Category Archives: Steampunk

Book Review: The Parasol Protectorate series: Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless, Timeless

Back at the 2009 Worldcon in Montreal, I was scheduled to be on a Steampunk panel with Gail Carriger, who was unfortunately unable to attend the convention. It was still a blast, as I met Ann VanderMeer and Christopher J. Garcia (who is quite possibly insane, but in a very good way).

Recently, I read Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate novels, starting with Soulless. The novels are a mix of Victorian paranormal mystery fashion and romance. There are bustles and décolletage, vampires and werewolves, zeppelins and robotic octopi.

Book Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest

Clementine isn’t the first Clockwork Century novel I’ve reviewed. I’ve been a fan of Cherie Priest since Boneshaker in 2009, and Dreadnought from 2010. I was browsing Amazon’s recommendations recently, and discovered that the Kindle edition of Clementine was under $3. It’s also available for Kobo.

The dust jacket for the novel Clementine, written by Cherie Priest. Dust jacket by Jon Foster

Dust jacket for Clementine, illustrated by Jon Foster

Clementine is a novella. It’s shorter than your average novel, and has a relatively straightforward plot.
There are two main characters, Croggon Hainey, an airship pirate, and Maria “Belle” Boyd, a former Confederate spy turned Pinkerton agent.

Both plots converge rapidly, as they focus on the safety and recovery of a stolen airship, the Free Crow from Boneshaker, renamed Clementine, and its cargo.
While Clementine, unlike Boneshaker and Dreadnought, doesn’t have any zombies, there are other fantastical elements at play, including a super weapon with the power to destroy a city and end the decades long civil war. While the technology at play is different from the nuclear bombs which devastated Japan to end World War II, the intent is clearly the same.

The novella is fast paced, with large portions of the book occurring in airships. We get a strong sense of style in Clementine. It’s a fast paced world, with America in a long Civil War. In term of the Clockwork Century books, Clementine is not as isolated as Boneshaker, nor is it as integrated as Dreadnought. Clementine attempts to navigate in a mostly apolitical sphere. While Belle is a former Confederate spy, she works for the Pinkertons, under contract to the Union. It’s a grey area, just as her sympathies remain Confederate grey. We don’t really get to see much of the world in this book; we instead see snapshots of cities as the characters pass through. The world building depth is strongly hinted at, but not extensively explored in this novella.

As for Hainey? His motivation in the story is to reclaim the Free Crow, a symbol of his escape from slavery in the South. While his narrative isn’t quite as intriguing as is Belle’s, it complements her plot quite nicely. The two plots and viewpoint characters are well balanced. It’s dynamic, and enhances the fast plot progression. This addresses the problems with Boneshaker’s unbalanced viewpoint characters, while adding more complexity than the single protagonist in Dreadnought.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in the story is the shorter length. Clementine is half as long as either Boneshaker or Dreadnought. Cherie Priest’s writing is fast paced, leading me to read her books quickly. Sadly, this means that the book is over far too soon. This is balanced by the price of the ebook. Clementine is good value. There are also other novels released in the Clockwork Century series, which means that the story isn’t necessarily over yet.

 

The Gernsback Continuum

The lead story in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is The Gernsback Continuum, by William Gibson. This story is quite different from the Difference Engine, the novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

In this story, some sort of temporal rift enables the narrator to see a future that never was. All the great impossible dreams of the 1930s exist, beyond the veil of reality. In some ways, I felt like I was reading a Philip K. Dick novel, except in Gibson’s story, the character never fully enters this vision of the past.

The Gernsback Continuum is a great story for introducing the concept of retro-futurism, one of the recurring signifiers in steampunk, according to noted steampunk scholar Mike Perschon. According to Perschon, “If a writer wants to convey the future without any nods to the past, they don’t fly in airships. Airships are a failed technology that require fictional motive power or construction materials to be made viable.” It’s the sense of unharnessed potential that slipped away. In steampunk works, retrofuturism tends to emphasize the aspects of a proposed technology which are most impossible, like “a twelve-engined thing like a bloated boomerang, all wing, thrumming its way east with an elephantine grace, so low that I could count the rivets in its dull silver skin, and hear–maybe–the echo of jazz” (Gibson).

Gibson’s story gives a glimpse of these grand visions from the past, and evokes a sense of nostalgia for these monuments to what might have been. This story is quite interesting when compared to the main body of Gibson’s work, which rarely looks to the past. With the Gernsback Continuum, Gibson unleashes the limitless potential of the 1930s, were it not for the pesky laws of physics. It’s interesting how much of the story is dedicated to the aesthetics, an important aspect of steampunk. Ultimately, this story is a celebration of the imagination, about the dream that never came to fruition.

It’s a good opening to Steampunk Reloaded, giving a feel to the retrofuturistic aesthetics. Instead of going for the neo-victorian feel, Gibson instead evokes the unbridled optimism of early 1930s American architecture and design.

November Quick Reviews

I’ve finally got some more reading done recently. K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.

Infernal Devices (1987)

Infernal Devices definitely has the whole steampunk vibe going, which isn’t surprising, as Jeter coined the term the year this novel was published, in a letter to Locus about his earlier novel Morlock Night. Infernal Devices is a fun little adventure novel, although the plot twists were generally unexpected. Steam power itself is not in much evidence here, as the technology in the story is more clockwork oriented. The mad scientist in this story has since passed away, and it is his “infernal devices” which remain the problem of the tale. Other now-common tropes of steampunk literature include mistaken identities, clockwork automata, and flying machines. This was a fast-paced novel, but I wish it had lingered in some areas. While enjoyable, it didn’t get very deep. Fans of steampunk literature should read this, but I probably won’t read this a second time.

The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

Tim Powers was another of the triumvirate of authors initially associated with steampunk (The third being Blaylock). I started reading Powers recently, as the Anubis Gates is sometimes considered steampunk. The Stress of Her Regard is not steampunk, however, but rather what is termed Secret History. Powers uses the real documented lives of historical figures, such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, weaving them together and providing a supernatural story which fits within the established historical record. In this story, great literary figures such as Byron and Shelley have relationships with supernatural beings identified as vampires (John Polidori, a contemporary of Byron and a character in this book, wrote a short story called “The Vampyre” which is the first known vampire story written in English). However, unlike the beautiful shiny vampires from Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles 1973) , Stephanie Meyer (Twilight 2005), or L.J. Smith (The Vampire Diaries 1991), the vampires in The Stress of Her Regard are ancient stone spirits. Powers weaves a powerful tale, and this work has considerable literary merit. Powers clearly did extensive research into mythology and history to write a fantastic book. While tween vamp fans probably won’t be interested in this story, but those familiar with the literature of the Romantic period should enjoy it. I’ll likely reread this novel again before the 2011 Renovation Worldcon, where Powers will be a Guest of Honour.

Boneshaker (2009)

Cherie Priest’s latest novel is set in an alternate history Seattle while the American Civil War has dragged on for nearly two decades. It has made it on Publishers Weekly’s list of the top novels of 2009. I was really looking forward to reading this story, and it lived up to my expectations. The book itself is crafted well. The text was printed in a dark brown ink. Still easily readable, but it gave this story a much more earthy feel. Boneshaker has two main characters which we follow into the walled off city inhabited by “rotters”. Of the two, Briar Wilkes is a more defined character. Zeke is, well, a teenaged boy.  While his search is for his family’s tarnished legacy, Briar is forced to confront her own personal relationship to the past horrors. Cherie Priest uses several of the common themes associated with steampunk literature of the past. Aside from the obvious airships, and brass goggles, Priest plays on mistaken identity, technological marvels, and the use of real historical figures, in the character of Princess Angeline, eldest daughter of Chief Seattle. The Seattle of Boneshaker is a very gritty, thick atmospheric feel. Cherie Priest has a clear vision of this alternate world, and I’m looking forward to reading future novels set in “The Clockwork Century” world.

Defining Steampunk

Attempts to formally define steampunk are exercises in futility, similar to similar attempts at defining science fiction. Even Damon Knight’s definition of SF as “what we mean when we point to it” is problematic, as the “we” no longer refers to a single cohesive group.

While the Oxford English Dictionary defines steampunk as a “writer of science fiction which has a historical setting (esp. based on industrialized, nineteenth-century society) and characteristically features steam-powered, mechanized machinery rather than electronic technology; (also) such writing as a subgenre of science fiction,” I believe that this definition fails to capture the extent to which it is commonly used. Steampunk is no longer merely a literary genre, as adaptations to film have been embraced as a retrofuturistic style, which has formed an almost entirely unrelated aesthetics movement. Some fellow students in my creative writing class were actually surprised when I mentioned that I was reading steampunk novels. “They have steampunk books now, too?”

When K.W. Jeter coined the term in a letter printed in the April 1987 issue of Locus, it referred to the “gonzo-historical manner” in the Victorian fantasies written by James P. Blaylock, Tim Powers, and K.W. Jeter himself. Since then, the term has been embraced and extended by numerous groups. Any particular definition will depend on which books they have read.

What is required in a steampunk novel? What characterizes steampunk? As Mike Perschon notes, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is in an interesting position. It is much more fantasy than science fiction. It does not really deal with technology in any significant way. It was however, included in Jeter’s original term. Does this make it steampunk canon? Setting aside the technological requirements of steampunk, there are certain aspects of The Anubis Gates which are commonly reflected in other steampunk works. Power’s novel is an adventure story, based primarily in Victorian London. It includes a number of contemporary literary figures, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Including historical figures is a technique shared with other steampunk novels such as The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, where characters such as John Keats play a role, as well as Cherie Priest’s novel Boneshaker, which includes the Duwamish indian Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle as a character. One of the key aspects of a steampunk novel appears to be some unbalancing of power, whether it be social or political. This is commonly seen as the “punk” aspect, and Powers certainly includes it in his novel. While Powers is careful not to change historically recorded facts (his works generally fit within a subgenre known as “secret history”, which include fantastic elements framed within the recorded framework of history), there are certain revolutionary aspects of his work.

What is needed to declare a work steampunk? Is steam-powered technology necessary? Jay Lake’s Mainspring and Escapement novels successfully substitute clockwork machinery. Is technology itself needed? Tim Powers shows us a rule-based magic in the Anubis Gates.  Is the neo-victorian era necessary? While many early steampunk books were based in Victorian London, many are now based in America, while others are based in other imaginary worlds, such as China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series. What seems to be important is that the novel is set in a time of political, industrial or social change.

Steampunk may not even necessarily fall under some definitions of science fiction. Often, steampunk uses scientific theories which are no longer plausible. The use of magic in The Anubis Gates would exclude it from some people’s definition of SF. The aetheric technologies of K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices would also cause some definitions problematic. The zombie-producing Blight gas in Boneshaker is another more fantastic element.

Steampunk is generally not hard science fiction. However, Gibson and Sterling’s Difference Engine eschews most fantastic elements. Their main departure from our timeline is that Babbage’s Difference and Analytical Engines worked, were efficient, and formed the backbone of an early information age, leading to large social change. While it was the first steampunk novel I read, and it originally formed the core components of my personal definition of steampunk, The Difference Engine lacks the more fantastic elements which most steampunk novels now include.

Steampunk is a re-imagining of the past. This retaking of the past is inclusive, both of literary forms, and of definitions. When one moves from literature to other forms of media, the boundaries of steampunk become more nebulous. I’m a fan of the anime movie “Steamboy”, and it certainly hits most of the characteristics of steampunk. Other movies, such as Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, or the film adaptation of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly contain aspects of the steampunk aesthetic, but are less successful at being anything other than a dumb action movie. I think an excellent argument could be made for including Joss Wheedon’s Firefly as part of steampunk.

For another look at how someone defines steampunk, see the steampunk FAQ from Cherie Priest.

Recent reading

Since attending Anticipation, I’ve been reading a fair bit. Here’s a list of recently finished books, and some initial thoughts on each.

This is the sequel to Defining Diana, which was nominated this year for an Aurora Award. I reviewed Defining Diana earlier this year. Steel Whispers is a much faster, tighter, gripping novel than Defining Diana. The mystery is much more immediate, and makes for an improved read. Hayden did a great job here. I plan on finishing up a more in-depth review of this novel shortly.

  • Birthstones by Phyllis Gotlieb

Sadly, Phyllis Gotlieb passed away earlier this summer. This is the first of her stories which I’ve read, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth in this slender volume. This novel explores themes of power and exploitation, both in the feminist, and post-colonialist settings.

This is my first read of the Martian Chronicles. Fanciful stories, written well before the moon landings. These stories are whimsical, but with a hint of sadness.

This was great. It doesn’t quite meet my definition for steampunk, as there is no real focus on technology. With a Victorian setting, political dissension, and interaction with historical figures, it comes close. This story also falls under the secret history genre, rather than an actual alternate history. It’s an excellent tale, masterfully written. I’m looking forward to reading more of Powers.

I can see why Philip K. Dick was often compared to Pynchon. Crying is a very postmodern novel. It’s fast and frenzied. I’ll need to read this one again before I can get a better idea on what I think.

  • Extraordinary Engines edited by Nick Gevers

I had started this some time ago, but finally finished off the last few stories. My favourite story in this anthology is Petrolpunk, by Adam Roberts, although he seems to be mixing together too many elements in a simple story. In general, Extraordinary Engines was entertaining, but as a new work anthology, I find the title “authoritative” to be misleading.

  • Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters

What a gritty, dirty steampunk novel, with elements of clockpunk. Very entertaining.

I plan on writing a longer review of this one shortly. I found the plot more engaging than in Mainspring. However, the three plotlines took a long time to engage with each other. Escapement also did not engage the same feel for swashbuckling wonder that Mainspring did. Entertaining, but left me wanting more.

A great idea for an anthology. There were a number of good stories in here. I especially enjoyed The Culture Archivist by Jeremiah Tolbert, The One with the Interstellar Group Consciousness by James Alan Gardner, and The Shoulders of Giants by Robert J Sawyer.

WorldCon 2009 Review

I had a blast at Anticipation in Montreal.

I picked up a number of books in the dealers room.

  • Tesseracts Thirteen edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and David Morrell
  • What is it we do when we read science fiction by Paul Kincaid
  • Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn
  • Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams
  • Steel Whispers by Hayden Trenholm
  • Fast Ships, Black Sails edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
  • Birthstones by Phyllis Gotlieb
  • Rewired: the Post-Cyberpunk Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

The Hugo awards ceremony was entertaining. The highlight for me was the win for Weird Tales for Best Semiprozine. Ann VanderMeer was quite obviously shocked by the win. After all the photos up on stage, Ann was gracious enough to let some of the fans hold onto it. The Hugo base this year is fantastic, and heavy.

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