Jan 27, 2012

Teaching Soulless by Gail Carriger

The first time I read Soulless, I was still getting my sea legs, or airship legs, or whatever one would call still working out just what I was doing with my blog, my research, and my approach to both. I was still engaged in quasi-snark mode, that way that 99.666% of the web approaches evaluating a book, film, or piece of music. I was still in my first year of teaching, and was learning as much about the practice of reading well as my students were. So my original review of Soulless was as lacking in essential spirit as any preternatural.

I hope this time around, I'll do a better job of being a steampunk scholar, and less book reviewer.

C.S. Lewis said that if a book wasn't worth reading a second time, it wasn't likely worth reading the first. By that criterion, I have a stack of steampunk that wasn't worth reading the first time around, but Soulless certainly isn't among them. I've read Soulless four times now, five if you count adaptation as a reading. The first reading was a quick page-turning read to churn out a review; the second was out-loud to my wife; the third was as audiobook, the fourth with my Winter 2011 Introduction to Literature students, and the fifth, as Manga from Yen Plus. Each experience taught me new things about the book, and I can say without reservation that there's a sixth reading in the offing. For now, I want to talk about the experience of teaching the book, since that was easily the most illuminating experience of the book.
My favorite cover, from the Japanese release.
While it would have been ideal to teach the novel in the fall, in proximity with Halloween, I ended up teaching it to two classes primarily comprised of business students in the Winter of 2011. I paired it with Bram Stoker's Dracula, and as a result found myself thinking of the relationship between Lucy Westenra and Alexia Tarabotti: Lucy characterizes two Victorian female types, first as the chaste innocent, exemplar of propriety and manners, and then later as the "suddenly sexual" vampiric "dark woman" (check out Phyllis Roth's "Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker's Dracula" for more on this dichotomy). Alexia is puerly neither of these things; rather, they act as polemics which Alexia occupies a space between. She is the model of societal propriety in manners, fashion, and appearances. Beneath that surface, she actively pursues, with alarming sexual aggression for her day, an unconventional relationship with the werewolf Lord Maccon. This was the beginning of the chapter titled, "Useful Troublemakers: Social Retrofuturism in the steampunk novels of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest," in which I argue that both writers have "realized" (insofar as a fictional character realizes anything) the fin-de-siècle phenomenon of the New Woman: While it must be readily admitted, as Lyn Pickett states in her foreword to The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminisms, that the New Woman never existed, but “was (and remains) a shifting and contested term. It was a mobile and contradictory figure or signifier” (xi), the idea of the New Woman can be understood as the hope for social regeneration, a striving towards a future through the conception of “new, or newly perceived, forms of femininity which were brought to public attention in the last two decades of the nineteenth century” (1). Alexia Tarabotti is a unconsciously the New Woman, and as we'll see in upcoming posts, also exemplifies another fictional female type of the late Victorian period: the fallen woman. Anyone looking to do feminist studies in steampunk would do well to consider the intersections between Soulless and the New Woman as places to begin. For essay writing, many students utilized Carol Senf's excellent article, "Dracula: Stoker's Response to the New Woman," comparing Lucy Westenra and Alexia Tarabotti.
The German Edition
Something I've ruminated on since teaching the novel is the contrast between Dracula, the Transylvanian nobleman become monster, and Lord Akeldama, flamboyant fashionista and flibbertigibbert (if any male can represent that word, it would be Lord Akeldama). Whereas Dracula hides in the shadows and seeks to overthrow London by stealthily murdering its women, Lord Akeldama basks in the spotlight, and holds power and influence in London by openly flaunting conventional fashion while openly holding court over a bevy of toffs and dandies. The following quotation, which I made the blasted mistake of not citing--but I'm hellbent on tracking it down now--perhaps approximates why Lord Akeldama succeeds where Dracula fails:
"Vampirism stands a fair chance of being regarded as essentially an eccentricity in England, provided of course the vampire observes good form, adheres to what is proper, eschews excessive public displays, and doesn't harm birds or animals" - David L. Hammer
We also did a hypothetical casting of the major players, discussing who we'd have play each persona as a way of understanding their character better. I've used this exercise with a number of novels, always with good results. Our results weren't glaringly different from Carriger's, and I'm still holding out for Sean Bean as Maccon, since he needs to play at least one major character who doesn't die before the end of the series. I would also recommend comparing and contrasting the characters as described/conveyed in the novel with the design sketches of the Yen Plus Manga edition, as an opportunity to further discuss character, or possibly the process of adaptation.

I made a number of observations about VIXI during our class study, that even as mix of Steampunk terminator and golem, he's still effectively a creature of magic. Gail has said she went with a Latin word rather than Hebrew to avoid magical connotations, but I'm not sure that's entirely avoidable with a golem, Latin or not. If the rules for killing a monster involve nothing more than erasing the text on its forehead, that's magic, end of discussion. It was a good opportunity to explain techno fantasy as an aspect of the Steampunk aesthetic, as well as discuss how much authority we should give an author when critically analyzing their work. I teach students to treat the text as artifact, not an author's intentions. While an author can illuminate the process of creation, once they complete that work and release it into the reader's grasp, we become partners in the making of meaning.

Ultimately, the majority of students thoroughly enjoyed the experience of comparing and contrasting Dracula and Soulless. There was one particularly outspoken naysayer, but he admitted disliking the text because Alexia reminded him of a former flame, which gave us the chance to discuss how a text "reads" us, even as we are reading it. One male student related his embarrassment at reading it on the bus: being an Albertan male with what appears to be fully chick-lit was a challenge, though he was quick to add, not deterrent enough to keep from reading to see what happened next. This allowed us to do a cover comparison, which is also an excellent study. We talked about how the original cover plays off the design of the Marie Antoinette film's marketing; we discussed how covers play into audience expectations, and construct a horizon of expectation, which many remarked Carriger subverts. While they expected "a sappy romance," they were surprised to find adventure, mystery, and comedy.
Omnibus Edition
All in all, the experience of teaching Soulless was very rewarding, both pedagogically and personally. My sole regret is that I forgot to bring my camera to class to capture an image of my students with Gail's book in hand. She collects pictures of her books in stores or odd places. I figure a University classroom constitutes an odd place. And clearly, to get that photo, I'll have to teach the book again. In the meantime, I'd encourage anyone looking for a whimsical intertext to Dracula or anything by Jane Austen to consider bringing Soulless into the classroom.

Jan 20, 2012

Reading with Gail Carriger - Steamcon II

I met Gail Carriger at my first steampunk convention, Steam Powered in fall of 2008. I was on a panel about writing steampunk, which was funny to me, moderated by Ann Vandermeer, and co-paneled with Jeff Vandermeer, Ryan Galiotto of Legion Fantastique, and Gail Carriger. At the time, my impression of Gail was striking, confident, and tea-spoon dress. Yes, that infamous teaspoon dress. She spoke of the book she'd sold, set to be released the following year, and of how her writing process involves serious tea drinking. At some point, Gail and I had a photograph taken together. I'm very thankful for that photo, and wish I had a full print size of my own, since it marks the beginning of a very cool and completely unforeseen friendship.

In the following year, we traded sporadic emails about the release of her book, and my interest in potentially using it as a companion novel to teaching Dracula in the spring of 2010. Sadly, with the release of the book coming too close to textbook order deadlines, I had to forgo teaching it until Winter of 2011. In Spring of 2010 at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition, Gail provided some much-needed encouragement in the wake of a significant publishing disappointment. We didn't sit on any panels together this time around, but during one of our informal chats over the weekend, I mentioned how cool it would be to do a reading from one of her books together. She agreed that the next time we were at a con together, we'd make it happen.

On the flight home, my wife started reading Soulless. Jenica rarely reads fiction, and rarer still does her reading elicit bursts of laughter. I've been reading out loud to her before bed for years, and The Parasol Protectorate became the primary series in our nightly reading from that flight onward. This proved opportune, as it provided me with ample practice with the character voices before the fall of 2010, when the stars aligned to find Gail and I at the same conference once again.

Steamcon II was a blast, since it was the last time I sat around a table and shared food and drink with many West Coast steampunk friends: Chris Garcia, J. Daniel Sawyer, Paul Guinan, Anina Bennett, and Gail. I didn't know until the end of the weekend that friendship had been one of the big reasons Gail made the trip, and it was a humbling realization. While the con only gave us thirty minutes to read to a packed salon, it was worth the trip.
My sister, Deanna; me; and my niece, Rio at Steamcon II.
The reading was made doubly significant by two attendees from Texas: my sister Deanna and my niece Rio. I inadvertently interested my niece into Gail's books when I'd bought Soulless for my sister. When Rio learned Gail was going to be at Steamcon, the Texans made the trip, both to support the geeky Uncle/brother, and for Rio to be the fan girl. In a moment of serendipity, Rio had the opportunity to sit next to Gail around the table Friday night while our group sat and waxed nerdoquent.

Gail and I never really planned what we were going to read until the day of the reading. We'd batted ideas around, but Friday night involved copious amounts of wine, conversation, and laughter, and that's hardly the time to be hatching a plan of any sort. We settled on the opening chapter of Soulless: I played the male voices, and Gail was Alexia and narrator. My research has given me an opportunity to meet some great people and do some great things: reading with Gail combined both.

I've uploaded most of that reading on You Tube. The only reason it's incomplete is my camera ran out of room. My niece has the whole thing, but we've never arranged to upload it.
Gail Carriger and Mike Perschon reading from Soulless:
Video 1 - Video 2 - Video 3 - Video 4 - Video 5

I interviewed Jim Blaylock that weekend, but my clearest memories are of our little group, comprised of Gail and the Bay area folk, Texans, this Canadian, and Airship Ambassador Kevin Steil; it's the weekend I realized I wasn't attending cons to "network" anymore. I was attending them to raise a glass with friends (follow this link to see a video by Christopher Garcia chronicling some of these moments).

It's the reason I've been remiss to post on Gail's books since Soulless. I didn't want my endorsement to smack of favoritism. Thankfully, the world now knows how fantastic the books are, so my tribute, while late to the party, merely joins the myriad voices already praising her praiseworthy work. I don't know how long it will be before I get the chance to raise a glass with Gail in person, but until then, here's me raising a virtual one to a fantastic author and a good friend who has provided so many of us with laughter and entertainment these past three years. Let's begin the countdown to Timeless!

Jan 14, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God by Guy Adams

The first post in a year of Holmes' pastiches, one month at a time!
Even a nominal fan of the world's greatest detective knows that unlike his creator, who was a dedicated spiritualist, Sherlock Holmes is a dedicated cynic, evidenced by his reaction to a supernatural explanation for the mystery in "The Sussex Vampire":
"Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It's pure lunacy . . . are we to give serious attention to such things? This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply."
Consequently, I found myself intrigued by the cover and title of Guy Adams' Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God, a new pastiche from Titan Books that finds Holmes and Watson embroiled in a case that challenges Holmes' cynicism. "The dead are rising," the back cover announces while the front features three shadowy figures amidst fog littered with occult symbols. The plot précis on the back informs us that Holmes and Watson will be teaming up with some of the most famous supernatural investigators of the nineteenth century: Algernon Blackwood's Dr. John Silence and William Hope Hodgson's Thomas Carnacki, as well as two occultists: the fictional and less-well-known Julian Karswell from The Night of the Demon (1957) and the historical and notorious Aleister Crowley.

The afterword explaining Adams' use of these characters--what he refers to as "fictional theft"--has me interested in reading the John Silence stories, as I'm a big fan of Blackwood's "The Wendigo" and "The Willows" short stories. But many steampunks will be more interested in Thomas Carnacki, whose Electric Pentacle is an interesting example of technofantasy, being a clear blend of technology and magic:
There was a brief whine that built into a solid, low hum. In his hands the glass tubes were now constructed as a mirror of the chalk shape we stood in. Surrounded by a fan of metal shutters, the tubes glowed brightly, powered by the acid battery in the wooden box, cables hanging between the two as he strode forward. 'The Electric Pentacle,' he explained, his face bathed in the blue light the device cast. 'A weapon of my own design, the gas in the tubes has mystical properties, the light it casts is hugely powerful.' He moved to the furthest point in the pentangle. 'It burns,' he said finally, pointing the pentangle out towards the darkness and flipping a large brass switch that dangled from one of the wires hanging around him.
The light from the Electric Pentacle pulsed and Carnacki triggered a switch at the rear of the device that brought the shutters down, surrounding the tubes like the petals of a flower, focusing their light in a steady beam directly into the darkness. (188)
Adams says the Electric Pentacle was Hodgson's invention, so a number of other occult tech, such as a revolver with silver and rock salt rounds, are Adams' creations. Carnacki employs the Electric Pentangle in a scene which stretches the boundaries of Watson's worldview. As with Doyle's stories, Watson focalizes the action, and he has become increasingly dubious of his handle on reality as the narrative progresses. Holmes is absent in this scene, so Watson is surrounded by occult investigators and practitioners preparing to fend off a creature of darkness. Adams' choice to use Watson's first person perspective finds us as the reader in the same place, so long as we have given ourselves over to the novel's conceit, with any "faith in the logical and rational . . . almost entirely stripped away" (133).

Crowley, Silence, and Karswell are pure spiritualists, believing the paranormal activity to be pure magic, where belief and conviction are key. Carnacki has a more rational explanation, that "it is nothing more a warped branch of physics" (200). And lest the Holmes purist should worry, Holmes remains Holmes, the dedicated cynic: while Watson has witnessed the occult activity, the great detective has been conveniently absent, and so remains conveniently dubious. As a result, without the guidance of the cynical Holmes, Watson becomes a fictional reflection of Arthur Conan Doyle, as is the case in Mark Frost's Holmes pastiche, The List of 7. Part of Doyle's interest in spiritualism was the desire to speak with the ghost of his dead wife; Watson has visitations from his wife's ghost, which further shatters his realist convictions. I won't give any more information, as those would simply amount to spoilers, and Adams' has constructed a fun ride that challenges readers to judge for themselves what is really going on.

As a neophyte reader to Holmes (I've only read a scattering of the short stories, and enjoyed some of the film and television adaptations), I found The Breath of God very accessible without resorting to exposition to deliver the quirks and habits of Watson and Holmes. While the mystery will be somewhat obvious to longtime mystery fans who are used to looking for the clues and aren't distracted by misdirection, the book is still enjoyable even after one has figured out what sort of game is afoot. Adams is a capable writer who has constructed a solid page turner: it's exactly the right book to bridge the gap between the modern tone of Ritchie's movies and Doyle's originals, which modern readers sometimes find difficult.

Adams has a sequel to coming out in July titled Sherlock Holmes: The Army of Doctor Moreau: "Following the trail of several corpses seemingly killed by wild animals, Holmes and Watson stumble upon the experiments of Doctor Moreau." Based upon my enjoyment of Adams' first outing with Holmes and Watson, I for one, am looking very forward to a trail of vivisection, crude genetic engineering, and mysterious animal hybrids.

Jan 6, 2012

All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen

I love a colourful title, but I've done my best to keep the blog post titles very simple and direct when looking at individual works. If I were writing this article for Tor or another blog, I'd have called it "All Men of Genius: Steampunk Epiphanies on Twelfth Night."

Last night was Twelfth Night, and today is Epiphany, and thus the end of the Christmas season for those who follow liturgical calendars, or who are simply too remiss or  lazy to take down the tree before the first weekend of January. I like to drag my Christmas out as long as I can, and this post will be the final Christmas post of the 2011/12 season. Given All Men of Genius' use of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and a wonderful scene at Christmas riffing off Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, I thought it seasonally appropriate.

I must begin by confessing that I was conflicted about reading All Men of Genius. I wanted to read it because Lev AC Rosen had informed me it dealt with Twelfth Night after I posted on the steampunked Shakespeare here in Edmonton last summer. But I couldn't pick it up because I loathed the cover. It's not the design: I like that very much. If your book is supposed to be steampunk, then by all means let me know with a deluge of cogs. But the flawless-heroine-as-boy on the cover reminded me too much of a marionette, and they terrify me. So I didn't pick it up for some time for that terribly petty reason. (I've also read reviews where the cover was the reason picked it up, so clearly this an entirely subjective comment, but one I had to voice).

I recently heard a lecture where Michael Drout stated that plot summaries should be avoided when we're writing about literature, which I found refreshing, as I rarely give them: I'd prefer to talk about the book's themes or ideas, or how it relates to the steampunk aesthetic. If you are intrigued, then I have done my work. If you want a plot summary, it is available at Amazon.

Accordingly, I am less concerned with making the nigh unavoidable comparison others have to Harry Potter: write a story about young people at a school of the fantastic, even if you replace magic with machines, and you'll find yourself being conflated with Rowling. This is a plot device, and Hogwarts was neither the first, nor will it prove the last of such schools. Instead, I'm interested in how the fantastic is handled at Illyria College, where one can attach bat wings to a ferret without any appeal to biology (54). In Rosen's steampunk school, the creation of a three tailed snake (133) is a side-note, while the heroine's work at creating a perpetual motion machine takes some time and thought. This is not because Rosen is valuing, to use Westerfeld's designations, Clanker over Darwinist technology, but because it works for the story. Rosen's heroine works with machines: had his heroine been the creator of three-tailed snakes and bat-winged ferrets, I imagine the problem of creating them would have required greater rigor. This is once again steampunk technofantasy, and thankfully, it is largely backdrop to Rosen's tale of gender-bending romance.

I say thankfully because when steampunk writers spend too much time explaining their technology, when it ceases to be part of the setting and becomes instead the reason for the writing, the story often suffers. Rosen's story is always his foremost concern. There's certainly enough steampunk technofantasy here to satisfy those who need the technology to play a large role, but it serves to advance the plot, not draw attention to itself. At any rate, what's clear is that Rosen is using one of the elements of the steampunk aesthetic: technofantasy.

Further, Rosen uses social retrofuturism by positing yet another steampunk "New Woman" in the way we've already seen writers like Carriger and Priest do. Heroine Violet Adams' solution to be admitted to male-only Illyria College is to dress as a man: yet her long-term goal is to "show the world--or at least the scientific world--that women were men's equals in every sense" (160). Rosen engages in other expressions of social and technological retrofuturism, but they are secondary to Violet's quest for recognition as an inventor. This is one of the book's greatest strengths, that Rosen successfully pairs his use of technofantasy with his use of social retrofuturism:
"In her mind, she was building a marvelous machine. Not just a machine, but a dress. A dress for men and women alike, with marvelous long arms that stretched our farther than Violet was tall. A dress that would give anyone who wore it the same strength, strength enough to build carriages, regardless of gender or age . . . But most important, it would look like a woman. Her machine would be more beautiful than the loveliest mechanical dancing girl, but its purpose would be more beautiful, too. It would make women into a symbol of strength." (159-60)
Finally, the book is obviously Neo-Victorian, without any need to caveat that category by delimiting either temporal or geographic concerns. That is to say, while I mean it to include any evocation of the Industrial Era in a global sense, Rosen's story takes place in nineteenth century London, and while Rosen attends to many historical aspects, such as the inclusion of a Christmas break, we would have the sense this is not the London spoken of in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, even without the elements of technofantasy or retrofuturism. It evokes the period, but does not slavishly recreate it.

"So," some might say, "Lev AC Rosen's All Men of Genius is clearly a steampunk book!" And they'd be right, but not in the sense of hitting or missing a target. Instead, I would say that Rosen utilizes all aspects of the steampunk aesthetic, artfully weaving them into the fabric of his story. In a recent review in Science Fiction Studies, Jess Nevins speculated that instead of working with a binary, is/not is approach to steampunk, steampunk texts will be considered as "more" or "less" steampunk on Cherie Priest's idea of the aesthetic as a spectrum (517). It's an idea I've been considering as well, not of positing works as steampunk or not, but analyzing instead how much of the aesthetic they use, and to what degree.

I'll deal with this more in the coming year, but for the time being, I wanted to introduce a Venn diagram as food for thought. I'm not convinced it's the best way to chart this, but as this blog has always been about the discussion, I'm hoping it will generate some.

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