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.
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.
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 realm of television crime dramas is rather crowded. With the remaining Law and Order spinoffs, there are the various CSIs, the JAG spinoffs of NCIS and NCIS:LA, and any number of cop and lawyer dramas. It’s difficult to find a part of the market that isn’t already saturated with the competition.
Murdoch Mysteries, which airs on City TV, fits an interesting niche, breaking new territory as a Victorian era detective story set in Toronto, which strives for period authenticity, within a fictional narrative. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of competition in this admittedly small niche.
Still, it is a niche that has found its fans, including our current Prime Minister. Murdoch Mysteries is not the first show in which Stephen Harper has played a cameo role. Like former Prime Minister Paul Martin, Harper has previously appeared on Corner Gas. What’s not to like, for our prime minister? Victorian crime fighters may have had limited tools, but punishments were severe. Capital punishment was still on the books, and a failed hanging formed the plot for one episode of the show. The current government’s “tough on crime” persona seems to be a good match for Murdoch Mysteries, where the lead character is morally upstanding, almost to a fault. Murdoch’s morality works to humanize the Toronto of the 1890s, bringing compassion to the otherwise unenlightened days of criminal enforcement.
What then, can we find of interest in Murdoch Mysteries? The fictive detective brings a scientific method to his investigations. Detective Murdoch investigates crimes using the precursors to the more modern techniques used in shows like CSI. The writers appear to take pleasure in their numerous anachronisms, by playing this man of science against adherents of other, more traditional forms of investigation, mainly coercion and interrogation.
Parts of the show have been filmed in Cambridge, Ontario. With modern signs covered up by period pieces, it retains the feel of Victorian Toronto.
While the show attempts historical accuracy, it very much plays to our modern conceptions of the Victorian era. Historical figures such as Nikola Tesla, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells figure in the plots of several episodes, emphasizing the science and imagination that Murdoch represents.
A significant theme of Murdoch Mysteries is retrofuturism, particularly when compared to these historical figures. While the television show remains too firmly grounded in historical reality to be truly considered steampunk, there are clearly elements of several episodes which could be seen as steampunk. In particular, the season three finale, the “Tesla Effect” involved a microwave death ray machine.
Of the characters in the show, perhaps the most amusing is Constable Crabtree, whose youthful enthusiasm leads him to extrapolate towards modern technology from what he sees Murdoch use on the show. As noted on the Steampunk Scholar blog, Crabtree’s role in the web series “Curse of the Lost Pharaohs” leads much closer to the realm of steampunk, incorporating other common steampunk elements.
Cherie Priest’s novel Boneshaker was released in 2009, and was an instant hit for it’s dramatic engagement with many of the steampunk tropes. It was named Steampunk Book of the Year by Steampunk.com The cover of the book was self-consciously taking on the standard elements of steampunk: brass goggles, airships. The novel introduced us to Cherie Priest’s alternate history: The Clockwork Century, where the American civil war raged on for decades, and zombies roam the streets of Seattle. The book was fun, but there were some valid criticisms about the branching narratives. The storyline of Briar Wilkes was considerably stronger than that of her son, Zeke.
In the sequel novel, Dreadnought, Priest uses a more traditional single-path narrative, and uses a strong female protagonist again. It’s a very liminal text, with many borders and boundaries being crossed. In the tale, nurse Mercy Lynch must travel from Virginia across the continent by airship, and steam locomotive to the west coast. Along the way, Union and Confederate soldiers and sympathizers interact with Texans, and Mexicans. As the main action of the novel takes place upon the Union locomotive Dreadnought, the tension increases steadily as they approach the mountain passages through the Rockies. It’s really effective plotting, as there are really no options for escaping from the oncoming battle. In these tight quarters, Priest still manages to weave together several interesting subplots, which link together with some introduced in Boneshaker.
While reading the novel, I quickly came to a point where I couldn’t put the book down. At an even 400 pages in length, that’s no mean feat. While Dreadnought may not have quite the same level of appeal as Boneshaker, especially for more youthful audiences, as Mercy Lynch is older than young Zeke Wilkes was, I think Dreadnought is ultimately a more finely crafted novel. The books can be read in either order, and while they do tie together, they are largely independent stories. I’m looking forward to reading more of Cherie Priest’s novels. While Boneshaker and Dreadnought are published by Tor, Priest has also written Clementine in this alternate history, which is published by Subterranean Press. Unfortunately, the Kindle ebook isn’t available in Canada, and the Subterranean Press book appears to be out of print.
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.
Books I received over the holidays include include:
Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader. Edited by Mike Ashley
The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
Media Writing: A Practical Introduction by Craig Batty and Sandra Cain
After Theory by Terry Eagleton
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins
Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
I’m really looking forward to the Steampunk books, especially the anthology put together by the VanderMeers. My copy of their previous steampunk anthology is well worn, and has a lovely hand-drawn zeppelin drawn by Ann at the 2010 Montreal WorldCon.
The Media writing and Convergence Culture texts are for a course I’ll be taking in January on writing for the media. The course sounds interesting, and the regular written exercises should be good practice, thinking about writing in a different fashion.
Previous to Christmas, I picked up a few other books:
Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Stephen Jones
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Zizek
Mythologies by Barthes
Empire of Signs by Barthes
How We Became Posthuman, by N. Katherine Hayles
Terminal Identity: the Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction by Scott Bukatman
Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster
Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
Nothing Rhymes With Orange: Perfect Words for Poets, Songwriters, and Rhymers, by Bessie G. Redfield and Hope Vestergaard
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Retribution Falls, by Chris Wooding
I’ve finished Dreadnought already, which is a brilliant sequel to Boneshaker. It’s a stronger novel than the first, and has a much cleaner narration. To be reviewed shortly.
The Necronomicon is a wonderful black faux-leather trade paperback. I’ve not previously read much of Lovecraft. From the few short stories I’ve managed out if this text so far, his writing drips atmosphere, although the serial nature of many of his longer stories adds a great deal of repetition.
Reviews of K.W. Jeter’s “Infernal Devices”, Tim Powers’ “The Stress of Her Regard” and Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker”.
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.
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.