Goggles, gaslights and gears, oh my! Steampunk is a steadily growing subgenre of speculative fiction. We review four current and forthcoming books that have been affixed with that label... in an elegant copperplate hand, naturally.
Ever since I was four years old, in 1972— before the merger of punk to steam, I wanted to be Captain Nemo. After devouring Verne and Wells, I discovered the Oswald Bastable trilogy by Michael Moorcock. Philip José Farmer further fueled my feverish pubescent imagination with such works as The Wind Whales of Ishmael and The Other Log of Phileas Fogg. I discovered there's more to science fiction than spaceships and robots in the future.
K. W. Jeter is usually credited with coining the phrase "steampunk" back in the early 80s. He, along with Tim Powers and James Blaylock, created dark versions of the Victorian Era, stocked with accelerated technology re-dressed in period appropriate materials with occasional supernatural elements. Morlock Nights, The Anubis Gates, and The Digging Leviathan all echoed the literature and feel of 19th Century and commented on society struggling to keep up with rapidly changing technology. With less doom and gloom than than its gleaming, black, low-slung sibling — cyberpunk — these speculations still offered cynical social commentary. The Good Old Days weren't all that great, and throwing a lot of shiny gizmos around will never fix the societal ills that confound us in any era.
I wasn't really aware of this trend in fiction until '91 when William Gibson and Bruce Sterling introduced the wider reading public to steampunk in The Difference Engine. Then, as Snow Crash did to Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson one-upped Messers Gibson and Sterling with The Diamond Age. It's just my humble opinion; this is a smarter and by far more entertaining novel. Stephenson turned the expected convention around, injecting Victorian styles and sensibilities into a future that enjoys nearly miraculous technologies. His novel examines the infamous repressive morality of that era as much as it explores the possibilities of nanotech. Michael Swanwick took a similar route with a far more playful tone in the ripping adventures of Darger and Surplus. I strongly recommend these ribald short stories — there is an excellent recent Swanwick collection from Subterranean Press and another, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, from Tachyon.
Also of note is Paul Di Filippo's weird and wonderful Steampunk Trilogy (1995). The first tale concerns a gentleman inventor and his remarkable amphibian prodigy involved in a royal scandal. "Victoria" fits most preconceptions of what a steampunk story is about: advanced retro-science and aristocratic adventures. The other two are more atypical but I adore Di Filippo's customary pop culture references and mashups at play in the 19th Century. Famed naturalist and racist asshole Louis Aggasiz visits the sleepy little fishing hamlet of Innsmouth? Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman explore the astral plane with Madame Blatavasky — and Allen Ginsberg has a cameo? Zany, clever stuff.
Even though steampunk lit has been around for a few decades now, it's increased rapidly in popularity the past few years. It has inspired other media as well as design and fashion to an eye-rolling degree. There are more steampunk novels than ever, although too many or not enough for some people. Here I'd like to share my thoughts on four of these with you, Gentle Reader.
In 1901, Sir Maurice Newbury and his new assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes are employed at the Anthropology department of the British Museum. They also serve as special agents of the Crown, investigating extraordinary threats against the Empire.
Sir Maurice scoffs at spiritualism and superstition, even though some of his c ases have involved the supernatural. He bows before the altar of Rationality and is enthralled by the mighty airships, graceful clockwork androids, and the other mechanical wonders of his age. Miss Hobbes finds her employer's enthusiasm for noisy odoriferous machines childish. She prefers horse-drawn carriages and Georgian architecture to the chaos and ornate fripperies of the current mode. Still she is a thoroughly modern woman championing forward-thinking social causes. Both of them keep shameful secrets and hidden agendas from each other, will their new partnership survive?
Newbury and Hobbes are assisting with Scotland Yard to investigate a series of strangulations in Whitechapel that may have a supernatural cause. Before they can pursue any new leads, Sir Maurice is called away for a special audience with the Queen. She is not amused.
Her Royal Majesty Queen Victoria is kept alive by huge wheezing machines (in our world she died in the first month of the 20th Century). The frightening cyborg monarch orders Newbury off all other cases to investigate the fiery crash of an airship that killed all those aboard. The automaton that piloted the craft is missing but, most seriously in her Royal eyes, one of her family, a Dutch prince was aboard. The investigation leads to Chapman & Villiers, Britain's largest airship company and the inventors of the wondrous automatons, which may not be as foolproof or harmless as advertised. .
Oh and by the way, there is also a plague of Revenants (to his credit, Mann does not use the Z-word). A virus, brought by soldiers returning from India, is infecting the neighborhoods of the less fortunate creating shambling cannibals of the classic Romero type. Everyone feels just awful about these and some calculate most of the country's population will be infected. Then again it only appears to occur to the poor, so not much is being done to stop it.
The plot whirrs along with a brisk clockwork (hah!) predictability switching over at times to reveal some of the protagonists' eccentricities and mysterious pasts. The second half shifts into high gear with some truly exciting action scenes. For all their supposed intellectual prowess, Newbury and Hobbes seem to solve most things by hitting them. Most of the puzzle clicks together as expected but some bits are just ejected with the flimsiest explanation. I'm sorry to report this story was steampunk lite, thrills and spills with steam engines in the background. Victorian language and customs have been watered down. There is an obvious message about the loss of our humanity to an increasingly mechanized society and a vague conflict between Science and Superstition. Most of the intimations of magic and the supernatural hint at the direction further Newbury and Hobbes investigations will go. I dearly hope that The Affinity Bridge is not their most interesting case.
The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt (Tor, on shelves now)
This follow up to last year's excellent The Court of the Air is a riot of twisted imagination and full steam ahead thrills. Hunt's richly textured worldbuilding compares favorably with China Miéville's New Crobuzon novels or Philip Pullman. These authors blend sorcery and science with steampunk trappings and have their own encyclopedia's worth of invented creatures, histories, and societies. Miéville has the more sober tone and keeps a firmer hand on the tiller of plot and pacing, wheras Hunt is just crazy in all the right ways. Sometimes he gets a little at sea: characters will be a bit inconsistent, and his climaxes are just way over the top. He also has similar convoluted wordplay to Miéville but with less purple prose and more groan-worthy puns. There is also dark political satire stretching to bizarre proportions (Marxist thought is not spared this treatment).
Most of Hunt's protagonists hail from the Kingdom of Jackals which resembles Great Britain. Centuries ago, the Jackals' version of the Cromwell's Civil War assured that Parliament would have the upper hand in the nation's affairs. The royal family are kept in breeding houses and the arms of each King or Queen get amputated upon coronation, so no more waving from the balcony. Parliament members make and pass laws the in traditional manner: bashing each other with stout "debating sticks" in ritual duels. This green and pleasant land of shopkeepers and shepherds enjoys stability through its monopoly of the celgas that keeps its aerostat navy aloft as well as the Court of the Air, the secret police that uses a combination of total aerial surveillance and leyline magic.
Jackal's enemies abroad include Quatérshift, in the throes of an Eternal Revolution bloodier than Robbespierre, Stalin, and Pol Pot combined. Even more frightening is the desert Caliphate of Cassarabia where the biomages breed all manner of monstrous creatures from the wombs of human slaves. They all share the planet (Earth in a far-flung future?) with people that resemble crustaceans or winged lizards. There are also the steammen, a race of mostly gentle clockwork robots with a religion that has elements of Santería and Zen.
There are also Plucky orphans, fey-blooded super-soldiers, science-pirates akin to Nemo, vigilantes with mystic weapons, lost cities, shouty dinosaurs, and an entire jungle ecology with a hive mind. Petroleum — like the controllable "electricity" — is long gone, Much industry is powered by steam or clockwork. "Expansion engines" (and firearms) run on the volatile sap of the Blow-Barrel tree. I've just given you a sliver of Hunt's creation, and hope this has piqued your interest. Look beyond all the fascinating and fantastical elements, and Hunt's work is about the pursuit of dreams in a world of clashing ideals and conquest. You can probably read Kingdom without reading The Court of the Air first, but I think you'll be hooked either way. Join the expedition of Professor Amelia Harsh (who literally has the arms of a gorilla) and her quest for The Kingdom Beyond the Waves.
Soulless by Gail Carriger (Orbit, Late Sept. 2009)
This comedy of manners and monsters is the first of the Parasol Protectorate series. I was a tad embarassed that I enjoyed this silly and original story so much. I mean, let us now judge the book by its cover – hmm, photo of a slinky young lady in period costume...oookaaay, her bumbershoot has arbitrary gears and a length of rubber hose attached to it for no discernible purpose, and the cover blurb speaks of vampires and werewolves, uh huh – Oh Sweet Buffy Sainte-Marie, this is a steampunk paranormal romance! Well yes, there are dirigibles over another Victorian London and our sassy heroine does have some decidedly racy scenes, when not facing the forces of darkness. Ms. Carriger has imbued this book with a delightful sense of humour and some very fresh changes. Her heroine, Alexia Tarabotti, is a very original creation quite separate from all those crossbow-wielding tattooed tarts one sees writhing on so many paperback covers these days. She also understands the Importance of Tea, and the problem of Silly Little Hats.
Alexia Tarabotti seems doomed to spend her life as a spinster. She is far too willful and too old (well into her third decade) and has a father who is both Italian and dead. He left her with an unfashionable complexion, an abundance of all manner of curious books, and very little social prospects. Unbeknown to her mother and other boring people, Alexia lacks something else— a soul. Oh she laughs and cries as the rest of us do, appreciates the arts, and I suspect could bust out in a funky gavotte. She just has no immortal soul. Supernaturals; ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and the like have a surplus of soul, thus accounting for the extra life and unkillability they enjoy. The extemely rare preternaturals are born without a soul. Upon the slightest physical contact with Miss Tarabotti, a supernatural becomes a mere mortal, the fangs retract, fur sheds, and death or injury become very real prospects. This can be a very handy talent should the local vampire forget his manners and attempt to dine without an invitation.
In this capacity, Alexia occasionally assists the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, that Branch of Her Majesty's Civil Service that polices vampires and werewolves. Supernaturals revealed them selves to the world at large during the Civil War. They had grown weary of skulking in the shadows, fleeing the inevitable torches and pitchforks. Now they are integrated into high-society and have helped build the British Empire and no longer threaten innocent mortals. Still, there are little misunderstandings, and that's where the BUR comes in. It is led by the very dashing Scottish peer and Alpha of London's werewolf pack, Lord Conall Maccon. Miss Tarabotti is often offended by his brusque, crude manner, no doubt stemming from his exotic and savage nature. Oh, and he turns into a wolf once a month. How bothersome, and yet the lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Lord Conall and Miss Tarabotti must investigate the sudden appearance of unregistered vampires and the appearance of known supernatural citizens. They employ cutting-edge science and the most scathing banter they can muster. Gail Carriger has employed some very original thinking to the alternate-history-with-monsters game. She also lampoons the vicious world of Victorian society where an arch remark or fumbled introduction could reduce one to a state akin to walking death. Soulless is a character-driven romp with great worldbuilding and delicious rapier wit that recalls Austen and P.G. Wodehouse. Mystery and bloodshed abound, tea will be served,and there will be treacle tart!
I am a big Kage Baker fan and have raved about her books before. This one won't be coming out until after Kwaanza, and I'll do a more in-depth review then. I'll just say it involves the early life and career of that Victorian superspy, Edward Alton Bell-Faifax, whom some of you may know from The Company novels. Bell-Fairfax is a Hero in the most Classic sense, fated for greatness and all the tragedy that entails. There's globe-trotting espionage and scads of amazing secret gadgetry: novelty-hat cameras, radio transmitters, a kung-fu robot, radar-equipped speedboats, a rifle that shoots ice bullets, bullet-proof carriges with "internal-combustion engines", and so much more! "But wait, will there be goggles? We want the goggles, Grey!" Do you? Well how about telescopic infrared goggles? For Everybody! GOGGLES YAY!!
Do please pardon me. The important thing to remember is that Kage Baker really brings 1849 alive with a wealth of details and pitch perfect dialogue. This woman truly understands language in a way only someone deeply involved in the Theater can. She often works as a professional historical reenactor and has taught Elizabethean English as a Second Language. She takes a rather dim view of people who show up at RenFaire dressed as their WoW character and ask where the frozen yogurt stand is.
I have a similar problem with these Josiah-come-latelys who glue-gun clock parts to their bolo ties and spout things like, "I say, old bean, zeppelins are absolutely smashing!" in a bad Cockney accent. I spoke to one gentleman deeply committed to the Steampunk Lifestyle and he admitted that he never read any of the novels I discussed in the top half of this post. For him it all began and ended with that TV series starring Robert Conrad, which admittedly predates those novels. When asked why he found steampunk so fulfilling he rhapsodized about the DIY aesthetique his community enjoys,"I stitched this waistcoat and suit myself!" and the sense of boundless optimisim the psuedo-era held (holds?). To paraphrase; "People could become whatever they wanted despite their gender, race, or class!". This is stunningly ironic from someone emulating a period known for a rigid social hierarchy and the beginning of mass-produced consumer goods. Of course it's all fantasy, there never were clockwork automatons or airship fleets ushering in a Utopia of muttonchops and bustles. I just wish some of these fashion victims put a little more depth and research in to their statement. Read a damn book already.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society as Christopher Hsiang, Esq. He is very much looking forward to the 20th Century again.
Steamy Photograph by Kyle Cassidy, Models: Liza James and Jared Axelrod