Category Archives: steampunk

Dearly Departed

Dearly, Departed

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

 

Now, I admit my upbringing was in some ways unorthodox (and in other ways completely not), but this was a favorite aphorism of my mother’s. It comes from the climax of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by St Flannery O’Connor. The Misfit has just murdered an entire family while they were on a road trip, ending in the death of the grandma. She’s a horrible old bitty who doesn’t deserve to be gunned down on the side of the road, but maybe it’s also not the biggest tragedy ever either. But, you know, violence is cathartic and purifying, at least in St Flannery’s brutal theologies, so the horrid grandma has a humanistic epiphany at the barrel of a gun. Baptism by drowning, the last moments as your lungs constrict and your eyelids flash and flutter, reborn as your best self right before you die.

 

I think of this quote every time I encounter something that has all this incredible potential — this heat of possibility — and then it spins out into something more dreary and obvious. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel has a shitton of potential, for me anyway, being as it is a steampunk zombie novel. Steampunk is maybe more problematic for me, in that I have undertaken its perusal because of my husband’s interests more than my own, but I am all over zombies all day. Both zombie and steampunk narratives often deal in social stratification, though obviously to very different ends. Smooshing them together could be fruitful in examining a rigidly class based society, but I know well enough not to expect such a thing, especially after Deck Z.

 

Occasionally this novel hits a mild frisson of this cultural examination, but mostly it opts for the spunky heroine and glaring infodumps over, like, insight. I was okay with the spunky heroine — she is a creature too ubiquitous to truly criticize — but the infodumps killed me. Apparently (and I use this adverb when I’m being an asshole), peak oil and maybe a nuclear devastation and probably the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone lead to everyone heading south to central America, where some folk recreated the Victorians, and some other folk did not. I just…this was one of many situations where the explanations for the universe killed me, even if the universe did not. I’m going to accept your fictional world if you don’t overexplain, because the minute you do, I’m like, hold the phone. No, no, no. The world-building needed to be shot every day of its life.

 

This aside, Habel did get into some interesting stuff about the ways the lower classes are used against themselves, and as fodder for border warfare as a stand in for class warfare. The set up is that there is a border skirmish between the Vickies and the Punks, and a zombie outbreak has been bubbling in this DMZ, alternately used as biological warfare and “shock and awe”. The zombies in this universe go rabid, but after a time they resettle with their former personalities intact. The zombie soldiers were well realized, suffering both from the trauma of warfare, and from the guilt of their actions while rabid.

 

“Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

The problem is sartorial, in the end. Steampunk, maybe at its most basic, must dress a certain way to be steampunk. There will be corsets and umbrellas and bustles, and there must be the cruel social architecture to justify such a costume (cf. the museum exhibit Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.) Habel does a fair amount of pushback against the social stratification — more than the usual, well, duh, of course a rigidly stratified society is unfair kind you see in steampunk — but I think trips over the skirts of gender politics. Her heroines are the usual spunky middle class ladies who behave almost entirely like modern girls, but there’s all this hand-waving to gender norms that just couldn’t produce such a creature. They put on the clothes, but it didn’t do more than touch their skin.

 

I’ve been burbling along with all my socioeconomic whatnot, and I feel like I should say I totally get that this is a steampunk romance zombie novel written for teens. My bitch isn’t that this book isn’t more than it is. It is what it is, and moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the turns and twists. All this aside, my real problem is the romance between a living girl and a walking decomposing corpse. (Admittedly, these zombies are more desiccated than rotting; still.) Habel honestly gave it the college try, and their courtship — taking place, as it does, like Pyramus and Thisbe, through a wall — was honestly sweet. But it’s like the ultimate catfish to find out that dude’s a corpse who doesn’t have the requisite blood flow to, you know.

 

Tons of women lost their damn minds over Edward Cullen’s cold, lifeless body, so I think there’s probably something to say about the sexualization of undead flesh, especially in teen fiction. (Warm Bodies tried too; ugh.) There could be something here, probably, about love and sexual desire and the death wish in adolescence, etc, but I felt like Habel was too busy selling it as not-gross and self-evidently kinda racist to think this pairing might be squicky. I guess I’m not buying it on those terms, and I can’t get past my shudder at the thought of making out with cold, blue lips. Maybe this could have been twisted in such a way to turn my revulsion back on me, but it wasn’t. I’d pay good money to see such a thing though.

 

And then shoot it every day of its life.

 

So that you would know it was a lady.

 

marrows_pit (1)

Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

I’ve read four novellas out of DarkFuse‘s novella series now, and that this is the first that didn’t really do it for me is a pretty great track record. All signs pointed to Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger being in my wheelhouse: big, steampunky habitation called the Machine, an authoritarian dystopia with religious overtones, a planet-wide storm called the Maelstrom, a big freaking chthonic Pit of Doom. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, I felt like the all that very cool stuff ended up being used as little more than ornament on a fairly perfunctory infidelity plot.

The horror novella seems to be a perfect thing, in a way: long enough to get some good grist, short enough not to exhaust the spooky possibilities. Here, I don’t know, this seemed to fall in a fallow area. I can imagine this story being relocated to an apartment complex in the Soviet Union – or any other society with a harsh cultural ideology and dense industrial landscapes – without too much tweaking. Some gross and crazy things happen, but I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were intended to be dream sequences or not, or if that would matter.

While I freely admit that my disappointment is based on false perceptions of the book, I think I could have liked Marrow’s Pit despite my disappointment if the main character held any kind of resonance for me. There’s something clever about creating a character who has these gauzy and indistinct fantasies about revolution getting sidelined so thoroughly by domestic drama. However, schlubby cuckolds with no particular energy don’t turn my crank. Also I straight up do not get that ending. While I can see that it should slash does have meaning, I just can’t access it.

I don’t know. I always feel bad about disliking this sort of thing. It’s not doing anything wrong and I can see how the whole cabbage-redolent dread of the Marrow’s Pit might work for someone else. Better luck next time, I guess.

 

 

I received my copy from the fine folks at DarkFuse and Netgalley. Thanks.

Tethered by Meljean Brook: An Epistolary Review

Dearest Elizabeth,

I was thinking just yesterday of all the fun times we’ve shared, but especially how many letters I’ve sent you detailing my courtship with my amazing and perfect husband. Of course, not everything was amazing and perfect at first, as I’m sure you can recall. He’s an artist, of all things, and I just can’t abide all that girly drawing. I mean, I work in a male dominated profession, and it’s extremely threatening to me to have a guy hanging around questioning my authority with his feelings and stuff; how will my painting crew ever take me seriously? Certainly years of experience mean nothing when a woman in authority has an artsy boyfriend. I mean, the man uses product. Srsly.

So, Richard and I were hanging around, communing wordlessly using our eyes the way we do, when the most terrible thing happened! The set up is a little confusing, and in truth, even though it just happened I can’t really track the details, but the upshot is this: a college friend of his looked him up on facebook, and then after all the friend requests were sent and accepted, the college friend totally hacked Richard’s account and started posting all this bad stuff! He liked both Nickelback and Justin Bieber using Richard’s account! Who even does that?

Now, you know that Richard is an artist, but he’s also an 3133t h4xor, which, I might point out, is totally gender normative so I don’t even know why I was being so weird about the art thing. Anyhoo, He totally spray-painted some keyboards with camo like in the movie Hackers, and we were ready to roll with our boss plans to rehack the account and give the college douchebag some well earned comeuppance.

the hackers in the movie hackers huddled around a computer screen

Now, at this point in the letter, I believe it is customary actually to detail all the awesome ways we defeated the college douchebag, up to and including fun evil monologuing from the bad guy, but really we just kicked him into the ship’s engine and totally won using our wordless eye-gazing powers. And we didn’t kick him into the engine in a cool way, like when Malcolm Reynolds does it to that one dude after they’ve messed up the train heist for Nisca, but in a way that blows the narrative tension in our big rehacking takedown mission. Also, the bad guy lived on this really sweet sounding dystopian community, but I’m not going to tell you about that either. I’m going to tell you more about my eye-gazing superpowers and how me and Richard really love giving each other matching guns. Actually, he got an air-rifle this weekend and we had a really good time shooting at pop cans, and then we had some mildly kinky sex because I’ve got some real issues with male authority so that means that [letter redacted at this point].

[Still redacted]

[Still redacted]

Phew, that was hot, amirite? I mean, who doesn’t want to hear about how Richard and I have a love that is more love-like than any love that has ever loved before? And how our relationship is such a vortex of perfection that you can literally kick a bad guy into it and kill him? Or possibly I mean figuratively. Words were never my strong suit, and certainly now that I’ve got all this wordless eye-gazing going on, I’m out of practice.

So we launched all zig, we saved the princess, and then we deleted all reference to Two and a Half Men from Richard’s facebook page. Then we went upstairs and [still redacted].

Thanks for being such a great friend. I’m really hoping my next letter, which will be about Richard’s amazing sister, will be much more enjoyable.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

If I had read Blood Red Road by younger, I would have loved this. People say stuff like this all the time, and sometimes it’s a dig. You know, the old saw about how teens are stupid and they cannot differentiate good writing from bad so we as older readers should either a) not read books directed at the teen market or b) not judge it according to the literary standards of books aimed at adults. A pox on both ideas. I don’t think we should just hang out in our little genre marketing ghettos: I only read YA, you only read sewious literary fiction, she only reads mysteries, etc. I don’t think we should let marketing labels dictate our reading choices. 

I also predict that this book is going to be compared to Hunger Games a lot, and some of those comparisons are going to be in the “this is a rip-off” strain. No. The Hunger Gamesis many good things, but it did not invent the post-apocalyptic landscape. When The Hunger Games came out, lots of people pointed a Japanese manga book I had never heard of called Battle Royale. I thought they were talking about Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the short story that comes out of it, called “Battle Royal”. (Which, now that I think of it, would make an interesting compare/contrast with The Hunger Games.) I had been out of reading YA long enough that I had no idea what these critics were talking about, because I thought of an Ice-T movie from the early-90s? called Surviving the Gamewhere suckas try to hunt Ice-T on an island, and he totally hands them their asses, because he is Ice-T. Then there’s other stuff like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Lord of the Fliesor, well, you see where this is going. And also, just recently a friend of mine pointed out the connection between The Hunger Games and the Theseus story, what with the tributes and the fighting. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that whatever genre commonalities this has with The Hunger Games, or The Road, or whatever else I just mentioned, this book is its own thing in terms of narrative voice and landscape, and that is all there is to it. 

 Blood Red Roadstarts incredibly strong, written in dialect that took me maybe 3 pages to get over. I am no fan of dialect, except in some notable cases, but I thought it completely worked here. The language was stripped down, conversational, without the ornament of apostrophes and other punctuation; just the unhatched thoughts of an unhatched person. Wonderful, really. And the description of landscape, be still my beating heart. Much of what I love about post-apocalit is the landscapes it writes into being, all this prosperity and functionality of our modern world run to dust and a lone chimney standing up out of the ruin of nature run its course. I don’t even want to speculate on why I find this appealing, because there is something self-annihilating, society-annihilating in my affections. The patchwork houses, the patchwork clothes, an anecdote about a bit of an airplane used to patch the roof that flew away because it remembered its function, despite the fact that the protagonist doesn’t really believe in airplanes, all this was wonderful to me. 

Anyway, there’s sequence very early on with our protagonist walking through dunes that keep shifting to reveal a ruined settlement, or the bones of an airport, and the shift and dusty beauty of that knocked me over. And the set up leaves me breathless too: a set of twins, a sister, a lost mother, a physically present but absent father, all living out their familial trauma in the bare edge of land with no one but themselves for company. One of the twins is taken, and his twin sister goes to get him back. She is twitchy and weird, as those raised in that kind of claustrophobic environment would be, and I really enjoyed her single-mindedness and social ineptness. 

But, and I’m really sorry to say this, I think Blood Red Roadblows off course at about mid-point. The sequences in the ugly city; the human-trafficking; the brittle, painful conversations whispered between prisoners in an unfair system that values human life only in the taking of it: this is what I loved about this book. By mid-point these things had been wrapped, and we start in on a love story and a continuing chase that I had very little interest in. I know, I know, some of this is age on my part. The plot still moves pretty quickly, despite several needless interactions between our heroine and her love interest that are repetitive and cliche. But there was something compelling to me in how isolated her upbringing was, something weird and unknowable about it, and I didn’t think she would behave in these broad tough-girl mannerisms that she does, especially later in the book. She would not want to ditch her younger sister as often as she does, because her younger sister would be one of the few human she understands. I feel like maybe the characterization lost its moorings in the reality of the environment, instead drawing on the character traits of the imagined readership. 

Frankly, I have no idea if this is a bad thing entirely, even though I think it weakens the character. Just to refer to a) and b) in my first paragraph. Much as I grumble about genre distinctions that divide readerships, I understand that I may not be included in the intended readership of this book. The concerns of the protagonist felt like they drift into the formula for teen romance. While I do not enjoy this formula, it might ring true for other readers. Additionally, I thought the denouement was swift, cheap, and hackneyed, and the set-up for the next book contrived and obvious. Sssst. 

I don’t want to end on a bad note, because this is still a strong and worthy book. The language is impressive; the landscape dangerously beautiful. Clunky though the ending was, I do look forward to more walks within this world, with its shifting sand dunes that reveal and conceal, the chimneys of our modern world standing mute in the green growing and the red dust. I look forward to where this story might go, given how strong the voice is now. Let’s hope it only gets stronger. 

Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin by Sarah Bartsch

I swear by all that is holy that I’m going to figure out how to punch the Goodreads search engine right in the freaking neck. Twice. Hard.

Why, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, but uncaring bystanders are next on my list when my blood is up.)

Let me explain. 

It all started a couple years ago when my husband dragged me to Bubonicon so we could see his boyfriend and hang out with other nerds. Being a somewhat reticent girl – don’t let my shouting online fool you; I am naturally a homebody and an introvert – I was maybe not all that jazzed about this in the abstract. But it was pretty much like coming home, because nerds (or more importantly, bookish, writerly nerds) are my people. One of those people I met was Sarah, and she is absolutely one of my favorites. 

So, it was with some trepidation I picked up her novella, Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin, because I know what a horrible bitch I am in reviews sometimes. And she knows that too, which makes this whole process a little awkward. Mostly I just don’t write reviews for friends’ books that I dislike – truth is beauty and all that, but we all gotta live on this globe, and friends are better than any critique. But – phew! – I honestly liked this. 

Miyako is a samurai-daughter in an alt-Japan, c. 1915. My Japanese history is a little furry, but it seems that the reforms instituted in the Meiji Restoration never happened, and samurai continued on into the run-up to the first world war, but spreading out to the gentry and merchant classes in a way your more daimyo types wouldn’t have particularly liked. Miyako is one of these: trained into a system of honor and warfare, but not exactly comfortable there because of her class and gender. This Japan, not unlike the real 1915 Japan, is isolated from Western technology, but worried about the war brewing. She is sent on a mission into one of the semi-magical portals managed by the military to scavenge technology from whatever she finds on the other side. 

She walks through the glowing door into a world of scorched air and bandits, a dome city and automata. Which, oorah. This is deeply fun stuff, the kind of play through harsh, alien environments by competent but still uncomfortable girls that turns my crank as a reader. Miyako blusters her way through an environment alien to her sensibility, managing to keep from goggling at cars and trains and showers, but just barely. I want to ride on one of those, she thinks, again, and again, about all the wonders that this more modern, but still alternate Japanese city provides. Which is why I love science fiction, when you get down to it: the barely held-down freak-out about all the very cool things we can imagine and then walk through, as readers. Miyako supplies wonder to even the terrible things in the harsh world she ends up in.

But here’s my problem: two alternate history Japans are a lot of alternate history Japans to manage in a novella. So I did some googling, and it turns out that Unforeseen is one of a number of shared world novel/las, which start with Gateway to Rust and Ruin. From the Empires of Steam and Rust website:

It is 1915, but not the one you know.

In Europe, the old empires stand on the brink of war, and war zeppelins darken the skies. In the East, China has spread its influence as far as the South American Coast, and may soon come into conflict with America, which has annexed Mexico, and is looking further south. But the plans of the great powers may all soon come to naught, for something new has come into the world.

On every continent, in every nation, holes have appeared, in the sky, in the ground, in the water, that seem to lead to another world. Some are no more than pin-pricks in reality. Some could swallow a battleship whole. Some seem to provide an instant conduit from place to place. A man entering one in Zurich might well come out another in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies an instant later. Others have no exit, and those who enter them are never seen again.

All are leaking.

Some emit strange gasses. Others birth weird animals and insects. Still others alter the environment around them in subtle, unsettling ways, and may eventually change the whole world.

Which, cool. I’m all in. I find the whole idea of shared world writing – where different authors bring their craft to a world with specific parameters – totally worthy. It’s such a friendly, personable way of writing fiction; a call and response between people who are often congenital introverts. But I would have really appreciated this introduction to the Steam & Rust world when I began reading Sarah’s story as some sort of preface or introduction. I am absolutely willing to sort all this stuff out on my own as a reader, and I did, but I admit my default is laziness.

So, you’re welcome, Steam & Rust readers. I went in and tried to make an Empires of Steam and Rust series on Goodreads, so you could see in in one place all of the shared world novel/las, but I ran into the absolute freaking shittiness of the Goodreads search function. Even though I was able to add three of the fictions, for some reasons Goodreads couldn’t cough up Revolution of Air and Rusteven though I can find the damn novella on a google search and it looks like Summers even did a godamn Goodreads giveaway. Double-you the actual fuck here? Why can’t Goodreads even see this novel? Rarrrrrrrrr, and then the throat punch.

Miyako makes her way through her adventure in her own alternate history with wit and some badass sword skills, learning the way the young often do that her world is more complex and crappy than she thought. Here’s my next criticism, and it’s the best one: I want more about her. Having established not one alt-Japan but two, and a set of characters and even a robot I admire, I would kill to see how this all plays out and what happens next. More, please, Sarah. <3

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud - the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. :(

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist - with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete - had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

Riveted: A Song of Ice and Fire

Without question, Riveted by Meljean Brook is the most accomplished of the Iron Seas novels so far, with a smooth and well-paced exposition, likable characters who do not behave like children or (worse) teenagers, and a trotting, road-trippy plot that doesn’t drop threads or wander off. Even the cover is better, without the greasy torsos of the first two novels. Greasy torsos really gross me out. Observe:

Admittedly, the Iron Duke looks pretty dry, but someone has oiled the second dude. Yuck. And it doesn’t make any sense, because that character was supposed to be a clothes horse and a dandy. I hate to say this, lest I sound like a hipster douchebag, but the UK covers are better across the board. Apparently, I’m out of step in my torso aesthetics with my country. Rule Brittania. 

David Kentewess is a vulcanologist traveling to survey Iceland for the alt-history version of the Royal Society; Annika is the daughter of an insular all-female society on Iceland. David also has personal reasons to locate and possibly expose Annika’s community. You can see how this might be a problem, despite a meet cute and the fact that they generally enjoy each other. There are other points of connection and fracture between the two of them, and Rivetedtakes time and care to build their relationship with an almost Regency-level restraint. (And I have noted before that this is more an alt-Regency steampunk world, less an alt-Victorian one, dirigibles notwithstanding. Though the first manned balloon flight was in 1783, which is kind of a trip if you think about it. Anyhoo.) 

So, it seems to me that romance novels – especially those that fall in to the broad rubric of paranormal – often deal with various kinds of body trauma. The paranormal, with it’s extreme and changing bodies – the animistic werewolf rippling with fur, the cold blood of the vampire, the insubstantiality of the ghost -almost externalizes that trauma (which doesn’t have to be sexual trauma, but because we’re dealing with body trauma here, almost always affects the sexual) and dramatizes it. Omg, I don’t want to drink blood; change into a monster; succumb to my biology. Et cetera. Certainly, this can be just badly done, and you can hit a bunch of anorexic ideation, slut-shaming, or just straight up rape fantasy, but trauma’s not actually ennobling, and pain and fear bite. But body trauma is often the heart of paranormal romance. 

Steampunk is on the far edge of paranormal – there are often scient-ish explanations for whatever megalodon/dirigible/automata – but a pulp sense of goofy hand-waving to explanation is happily part of the genre. And the Iron Seas books certainly have been taking on body trauma in their romantic pairings. I was not at all comfortable with Rhys and Mina’s deal in The Iron Duke - even while I really loved Mina’s character & the world in general. The whole Alpha male sub/dom thing was just too much for me, though I do appreciate that it’s addressed pretty head on. 

But here with David, we don’t have a big rippling alpha asshole who just has to pin down his lady love and fuck make love the trauma right out of her, but an almost virginal scientist who has been very seriously scarred in a volcanic eruption – one that also killed his mother. His monocle is not foppery, but a prosthetic replacing a lost eye. Three of his limbs have been replaced with prostheses as well. So he’s got some body issues: limited mobility, lingering survival guilt, still adjusting self-image and self-loathing, etc. I haven’t been much of a fan of virgins-lose-it tales, because, ahem, they almost never match up to the awkward reality, and they make me feel weird for how perfect everything is. But here it was sweet and awkward and occasionally painful – not just whatever hymen stuff, but painful in the sense that you can make some serious missteps while learning a lover’s body. Add in the fact that, if you think about, Annika more or less has to come out as hetero. We breeders almost never have to consider our sexual preferences as adolescents, least not the way gay people do anyway, so it is very interesting to see a straight person have to consciously make the choice of straightness, knowing that choice will lead to certain fractures with her community. 

This isn’t obnoxiously done or anything – there’s no Star Trek style arm wheeling about her single-gender community is just as wrong as the rest of them! or whatever, but that does bring me to why I couldn’t cough up that last star. This book is incredibly message-y, from gay rights to ableism to racism to fossil fuels to maybe some other other stuff I’m forgetting. It feels like a bitch-move from me to complain about this, but sheer number and occurrences of the messages got to be distracting, and I’m really sorry to say this, a little bossy. It’s not that I disagree – yes! don’t be dicks to people because of their sexual orientations! – but I felt a little choir-bound. Putting aside the bigots who won’t like this anyway – because fuck them – my main criticism is that so much was taken on – race! gender! the planet! disability! – that the take-homes felt dissipated and topically treated, except for the body trauma stuff. 

Anyway, another perfectly fun and intelligent alt-history/romance from Ms. Brook, one that balances the needs of the relationship against the needs of the plot in a near perfect manner. I certainly have my preferences for the thickly urban steampunk alt-history – and I did miss the London of the Iron Seas world – but the substitution of desolate, volcanic Iceland was pretty great. And there’s a character with my daughter’s name! I can see my house from here!

Oh, and by the way? Scientists are hot. 


From Bangable Dudes in History


Perdido Street Station: Race/Race

Despite having declared Mr. Miéville my literary boyfriend some time ago, I have to come out and admit I’ve only read one (1) book by him. I’ve read his foray into YA, Un Lun Dun, which thumbs the touchstones of his writing: urban spaces, a bunch of weird ass shit, and literary genres ground through the pulper of his baroque writing. But, being YA, the profanity and sheer globbing fuckallery of his writing was dampened a bit. No so, here. And dag, yo, that’s some stuff.

Man, I don’t even know what to say here now. I guess I could get into the plot, but you can go consider the mechanics of who did what where in other places. Despite this being a tumbling, active book, I’m not sure that will give you anything. Something about this book kept reminding me of Lightby M. John Harrison, and has strangely convinced me to go back and give that book another star. I didn’t get what Harrison was doing there, how he sliced open the childhood teddy bear and sewed it back together inside out and upside down. I looked at that ravaged bit of stuffing with the black zig-zags of thread, and thought, what the fuck are you doing? That is wrong, and possibly gross. 

There’s a lot in New Crubuzon that is wrong and possible gross, and I feel like I’m too close to the end the my read to articulate the totality of what exact teddy bear Miéville vivisected. Here’s one little stuffed arm I can grope toward: race. We use the term race in daily life to mean different kinds of people, different ethnicities, different colors, what have you. (I’ve found I’ve lost all the nomenclature for talking about race, so sorry. Like profanity, I can’t describe it succinctly, but I know it when I see it, and so do you. And like profanity, we’re going to define it differently. This parenthetical comment is getting out of hand.) Fantasy uses the term to mean different species, although this term is a little off because fantasy doesn’t pretend toward scientific rigor, and the term “species” implies that a bit. Although Prof Tolkien has warned us against allegory, I think we can safely say that often, and maybe even always, the fantastic races are symbolic chits of our racial discomfort. No, an orc isn’t exactly, allegorically a Black Man, or an Arab, or whatever racial boogey we’ve got, but an orc is a biologically determined creature who holds inherent moral worth, or worthlessness, as you will. Race is deterministic, so is race. 

Perdido Street Station opens to a pair of lovers working through their morning languor. It’s a sweet, slow-moving, romantic coupling and decoupling, two beings who love each other sweet-talking though their morning, but the sweet-talk is familiar and clouded with the near-conflicts and innuendo of couples who have been together a long time. Of course, one of the pair has a beetle for a head, and the other is a walrusy, wheezing human scientist. They are different races, and their love is shot through with their sense of perversion and transgression. The beetle-headed artist, having shucked her kepri community, can more or less openly admit the two are lovers; the human scientist has a lot more to lose, as humans are less understanding of bug-fuckery. Their love is tense, an open secret, complicated because of the paradox of that term. 

Let’s now think about a similar scene with Aragon and Arwen. First off, I’m pretty sure there was no pre-marriage post-coitus for those two. Second, the elves were, yes, totally skeeved that Arwen wanted to marry a human, but the embodied disgust is so coded, so reified. Instead of “Omaigawd, I can’t believe you’re banging that mortal meat-sack”, it’s “Marrying him will take away your immortality.” And ultimately, thirdly, there is no disgust at the bodies themselves. Aragon is rough and unattractive, but he is understood to be imbued with the power of his rule, his sentience. Arwen and he meld their minds, the Platonic forms of themselves, their love arches over the dirty business of knocking boots, carefully ignoring the cat-ears of Arwen’s that fire the lusts of so many readers. I am not bagging on this; it is nice work if you can get it. 

Hmm, I want to say I’m not after Tolkien here at all, but I can’t help falling back on his stuff because it’s so much more memorable than a lot of the fantastic twaddle that gets written in his loooong shadow. And this book isn’t high fantasy either, it’s…well, who the fuck knows what it is. Like New Crubuzon, it’s a patchwork of stuff, steam-punk arms, magical boxes, science-y glass tubes, natural philosophy with wings pinned to cotton, the horror of the flying death, in their non-discreet neighborhoods, throwing grappling hooks over one another, building up and digging down, heaping trash from one genre to another, running shit and blood and cables through the whole mess, throwing a switch and cackling, EEETS ALIIIVE. Still though, I think there’s something in the story of the lovers that is about the difference between miscegenation and bestiality in the slash between the terms race/race, and how both of those terms are pretty gross. 

I’m kind of flailing here with the stitching and the stuffing, but I was honestly, genuinely, purposely affected by the strange, quiet love story between the human and the kepri. I love the ways the various races were cataloged as having this set of characteristics or that, but almost no one hewed to those characteristics, a constant sly denial of race/race; one that doesn’t pretend there isn’t a perverse glimmer in bug-fucking, or banging the mortal meat sack; one that isn’t about love as a moral force, tied to our moral bodies, but a social one, a plank thrown between neighborhoods where we construct our racial identities and have them constructed for us. Occasionally people walk that creaking tightrope from one side to the other, their arms outstretched, and it is a dangerous, scary, heart-pounding thrill. 

There’s more in this book, a lot more stuffing and wires that I’m sure my brain will sift through in the coming months, and I really like that about it, how it’s this this baffling, active monster slaying quest on one hand, and then this lazy walk through a bazaar on another. (I see I have failed to mention completely that the main plot is about hunting down and killing some badass killer moths who are much scarier than the term “killer moth” might imply. So. Now I have mentioned it.) I guess I also feel like I should mention that Miéville’s writing style is likely a love-it or hate-it proposition. He does not use 5 words when 50 will do, and 5 of them will be made up, and another 5 will be thesaurus words, and another 5 will be profanity. I like all of these things, but you may not. So, yeah, that’s what I’ve got for now.

Stormdancer: Huge Tangents

First off, I’m going to put in my Nice White Lady disclaimer, which is that, as a middle-class white lady, I have shaky standing to speak to how cultural appropriations read to members of the cultures appropriated. While I may be aware that I am the recipient of enormous cultural privilege, by virtue of that very privilege, I am inevitably going to be blind to certain things. Just take a look at the clusterfuck that is Racefail - and actually, other resources here; this whole thing is such an unbelievable googlehole – which starts with a Nice White Lady addressing the issue of how white people might go about writing non-white characters without being a dick about it. (Here is where I complain about the terminology I have at hand. Throughout Racefail, the acceptable nomenclature is Person of Color, which gets abbreviated as PoC, which strikes me as…inelegant. Non-white is used a lot too, but both non-white and people of color are these huge fucking rhetorical catch-alls that lack the crap out of nuance, and have the additional problem of encoding race as a binary, which is obviously bullshit.) Several people point out that her thinking on the matter is somewhat racially tone deaf – you can’t just file the serial numbers off of white characters and make them members of a different culture. We may all be humans and stuff, but our treatment at the hands of other humans due to appearance or accent or cultural membership fundamentally affects how a character thinks and feels. At this point, the whole conversation goes completely insane and people start shouting about how they are not racists, etc. 

Rather than get into all the twists and turns of Racefail, the thing I found so demoralizing about it was how quickly the conversation about cultural appropriations and writing cross-culturally – genuinely interesting and important topics – turned into an almost all-white wank about who has standing to comment in the first place, whether classism is more important than racism, and the usual toolbox of derailing tactics. And, I know I like to link to this a lot, but I really like this video about the difference between the What You Did conversation and the What You Are Conversation. White people like to freak out and act like getting called out for saying some racist stuff – and I’m not talking about hardcore obviously KKK level shit, but just the dumb shit we say (and I am including myself here) that displays our cluelessness or ignorance – means that the person calling us out called us a Racist™ – the hardcore obviously KKK level kind. Which is probably my Nice White Lady way of saying that when I enact my own personal racefails in this here essay – which certainly could happen – please just call out my words so I don’t have my feelings hurt, because lord knows, being called a racist when you obviously aren’t – I have several black friends! – is so much worse than actually being racist. 

Fantasy, Steampunk, and the Mythic Past

There’s been some chatter about this interview with Jay Kristoff on the bookonets where he cops to the fact that most of his source material for the Japanese-inflected steampunk novel Stormdancer is pop cultural stuff like anime and manga. On a genre level, I don’t really have any problems with this, because steampunk is a pulp genre, not concerned with strict historical or cultural accuracy. Oh, shit, you guys, I feel a huge sermonette about genre coming on, because I have some serious things with that little genre. My Ideas About Steampunk: Let Me Show You Them. 

So, steampunk has its roots as an off-shoot of cyberpunk, and at its roots, its concerns are alt-historical and somewhat science fictional. The early stuff I encountered, mostly starting with my man William Gibson, kinda blew my mind by relocating the futurism of the past back into the past, like if the House of the Future actually came to pass like Disney envisioned, or Jules Verne, or whoever. There’s this really great story called “The Gernsback Continuum” collected in Burning Chrome– honestly, that story is somewhere top five for short stories for me – which concerns a photographer sent out to record 30s futurist architecture who starts hallucinating their Aryan efficient future laying out in forgotten buildings and molding cars. Science fiction – and I mean this term at its most expansive – has often been concerned with futures, and folding back old futures and laying them against the present – man does this get me all hot and bothered. But there’s a pulp edge to steampunk too – the pulp-history. Alan Moore punks around with steampunk with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, taking more pulp characters from the Victorian period, but fucking with them. Even though League occurs in a world more or less our own, it’s not so much alt-history as punk-history, because, hello, Martians. It’s the futurism of the past located in the past, and when it works, it makes me giddy.

But steampunk has been around for a while now, and as a genre, seems to be slipping more to cosplay than alt-history. Take something like Soulless or Geared for Pleasure, which are decidedly more about cool trappings than they are about coherent alt-history or even punk-history stuff. And while Soulless‘s alt-history, when it attempts it, are absolute shit, Geared for Pleasure(like Stormdancer, actually) dispenses with the whole idea that we’re even on earth at all – we’re in a fantasy land that looks Victorian-ish, and has some dirigibles and clockwork to settle it within the genre. (And here’s where I plug Meljean Brook‘s steampunk books, because she’s enacting a freaking excellent alt-history under the cover of romance novels, though the referents are more Georgian-Regency than Victorian.) Anyway, point being, I would argue that given the books I see labeled as steampunk as a group, adherence to some kind of alt-history framework that gets everything right is not a requirement of the genre. Pop cultural or pulp cultural sensibilities are more central to the definition of the genre, playing in gadgets and trinkets, playing dress up, having some chase scenes and whatnot. In this vein, I dig Kristoff using Japanese pulp culture to artifact his little world here, especially because the world is understood to be not strictly an alt-historical Japan – the landmass has been reordered and renamed – but a fantasy land that snarky genre readers could characterize as Not!Japan. 

Which brings us to fantasy. I’ve spilled some ink about fantasy – and here I mean mostly high-fantasy, the stuff in Not!Medieval!Europe! – but I’ll try to hit the high notes. I often get my back up about high fantasy because it’s this lamely nostalgic playset about Simpler Times, with regressive gender roles and a bunch of heraldic folderol about honor and quests and whatever. And when you go to criticize it on those terms, some basement-bound virgin always pops in with, “But that’s how things were in the medieval period! Don’t blame the writer for creating a Not!Medieval!Europe without interrogating all the fucking horrible shit that went down in what even scholars refer to as the Dark Ages! Look! Crossbows are sweet! Luke Skywalker has a really great time!” Which cheeses me the fuck right off, because this Not!Medieval!Europe! was created by a modern storyteller, for a modern audience, and if the writer thought it was just fine to throw in a bunch of regressive cultural shit in there “for historical authenticity,” often while positing dragons and Dark Lords and a bunch of other frankly inauthentic shit, then…I don’t know what then. But then, fuck you. You can’t have your medieval cake and eat it too. When you create a mythic past-ish place which is understood to be sweet as fuck, and then make that place a hellhole, just casually, for huge swaths of characters so your little hero can be heroic, what you’re doing is bunk-ass historical self-insert which justifies current shitty injustice. Casually. Which may be the thing I hate so much about it. 

But before I go off the ledge of frothing at the mouth about high fantasy, I have enjoyed the occasional Not!Asian setting – the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham being the gold standard, imho. The Khai are sorta khans, the ornament and texture of the world is more medieval Asia than medieval Europe. The key difference may be that Abraham does not inject real world terms and language into his story, just letting the lack of primogeniture and tea drinking and scroll writing set a scene that feels less medieval European and more medieval Mongolia (though, I get the impression, more genteel than both). Kristoff goes to freaking town with a ton of Japanese words, especially in the beginning, which is problematic on a couple of levels, not the least of them being readability. For any fantasy world, not even just the ones that use real, if unusual, words, you have to lower your readers into the pot slowly. Much as I complained about the staging of the first of the Long Price books – and that first one is stagey – the staging here is too much, too soon, with even the infodumps using dozens of terms and concepts that confused. Fantasy, putting aside all the cultural appropriation stuff, should not take nearly a hundred pages to get into. 

But then speaking of Not!Europes, much as I enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire, I have read some really great critical analyses that unpack Martin’s sometimes hinky use of racial and cultural stereotypes. I mean, the Dothraki are Not!Mongolians, but the rapedy-rapeness of their culture, and the ways Daenerys’s story turns into your typical WhiteSavior™ narrative – Oh, You People™ do not understand the horrors of slavery! – this is actually pretty badly done. (And I’m not going to entertain arguments that just because the people are bunch of raping asshats in Westeros too, this makes it okay. For one, rape culture isn’t a zero sum game, and for two, in Westeros rape is understood as rape, even while it is justified and tolerated, while in Dothraki culture, no one thinks it’s a Bad Thing until the Nice White Lady points it out. Because brown people rape and slave like handshakes. We’re here to serve, us Nice White Ladies. You’re welcome.) 

I guess what I’m saying is that I can understand criticisms that come at Stormdanceras not being authentically Japanese. Even though this world is avowedly Not!Japan, the door was opened for these criticisms by using so, so much Japanese terminology, language, and sort of half-assed pulp Japanese culture, but then occasionally mixing it in with stuff like lotuses and pandas into this Asian-fusion slurry that just isn’t a good idea. I said before you can’t just file the serial numbers off of culture and make all characters a-historical a-cultural humans – tralala, can’t we all get along – but here the serial numbers are sill showing point of origin so strongly that this Not!Japan is still pretty much Japan. And you can’t rightly call this an alt-history or punk-history – this does not have a deep enough understanding of Japanese culture to be such – so it could probably be successfully argued that use of Japanese culture is an example of our old friend, Orientalism. I’m going to duck out of these criticisms of Stormdancerthough, even while I set up the conceptual framework for them, because I lack an understanding of Japanese history and culture myself. Most likely it’s a subtle thing, best explained by my Nice White Lady counterparts Subservient Asian Lady in Need of Rescue or her mother, Tiger Mom. Hold on; I’ll send them a text message. 

Oh, and, one last thing. Just because I’m ragging on A Song of Ice and Firea little, I’m doing that because I love it and I want it to be better. Not to get too far down this rabbit hole, but people seem to get their panties in a bunch when beloved properties are criticized, which strikes me as wrongheaded. Or overly touchy? One of the problems of talking about cultural appropriations is everyone gets all “I’m not a racist!” which is fine, but calm the heck down for a minute and listen – this is not about you. There are many many good things in A Song of Ice and Fire, if you like soapy bloodbaths and the descriptions of food, which I avowedly do, and my criticisms of the Dothraki storyline aren’t meant to negate the whole thing. I criticize because I love, because if I didn’t love, I wouldn’t have fucking bothered with several thousand pages that, at this point, don’t look like they’re going to wrap up anytime soon. At its most interesting, the critical enterprise seeks to understand and comment on why things bring us narrative pleasure, and sometimes those reasons are a little fucked up and weird, because we are all a little fucked up and weird, and we can always be better. The end. 

In Which I Actually Talk About the Book

As I’ve hinted before, this story takes place in a Not!Japan which is a generation or three into an industrial revolution. There are SFF elements, in that there is an agricultural product not dissimilar from spice melange in Dune– speaking of your cultural appropriations, because you guys see how much Herbert ripped from Mideastern religion and politics, yo? – which both gets the populace hiiiigh and powers all of the fantastic technology. The lotus, as this is called, is also a huge ecological nightmare, a sort of super-cotton which drains the soil of nutrients, or a super-coal belching filth into the air. As I also noted before, the opening is tough sledding, far too jargony and with too much term salad and infodumps – which on some level is funny, because the prologue, which I normally turn my nose up at, is clean and full of stakes and action. 

So we settle down with Yikiko, daughter of the Imperial Huntsman or whatever he’s actually called, and they are sent on a mission most likely to end in failure by the Emperor or Shogun or whatever he’s called. The Shogun (I think Shogun) who is possibly the Character Most Likely To Be An Orientalist Stereotype has had a dream that the griffin – or thunder tiger or whatever – is still extant despite the fact that, like, everything is extinct. So off we go! Yukiko has some unfortunate daddy issues, and there are some boys (two of them, in fact, making something of a triangle, you see) and some other stuff. Which is when I put the book down maybe a month ago, not feeling all that good about this. 

The prose is probably love it or hate it, which is a stupid thing to say now that I’ve typed it. I did neither one nor the other. I guess what I mean that it is very florid and descriptive of sensation, so if that is not your bag, steer clear. There’s some tendency to repetition that I found somewhat annoying – we get the lotus is bad - but I’m willing to give this a pass a little given the YA format. Heads up, kids, we’ve got the one planet and all. But Kristoff writes really excellent fight scenes – which is much harder than it looks, I say – and the way he deals with the dreaded love triangle is brutal and awesome. And the way he dealt with sex in general was pretty refreshing. Though all fade to black, like YA does, Yikiko deals with her sexuality very matter of factly, without a bunch of purity terror and the like. There could probably be more mention of um, certain biological realities, but this isn’t Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., so that is just fine. 

The latter half of the book is more fun to read, once Yukiko stops bitching and infodumping on the airship. Her relationship with Buruu – he’s the thunder tiger, in a sort of Dragonflightscenario – turns on a dime it doesn’t deserve, to mangle a metaphor, as do several of Yikiko’s revelations, where she’s all YOU GUYS ARE THE WORST one minute and ALL IN WOOO the next. I did like dad’s ninja-girlfriend a lot, and felt like it was unusual to see the sexual partners of parents – other than the other parent, of course – dealt with with anything other than evil stop-mom writing, so that was cool. But, also, sadface on some things that are spoilers. 

Anyway, I feel like as usual with my three-star outings, I’m struggling with something to say about the text itself, and obviously I’ve already blathered like crazy about a thousand concerns that might be a bit more peripheral. I did like this story, in the end, and I did enjoy the less simple than usual political/economic sensibility of the book, but I admit this is pretty much grading on a curve with other deeply politically stupid young adult dystopias. (Cough, Divergent, cough.) (And I’m not talking about partisanship – I’m talking about a complex sense of the polis and how it functions, which is something often sorely lacking in books aimed at teens.) 

Plus, whatever, chainsaw kitanas are freaking sweet, and don’t let anyone tell you different.