The talent collected by editors Kelly Link and Gavin Grant is considerable, and not a one has written a throwaway tale with a few cogs and gears slapped on. Instead, each story challenges the boundaries of the steampunk aesthetic, while standing on its own as thoughtful, insightful works of short fiction.


The usual suspects for the constitution of a steampunk work are present in the early stories, but the further in one reads, the farther from London we journey, and only on rare occasion and in dire need, by airship. The technology is still here, but it often takes a back seat to the characters, or as a delivery device for thematic content. Instead of an explanation of how the gizmo works, we’re getting reflections on how the world works.

Read the whole article at Tor.com!

Cassandra Clare informs me this is the UK cover. Lucky blokes!

Oct 7, 2011

Steampunk Gilgamesh: The Annotated Version

The origin of this exercise is perhaps as odd as the idea itself: while weeding my devastated Mad-Max-style front yard in preparation to lay sod this past summer, I was listening to the audio version of Stephen Mitchell’s lovely Gilgamesh: A New English Version. As I listened, I imagined the how the story would look if it were steampunked. Who would Gilgamesh be? What would Enkidu look like? What city would replace Uruk? I never seriously pondered writing it down, until I hit 800 followers on Twitter, and decided to celebrate the landmark with 80 tweets comprising an outline of a steampunked Gilgamesh. As part of Steampunk Week here at Tor, here is that outline with annotated explanations.

1. I’ll be using Stephen Mitchell’s excellent Gilgamesh text as source for the direct quotations in these tweets. I used Stephen Mitchell because he fills in the gaps in the text, making it far more readable than literal translations of a single version of Gilgamesh. If you’re going to read the Epic, this is the version to start with. If you’ve never read Gilgamesh, either take the time to read Mitchell’s version, or read an online summary – the steampunked version will make more sense.

2. Instead of walled Uruk, we behold a skyscraper in New York, early 20th century: “Doc” Gil Gamesh’s achievement. The Gilgamesh Epic (GE) as written by Sin-Leqqe-Unninni begins with a sort of frame narrative, asking the reader to behold the wonders of ancient architecture manifest in Uruk, the city Gilgamesh built. I chose New York over London because New York’s skyline exemplifies the pinnacle of industrial ingenuity better than London’s. Further, I was thinking of how Lester Dent describes New York in Land of Always Night, a Doc Savage adventure: “In the center of New York City, the skyscrapers jut up like silver pines, each seemingly striving to overshadow the other; but there is one building taller and finer than all the rest, an astounding mass of polished granite and stainless steel towering nearly a hundred stories into the sky, a structure that is possibly man’s proudest building triumph.” 

Read the whole EPIC at Tor.com!

Oct 3, 2011

An Interview, Steampunk Week, and Steamcon III

My sister, me, and my niece at Steamcon II last fall. (Photo by the Steamcon Photo Booth Guy)

While the Steampunk Scholar blog has been largely silent this past month, I have not. Earlier this month I was interviewed at Albertan YA writer Judith Graves' website, covering some old ground for my long time readers, but new for Judith's YA paranormal romance audience.

I was also writing and submitting articles and abstracts to academic anthologies that are in the offing (that's all I can really say at this point). I submitted three posts to Tor.com: a longer version of my "Steampunk Gilgamesh" for steampunk week (Oct. 3-7, 2011), and two appreciations: one for Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy, and the other for Candlewick's Steampunk! anthology. I'll link to all of those as they go live.

Reading from Soulless with Gail Carriger at Steamcon II (photo by Rio Jones)

Finally, I've been prepping to present at Steamcon III, coming up in less than two weeks on October 14-16. Here's my presentation schedule for the weekend:

Friday, October 14
4: 00 p.m. Steampunk Lit to Watch For - Regency C
What writers and new fiction should we be looking out for this year? (Here's the rub - I know a few, but I want MORE! So if you're a steampunk writer with something new to release next year, give me the skinny.)
I'll moderating, with authors Ren Cummins and Andrew Mayer as panelists.

Saturday, October 15
10:00 a.m. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in under an Hour - Grand B
Hurtling forward at Nautilus-like speed, this session will both summarize and illuminate key points from Verne’s classic novel, as well as social commentary and character development excised from most translations.

11:00 a.m. Meet Gary Gianni - Grand E-G
An interview with Artist Guest of Honor Gary Gianni.

Sunday, October 16
10:00 a.m. Steampunking 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Grand I
This session catalogues and summarizes steampunk novels using Verne’s classic work as their basis, such as Arthur Slade’s The Dark Deeps, Jonathan Green’s Leviathan Rising, Mark Mellon’s Napoleon Concerto, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Joe Lansdale’s Zeppelins West, and Thomas F. Moteleone’s The Secret Sea.

11:00 a.m. Captain Nemo: A Biography - Cedar
Combining the fiction of Verne’s novels with historical facts about the British Raj, Sepoy mutiny, and historical figures, this session treats the enigmatic figure of Captain Nemo as a real person, a complex hero and villain, and arguably the protagonist of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

If you're at Steamcon and come to any of the panels or presentations, please introduce yourself! I'll be milling about in the afternoon and evening.

What I look like between panels, because I'm in such a bloody hurry.  (Photo by Taja Blackhorn-Delph)

Sep 15, 2011

Empire of Ruins: The Hunchback Assignments III by Arthur Slade


When I was a kid, I stumbled into reading Doc Savage novels because I mistook them the basis for the fictional character Mark Savage from the short lived television series Tenspeed and Brownshoe. Thankfully, my error produced a better result than I'd anticipated, throwing me into the pulp world of Clark Savage and his team of heroes. My first Doc Savage book was a Golden Press hardback of The Sargasso Ogre, which was mostly green for obvious reasons. Both my perception of Doc Savage as epitome of globetrotting explorer-adventurer and my nostalgia for those Golden Press hardbacks were both evoked (the greenery, and the very feel of the Canadian edition hardback!) by Empire of Ruins, the latest installment in Arthur Slade's The Hunchback Assignments.

This won't translate well for Stateside readers picking up the trade paperback editions from Random House, which utilize that YA Photoshop approach that renders Modo as a sort of Goth-styled hero, more pale than hideous. Those covers never captured my imagination nor inspired my nostalgia like the Canadian editions from Harper-Collins, which are hardback with a cartoon style cover by the masterful Christopher Steininger. I'm not sure what it says about the difference in markets between our countries, but despite receiving the first two from Random House as ARCs, I have since bought Canadian editions of the first two books because of my love of the covers.

These are books you can judge by those covers: Slade produces what Steininger promises. In the case of Empire of Ruins, that means an expedition in the Australian rainforest, with Modo's close companions along for the adventure. Tharpa, Modo's combat trainer, and one of my favorite characters in the series, finally makes the cover! The pith helmets, Mr. Socrates rifle, and Modo's enigmatic new mask put me in mind of Alderac Games' The Adventurers: The Temple of Chac boardgame, and by extension, Indiana Jones and all the bad direct-to-video spinoffs Raiders spawned.
My love of the "into the jungle" exploration adventures was definitely a motivator in my interest in steampunk.And as I opened Empire of Ruins to the first page, I wasn't disappointed. We find Modo in media res, having just fallen into the Australian rainforest from an airship engaged in battle far above him, pursued by men in the trees using animal sounds for signals, about to fall into a pit trap filled with spikes. And then he takes us back nine months earlier, to wend our way back to that moment with Modo. The journey is filled with Slade's usual mix of light-hearted humour, engaging characters, high adventure, and near-death escapes. There's nothing philosophically earth-shattering here, but it's well written escapism filled with personalities this reader has come to love.

Like the earlier installments, Empire of Ruin is both plot-driven for those seeking the page turner, and character driven for those who couldn't care less about one more moment of derring do (in some ways, the difference in the US and Canadian covers realizes this dichotomy). Readers of the earlier books will be pleased to know that like Scott Westerfeld, Slade has no intention of stringing along the relationship between his leading man and lady ad nauseum. Modo and his fellow agent, Octavia. It's no spoiler to reveal that Octavia finally sees behind Modo's mask: it would be a spoiler to say whether or not she sees beyond it. It's an emotional moment, but that's as much as I'll reveal. Modo continues to work out the complexities of the father-son relationship he shares with his boss/benefactor, Mr. Socrates, who represents the "for Queen and Country" man in the series. Modo provides the oppositional "punk" perspective, trusting to instinct rather than blind obedience, which produces a number of tense moments for the young man and his mentor. 

Sadly, even with my endorsement, many will pass Slade by because his work is classified as Young Adult reading. Some of the best steampunk written in the last ten years is aimed at the Young Adult market: Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, or Philip Reeve's Larklight. Two of my favorite series have not only been Young Adult, but also Canadian: Kenneth Oppel's Airborn trilogy, and Slade's Hunchback Diaries. Maybe I just like them because of where they take me: back to a simpler time in my life when summer afternoons were filled with hours of reading stories of adventure and exploration, followed by more hours of actual adventure and exploration, with hiking books, canteen, and backpack, in the coulees and creeks around my hometown of Medicine Hat. Maybe it's because that when they provide social commentary, it's rarely overwrought or in my face, but rather a facet of a character's perspective. Or maybe it's because I'm just a sucker for a book involving pith helmets and ancient ruined temples.

Whichever it is, it was a delight to journey with Modo this past summer, and my only regret is that I didn't have the time to tell you sooner. I was too busy playing Adventurers with my son, and dreaming of being an academic who wears a fedora and a satchel, and carries a whip. If that's your brand of fun, then Empire of Ruins is for you.

Sep 2, 2011

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma


An exercise in never-judging a book by its awesome cover or overwrought hype (based largely in the mistaken idea that any book in translation must be brilliant!), I present my review for Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time, for those of you who might have missed it at Tor.com. 


I once took a course in writing science fiction and fantasy from Canadian fantasy writer Ann Marston. In it, Ann warned against explaining oft-used concepts and tropes, as they no longer required explanation. She focused on post-apocalyptic literature that rambled on about how the world had ended, rather than advancing the story. Her point was that SFF readers have a vast intertextual repository of print and screen antecedents to fill in the gaps. A few hints are sufficient for the savvy speculative reader’s comprehension. Consider Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. How did the world become this burnt out husk? It doesn’t matter – the world burned, a father and son survived, and continue to survive. This is the story. We don’t really give a damn precisely how the world fell apart because we’re wrapped up in that story, no further explanation necessary.

While reading the third and final act of Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, I wondered if his target audience was someone who had never considered parallel universes, or alternate history, or time travel’s ripple effect. In short, someone who has never read Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. For anyone familiar with possible world theory or Schrödinger’s cat, it feels terribly contrived. It’s like reading the alt history version of The Celestine Prophecy: characters exist only to deliver philosophical exposition. When H.G. Wells utters the words, “Does this mean we are living in . . . a parallel universe?” I couldn’t help myself. I took a red pen and wrote, “Gasp!” in the margin.

The awkward third act of The Map of Time is unfortunate, because there’s some really good writing in the first two acts. The problem is, Palma tried too hard to connect the dots for the reader, instead of letting it be a fragmented narrative involving Jack the Ripper, H.G. Wells, time travel, John Merrick the Elephant Man, and the sudden appearance of Bram Stoker and Henry James. Oh, and there’s a romance or two as well.

Check out the whole article at Tor.com.

Aug 30, 2011

Mission Update: Summer 2011

Once again, my best laid plans are too grandiose for my workload. I had hoped to include a few more reviews/analyses in this year's Canuck Steampunk, but between taking on a new course (Introduction to Comparative Literature), staying home with my kids most of the summer (my wife had to return to work), and punching out the dissertation, there simply wasn't enough time. My biggest regret was not getting to finish my review of Peter Tupper's The Innocent's Progress (which I'll now wrap up in February for the second annual Steampunk Romance and Erotica month at the site), and introducing you to Adrienne Kress, author of  Alex and the Ironic Gentlemen, which while not being specifically steampunk, should appeal to steampunk fans. Adrienne did forward a copy of her short story, "The Clockwork Corset" from Corsets and Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances. It's a delightful love story set during World War I, and if it's any indication of the quality of the rest of the book, it's well worth your time.

I'd also hoped to get to Arthur Slade's The Dark Deeps and The Empire of Ruins, but my brain put me on forced vacation during the month of August (I'll be covering The Empire of Ruins in September as part of the Fall New Releases series of posts). I took a steampunk hiatus, trying very hard to be fully on holiday, which was really good for me, but bad for the completion of Canuck Steampunk. Oh well. As we say in Canada, c'est la vie. (While I was on my steampunk break, I read mainly high-fantasy and re-read Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. I also completed Canadian J.M. Frey's Triptych, which was a brilliantly challenging piece of pure SF. Frey has some steampunk in the cooker, so she's an author to watch for.)

For those who are interested in these things, a little commentary on this year's Canuck Steampunk banner. I love David Malki's Wondermark, and wanted to pay homage to it. I knew I wanted some iconic Canadian elements, and chose the beaver and moose, and went from there. The beaver is a tip of the hat to both the Parks Canada logo, and Cory Gross's submission for the Steampunk Canada logo (which wasn't chosen, but was a clever idea). The finished image is the final frame of a cartoon I did for The Dominion Dispatch, which I'll post a link to once I have one. It's the punchline frame, and it struck me as the funniest. Most of the images that really made the banner "steampunk" came from The Sum of All Crafts, where Valerie B. has collected some really crazy images.


The dissertation lives in its first very rough form! I'm a few pages short of the minimum 200 pages right now, but that will get shored up in revision. While I had hoped to hand something in by the end of summer, the current document is too fragmented for submission, so I'm going to spend the fall semester polishing it up to make it shiny. I have two articles submitted for publication in two academic anthologies. Whichever one gets released first will have the distinction of being the first English academic anthologies on steampunk. The first of those I cast my lot like anyone else, with fingers crossed: the second came as a request, so I'm more hopeful about the article's inclusion. The first article is titled, "Useful Troublemakers: Social Retrofuturism in the steampunk novels of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest." I'm very excited about that one, as it looks at steampunk retrofuturism's social aspect, as opposed to the more common technological one. The second is called "Flying Towards Grace: Steampunk and the Hole in the Sky," which looks at the tension between the rational and the fantastic in a selection of steampunk novels. Both will be added to the dissertation, so it's a two-birds-with-one-stone approach, which is what I've been trying to do with all my publications, with the exception of my Nemo article.

I'm still waiting to hear on approval of my research funds for a trip to Steamcon, but I'll be at Edmonton's Pure Speculation festival in November for certain, doing some panels and presentations, as well as running a game of Arkham Horror at some point over the weekend.

The fall ARCs are already pouring in, and I'll be doing my level best to report on as many as I can. We'll see how things go come high-marking season. My plan is currently to post bi-weekly this fall, which seems like a better plan than promising weekly, and then ending up publishing bi-weekly. I'll also be participating in Tor.com's Steampunk Fortnight, with an annotated version of the Steampunk Gilgamesh I posted in 80 tweets a few weeks ago. I'll be explaining the thinking behind my choices, which should, in effect, act as a case study of the steampunk aesthetic. As always, there will be links!

Jul 26, 2011

Sunset Val: A Thrilling Tale of Airship Piracy by Rob St. Martin

I met Rob St. Martin at the Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition in Toronto this past Spring. We were on two different panels together, and his commentary on secondary worldbuilding got me intrigued to read some of his steampunk. Rob's written a number of books, most for Sabledrake Enterprises, but the book Rob sent me to review, Sunset Val: A Thrilling Tale of Airship Piracy was published through Weird and Wondrous books. Both are small press, so it's unlikely you'll find Rob's books at the local Chapters, which is too bad, because, as I tweeted back in May I thoroughly enjoyed Sunset Val as a fun crosshatch fantasy with a steampunk flavor, targeted at the YA or Young at Heart market.

I used the term crosshatch somewhat incorrectly in that tweet, as the Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines crosshatch fantasies as those where the demarcation line between worlds isn't clearcut, "and two or more worlds may simultaneously inhabit the same territory" (237). That's what I get for not checking my sources. But I think the word itself conveys what I was trying to say, which is that Sunset Val is a crossover tale, a tale of portals, like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or Abarat. Calling a novel a crossover fantasy would be terribly confusing, in this world of hybridized genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres. I should have said "portal-fantasy," but that sounds clunky. Steampunk doesn't often use portals as a trope - usually all the characters are from this world. Exceptions to this convention seem to come from writers outside the SFF genre, such as Katie MacAlister's Steamed, or Nathalie Gray's Full Steam Ahead. The portal approach works well for writers seeking to introduce non-aficianados of steampunk to the aesthetic: the focalizing character provides a commentary that is familiar, to help situate the unfamiliar.  

The book begins in our world: Valerie Ventura is an oddball kid who goes in for fencing lessons and goth fashion who finds herself summarily yanked through a portal generated by electricity by the evil Dr. Sweetwater. It sounds terribly contrived and cliched, and when seen in summary, it certainly is. However, what makes Sunset Val a treat to read is Valerie's (Val's) character voice. She's smart, creative, and thankfully, something of a geek. When she is asked by Dr. Sweetwater if she's ever heard of alternate worlds, Val replies, "Only in like, a hundred thousand movies and books" (17). As fantastic genres become more mainstream, it can only follow that fictional characters will have to stop responding in ignorance to such questions. Let's face it: we all know what a lightsaber, a blaster, warp drives, and time machines are - so while it might remain somewhat more literary for characters to be dumbfounded by the appearance of the undead on their block, many North Americans know more about what to do in case of a zombie invasion than they do if someone is choking in a restaurant. Val is largely unsurprised by her situation, and given the character voice St. Martin has written her in since page one, we aren't surprised by her unflappable response.

Val's ironic first-person character voice transforms moments that would be clunky in third-person into opportunities for witty humor. Even when he's resorting to canned exposition, St. Martin is clever enough to deliver it via Dr. Sweetwater, thereby rendering it an out-of-control mad-scientist's monologue from Val's point-of-view.

The plot follows Val's adventures as she collects the steampunk equivalent of Charlie's Angels crossed with the Power Puff Girls. St. Martin has definitely embraced the girl-power aspect of steampunk, where a woman can grab a sword or flintlock and be the protagonist of a high-flying adventure. Along the way, Val meets Eve, a patchwork girl ala Frankenstein's monster; Serena Heartlace, a vampire, whose Slavic accent keeps turning our heroine into "Sunset Wal"; an animal-cat hybrid ala Moreau with a French accent named Meliora Fantastico Lyon, a.k.a. "Gigi"; and Argenta, an "automaidon". What was interesting to me was that these secondary characters were the ones who wanted a revenge, while Sunset Val, whose name is repeatedly commented upon as odd or notable, doesn't have the usual issues a young adult character does. She is not seeking a dead parent, or railing against a bad one: she's just a somewhat odd teenager who doesn't get along with her teacher. By the end of the book, a transformation has occurred, but it hasn't solved her drug problem (because she didn't have one) or mended her broken heart (because she wasn't chasing any sparkly boys). In short, Val is a pretty well-adjusted main character who finds herself in an alternate world. The crises are plot-based, not character-based, though there are definitely moments of character. The crises of character are related more to Val's band of heroines, especially Eve, whose loyalty to her "father," Dr. Sweetwater, proves especially problematic.
Some brilliant interior art from Sunset Val by Karine Charlebois. I hope we'll see more from Karine in future volumes! I'd love to have coloured this image, but I simply didn't have the time this week - perhaps in the future!

It is this character stability, of a girl "from a world without institutionalized slavery, without airships, where women were able to vote" (172), that permits Val to, as Serena says, bring change wherever she goes. Like her chosen name, the sunset is a time of change, and that is what Val brings to this secondary world of steam. You might say she's the punk in St. Martin's steampunk.

What's also of interest to this stability is the element of the portal in Sunset Val. Whereas Lucy Pevensee chooses to go through the Wardrobe, Val is yanked through, effectively kidnapped by Dr. Sweetwater. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy states that portals are often warded with conditions and prohibitions:
"...to pass through a portal is likely to pass through some kind of test, to gain a new level of understanding of power, to demonstrate oneself as a chosen one, whether through birth or actions or some other merit: in fantasy, it is very often the case that a character who finds a portal has in some sense been found by that portal. Portals are a part of the grammar of a significant story. Portals represent acts of selection and election." (776)
Again, Val does not choose to go through - she is forced. But it is her ensuing choices in St. Martin's steampunk earth that has her fulfilling her tests -- Val is a sort of Messianic figure, but not in a destined sort of way. There are no fulfilled prophecies here: rather, it is a process of becoming by virtue of individual choice that determines Val's position by the conclusion.


Despite such high-minded analysis, Sunset Val won't go winning any literary awards. It lacks that Governor General's feel, that literary hauteur. I don't think St. Martin was shooting for such an award with Sunset Val, though. I think he was looking to write a fun adventure tale, and in this, he succeeded. This book excels at fantasy-as-wish-fulfillment, providing the sort of grand escapist yarn we yearn for to take us away from the daily drudgery. I'm glad to announce that the sequel came out on Canada Day, making both Sunset Val and Sunset Val Flies Again obvious choices for this year's Canuck Steampunk series, even if Rob St. Martin wasn't from Quebec. Rob recently reported that we can expect a lot more of Val's adventures, as he plans for five books in total. If you find Sunset Val to your liking, you can check out more of Rob's steampunk writing in Princess Smith and the Clockwork Knight.

Jul 22, 2011

The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade

The Canadian cover for Hunchback Assignments. I far prefer Christopher Steininger's comic-style covers to the U.S. ones.

I'd like to go for lunch with Arthur Slade.

Not just because he's Canadian, although that came as a pleasant surprise to me when I first read The Hunchback Assignments in preparation for last year's blog tour promoting The Dark Deeps. I'd just finished up the first Canuck Steampunk series here at Steampunk Scholar, and was excited to find another writer for this year's series.

Nor because I tend to enjoy young adult steampunk more than the ostensibly mature and grown up steampunk. I also tend to enjoy romanticized steampunk adventure better, and the YA market seems more welcoming to such adventures.

No, I think hanging out with Arthur Slade over food would be a good time because he loves monsters, in a way that reminds me a little of Mike Mignola's work, albeit with a focus on the classic Universal monsters from the nineteenth century. Maybe it's just my imagination, but those monsters seemed more popular back in the 70s, with Warren Publishing and a heap of movie magazines devoted to old school monsters. Or maybe it was just my own preoccupation with them. I resonated strongly with Mark Petrie in Stephen King's Salem's Lot, who knows how to deal with vampires, steeped in their cinematic lore, and prepared with a cross to ward them off from a monster model kit. I never built the models myself, but I gazed at them longingly.

By the time I was in grade three, I knew who Lon Chaney was, both junior and senior, and tried to dress up as the silent era Phantom of the Opera for Halloween, only to be repeatedly mistaken for a fangless Dracula. I wanted badly to try to make costumes in the way Lon Chaney Sr. had as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but my mom wouldn't let me use an egg white to blind one eye, the silly putty I used to make prosthetics wouldn't stay on my face, and the pillow I used for a hump kept shifting. I don't know if it was an odd choice for playing pretend, but it was my choice.

Slade admitted his fandom of these classic monsters, and watching the silent Hunchback with Chaney Sr. as inspiration for the hero of The Hunchback Assignments, Modo, Quasimodo reimagined in delightful recursive fantasy. While it's a bit of a spoiler to reveal Modo's powers, they come early enough to act more as a teaser. Modo is as hideous, perhaps moreso, than his silent-era cinematic twin, but unlike all Quasimodos before him, is able to transform his body into any human shape, facial features and all. Mr. Socrates, a mysterious agent of the crown, discovers Modo as an infant and buys him, effectively rescuing him from a life as a sideshow freak, to become the ultimate spy. Slade adds these shapeshifting powers to Quasimodo's trademark climbing ability, pairing that with a Spider-man like ability to navigate the rooftops and spires of London: "He'd spent nearly every night of the past six months on these rooftops. They belonged to him now, the only place he felt free. he had each dormer and slanting surface memorized. He could get from his room to Trafalgar Square faster than any cab" (65).

The plot is standard, as many young adult novels are. Instead, as with most successful young adult novels, the focus is on character development. Close escapes are not reason enough to turn the page and see what happens next. The reader must care deeply about the character, and Slade has written an endearing one in Modo. Modo provides the reader with the social retrofuturism of Hunchback Assignments, challenging and questioning the unswervingly British Mr. Socrates, giving the twenty-first century reader a window into the nineteenth century that doesn't feel antiquated. Further, Slade provides Modo with the character foil of Octavia Milkweed, the requisite romantic interest for Modo. Their ongoing relationship is one of the best aspects of the series, since Octavia finds herself attracted to Modo, but wonders at his true face: she only ever sees him in disguise, transformed and handsome. Octavia also provides an aspect of social retrofuturism, since she is a girl with initiative, spirit, and drive. Like many other steampunk heroines, she is a realization of the fin de siècle "New Woman," as teenage girl.

And although The Hunchback Assignments' high adventure is targeted at Young Adults, Modo's is not an idealized world: his experiences would fit well alongside those of the Baudelaire children from Lemony Snickett's Series of Unfortunate Events, albeit bereft of the ironic tone. The relationship between Mr. Socrates and Modo is a difficult and complex one, hinting at Socrates' past, and openly declaring Modo's need for a parental figure. Modo's desire for love is one of the main themes of the series. Slade proves a deft hand with this part of the story, never giving the reader a trite or easy solution to Modo's problem. His appearance is hideous, but his soul is beautiful. As such, he challenges conventional young adult heroes and their stories. Unlike Kenneth Oppel's Matt Cruse, Modo has more than just social status to overcome: while he can change his appearance, the transformation is temporary. For Modo to find love will be to find someone who can love him as his true self.

In this way, Modo moves through the same stages of Margaret Atwood's survival and victim I talked about last year in relation to Oppel's Airborn series. Modo's story focuses on the third position of Atwood's theory: "To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim but to refuse to accept the assumption that this role is inevitable" (37). Modo constantly struggles to live above seeing himself as only his appearance. 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." Modo's journey is towards Position Four, "to be a creative non-victim"(Atwood 38). In this journey, Modo is aided primarily by two teachers, the maternal Mrs. Finchley, who discourages Modo from changing his appearance for her while she teaches him acting, history, and literature, and Tharpa, a former untouchable from Bombay, who does not cringe when he sees Modo: "Your disfiguration, it is not your true self," he tells Modo (Slade 32). These characters provide Modo with the encouragement he needs to move towards becoming a creative non-victim.

This is what sets the high adventure of The Hunchback Assignments from lesser steampunk fare, although it's arguably always what makes a book worth reading: good characters make for good stories, and The Hunchback Assignments is full of great characters, both heroes and villains. Sure, it's got the requisite steampunk elements: there's technofantasy (though I can't reveal what it is, as that's the mystery Modo and Octavia are trying to unveil), the largely social retrofuturism I've already mentioned, and a neo-Victorian setting in a fantastic London of the nineteenth century. At the core of it all though is a monster's heart, that beats with heroic purpose, and it's why I've devoured every book of the series since my introduction to it last summer.

Here in Canada, we're lucky enough to have already seen the release of book three, The Empire of Ruins, but Stateside readers will have to wait until this fall. Either way, if you haven't started reading this excellent steampunk adventure series, there's still time to catch up. You've got your assignment, now get to it!
While I'm a fan of Chris McGrath's photomanipulation approach on the U.S. cover, it doesn't feel right for the tone of the book. That said, the Canadian cover seems to play up the adventure, while the US ones go for a sort of neo-Gothic romance.


Jul 19, 2011

Steampunk in the Park: Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

While there's nothing inherently Canuck about steampunked Shakespeare, my attendance of Twelfth Night at the Hawrelak Amphitheatre in my own city of Edmonton, Alberta, was indicative of Lee Ann's article on the spread of steampunk here in Canada. 

 

"What's with the gun?" whispers a lady behind me, as one of the Officers draws a brass Nerf Maverick on Antonio in the last act of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

This far into the play, I wondered why she hadn't asked the same question about Viola/Cesario's goggles-on-bowler hat, or Feste's aviator's cap and early 20th century army regalia. While it was a delight to see Edmonton's Freewill Shakespeare Festival perform Twelfth Night in brilliant steampunk attire as part of my 15th anniversary celebration with my wife, the academic couldn't entirely stay at bay.

'Why choose steampunk?" I wondered. Clearly, there's the sheer fun for costume designer Narda McCarroll, to wonder how to use the steampunk aesthetic to convey something about the characters. Some costumes were more successful than others in this regard. Olivia's transformation from mournful to love-struck was the starkest contrast, going from all black to frilly pink-and-white, but the ludicrous Andrew Aguecheek seemed the best bit of character-through-costume, given how much colour ran riot across his costume.

But there's no thematic reason to choose steampunk for Twelfth Night, unless it's merely another expression of the play's subtitle, What You Will. That phrase could be the ethos of steampunk fashion and art in a nutshell: how many times have I been told steampunk can't be defined, and that it's whatever you want it to be? Thankfully, this clearly wasn't the case for the minds behind this steampunked Twelfth Night, as their description of steampunk in the programme was rather good:
[Steampunk], the style in which we have chosen to set Twelfth Night, is a style borne out of fantastical ideas from the Victorian age of mechanics, where dreams of utopian flying machines and other ideas of "futuristic" technologies existed. The style reflects an assertion of the individual, and a rejection of the mass-produced for the finely crafted. (11)

While I find the last sentence dubious as representing all of steampunk, the first statement is rather good. It encapsulates the aesthetic: fantastical ideas (technofantasy) from the Victorian age of mechanics (neo-Victorian) and dreams of "futuristic" technologies (retrofuturism). Whether steampunk is really an assertion of the individual or a rejection of the mass produced for the finely crafted is a discussion for another day.

What was of interest to me was watching a play that had nothing inherently steampunk about it, done in a steampunk style. The only moment where a narrative element was translated into the aesthetic came at the outset of the play, when the ship that founders and splits, leaving Viola and Sebastian stranded in Illyria, was designed to look like Harper Goff's Nautilus. The true pedant protests, wondering how in the world Nemo's fantastic ship could be split! It is the perfect vessel for ocean travel, a "vehicular utopia" as Arthur B. Evans put it.

And yet, in a Shakespearean comedy meant to express the bacchanal and revels of Twelfth Night, it was perfect. Further, as a way of letting an audience largely new to steampunk, it would say, "this isn't a masted ship - we're not in Verona anymore people." What ship is better suited to introducing a North American audience to the use of steampunk than that particular iteration of the Nautilus? As the play's programme stated, the setting of Twelfth Night is Illyria, "an ancient name for the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea," going on to add that "Shakespeare intended this to be a country free of time or borders," a seemingly open invitation to use the timeless and borderless aesthetic of steampunk.
A show-stealing Feste reclines. This is the costume I chose in our post-play discussion

Ultimately, the use of steampunk in Twelfth Night isn't going to expose class issues of the nineteenth century, or comment on colonialism. The particular style of steampunk employed had a What You Will approach to it: evocative of the nineteenth century, but accented with lots of gonzo retrofuturist paraphernalia. Discussion with my wife on the way from the open-air theatre wasn't "what did the aesthetic mean," but "if you could have any of the outfits, which one would you choose?" I wanted Feste's, and she wanted the maid's, and sometimes, despite all academic musings and political leanings, that's all there is to someone's interest in steampunk: they want to wear the cool aviator's cap, or have the opportunity to play the coquette for an evening. It's an expression of carnivale, of baccanal, and masquerade. It's a little bit of that Twelfth Night revelry, the whole year through.

"Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?" asks the stoic Malvolio of the band of partying fools, a question that echoes the sort of pedantic questions myself and other serious minded folk pose of steampunk. Place: Does it have to be London? Persons: Would Tesla really have done such a thing? Time: Does it have to be nineteenth century?

I write this, not as a denunciation of the serious study of steampunk, but to clarify that despite my probings and ponderings, I enjoy steampunk for the hell of it. I enjoy it for the chance to dress up, to have a bit of fun, and not think too hard. While I seek to define it on paper, I enjoy the way it plays fast and loose with place, persons, and time. And as Toby the Belch replies to Malvolio's question, "We did keep time, sir, in our catches. Sneck up!" in reference to keeping the time of the boisterous song they were singing at the top of their lungs. And so reply those who enjoy steampunk as just a bit of fun, riding, to quote Feste the Fool the "whirligig of time" and spouting a good deal of "bibble babble."



Twelfth Night runs for another week here in Alberta's Capital city, until Sunday, July 24. It's well worth braving the mosquito clouds, so Raid Up, and get thee to the Hawrelak Heritage amphitheatre!
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