Jun 27, 2011

The Ulysses Quicksilver Short Story Collection by Jonathan Green

A few years back, I reviewed Jonathan Green’s Unnatural History, the first in Abaddon Books’ Pax Britannia series. I had just finished Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and needed lighter fare. Based on Mark Harrison’s cool cover art, I had high hopes for the Pax Britannia series, especially Leviathan Rising. I took the first two on vacation as potential beach reading. To my chagrin, Unnatural History was nigh unreadable, due largely to writing style and the lead character, Ulysses Quicksilver, with all the ruthless and rakish behavior of a steampunk James Bond, but none of the charm. On the upside, I found the second book in the series, Al Ewing’s El Sombra, much better, fulfilling my penny-dreadful/pulp fiction expectations without requiring me to ignore style and grammar. Having sampled the series, I moved on to other steampunk, promising myself I’d return to reading the remaining novels I’d purchased.

Two years later, I’m staring down the barrel of another summer vacation, pondering my reading choices. Enter The Ulysses Quicksilver Short Story Collection as ebook, reprinting three short works originally published in early Pax Britannia novels.

That I can make the distinction of early novels is noteworthy. Despite my low opinion of Unnatural History, Green has gone on to publish six sequels. Clearly, this series deserves another look, even if only to ascertain whether I was just in a foul mood when I read Unnatural History.

If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of Pax Britannia, it’s ludicrous but simple: Queen Victoria’s reign has persisted into the 1990s, along with Hitler’s Third Reich. While any serious student of history and culture will roll their eyes at this, it’s best to ignore how batshit improbable this premise is and let the fun ensue. Otherwise, you’ll be saying things like, “What the hell do they need a horse and cart for? They have high speed vehicles!” or “Seriously? The waistcoat and cravat are still in style?” From where I’m sitting, Green is going for an “ain’t it cool?” factor, not a “is it counterfactually probable?” one. 

Read the whole article over at Tor.com!

Jun 17, 2011

Dead of Veridon by Tim Akers

The very idea of recommending summer reading to steampunks seems a bit odd. It conjures images of those cumbersome full body swimsuits of bygone years; while such swimwear might drag one straight to the bottom, it also eliminates the need to apply sunscreen.

Nevertheless, I suppose if one was thinking of steampunk reading for the beach, in bikini or bloomers, they could do far worse than Tim Akers’ Dead of Veridon.

Summer reading, by my own definition, should be light reading. The beach is not the place for Proust. (I’m dubious as to there being any place for Proust, but that’s another discussion.) The beach is where I read Clive Cussler, Stephen King, and stacks of Conan, and Doc Savage paperbacks. So when I recommend Dead of Veridon, I hope you’ll understand that I’m not endorsing it as the best bit of steampunk fantasy I’ve ever read, or even read this year. That said, I found it an engaging, page-turning read, despite some shortcomings that only bother pretentious academics.

Read the whole article here at Tor.com!

Buy Tim Aker's Steampunk at Amazon!

Jun 10, 2011

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

Apologies to anyone who was looking forward to seeing a Blaylock post today. Aside from doing Canuck Steampunk, I'm likely returning to posting reviews and analyses of whatever I've just finished, as working on the dissertation, writing for Tor.com and steampunk fanzines, and gearing up to be a DM again are occupying more and more of my time. In addition, no one should read Blaylock at high speed. The man's words are meant to be savored. So, for those who missed it, and because I use the blog as a hub to all my steampunk writing, here's my analysis/review of Anno Dracula from Tor.com:

I think Kim Newman would agree with me when I say, “Once you go Drac, you never go back.” Or perhaps more accurately, “you might leave Drac, but you’ll definitely be back.” For my generation, there weren’t a lot of bloodsucking alternatives to the big D, aside from the Count on Sesame Street, or if you were older and not a Baptist, Warren Comics’ Vampirella. In the 70s, if you said “vampire,” people thought of Dracula, and “Dracula,” usually meant Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee’s onscreen portrayal. I got my first copy of Dracula in grade four: Leonard Wolf’s annotated version. I never got past the first four chapters. Jonathan Harker’s story was riveting, but the Austenesque switch in voice to Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra writing about their love lives was lost on my pre-adolescent self. The illustrations by Sätty gave only a surreal window into the story’s later events.

As I grew up, more accessible options abounded: books like Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire; films like The Lost Boys and Near Dark. But when Francis Ford Coppola released Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I returned to Transylvania. Despite the film’s numerous digressions from the novel, my love of its visual splendor helped me finally finish the entire novel, finding to my surprise that final chase scene wasn’t a Hollywood addition. That same year, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula hit the shelves, likely hoping to generate sales off the new film’s popularity, but somehow escaped my attention.
It wasn’t until beginning my steampunk research that I became aware of this wonderful piece of recursive fantasy, and I was thwarted in my first attempt to read it by some devious party, who had folded a space of some 70 missing pages together so well it escaped the notice of the used bookseller I purchased it from, and me buying it, until I turned page 50 or so and discovered the missing section. I tried soldiering on, but found myself somewhat confused, and abandoned the reading until I could find a complete copy.

Finding a complete copy up until this past weekend was a formidable task. Paperback copies on the Internet sold at collector’s prices ranging from $50-200. With the rabid interest in vampires via Twilight, and the growing interest in steampunk, Anno Dracula was clearly an in-demand-but-out-of-print treasure. Neophytes and veterans of Anno Dracula can rejoice at the new edition released by Titan Books. Sporting the best cover I’ve seen of it yet, this lovely trade paperback boasts a number of extras, including annotations, the afterword from the paperback edition, the alternate ending from the novella version first printed in The Mammoth Book of Vampires, extracts from a screenplay treatment, an article called “Drac the Ripper,” and a short story set in the Anno Dracula universe, “Dead Travel Fast.” Unless you’ve been the most assiduous collector of Newman’s Anno Dracula works, this book offers a number of treats, even if you already own a previous edition. For those who have never read it before, it means you won’t have to pay through the nose to experience Newman’s wonderful alternative history of Stoker’s fiction world.

The premise is hardly original; any writer reading the line in Dracula when Van Helsing says, “if we fail,” to his vampire hunting companions has wondered at the counterfactual ramifications of those words. Stoker himself posits the outcome, and this speech is reprinted as an epigraph in Anno Dracula. What if good had not triumphed? What if Dracula had succeeded in securing a place on Britain’s foreign shores? Worse yet, what if he had somehow seduced the Queen, and become the Prince Consort of the greatest empire on the planet in the nineteenth century? Further, what would you call a man who murders the new citizens of this half-human, half-vampire Britain? A hero? A serial killer? Who then, is Jack the Ripper, if he’s only killing undead prostitutes? These are the questions that drive Newman’s story, and while others may have considered them, may even have written them, Newman, like Dracula, will continue to stand as a giant among many peers, given his encyclopedic knowledge of vampire lore, both literary and pop culture.

Read the rest of the article at Tor.com!

Jun 7, 2011

Murdoch Mysteries: Curse of the Lost Pharaoh

 Murdoch Mysteries: The Curse of the Lost Pharaohs is an exclusive 13-part original online series created as an extension of the fourth season of Murdoch Mysteries on Citytv. Featuring the stars of the series and illustrations by acclaimed comic book artist Francis Manapul (The Flash, Superman/Batman), the online adventure brings to life Constable George Crabtree’s first novel, "The Curse of the Lost Pharaohs." In each installment, Crabtree must work alongside Detective Murdoch, Julia Ogden and Inspector Brackenreid to battle mummies and evil villains in a valiant attempt to save the Queen of England and - in turn - the world. Produced using a hybrid of live-action video and breathtaking animation, this groundbreaking transmedia project will feature a new chapter of Crabtree's tale each week. The storyline of The Curse of the Lost Pharaohs has also been woven into the plot of the new season of Murdoch Mysteries, creating a unique 360-degree experience for fans. The first episode of this thrilling adventure will be launched on Citytv.com on Tuesday, June 7 following the premiere of season four on Citytv on June 7 at 9 pm ET. - From the CityTV Press Release

I realize my seminal steampunk series has been punctured many times by other posts, but it's been a busy month filled with many reviews, the unexpected brouhaha of bustlepunk, and now, a public service announcement regarding a steampunk web series: Murdoch Mysteries: Curse of the Lost Pharoah. In short, the web series is a glimpse inside the imagination of Constable Crabtree who writes fanciful Penny Dreadful style stories. The web series is those stories. I've only seen Murdoch Mysteries twice, but I'm familiar enough with the character of Crabtree to see the brilliance in making him the focalizer of this steampunked version of Murdoch Mysteries.

We're not seeing a period police drama, but a steampunk Penny Dreadful, a perspective reinforced by the inclusion of animated segments drawn by Francis Manapul. Watching a regular episode of Murdoch Mysteries and then watching Curse of the Lost Pharaoh is a little bit like seeing the difference between the layers of reality in Sucker Punch. Murdoch Mysteries strives for historical accuracy: like much steampunk, Curse throws it out the window. With a good dose of whimsy, the lead characters have been transformed into romanticized versions of themselves, with the funniest contrast being Dr. Julia Ogden's. On Murdoch Mysteries, Ogden is described as "a pathologist who works with the Toronto police force. She’s a forward-thinking, modern woman who can be quite blunt and straightforward." In Curse, she's a "comely heiress," who keeps abruptly showing up like Madame Yes, woman of mystery from that episode of The Flintstones.

The folks behind Murdoch Mysteries: Curse of the Lost Pharoah are going to be giving away some very cool prizes every first Tuesday of the month for the next four months.

The first prize available is a copy of the screenplay for the first episode of Curse of the Lost Pharaohs, signed by writer Patrick Tarr and Yannick Bisson (Inspector Murdoch). Head over to their Facebook page for details on how to win! You can check out the first episode of Curse of the Lost Pharoah HERE tonight!

I'll be posting more on Curse of the Lost Pharoah as more episodes are released!

Jun 3, 2011

The Digging Leviathan by James Blaylock (1984)

Edward seemed to be continually clambering along rainbows, pursuing fallen stars, suspecting that some monumental  wonder was pending, riding on the tide, obscured, perhaps, by a sketch of thin cloud drift. He was the most foolish of the lot, but Ashbless had always liked him. (177)
When I started my research in the fall of 2008, the Wikipedia article on steampunk contained one of the most extensive lists of steampunk reading outside Steampunkopedia, which I hadn't yet discovered. On that list was a book I remembered from my teens. I remembered it for the insane James (Dinotopia) Gurney cover, featuring a preteen boy wearing a snorkel/scuba mask and riding a cobbled-together digging machine worthy of Looney Tunes's Coyote. I loved the cover, but I was at that point in life where I didn't want to read about kids my age any more. I wanted to read about real men like Conan the Barbarian and Mack Bolan. I didn't want to wear a scuba mask, I wanted to wear night-vision goggles. I didn't want to drive a digging machine comprised of junk from that shed in the backyard, I wanted to drive Sonny Crockett's Ferrari Daytona. Little did I know that these ideas of manhood were as fake as that Ferrari, but struggling through adolescence, it was easier to deal in hyperbole.

It's likely just as well I didn't pick up James Blaylock's The Digging, as its languid pacing, whimsical humour, and lovely prose. I read books at Ferrari-speed in those days: books were the nerd-equivalent of sporting events. How many did you get through in a week? How long were they? How many books had you read in "one night?" None of Blaylock's works can be read in this way. Blaylock is not a Ferrari-speed writer. His prose is too carefully constructed. While he's been accused of being unable to plot a novel (this one in particular, by Lester Del Ray), he certainly knows how to write the moments. My pubescent brain wasn't interested in that pace.

However, my adult brain is interested in such a pace, despite how it frustrates the speed at which I can write about Blayock's books, and by extension, complete my dissertation. Further, at forty, I share a lot more in common with the eccentric weirdos who populate The Digging Leviathan than I do Robert E. Howard's heroes or Don Pendelton's one-man-army.

Jim spoke of The Digging Leviathan in an interview with Chris Garcia at the 2010 Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition. The anecdote is written down in Subterranean Press's The Man in the Moon: "By the time I was out of college a year I had a hundred thousand words of it, and it was evident that it could never be finished, because the plot funneled outward for the entire length of the book. A few years later a guy in Long Beach (up the coast) tied a bunch of helium balloons to an armchair and flew into the stratosphere (seriously) and the event was so inspirational that it seemed to me to suggest a focus for my long-abandoned book. I launched it again, immediately forgot about the guy with the balloons, and it turned into The Digging Leviathan." Blaylock also writes of The Digging Leviathan in "Parenthetically Speaking," the afterword to The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives. Originall titled Sanctity of Moontide, Blaylock describes an early draft as "a hybrid of Proust and Laurence Sterne ... set in Glendale and Eagle Rock [involving] Bulgarian acrobats, the mechanical mole, and a dariy that was manufacturing faux milk out of plaster of Paris" (468). This is the madness of Blaylock's writing. While he says that finishing the book required removal of Proust and Sterne, the essential mix of crazed elements remained, though the nature of those elements changed.

Summarizing The Digging Leviathan is a challenge, due to the crazed nature of those elements. My description is The 'Burbs meets '60s matinee movies inspired by/based on Verne and Wells. To bring it up to more current terms, imagine a Desperate Housewives focused on men who are vacillate between obsessing over alternative science, hollow earth theories, and protecting escaped lunatics from the authorities. Jack Horner, in a recent email, asked about Blaylock and "the literary meta-conversation, where concepts and problems from one work are taken, used, and reworked  in new works by other authors." Blaylock's work abounds with these elements, all found in The Digging Leviathan, which acts as a sort of middle-path between Blaylock's steampunk and his urban fantasies such as All the Bells on Earth and The Paper Grail.

I noticed the first of these by comparing The Digging Leviathan, All the Bells on Earth, and Homunculus, : the idea of neighborhood, or tight community. It's tough to find a lone wolf like Conan or Mack Bolan in Blaylock. I haven't read everything he's written yet, but there aren't any hyperbolized alpha males with an abundance of testosterone in Blaylock's work, unless it's as a caricature or villain. Blaylock seems to prefer small fraternities of companions who work together to achieve a common goal. In The Digging Leviathan, it's The Newtonian Society. In Homunculus it's the Trismegistus Club. In Bells, it's suburbanite Walt Stebbins, his wife's get-rich-quick-scheming uncle, and a crusading clergyman. In all cases, none of these cadres are made up of the team you imagine following Doc Savage around. There isn't a Monk or Ham in sight, though the dialogue is banter-reminscent. They are bumblers in their efforts at heroism, as attested by a spying-excursion gone wrong in Chapter 14: an attempt at getting a better look through a basement window results in physical comedy, and a hasty retreat to one of the home of one of the Newtonian Society. It's not the humor of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams: it's like Twin Peaks starring Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Blaylock's heroes are everymen, every last one of them, and they are bound together by often domestic relationships, be that blood-ties or fence-posts.

The second is a cast-intertextuality between Digging Leviathan and the St. Ives' cycle of stories. In addition to Landon St. Ives' descendant, Edward St. Ives, William Ashbless makes an actual appearance (William Ashbless was the pen name Blaylock and Tim Powers wrote poetry under in University. Ashbless often makes cameos in their work). The villain, Hilario Frosticos, is a descendant of Ignacio Narbondo, villain from the St. Ives story, and the secret of extending life is once again related to fish, as is the case in Homunculus.

The newer, less evocative cover. 

Trying to draw strong correlations between the St. Ives series and Digging Leviathan seems wrong-headed. Blaylock told me at Steamcon 2010 that he didn't really think things through that extensively. It's not that the work is haphazard, but rather that he never intended to make a series out them. The names just keep popping up, in a playful manner. There are certainly correspondences, but they are loose ones.

Besides, as The Digging Leviathan isn't steampunk per se, I'm not overly interested in submitting it to heavy criticism. The Digging Leviathan is like a love letter to childhood spent with the imagination wide open, but written from an adult's perspective. There are moments focalized by both youthful and mature characters alike, with a sense of romantic visions of "yesteryear," that time before our rational minds murdered childhood fantasies and consigned Pelludicar to impossibility.

When I first read The Digging Leviathan, it made me think of several friends from Legion Fantastique, people with a huge interest in old books and rainbows, fallen stars, and monumental wonder. It made me think of many people I've met at steampunk conventions, for whom the punk means little, if nothing at all. For them, steampunk is a space of wonder, an escape from plots and cover illustrations that smack of authenticity.

A few other quotations regarding the gadgetry of The Digging Leviathan, which caused me to keep imagining steampunk maker Jake von Slatt as one of the characters in The Digging Leviathan:
The two had pieced together a wonderful gadget around an old fan motor. The machine hadn't any purpose, really, beyond gadgetry. (11)

"All in all it was a sort of art deco wonder of crenelations and fins and thick ripply glass, as if it had been designed by a pulp magazine artists years before the dawn of the space age which would iron flat the wrinkles of imagination and wonder." (13)
"The diving bell itself, borrowed by Professor Latzarel from the Gaviota Oceanographic Laboratory, was round as a ball. It was almost an antique. Hoses led away out of it into great coils, and in a ring around the bell, within the upper one third or so, were a line of portholes riveted shut. There was a hatch at the top, screwed down with what looked like an immense brass valve. The whole thing was etched with corrosion and flaked with blue-green verdigris. It looked to Jim like something out of Jules Verne." (55) 
Hence my suggestion that Blaylock be adopted as the patron saint of steampunk, or whatever title we'd like to give him. He's the only one of the original three from California to openly admit writing steampunk to a steampunk crowd. Powers is dubious, and Jeter ain't saying--yet. Further, in addition to his Langdon St. Ives series, steampunks have been given a book that seems at points, to be the closest anyone has come to writing a novel about the sort of people who are into steampunk. As I've already said - in my head, it's Jake von Slatt and members of Legion Fantastique running around trying to find a kidnapped boy and solve the mystery of the fantastic events and machines that keep popping up around him. The book is filled with passages, too many to include here, that seem to point toward how steampunk plays with the indeterminacy of meaning, the difficulty of knowing history with absolute certainty, and the way in which fiction plays a positive role in a world that prizes scientific rationality so highly.
"To learn the truth was to make things fall apart. Knowledge wasn't a cement, a wall of order against chaos; it was an infinitude of little cracks, running out in a thousand directions, threatening to crumble into fragments our firmest convictions. He couldn't fathom it." (96) 
There has been a certain serendipity to the timing of this post. My son recently watched an episode of The Backyardigans titled "To the Center of the Earth." He asked how it was that the Backyardigan characters could tunnel deep down beneath the surface of the earth. I replied that they couldn't - they were simply imagining it - whatever the characters imagine seems to actually be happening (an intertextual link to the plot of Digging Leviathan, by the way, and not simply a cute anecdote). "But maybe someone could make a machine that could do that," he replied. My first inclination was to say, "No, that's impossible," but I stopped myself, and simply replied, "yes, someone might."
"Maybe me," he said.
I smiled. I thought of how I'd watched Doug MacClure in At the Earth's Core and Warlords of Atlantis at the Saturday matinee as a kid. How I'd sat on my front porch, designing a bathysphere to take to the Okanagan valley that summer, to search for BC's Nessie, Ogopogo. The world was filled with wonder in those days: no one had stolen it from me yet. I wasn't about to steal it from my son either.
"Maybe you," I told him.

If any of this has stirred up a nostalgia for the days when you still thought you could dig to the center of the earth in a tank with a drill on the front, then you ought to order yourself a used copy of The Digging Leviathan. I got mine in a used bookstore, and it's pretty dog-eared, but at least it's the cover I remember from my childhood, the one that takes me back in time, like the books in Edward St. Ives' library.
Edward St. Ives was a collector of books, especially of fantasy and science fiction, the older and tawdrier the better. Plots and cover illustrations that smacked of authenticity didn't interest him. It was sea monsters; cigar shaped, crenelated rockets; and unmistakable flying saucers that attracted him. There was something in the appearance of such things that appealed to that part of him that appreciated the old Hudson Wasp. (9)
 An unused image by James Gurney for the cover of The Digging Leviathan. I love this one, since it has that father/son dynamic the book explores.
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