Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘steampunk’

REVIEW: With Fate Conspire by Marie Brennan


Title: With Fate Conspire
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: August 30th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A risky undertaking that is more than half-successful.

A while back, I received a review copy of Marie Brennan’s With Fate Conspire, the fourth in her Onyx Court series. Now, let me start with a confession: before receiving my copy, I hadn’t read any of the earlier books. I know, I know – alternate/secret history set in various periods in London’s history? Liking historical fantasy as much as I do, one would think I had devoured this series from the first book up to now. But for whatever reason, I missed it until finding its fourth volume in the mailbox. Holding the book in my hand, I faced a choice: I could either catch up on the previous three books, or I could just dive into the fourth. Doing so would be a risk: would I miss vital backstory or world-building? I didn’t know. But I justified my decision with the fig leaf of “someone else might pick up the fourth book first, right?”

With Fate Conspire is set in an exceedingly well-researched late nineteenth century London. It features two primary viewpoint characters: the mortal Eliza O’Malley, a poor woman of Irish descent living in the London slums and Dead Rick, a faerie skriker (a Lancashire name for a lycanthropic faery who is an omen of death – more commonly known as a Black Dog) living in the Onyx Court’s Goblin Market. When we first meet Eliza, we quickly learn that she is desperately seeking a way to track down the faerie who kidnapped her lover seven years prior. When we first meet Dead Rick, we find him brutally forced to work as a slave, enforcer, and errand-boy for Nadrett, a criminal kingpin in the Goblin Market. Connecting both perspectives is the accelerating industrialization of London: the rise of iron-based industry and the development of the London Underground Railway are destroying the faerie city.

When we first meet both characters, they already have interesting pasts. Eliza’s lover was kidnapped by faeries and she foiled a faerie terrorist attack on the London underground. Dead Rick’s past is more mysterious, but it somehow put him at the mercy of Nadrett. At first, I assumed that these histories were the backstory that I had missed by not reading the earlier books. But then I realized that A Star Shall Fall is set more than a century before With Fate Conspire – which means that their backstories could not possibly have been in the pages I’d skipped.

When I picked up the fourth book in the series, I risked missing out on vital backstory. But writing the fourth book in the series, Brennan took a similar risk: she placed the moment of displacement – the point where Eliza and Dead Rick’s adventures start – off-screen. This is a particularly risky approach: by not allowing us to participate in her protagonists’ displacement, Brennan risks our investment in the characters and their world. I really enjoyed the structure and courage that this showed, but I found that the risk was only partially successful.

Dead Rick is modeled as a hero (see my post on A Theory of the Hero). We are shown his desperation to survive the Onyx Court’s imminent collapse, and his willingness to commit violence, but there remain lines he refuses to cross. He is a moral character, despite the self-loathing we see. He is an aspirational hero who wants to survive while still doing what he feels to be right. He may not always succeed, but he continues to aspire. He is used to show us the lawless underbelly of the Onyx Court, and the amoral brutality of some faeries. The challenges he face are existential: will Nadrett kill him? Will he survive the imminent destruction of the Onyx Court? Will he become like Nadrett to do so?

The portrayal of Dead Rick and faerie society were the high points of the book for me. First, I always enjoy well-drawn heroic characters. The challenges which Dead Rick faces are packed with drama. On an individual level, the unflinching depiction of Nadrett’s brutality and Dead Rick’s desperation make him particularly sympathetic: I cringed to see his experiences and wanted everything to work out for him. At the same time, his story becomes a microcosm of the Onyx Court’s story. Dead Rick’s experiences concretize the drama of the Onyx Court’s collapse by showing us the little guy’s perspective. Dead Rick is no chosen hero, capable of saving the Onyx Court from London’s industrialization. He can barely keep himself alive, let alone save the faerie city. But it is his courageous struggle against insurmountable challenges that makes his story a page turner. In Dead Rick’s case, Brennan was able to successfully skip his backstory: the sympathy he engenders, his emotional stakes, and his relationship to the Onyx Court’s broader struggle were enough to earn my investment.

By contrast, I found Eliza to be the far weaker character. If Dead Rick is defined by his rough moral code, then Eliza is defined by her obsession with tracking down Owen Darragh. This is not an existential challenge. The worst-case scenario for Eliza is that she never finds him. But because we did not get her backstory, we are not as invested in her quest as she is. Brennan tries to make Eliza sympathetic using tools parallel to those used for Dead Rick: Eliza is a poor costerwoman of Irish descent. Her experience of London is that of the down-trodden and the discriminated. While this works to make Eliza somewhat sympathetic, her story lacks the emotional tension of Dead Rick’s. The dilemmas she faces are not moral in nature: she rarely needs to choose between right and wrong, or the lesser of two evils. Short of killing innocents, she’s happy to cross almost any line in her quest. Her challenges are almost always tactical, and they fail to mirror or concretize those of broader mortal London.

In Eliza’s case, skipping of the backstory did the character a disservice. It made it impossible for me to really invest in Eliza’s travails. This problem is especially apparent when compared against Dead Rick’s storyline. Eliza’s difficulties and choices are inconsequential when set against Dead Rick’s primary problem (the catastrophic collapse of the Onyx Court).

That the faerie perspective is more compelling than the mortal one probably should not be a surprise. The Onyx Court is the primary constant throughout the (surprise surprise) Onyx Court series – which in and of itself is an interesting structural feature. Most contemporary fantasies that deal with the world of faerie tend to be either portal or intrusion stories where the focal lens is a human who finds themselves caught up in the magical world. In those stories where a human isn’t our lens, we often see through the eyes of a faery who – for all intents and purposes – tends to be indistinguishable from a super-powered mortal.

When writing a series, most authors take the safe approach of following one set of characters as they progress through events that can be encapsulated within a mortal lifetime. But Brennan takes a different path. Rather than give us characters to follow over the course of a single escalating adventure, she instead opens a window onto a particular time in the history of the eternal Onyx Court. The effect is like tuning into a long-running TV series mid-episode, mid-season. By nailing the faerie perspective – and lending it continuity throughout the series – Brennan is able to diminish the impact. Yet the relative weakness of her mortal character (Eliza) underlines the fact that the faeries – and how the Onyx Court deals with the challenges it faces – are the author’s primary concern. I am curious whether the mortal characters in the earlier books are as weak as Eliza.

Despite Eliza’s weakness, With Fate Conspire remains a very good book. Dead Rick’s story is – in my opinion – enough to carry it, and ultimately make it a satisfying experience. The world-building and research stand out for the level of detail and the skill with which they are woven into the story. The book’s pacing was fairly solid, providing moments of rising tension and breaths where I could assimilate the plentiful skulduggery and intrigue. Fans of “London Above / London Below” fiction along the lines of Kate Griffen’s Matthew Swift novels (see my earlier review), Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: A Novel, or China Miéville’s King Rat will likely enjoy With Fate Conspire, as will fans of painstakingly researched and imagined alternate/secret histories like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel, or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.

Perhaps the strongest recommendation I can offer is that after finishing With Fate Conspire, I went out and bought the preceding three volumes. Brennan took a significant risk structuring this book as she did, and while she may not have succeeded as well as I might have liked, neither did she fail. I applaud her courage, and her skill for getting it more than half right. I’m looking forward to the preceding three books.

REVIEW: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter


Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter Title: Morlock Night
Author: K.W. Jeter
Pub Date: Reprint: April 26th, 2011
(original: 1979)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced steampunk adventure, with strong Arthurian roots and a well-grounded setting.

The best science fiction is protean by nature, combining facets of just about every other genre and defying neat classification within the bounds of SFdom. K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night straddles many sub-genre fences: Victoriana secret history, steampunk, and Arthurian legend. Originally published in 1979, the book is judged one of the progenitors of the steampunk sub-genre, and its author as credited with inventing the steampunk label (in a 1987 letter to Locus). Having heard of the book but never read it, I was jazzed to read the new edition from Angry Robot. I was especially curious to see how one of the earliest steampunk novels compares against contemporary clockwork fare, and I am happy to report that thirty-two years from its initial publication Morlock Night remains an enthralling, atmospheric, and fast-paced read.

Morlock Night was originally written as part of a ten book Arthurian series which was to be written by Jeter, Tim Powers, and Ray Nelson (alas, the series never took off). The concept was to show King Arthur reincarnated (or awoken) at various points throughout history when Britain needs saving. This fact is intrinsic to Morlock Night, and at one level firmly sets the book in the Arthurian tradition. However, Jeter’s execution of this concept is unique and exceptional.

The book takes place in London in the autumn of the Victorian era. Like the best contemporary steampunk and alternate history authors (e.g. Cherie Priest or Michael A. Stackpole), Jeter uses voice to establish his character’s in time. The story is told in first-person perspective through the eyes of Edwin Hocker, and his word choices and sentence constructions are firmly rooted in the cadences of the late Victorian era. In the hands of a lesser author, such vocal tricks might make the prose dated or stilted to modern sensibilities. Perhaps, if Jeter had chosen to employ third-person perspective, that might well have been the case. But by choosing to tell the story through the eyes of Edwin Hocker, the story gains immediacy in spite of the distancing typical of late Victorian writing styles.

We meet the questing hero as he departs from a dinner party. At this dinner party, Hocker was regaled with an incredible story about travel to the far distant future, and the strange creatures his host encountered on the way. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it should: Morlock Night is actually a sequel to H.G. Wells The Time Machine (which itself was first published in 1895, three years after the events of Jeter’s book).

Jeter builds much more immediacy into his story by eschewing the framing narrative that Wells employed. We meet Edwin Hocker as he departs the dinner party that frames Wells’ classic, and our hero is then swiftly sent by the mysterious Doctor Ambrose (Merlin) to a war-torn future London where he must fight and flee Morlock invaders sweeping across time to take over the world. Jeter does an amazing job establishing the setting for the story. The first chapter takes place on the foggy streets of London, late at night, after the close of the dinner party. Jeter’s narration is atmospheric – literally, and figuratively – and the fog gradually seeps into both his character’s perception and the reader’s. The brooding city streets, the hazy lights gas lamps, the damp: these are elements that one feels reading the book. When Hocker is thrust into the future, the rubble-strewn London he finds himself in remains recognizable, though shattered as if by the Blitz.

Ambrose pulls Hocker (and a woman he meets in that war-torn London) back to the Victorian era, and uses the traumatic experience to convince Hocker to save Britain. Ambrose explains that the dim-witted Morlocks described in The Time Machine were but the Morlock’s uneducated working class, and that when Wells’ Time Traveller returned to the future following the dinner party, the ruling Morlocks captured him, and used the time machine to travel back to 1892. Now, with the aid of an Anti-Merlin character, the Morlocks intend to conquer the past. And this risks unraveling time and destroying the universe. To save the day, Merlin needs Hocker to free the reincarnation of King Arthur from the clutches of that Anti-Merlin, and to reunite the reincarnated king with the scattered pieces of Excalibur.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, with a standard quest-based structure: step one, step two, complication, step three, complication, climax. But despite the prosaic structure, the characterization, world-building, and pacing make the book a delight to read. The quest for Excalibur takes Hocker into the sewers beneath London, and Jeter’s descriptions of this dark and dank environment are by turns chilling, thrilling, and fascinating. Loving the real London as much as I do, I can easily imagine the detritus of two thousand years washing up beneath London’s twisting alleyways.

It is in those subterranean environments that Jeter comes closest to employing the tropes of the modern steampunk movement. Looked at from the perspective of a modern reader, Morlock Night has a notable dearth of steampunk conventions. There is little (if any) real clockwork, no steam-powered machinery that I can recall, and certainly no airships. The closest approximation is an ancient Atlantean submarine which figures prominently in Hocker’s adventures in the London sewers. But that is a strange, foreign, and ancient technology: neither a product of the Victorian era, nor an extrapolation of Victorian-era technology.

Jeter doesn’t use the steoretypical steampunk devices because the story simply does not need them: it is centered around the character of Edwin Hocker, and the challenges he faces. Technology is incidental to that, and so Jeter wastes no time lovingly describing it. And despite the lack of steampunk window dressing, the book remains undeniably steampunk. In many ways, it is the quintessential steampunk novel: every element – including technology – is seen through the eyes of a late Victorian-era narrator, with the concomitant sensibilities, values, and preconceived notions. That grounds the book in the Victorian era, and conveys that undeniable feeling of almost-plausibility that is characteristic of the best steampunk. At the same time, Jeter’s careful attention to setting, and the atmospheric, layered descriptions root the story firmly in the London of 1892.

Despite its many strengths, the book does have two weaknesses. The first (minor) weakness is that I found the end of the story a bit predictable. That might be because I’ve read plot structures like this one many times over, or it might be because Jeter’s careful foreshadowing built a certain inevitability into the story. However, the book’s predictability is only a minor weakness; even if I was able to guess how it ended, I still loved the ride. The tension remained high, and I continued to be avidly engaged in the story long after I’d figured out the end. That fact is a testament to Jeter’s excellent management of pacing and tension.

The second weakness I consider more substantial. Early in the book, Hocker meets a woman named Tafe in the war-torn future version of London. She returns with him to his own time, and proceeds to be his companion on his various adventures. She represents Hocker’s love interest (of sorts), and a device for furthering plot and motivation in certain key scenes. When we first meet Tafe, she is in charge: much more strong-willed and competent than our hero, Hocker. But as the book progresses and Hocker takes the fore, Tafe recedes. I was disappointed by this perceived weakening of the character. I understand why it happened, and I understand why it might even have been necessary. But I would have preferred it if Tafe continued to have the strength of character and personality that she had initially.

On the whole, I am inordinately pleased that Angry Robot has reprinted Morlock Night. I especially enjoyed Tim Powers’ introduction and the afterward by Adam Roberts’. For fans of genre history, I recommend reading both essays as they provide valuable perspective on the significance of Jeter’s book. As for the book itself, I consider Morlock Night a must-read for any fan of steampunk. Three decades after its initial publication, it continues to be an excellent, enjoyable, fast-paced story. Fans of Cherie Priest, George Mann, and Gail Carriger will find much to love.

Words on a Fertile Shore: The Evolution of Science Fiction and Fantasy Language


While eating delicious (and incredibly over-filling) holiday meals this weekend, I found myself thinking about Google Labs’ new Ngram Viewer. In my day job I deal with statistics, semantics, ontologies, and computational linguistics all day long. Which makes the Ngram Viewer a really, really fun toy. It allows us to look at the frequency with which particular words and phrases were utilized across all books in the English language for the last 500 years.

Which is really cool.

So with such a tool at my finger tips, I thought I would have a little bit of a fun. What can the Ngram Viewer tell us about language in genre fiction? What can it tell us about the genres themselves? To attempt a semi-serious answer to this question, I got out my trusty copy of Brave New Words and flipped through it find some of the tasty neologisms that science fiction has given us over the years. And having written them down, I started banging away at the Ngram Viewer. Here’s what I found:

The Rise and Fall of Cyberpunk, The Fall and Limping Recovery of Space Opera, and the Gradual Climb of Alternate History

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

So the late ’80s and early ’90s saw cyberpunk explode, rise to meteoric heights and then begin a gradual decline that still seems ongoing. Cyberpunk hasn’t seemed to eclipse any of the other major science fiction sub-genres, although it did seem to coincide with a gradual decline in space opera and future history. It’s also neat to see a visual representation of alternate history’s slow growth over the last 40 years.

Sword and Sorcery vs. Epic Fantasy, Paranormal Romance vs. Steampunk and Urban Fantasy

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Looking at fantasy, we can see the response to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s popularity. Looking at the 1970s and 1980s, we can see the impact of Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny. Then the 1990s show us the rise of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin and the other kings of the Chihuahua-killer tomes. But what I think is most interesting is the relationship between steampunk, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance.

Steampunk has been getting a lot of buzz recently, leading some authors (most prominently Charles Stross and Cat Valente) to complain that it eclipses everything else going on. But this somewhat unscientific chart at least shows that while steampunk may generate buzz, that buzz is disproportional to the volume of published work. Of course, those complaints are recent and Google’s data only goes up to 2008. It’d be interesting to see if in 2009 and 2010 steampunk really did eclipse other sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction. Looking at the data through 2008, the trend looks pretty steady and in line with urban fantasy. The data actually suggests that paranormal romance is the sub-genre really breaking out. At least by 2008.

Some Fun Genre Tropes

And since I am – technically – on vacation this week, I want to go out vacation-ing in a few minutes, just three last fun charts. The charts above track some of the sub-genres, but what about some of the most-common science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes? Some fun:

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Hard science fiction and space opera both have their share of tropes, including (typically) some means of traveling at or near the speed of light. Of course, technology changes all the time so how have those tropes changed over the years? For one thing, the generic (and typically ill-defined) “hyperdrive” seems to be eclipsing anything with real science behind it. The equally fuzzy “warp drive” looks to have peaked around the turn of the century, while scientific or pseudo-scientific also-rans like the ramjet and gravity drive seem to be holding steady. Probably the most noticeable (and interesting) phenomenon was the brief but intense plateau of solar sails, which came to be pretty common right around the mid-1980’s before settling back down into a slow upward trajectory in the late ’90s.

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Out of the stereo-typical fantasy tropes, dragons seem to be holding pretty steadily, but what’s notable is the rise of “wizard” in the late 1990s. Do I detect Harry Potter‘s wand at work?

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

And here we can clearly see the impact of Anne Rice and her Lestat as the progenitors of the vampire craze. Vampires are clearly the monster of last thirty years, and by 2008, they still have nothing to fear from either werewolves or zombies.

A Holiday Gift Guide for the Genre-inclined


If you’re like me, then you probably haven’t started your holiday shopping yet. If that’s the case, then let me borrow from Douglas Adams and offer some advice: DON’T PANIC! (I hope those letters are friendly on your display). Regardless of what holiday you’re celebrating, buying stuff for loved ones into science fiction, fantasy, and horror can often be difficult. So this week, I want to offer a little holiday gift guide to help you shop for those folks in your life who love genre:

For the Zombie-lover


American Zombie
We’ve seen what happens when the re-animated dead hunger. We’ve seen blood, and guts, and above all braaaaaiiins. But have we ever considered the zombies’ perspective? Have we ever wondered what it’s like to be part of that maligned, feared underclass in American society? American Zombie is a fun and creative documentary that follows the lives and dreams of several zombies living (un-living?) in Los Angeles. Fun, intelligent satire on our fascination with the walking dead.

The Do-it-Yourself Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse
The zombie lover in your life probably thinks about the coming apocalypse pretty frequently. They might have escape routes, fortification schematics, weapons caches, the whole nine yards. If that’s the case, or even if not, this book makes a very practical addition to your loved one’s library. With easy to follow guidance, it is sure to keep your loved ones safe. After all, at 10″ by 7.4″ and 160 pages, it could do some damage in a pinch.

The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead
This self-help book is a perfect distillation of the zombie ethos. With a practical twelve-step guide to zombiefication, and lessons to learn about adaptability and being your own boss, this book can make your loved ones more satisfied with their life and happier in the work.

Gerber 22-41576 Gator Machete with Sheath
Movies and books aside, the gift that keeps on giving might be a good idea. Your zombie-phile loved ones will definitely appreciate a sturdy, 15″ double-edged (straight on one edge, and saw-toothed on the other) machete perfect for slicing and dicing anything out to eat some brains. Also makes a great companion gift to The Do-it-Yourself Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

For the Epic Fantasy Fan


Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen)
If they haven’t read Steven Erikson, this is a gift guaranteed to blow the mind of any epic fantasy fan: a 10-book, doorstopper-sized epic fantasy series that actually finishes! Unlike most epic fantasy series that go beyond three (let alone six) books, Erikson and his publishers have consistently delivered books more-or-less on-time. The last book in the series (number 10) is currently set to be released on March 1, 2011 and Amazon is already taking pre-orders for it. With great writing, well-textured world-building, and fun characters Erikson’s Malazan books of the fallen are probably the best epic fantasy written in the last twenty years.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Alright, I admit it: I myself am not that big a fan of WoW. However, I know that lots of people (and lots of epic fantasy fans especially) are. So if the epic fantasy fan in your life enjoys WoW, or MMORPGs, or RPGs then they’re likely to enjoy the new world-changing experience of Cataclysm.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel
The essential guide book for anyone setting out on a fantasy adventure. Written by Dianna Wynne-Jones, who has taken many an intrepid tourist on a fantasy vacation, this book offers practical advice for navigating the wilds of fantasyland, the etiquette of interacting with the locals, and helpful guidance on what to bring, what to wear, and how to get about. Be sure to get an edition that is Dark Lord Approved!

For Vampire Fans who Hate Glitter


I Am Legend
Okay, I know I talk about this book a lot on this blog. But it really is one of the best vampire novels ever written. Dark, frightening, and leaves you faint and reeling at the end. Isn’t that what a good vampire should do?

American Vampire Vol. 1
With stories written by Stephen King and Scott Snyder and illustration by Rafael Albuquereque, American Vampire offers some grisly blood-sucking fun set in the Wild West and 1920’s Hollywood. An entertaining read, with restrained illustration capable of exploding into bloody viscera where and when needed, this graphic novel will be appreciated by those of us who enjoy evolving vampire myths.

Shadow of the Vampire
John Malkovich and Willem Defoe star as F.W. Murnau and Max Schrek (of silent movie fame) respectively in this fictionalized account of the filming of Nosferatu. Of course, in this version, Max Schrek in fact is a monstrous vampire, who preys on the cast and crew of the movie.

For the Steampunk Aficionado


Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded
A second steampunk anthology edited by the inestimable Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, this book collects twenty three short stories, two essays, and one roundtable interview that delves into the vagaries of steampunk literature. The fiction makes this anthology worth it, with some really great stories from authors like Jeffrey Ford and Tanith Lee.

Test Tube Spice Rack
Credit where credit is due, I actually found this concept on the STEAMED! blog. This is a great gift for any mad scientist who likes to experiment in the kitchen. The only advice I would have is to make sure your test tubes are properly labeled. It is – alas – all too easy to mistake strychnine for salt, after all.

Airship Aerodynamics: Technical Manual
While this military manual dates from 1941, your loved ones are sure to appreciate the detailed specs on flying and maintaining airships found in this treatise. Sure it’s dry and full of engineering and pilot jargon, but if your loved ones want to pilot an airship, shouldn’t they do it right?

For the Robot or Alien Lover


How to Build a Robot Army: Tips on Defending Planet Earth Against Alien Invaders, Ninjas, and Zombies
A very practical guide to building and utilizing a robot army for dealing with the myriad dangers lurking just around the corner, including (but not limited to) ninjas, aliens, Godzilla, and great white sharks. Written by Daniel Wilson, who holds a doctorate in robotics (no fooling!), the book is firmly grounded in science. With its sections on using robots against the zombie hordes, this might make a great cross-over gift for the zombie-lover in your life as well!

Mars Attacks!
This wonderfully sweet, heart-warming family movie directed by Tim Burton and starring the always even-keeled Jack Nicholson will reach out and touch the heart of any alien aficionado. Also, the sweet dulcet tones of Slim Whitman are sure to appeal to any science fiction music lovers!

Bottled Water
It should go without saying that you want to keep your loved ones safe from aliens. And if the cat on a hot skillet yowling of Slim Whitman is too much for you, thankfully M. Night Shyamalan shows us an alternative alien-bashing weapon: good old-fashioned H2O. A couple drops of this stuff, and those aliens will go the way of the Wicked Witch of the West! Of course, why hydrophobic aliens capable of interstellar travel would come to a planet 70% covered with the stuff, only Shyamalan could possibly tell us (I can picture the aliens’ reasoning now: what a world, what a world…).

What are some other gifts out there for those of us who love science fiction, fantasy, and horror? I’m certain there are tons of other ideas out there, and I’d love to hear some of them (whether serious or not).

REVIEW: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman


The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman Title: The Half-Made World
Author: Felix Gilman
Pub Date: October 12, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exciting, adventurous, thoughtful steampunk fantasy.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman is the gripping story of war on a brutal frontier. This is Gilman’s third book, after his excellent 2007 debut Thunderer and its disappointing sequel Gears of the City. Set in an entirely different universe, The Half-Made World shows that Gilman has clearly disciplined his imagination and gained a focus that had been lacking in his last novel.

If you are looking for steampunk with Victorian mannerisms and airships, look elsewhere. While it shares elements of the steampunk aesthetic, it is firmly rooted in the oily, Wild West and Sinclair’s blood-stained Chicago stockyards. For those critics who complain that steampunk never has anything important to say, I recommend they read this book. It takes place in (as the title would suggest) a half-made world, where the east is settled and established, operating along “realistic” lines. The west remains wild, and reminds me of the aboriginal Dreaming. The rules that govern it are shifting, changing, and magic (of a sort) is real. From a thematic standpoint, The Half-Made World is a serious examination of the complex and conflicting values inherent in the romantic and manifest destiny movements of the 19th century. But despite its important themes and artful writing, it is an entertaining and exciting read, striking that rare balance between adventure and literature.

Gilman’s frontier is torn apart by an unending war between the Line (railroads, trains, manifest destiny) and the Gun (guns, fatalistically doomed heroes, romance). When the book opens, it is entirely plausible that the Line and the Gun are merely the colloquial names for a set of combating ethos: symbols, and little besides. But it quickly becomes apparent that these opposing forces are in fact very real spirits or demons, who embody particular mores and values and who attract particular types of followers. The opposing cultures of Line and Gun, and the setting they create, are some of the most important characters in this book.

The story is told from three perspectives:

  • Lowry, an agent of the Line,
  • John Creedmor an agent of the Gun, and;
  • Liv Alverhuysen, a “neutral party” from the settled East swept up in the frontier conflict.

While each of the perspective characters is engaging, the Line and the Gun themselves provide the text with a foundation. Gilman’s writing is extremely tight, and the natures of the Line and the Gun come through in the little details: the methods their agents employ, the territories they control, the people who live under their rule. Even the slight shifts in narrative voice used for the different perspectives help cement the setting. The Line and the Gun are not ephemeral constructs, or religious ideologies. They are real: dirty, smelly, and intensely human forces for all of their inhuman power.

Gilman does something very difficult with his three perspective characters. Each personifies a particular ethos: Lowry is the embodiment of the Line, with all its systematic and methodical values. Creedmor embodies the Gun, with its heroic strengths and tragic weaknesses. Liv personifies a third set of values (still nascent, I would say), which seems designed to balance the Line and the Gun. To paint characters who personify abstract values well is very difficult. It is so easy for them to become caricatures of their mores. Hugo pulls it off exceptionally in Les Miserables. Ayn Rand does it well, though less-reliably than Hugo. While Gilman is not quite as powerful as Hugo, nor (thankfully) as insistent as Rand, his characters remain true to the forces they personify, as well as to their own humanity. They are flawed and identifiable, in a most beautifully human way.

The jacket, designed by Jamie Stafford-Hill and with art by Ross MacDonald, drew my eye in the bookstore, reminding me of the futuristic designs drawn by Albert Robida in the late 19th century. While I don’t think the image depicted on the cover appears at any point in the action of the book, the design is elegant and understated. It captures the spirit of the text, if not its literal action. The book opens slowly, but gathers steam after the first eighty or so pages. The prose is dense, and rich throughout, and Gilman fleshes out his principal and supporting characters gradually over the course of the book. The last third is especially well-paced, and I found myself on the edge of my seat. The perspective and writing remain crisp, and at no point does it come off the rails (no pun intended).

While on the whole this book was excellent, I was mildly disappointed in how Gilman dealt with one of the characters at its end. It is difficult to explain the details without giving anything away, but this is clearly the first book in a larger whole, and to make it self-contained, certain strands needed to be tied up. I understand that, and I understand that there were equally-good or equally-bad options for how to do so. Gilman chose one of them, and his choice is not in and of itself bad and I suspect other readers might be satisfied with it. But when I read it, I found elements of its ending to be slightly anticlimactic, almost bathetic. However, it is entirely possible that bathos was part of Gilman’s point, and while it was disappointing, I find myself waffling on whether it is a weakness or not.

The book ends poised for a continuation of the adventure, without crossing the liminal boundary into cliff-hanger. As a result, I am eagerly looking forward to the sequel. I strongly recommend The Half-Made World to anyone looking for thoughtful steampunk, or who enjoys the frontier adventures of Emma Bull (Territory) or Jeffrey Ford (The Physiognomy). If (like me) you were turned off by Gilman’s earlier Gears of the City, I’d suggest you give him another shot: The Half-Made World is incomparably stronger in every way.

REVIEW: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest


Dreadnought by Cherie Priest Title: Dreadnought
Author: Cherie Priest
Pub Date: September 28, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exciting steampunk set in an alternate nineteenth century America.

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest is an excellent steampunk novel set in an alternate 19th century America: replete with airships, trains, walking war machines, and zombies; what more could you ask? While set in the same universe as her 2009 Boneshaker, Dreadnought is a standalone novel and can certainly be enjoyed without having read Boneshaker.

I’ve been a fan of Priest’s since she knocked the ball out of the park with her Hugo-and-Nebula-nominated Boneshaker in 2009. Boneshaker introduced me to her “Clockwork Century,” a nineteenth century United States where the Civil War has gone on for twenty years. The characters, the pacing, and the writing of that book sucked me in and left me thinking about it months after I’d read it and so I was eagerly looking forward to Dreadnought. Thankfully, Priest did not disappoint.

Dreadnought follows Venita “Mercy” Lynch, a southern nurse working at a military hospital in Virginia as she travels across the country to see her estranged father in Seattle. Her trip takes us down the front lines of the Civil War and across the frontier. Mercy is just passing through all of the places she visits, and we’re just passing through with her. As a result, Dreadnought is understandably not as grounded in place as Boneshaker was. But Mercy focuses her attention on the people she encounters during her trip, and this performs two admirable tricks: it grounds the book in time, and it instantly makes us care about our hero.

The characters and the voice are the best part of this book: they are what kept me turning pages on the edge of my seat. While written in close-perspective third person, I felt like I was reading a first-person book. The details mentioned in the prose observations and the cadence of individual sentences cemented me in Mercy’s head. Priest admirably avoids typographic sleight-of-hand (which I usually find annoying as all hell) to establish her characters as “southern” or “western” or “Mexican”: her dialog is generally written in clear, understandable English. But the way she constructs her sentences gives each character and even the third-person narrator a distinct “flavor” that establishes them in time and place. Even the narrator spoke in my head with a slight southern accent, the kind one might hear from northern Virginia. Throughout Dreadnought’s 400 pages, there was only one (exactly one!) sentence that rang off-true and knocked me out of Mercy’s head. The rarity of such a misstep is a testament to the skill with which Priest draws her characters and grounds them in her fictionalized history.

Fans of alternate history might want to take Priest’s fictional history with a grain of salt: this is not a Harry Turtledove alternate history that painstakingly considers actual history and how it might have played out differently. Instead, Priest makes a sweeping conceit and uses it to buttress a fantasy world. In this, her work is closer to Emma Bull’s Territory or Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic than to Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191.

Nonetheless, the book is heavily informed by Civil War history. In her acknowledgments, Priest mentions using the Louisa May Alcott letters to research her fictional Civil War hospital and this homework shows: the opening chapters bring to mind Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, with all of the pain and hardship of nineteenth century medical care. If the facts of history are altered, the basic feeling, lifestyles, and value systems are consistent with what I have read about late nineteenth century America. This firmly establishes Dreadnought in time, making Priest’s “alternate USA” plausible.

“Classic” steampunk motifs – airships, steam/diesel-powered “walkers”, trains – are rendered believably: Mercy is ignorant of much of the mechanics, but she is forced to deal with them and we learn about them along with her. These devices struck me as more prevalent in Dreadnought than they were in Boneshaker, but as methods-of-conveyance they played a more central role to the story so it makes sense.

If there is anything to criticize in this book, it is not the author’s fault. If you buy this book and want to avoid spoilers, avoid the back cover copy. I made the mistake of reading it, and was given a very neat little synopsis of the first 65% of the book. Thank you for that, but I’d rather read the book: next time, just “vague it up” a bit, please. Barring this (minor) complaint, the rest of the book’s design is superb: excellent cover art by Jon Foster (who also did the cover for Boneshaker), and a brilliant sepia ink really make the book an attractive object in its own right.

Dreadnought is an improvement over the already-excellent Boneshaker. It is a simpler story, but that simplicity gives us greater richness. I thought Boneshaker was a good example of steampunk being the new gothic, and Dreadnought continues this tradition. It feels less Gothic, but that is due to its lack of a solitary villain and its persistent sense of motion (which isn’t really surprising in a travel story).

This book is tremendously fun to read. It is exciting, the characters engaging and the monsters scary. If you like zombies and the steampunk aesthetic, you will love this book.

Is Steampunk the New Gothic?


Is steampunk the new Gothic? On a recent trans-Atlantic flight I started to reread Michael Moorcock’s brilliant Wizardry and Wild Romance and was struck by the following passage:

[Gothic romances] did not merely look back to “romantic, antique days”…they added something novel in the emphasis given to natural (if often idealized) scenery as a means of expressing the moods of the characters…The popularity of the Gothic rose as the impact of the Industrial Revolution increased, reflecting, symbolizing and even explaining the anxiety felt by those who witnessed radical changes in the world they knew.

Now fast forward a hundred some-odd years. Is steampunk simply the modern incarnation of the Gothic novel? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it probably is. This raises several questions:

  1. How does steampunk resemble Gothic?
  2. How does steampunk diverge from Gothic?
  3. What lessons can we draw from Gothic’s history and apply to steampunk’s future?

Read more

%d bloggers like this: