Category Archives: steampunk

Un Lun Dun: I Love You For Your Mind

China Miéville is my new boyfriend. I mean, look at him:

China looking very growly and hawt

Hubba hubba. I mean, I’ve always had a thing for guys who have had their noses obviously broken at some point, but this man is just wicked attractive. Now that I’ve been super lame and girly about this authors merits, I do want to say that I love you for your mind, Mr. Miéville, your hot, hot mind. And the fact that your name is weird. And you’ve got those little French thingees over the e that I can’t get my word processor to do. (I roll with cut-and-paste; it’s a kluge, but it gets the job done.) 

I’m too young to have this be emotionally real for me, but one of the reasons Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was so upsetting is because it discombobulated the viewers notions of main character. Hitchcock spends all this time documenting Marion and her crime and escape, lavishing scenes on her switching cars, chatting with the bf, all that. Then she checks into a motel, has a little dinner, dips into the shower and SWINK SWINK SWINK end of story. Like, WHAT? I imagine everyone in the theater thinking. You just killed off the main character! In steps Lila, Marion’s sister, and we all kind of breathe a sigh of relief, but it just has to be said: Lila’s not as interesting. Norman is, though, and then you realize that the story’s about him, and he’s a bloody killer. 

But maybe that’s not even it, maybe it’s that we can’t trust Hitchcock anymore because stories should be about one thing and not another, one person and not another, and we like it when character is destiny, but more importantly, we like it when characters have destinies, because, like, isn’t that the point of fiction? Fiction winds up these little marionettes who trundle forward in little dioramas, and maybe the fictions are more or less life-like, maybe the dolls have real silk dresses, or the walls are actually lathe-and-plaster with horsehair and newspapers from the turn of the last century as insulation, but it’s still fiction, which means there’s a simplicity at it’s soul, even when it’s complicated – there’s just no way to make a 1-to-1 model of everything. We root for main characters, even when they suck and are terrible, because we are main characters all; I don’t care how much empathy you have, you simply can’t know what goes on in another person’s head, anyone’s. So Hitchcock kills his main character, and we all start, because, holy wow, man, you just killed us. 

Anyway, Miéville does this with the concept of Destiny in Un Lun Dunand I just want to give him a big smooch for it. (Well, okay, for other reasons too.) A pair of girls fall into the Un Lun Dun/unLondon of the title. UnLondon is just fantastic, not entirely because it’s trying to be fantastic, but because it isn’t, sort of. Man, that didn’t make any sense. Okay, here’s an example: our protagonists run in with folk called the Roofrunners, who seem like those sort of aggressively clannish Klingon types who are always crowing about how no one has stepped onto the ground in three generations and wear a lot of leather. You can see where this is going, right? Some Roofrunner is going to have to step onto the ground at some point very soon to Save Them All, but then, when it actually happens, turns out the roofs are false roofs, just sitting there on the ground with no houses under them, so all they really have to do is STEP DOWN. That is so freaking funny! I mean, it’s all fiction right? The roofs, the city, the people inside, why not have the roofs on the ground? Why not make the danger something that comes from the stories these people told, and not the imaginary gravity of their imaginary environment? Whoa. I just freaked myself out. 

There’s other sublime weirdness as well: a school of fish in a diving suit who constitute a sentient entity, or a bird in a robot man with a birdcage for a head, or any of a hundred other frightening or comic people and things. There’s pictures too – little pen and ink sketches by Miéville himself – more swooning – that aren’t obnoxious or distracting, but help catalog the oddments without interrupting the narrative. He has the good sense not to interfere with my notions of how the main characters look, instead stuffing the peripheries with the ideas I might miss out of the corner of my eye. 

BUT, all soul mates have to have their their first fight, and here’s my opening salvo: sometimes puns just piss me off. There should never be places called Webminster Abbey…made of webs! Inhabited by the Black Window…who is like a window with spider legs! It’s just, you know, lame. (Although, the actual descriptions of the Black Windows, even though just typing those words made me die a little bit, was unsettling and powerful.) Gaiman’s Neverwheregets mentioned a lot with this book – I think it’s mentioned by and Miéville himself – I had the same problems with that one. Additionally, one of the reasons I didn’t groove on Neverwherelike some of Gaiman’s other stuff is that Richard Mayhew is milquetoast as all get out, and his problems with his gf were kind of stupid, Sex and the City style antics, and he just needed to sack up, in general. Deeba is similarly unrealized, in some ways: I don’t have a good sense of how she is when she’s alone, but at least she didn’t have a harpy-ish girlfriend who seemed like a sexist caricature. 

Sorry Gaiman! I still love you too, but I’m throwing you over for this Miéville fellow!

Heart of Steel: I Love This Series Despite the First Book

Heart of Steeltakes place in the same world as The Iron Duke, a profoundly alternate history where the Mongolian Golden Horde, using superior technology, slowly devastated Europe in the 1500s, and enjoyed several hundred years of complete control. In roughly 1800 – and this date is important – the titular Iron Duke of the first book broke the Horde’s technological enslavement of England. As befits a steampunk novel, much of this technology is patently ridiculous – nanotechnology, megolodons, gene splicing, chainsaw arms, &c – but this is engaged with the proper amount of hand-waving and acceptance. Brooks does not make the mistake of trying to detail the history of this alternate history/tehnology too closely, but instead throws her efforts into creating a complex world of believable politics and motivations. Gee whiz.

  I say the date is important, because even though this is steampunk, this is not your daddy’s usual Victorian gaslight playset. The referents are all solidly Regency/Georgian, from the name “Iron Duke” – this was Wellington, the man who routed Napoleon at Waterloo – or the sugar boycotts, which were bound up in Regency abolitionist movements. The sugar boycotts are mirrored here explicitly in a distrust of sugar – this was how the Horde deployed their controlling nanotech into the blood of the conquered – but also in a series of arguments about consumer choices and allegiances between the two sides of the American hot/cold war going on about slavery, though it is coded in terms like indenture. Honestly, I could go on and on about all the really cool shit Brooks does encoding history, and the complicated ways one’s allegiances are never perfect, but a series of compromises between lesser evils and expedience.

 Which brings me to a thing about genre, which is pretty much per usual for me. This is solidly marketed and sold as a romance novel, and that’s not wrong on some level. Yasmeen is a mercenary captain of an airship with cat eyes and hot pants, and she is being pursued by one Archimedes Fox, a man whose exploits as a daredevil are written up as penny dreadfuls (sorry, I know this is an anachronistic term) by his sister. Unlike the central couple in The Iron Duke, this relationship is much less rape-y, almost chaste in its reserve. But their relationship still has the fingerprints of a romance novel relationship all over it. Archimedes decision to fall in love with Yasmeen and his strange justifications for his reserve are part and parcel with the doled out endless frustration/final cure of the format. But, unlike The Iron Duke, the relationship doesn’t devolve into a 50 page sex interlude that profoundly fucks up the narrative.

 But back to genre. This is the smartest steampunk alt history I’ve encountered in a long time. With another cover and a different publisher, nerds would be all over this like corsets on cosplayers. Just to be clear, I don’t think nerds are somehow better than the romance reading audience that this is sold to, primarily, just that, as a nerd, I think this would be something my people would enjoy. I’ve bitched before about how genre as a marketing tool divides readerships in ways I think is unhelpful, and this is a shining example of that. And, especially because steampunk is so full of godamn shite. Here’s my digression. My husband loves him the steampunk. I’m probably going to misrepresent his feelings, and that’s okay because he’s almost never online to contradict me.

Anyway, back in the day we both read some of the formative novels in the genre, stuff like The Difference Engine or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Difference Engine has bloody brilliant ideas, wrapped in a fish-wrapper of boring. The technology is pushed just that much, leading to some interesting stuff about how the Victorians constructed criminality and the class system. Unfortunately, the rest of it was feh…zzzzz. League is more beholden to the pulp fictions of the Victorian era, a series of literary hat-tips that ramp to a statement about colonialism and the hero in that mode. To get to the misrepresentation, my husband has this big thing about the feel of technology, some sort of Ruskin-esque reappropriation of mass produced goods towards the individual purpose. I feel a little eye-rolly about a lot of this stuff, because I feel like much of steampunk cosplay is just as rigid as any other folk costume. You can tick off the elements: goggles, corset, walking stick, hat. It’s just another anti-establishment genre that establishes itself with a dress code and not an ethos.

But, when I’m not being a cranky bitch, I love this stuff. I love the interplay between consumerism and identity, and the ways steampunk, when it’s not busy playing dress-up, can get to the beginnings of industrialism and rough the origin, make it weird, lay it bare. I want all steampunk novels to be this smart, but then I also want them to be fun, and it’s a tricky line to walk, I think. Steampunk’s readership is a divided readership, and not even half of it is to my taste. The navigation between the pleasures of spectacle and those of considered alt history are at odds; this is an old argument abut world-building versus character. I said there is some hand-waving here about exact origins of this world, but it’s nothing like the hand-waving in something like Soulless, where the alt-history takes a backseat to more pulpy concerns like killer umbrellas and werewolves. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy Soulless, I’m just noting its pleasures do not come from a richly realized alt history that will make you think. It’s the difference between costume for its own sake, and costume as disguise, and that’s what keeps me coming back to the genre, often stupid as it is.

 So. I don’t know. I thought this split the difference between spectacle and consideration in a freaking fantastic way, even if I pretty much don’t give a shit about whether our lovers ever come to their inevitable perfection, because you know they will. I’m a certain kind of reader, a picky, nerdish sort, the kind of reader who was happy I had to hit google a half a dozen times to write this review to make sure I was getting my dates right. I’m Team Frak Yeah the way the world here is laid out. I think this book is much less pulpy than the cover might imply. Or possibly pulpy in just the right ways: zombies! airships! pirates! without sacrificing coherence for romantic union. The ending is rushed, I admit, and sometimes the world is confusing simply because there is so much going on, but I will take those problems happily. Brook kicks some serious nerd ass in this book, and I’m waiting for the next.

The Coldest War & The Long Con

I’m a late Cold War baby. I didn’t have my parents’ experience of growing up in a world of weapons escalation, the Iron Curtain* descending, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis, etc etc. The Cold War was decidedly hotter for the generation preceding mine. When I came on the scene, it was more about Sting songs suggesting Russians might not eat babies – though still with the conditional: if the Russians love their children too. By the time we saw the Berlin Wall come down, various ex-pats from Pink Floyd were invited to come and give a concert of songs from the Wall. I actually watched parts of this in West Germany, in the living room of my German cousins. I still find this whole concert both absolutely appalling and brutally perfect, historically speaking – kinda like Elton John repurposing a song about Marilyn Monroe for Lady Di. Just, yuck. 

Anyway, point being, I’m a late Cold War baby, and my experience of the Cold War is almost completely pop cultural. I remember quite vividly watching The Day After on my grandparents’ somewhat filmy television – imdb informs me it aired in 1983, which would put me at 9 years old, just the age of my son now – and growing increasingly freaked out. Not so much the attacks, which are pretty standard disaster porn fare from the era, but the dread of the long denouement, one that ends, as much as it ends, in despair. My parents sent me to bed – they saw the freak out – long before The Day After was over. I only know the ending because I sought it out a couple of years back, suspecting that that was the film that sparked my life-long bone-crunching fear of zombies. Which, yep, that’s the genesis. 

I dreamed of nuclear annihilation for years: the mushroom clouds blooming in the distance, the hot wind, the feel of my body in a painful disintegration. I never died in these dreams – I’m not sure about the folklore that says that if you die in dreams, you die in real life, because I have certainly died in dreams, just not these ones. (Of course, maybe I’m in some weird Gibsonian afterlife, typing on into the void. Seems unlikely though.) In these nuclear dreams I lived in agony, the world on fire. Dead but not, crawling. 

Hey! There’s a song called Eidolons! 


All this blither blather, I assure you, has something to do with The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis . I’m trying desperately to avoid spoilers, because this is one of those books that hinges so very, very much on its ending. The Coldest War is the continuation of Bitter Seeds, an alternate history of WWII wherein the Nazis have developed steampunkish Übermench, and as a counter, the British have harnessed the chthonic power of Eidolons, Lovecraftian horrors par excellence.** There’s some lumpinesses to the first book that are worked out a bit here. Tregillis’s characterization is a little weak in the first book, especially when dealing with characters like Marsh’s wife and kid, which seem to pop into being with big bullseyes on their heads, redshirts just waiting for an away mission to die to prove the situation is serious. 

However, I was seriously freaked out by Gretel in Bitter Seeds, as Gretel is a prescient sociopath created by Nazis, and undoubtedly the Big Bad in both books. I mean, just, eeek. Her brother, Klaus, is a little luggage-y in the first book – he’s mostly there to be eyes on Gretel, because you can’t give Gretel, the big prescient bad, her own pov without completely destroying narrative tension. In this book, Klaus really comes to life, becoming a character I just absolutely adored. Marsh is still a little iffy to me – I felt like his personality had been mothballed for 15 or whatever number of years in some respects, though the stuff with his wife had the ugly, brutal reality of love’s long, slow death. 

So here we are, in the Cold War that is and isn’t like our own Cold War, monsters and ubermench, Soviets and race wars, oil and the firebombing of civilian targets, and what struck me was the inevitability of nuclear disaster. Why haven’t we blown ourselves to shit yet? I’m not dreaming of it anymore, my cells burning as I scream in dreaming living death, but it’s not like we’ve somehow precluded this eventuality. The warlock children who have been raised to speak the Lovecraftian language of the Eidolons at one point tie a push-pin into Sante Fe, NM, and I shuddered, shuddered. 

Alternate history is, sometimes, our imagining the worst of all possible worlds, the difficult cultural superego who passes judgment and offers dubious salvations. We imagine monsters who can see what we do, and they can see what we’ve done. Holy shit. I mean, I was only 9, but I wonder a little about my cute little childhood nuclear terror and the fact that my country dropped The Bomb on civilians, on cities. I don’t want to get into a big thing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the inevitability or the necessity of their destruction. When I saw a recreation of Big Boy in the Los Alamos museum, when I saw the recreation of the Enola Gay in the Imperial War museum in London, I burst into tears. History is an inevitability. I know it doesn’t do any good, but I’m so sorry. 

What do you call survivor’s guilt, when your country, your people, perpetrated the attack? I’m sorry that history is shitty and sucks? I know, I’m at least a generation from the people who made these decisions, more like two, but I’m not exempt from my culture and my history. I’m an American, and proud of it in many, many ways. And in others I want to crawl into the basement and cry for a long, long time. I mean, I don’t want this to devolve into a bunch of typical liberal hand-wringing or whatnot, I just want to say that history is both personal and horribly impersonal, and our entrances and exits into that great narrative stream are punctuated by both easy upset and shocking convergences. So there. 

I suspect I’m not making a ton of sense, because I’ve drinking since noon – vacation rules! Richard and I were talking about this book while I was reading, while the newest Captain America movie played in the background – which is super funny, because Ian totes looks like skinny Captain America, before the serum – and we posited that there are three ways a plot with a prescient sociopathic villain can go:

1.) Turns out, Gretel isn’t actually a psycho. (Or, lolsyke, nevermind everything I ever said about my characters.)
2.) Some random, unforeseeable event defeats Gretel. (Also called Making Shit Up so Things Can Turn Out Right.)
3.) Secret option 3, which means Ian is badass and awesome.

I’m happy to say this book is solidly in secret option 3 territory, and there was a moment there when several conceptual things came together that were so freaking awesome. I had the shit scared out of me by Gretel in book one, which was deepened here in many ways. There’s this thing really early on where Gretel needs a jar, and it turns out she engineered the death of Heike (which happens midway through the first book, and you kind of just think that sequence is there to how you what a badass Gretel is, like Darth Vader crushing some throats). But then it turns out she engineered this death so that Heike’s brain would be jarified and brought to the Soviet Union so that Gretel could dump the contents and use it for a very prosaic purpose. Just, holy shit. This whole series is a long con, the longest con. And as scared as I am of Gretel, I’m more terrified of what scares her. And what scares her is what scares me, and has scared me since I was 9. The inevitability of history is a godamn bitch. 

*Just wiki’d the source of this term, because weirdly, we were just talking about Churchill at work, and my client piped up that Churchill was the origin of the term Iron Curtain. Which, turns out, not exactly. Fothermucking Goebbels used it during the War, and it has some roots in the bible or something. Holy god, reading that wiki page made my arms tingle, what with how this book deals with the War, the Cold War, and Everything. Sometimes life is freaky. 

**Here, right before I’m about to be critical of Bitter Seeds is probably as good a time as any to announce that I’m friends with Mr. Tregillis, for full disclosure. I also know that Ian doesn’t read reviews, so I could probably be as big a bitch as I wanted here, not that I want to. 

Bitter Seeds

In interests of full disclosure, I should say that I love Ian Tregillis with all my heart, even though that bastard awesome houseguest never sent me a galley or ARC or whatever they are called so I could read it before it came out for the general public. Okay, he send a digital copy to my husband, but I turned my nose up at it, because I hate reading serious stuff on computer screens because there is something unserious about them. So, you know, whatever. 

Still, though, Ian, the non-writer Ian, the friend I know, is fabulous and strange, and I can’t believe Tor got John Jude Palencar to do the art for his book, because that’s like wrapping some thing I love in another thing I love, and the whole idea makes me swoon. Go to the libraries, folks; queue this up on your Amazon. The minute this comes out I’m holing up and reading it all damn day.

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Okay, admittedly I didn’t hole up and read it all damn day, but I am excited to finally have this in my hot little hands. 

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Last Sunday, while I was gulping this down in a haze, I folded up this book and curled up for a nap. Then I fell hard into a nightmare featuring Gretel, who is the biggest bad in this book, which is saying something. I was in a bare room made of concrete block with a concrete floor, with windows near the ceiling, like I was in a basement. I have no idea why or how I was in this room, but I was alone, and then I wasn’t. She was there, her long black hair braided down with the ominous wires, giving me a half-smile. ARG OH GAWD WAKE UP. 

An alternate history, Bitter Seeds runs the second world war with steampunk (gaspunk?) Übermensch on the Axis side and warlocks on the Allied. There was a long conversation about the intersection between the various genres of historical fiction, alternate history, and science fiction on Mike’s review of this book, which really got me thinking about all the ways in which history is coded and turned into narrative. Some of the coding is literal – one of the more fascinating aspects of WWII for me is the shadow war that went on using cyphers and codes, all the way up to the Navajo code talkers who used their own language, albeit in a simplified, reworked way, to pass vital informations. It still manages to blow my mind when I think about this Native language, suppressed for years, overrun, the Navajo people limned into an America that is qualified as a Native America, and how this encoded people and language were hooked up to wires that then transmitted a vital imperial information. ZOMG. 

Of course, breaking a code is never good enough, which the Allies did early with Enigma, they had to then obfuscate where that information was coming from. If the Axis knew their correspondence was insecure, then they would have changed the codes. False information about the information gathering system has to be relayed and planted – false spies, false documents, false events then encode how knowledge is gathered. No, we haven’t broken your codes; we have some spy in place, or whatever. This lead to all manner of horrifying calculus: bombings allowed to do their damage to protect the source of information, people sent to sure death to protect the codes and broken codes. It’s the kind of thing that hurts to think about, even though we sit on the lee side of the war, and can figleaf the equations with the knowledge that ultimately, the Allies won, and the equations added up to something. 

(I’m not sure why I’m balking from using the pronoun “we” in this situation, even though that’s what I keep typing before I key back and write Allies. My family had some dogs in that fight: a grandfather in the South Pacific, great-uncles in France, a grandmother home with a war-baby unsure that her husband would ever come home. But as an American mongrel, I also had cousins removed in the German army and the Danish resistance, in-laws in the camps, a grandfather too old to be a soldier so instead a school teacher. I’ve always thought it would be fascinating to take a group of folk – anyone really – a world map, and a bunch of push pins and string, and chart the movements of our (grand)parents in the War – which still continues to be the war one means if one says “war” out of context – and watch the earth criss-cross. I’m not sure what this would accomplish, but the image of this this web is what stops my sense of “we”, I think. What did you do in the war, dada?)

As usual, I’m horribly off topic. Sort of. I believe that alternate histories are almost coded into the narrative of the War itself, into the narrative of history. When one hears the story of the British retreat at Dunkirk – the scrambling and madness on the beach as the British try to arrange transport – the sense of how close the German army was, how if they had just turned and looked, they would have been able to end the British capacity to mount the later counter-attacks – one sees how close history is, how intimately random. Gretel, the clairvoyant Nazi creation, sees the retreat at Dunkirk and the event does run to this terrible conclusion. 

Future sight – something that has always kind of bugged me in fiction – almost reads as our backwards retellings. The Nazis were evil – this is self-evident historically, so much so that even mention of them in argument has its own conversation ending term – one has Godwined the conversation. But during the war, the Holocaust was only understood in hints – it was coded – again, so much so, that when one views the horrifying footage of the camps being liberated, there are always these weird testimonials from Allied troops giving name, rank and serial number. I saw this – they say – I am real and so is this. Our understanding of their evil is backwards – not false – in some ways – it is something based on later knowledge. The evil of the Nazis was countered in many different ways, but if the center of that evil was not self-love and other-hate, but a cold, calculated personal self-interest of a single sociopath, what would the Allies have to do to counter that? Especially because they did not understand that that was what they were fighting? Ugh. Cue blood-bath. 

Anyway, massive digression notwithstanding, I think this book codes technology, and that ruptures the narrative of the War along lines I’d never considered. The British warlocks – which is a nice piece of nomenclature, non? – negotiate with large, chtonic powers so outside their grasp that it’s almost funny, beings who require blood in a real, non-metaphorical way: the tip of a finger, a pub full of folk, a train car full of people…where is this going to end? Nowhere good. The Nazis, famously less squeamish about taking a shovel to the back of child’s skull for the “greater” “good” – create a creature even they fear – a prescient sociopath – the Gretel of my dream – who has her own agenda. 

It’s easy to run the war many ways and have the Axis win, even provisionally – don’t attack Russia (didn’t Napoleon teach you anything?), don’t attack Pearl Harbor (would the US and its isolationism ever gotten involved otherwise?) – but here I think the question is about how the Germans ran off so many brilliant thinkers: Einstein, Freud, Benjamin (who killed himself days before the papers for him to leave came through), and well, a whole freaking passel of German scientists who bolstered American and British war technologies to the obvious detriment of the Reich’s plan. I don’t think it’s an accident that Gretel – and her brother, who is our pov proxy for Gretel – are gypsy children, war orphans from the previous war, and so insanely pivotal to the Nazi cause that their “bad blood” isn’t so much overlooked as feared to the point of being ignored. I almost need a chart here – one like my push-pinned map – that accounts for a Nazi sense of purity of blood with a purity of will, and how those concepts ultimately implode when in contact with one another. 

Gretel, her brother, and the other children who survive the heinous, thankfully only loosely sketched machinations of Van Westarp – mad scientist extraordinaire – to become the embodiment of will-to-power, are the coded terror of the oven, the camp, the cleansing, one that has its own agenda, an agenda that is to live in defiance, because living IS defiance. Gretel scares the shit out of me, partially because the thought of survival in the face of such institutional, casual hatred makes me want to lay down and die. We – we? – can honor survival, but it comes at a cost, one that can often be measured in pints, as in blood. Pints to quarts, quarts to gallons, and after the gallon, how do we even quantify anymore?

I’ve always liked “The Empire Strikes Back” most of the Star Wars trilogy – I live in an alternate history where the prequels don’t exist, and Lucas never mutilated my childhood – partially because it’s the darkest of the trilogy, laying out the Oedipal conflict without the hard, unsatisfying conclusion of synthesis. But part of my unfinished satisfaction draws from the fact of conclusion – without an ending, even an unsatisfying one, it would just hang, undone. I have some criticisms of Bitter Seeds, as a stand-alone work: my unlove of love triangles, my sense that sometimes the research of the history overtakes the thrust of the story, but my happiest of gripes is that I want to read more. This story is not done: the War has gone Cold – actually literally cold as the ice freezes Europe as the Soviets make their play – and the hot war reaches its chilly détente. Publish the next, now. Get to it, Ian. I wait.

Slightly Irregular Steampunk

I snapped The Slightly Irregular Fire Engineup at a local used bookseller because I’m kind of obsessed with steampunk, and a weird-ass kid’s book from the 70s that seems to have a steampunk aesthetic is right up my alley. The idea of Victorian futurism imagined by contemporary writers makes me all hot and bothered, but I’m often disappointed and/or enraged by how stilted the writing is, how fawning the depictions of Victoriana, or just how dumb. The Difference Engine, by Bruce Sterling & William Gibson, one of the very first full-blown steampunk novels, is pretty emblematic of my problem. The ideas are straight-up OMFG brilliant, but wrapped up in some fish-paper of boring and going-nowhere. (It’s not a huge surprise I feel this way: I heart Gibson for all his failings, but pretty much everything Sterling does makes me cringe. This includes Burning Man, Bruce, you douche.)

One of the more fascinating things about steampunk, as a cultural movement thingee, is that there’s huge disconnect between the literary branch and the Maker movement. Maker types build things, raise chickens in Brooklyn, try to master archaic technologies, and generally keep RadioShack in business. The more cosplay end dresses up in top hats, corsets, and goggles. I still haven’t bridged the gap between the lit and the doings, partially because the lit hasn’t bridged the gap between the costume and the ideas. The worst of the genre fetishizes Victorian reserve (or our imaginings of that reserve), blathering about “a simpler time” while totally ignoring class/race/colonialism, blah blah, you know. 

Anyhoo, now that I’ve gone off on a random digression, this book is arguably not steampunk at all – it’s too early – but it definitely clarified a lot of my somewhat useless ditherings about the genre. Barthelme takes a series of (often bizarre) Victorian etchings, mixes them up like Tarot cards, and divines an odd little tale out of the mix. It feels like one of those patched-up stories that gets written in that little game where one person writes a section, covers up everything but the last line, and then passes it to the next person, who writes a section, and so on. (Do you know the game I mean? That was great fun at summer camp.) 

The art is cool, but it’s clunkily done, simply not altered enough, or done with enough visual style, to be interesting. They read like cut-outs, which is what they are, but they lay as still as a game of Solitaire. The language, however, whoo-boy, this is nice. More please. A girl, Mathilda, wakes up to find a pagoda growing in her yard. She enters, looking for a fire-engine. Djinns, pirates, and other wackiness ensues. It’s winking, post-modern (amusingly, almost archaically post-modern at this point, which is something of a trip), and clever without making you feel dumb. Like this:

“Would you like to have an escapade?” the djinn asked. “We can arrange that. Escapades come in two styles – fancy and more fancy.” 

“What is an escapade” Mathilda asked. 

“An escapade is something you didn’t expect,” the djinn said, “which surprises you, pleases you, and frightens you, all that once.” 

“Like a good dream,” Mathilda said. 

“Or you could be something,” the djinn suggested. “You could be a grown-up tennis-playing hat-wearing woman, or a one-man band–”  

“The one-man band doesn’t look too happy,” Mathilda observed. 

“He began as a piccolo player,” the djinn said.

Hahahaha! Phew. I had to google this Barthelme cat, and I was pretty much entraced by what I found. Writer of micro-fiction, inveterate post-modernist, regular contributor to this and that fancy (and extra fancy) periodical. The bastions of wiki said he wasn’t much for the whole narrative thing, but there is one here, even as it winks and smirks. 

Maybe I find steampunk so fascinating because it’s a post-modern attempt to leapfrog back to before Modernism even questioned, well, anything: the Nation, the Psyche, the Individual, the Narrative, back before when you could capitalize those things and not look like you were a Jerk-Face who was making A Point. ZOMG. What origami! Instead of taking the mismatched deck and building a house, steampunk folds and cuts the cards into something that casts the shadow of the house, but looks like an absolute mess straight-on. The ones I dislike tend to be really perfunctory narratives dressed up in high boots and cleavage, or anti-(post)-modernist claptrap that totally doesn’t get where it’s coming from. Fascinating pedigree, this steampunk stuff has. 

So, I would start my rating for this with three stars, because I liked it, take one off for the art, add one for the steampunk flavor, and then add another just because it blew my mind a little bit. Yes!

Geared for…What is Going On Here?

I think I’ve figured out my issue with steampunk. I’ve even said this before about the genre, but I wasn’t listening to myself too closely. Steampunk is defined mostly by gadgetry – goggles and steamships and corsets – and that gadgetry generally has this narrow aesthetic band. I’m nerd enough to have gone to my share of sf cons, and I get eye-rolling about how frustratingly similar all the steampunk costumes are – a corset (always with the freaking corset), a top hat (both genders), non-functional gearworks, maybe some anachronistic wings or those weird fox tails that all the teenagers wear with the weird muppet boots. (What up, teens? I don’t get your con boots.) But as much as I get irritated with the uniformity – seriously, why does “creativity” have to be so damned uniform – I get that the operative part of cosplay is play. Playing dress-up doesn’t have to make a big statement or blow my mind, and it exists as much for the performer as the audience. 

That said, there are always flashes of the truly inventive in costumes I’ve seen: a woman in a gold Victorian-style dress that was designed to look like a Dalek; various steampunk takes on Stormtroopers; costumes using more working class Victorian sartorial iconography and mixed up with Marxist Freedom Fighter clothes. This last one especially, because so rarely do these steampunk characters hail from anywhere but the most rarefied upper classes, a fetishization of people who were on the whole a bunch of shitty, colonial asshats who enforced the crap out of social and sexual norms that are appalling to the modern person. Or freaking should be. Steampunk decouples the sartorial from the cultural, which in some ways can be wonderfully subversive in its own right, but also can be an act of la-la-la-la nevermind the horrors of the Industrial Revolution pretty dresses wheee!! 

The gadgetry of steampunk can be part of a reordering of expectation, or they can just be there to look sweet. Either one is fine, though of course I have my preferences for the former. This is my problem with steampunk: I don’t know, often until very late in the game, which kind of book I’m reading. I read with different parts of my brain depending on genre, and it’s possible even to argue that genre is a shorthand letting us know what part of the brain to read with. I’m not going to pick up a fantasy book about elves and magic and start nitpicking that magic violates the rules of physics, therefore it’s a bad book. Or I could, but I would be lame. I approached Soulless looking for spectacle, which is exactly what I got. But I’ve fallen into the gap in steampunk’s split-personality ethos before with Meljean Brook‘s Iron Seas series. I read the first one with the part of my brain reserved for romance novels – not the dumb part or anything, just the part that isn’t going to nitpick world-building or plausibility – when I would have had a much better time reading with the SFnal part of my brain – the part that gets off on well-constructed alternate histories. Because, damn, she’s rocking the alt-history so hard in that series. 

Having thought I learned my lesson about judging a book by its steampunk cover, I went into Geared for Pleasure by Rachel Grace keeping one eye open for some kind of coherent world or nifty alt-history. The alt-history idea was blown pretty soon, because this is more fantasy on steampunk planet, though there is some ornament about the horror of industrialization and the shittiness of enforced caste systems. The characters are inventive and the gadgets fun, with blue-haired badasses and spotted cat people, stealth airships and submarine brothels. In short, this book looks marvelous. The private guards for the immortal child-empress-like queen determine there is a threat to her, and go out into the world to nullify it. The novel is structured as two linked novellas, taking place one after the other about each of the two guards. The guards both seriously screw up their missions and end up falling in with pirates and pimps, who are also for some reason loyal to the queen. The writing is energetic and not faux-Victorian-purple, the last a serious problem I have with some steampunk novels. The first novella has some really ugly scene transitions, but I suspect this is more to do with bad formatting, though the writing could have been clearer.

However, even with my critical world-building brain mostly off, I have so, so many problems with this world. It’s not even so much nit-picking – going after details – as it is a fundamental incoherence in how this society is constructed. I was trying to explain the plot to my husband last night, and started in with bitching about the Queen. I likened her to Queen Amidala, even though their illogic is somewhat different. Queen Amidala is an elected monarch? How the hell does that even work? And why does she seem to have zero political sense and spends most of the movie running around pretending to be someone else? Presumably she’s got, like, actual work to do running the planet, even in exile, other than hair-brushing? Anyway, this queen was like that. Everyone loves the crap out of her, see her as fundamental to the order of society, even though society appears to be a rigid kleptocracy that practices eugenics on a broad scale, has enslaved a whole race of cat-people, and is otherwise a total shitshow. All ills in society are blamed on some group called the Theorrean Raj – possibly a Senate or House of Lords? even though they often seem like a secret society? or possibly even just one evil dude who works behind the scenes? – whom everyone despises. Seriously, what the hell is the point of the queen if she can’t even run her own society? What is she even doing with her time?

And the principles – the two queen’s guards – are members of some racially constructed group, who, and I didn’t get this until way into the book, are understood to be an incredibly corrupt police force even though our two protags are all sweet honor-bound bunnies? Throw in a pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold, a piratess airship captain who, while being neat and badass and all, is a total psycho, murdering her crews almost casually. But everyone loves the queen! For no apparent reason! And this explains behavior that is otherwise absolutely confounding on a character level. Which is where my problem lies (lays? whatever; I hate these verbs): it wasn’t so much that the world didn’t make sense, it’s that it made so little sense that I couldn’t track why anyone was feeling anything about anything. This was less of a problem in novella one, which is a pretty solid virginal-type-learns-a-valuable-lesson-about-her-vagina tale, but in novella two I was so confused about the romantic leads’ cultural situation, societal placement, and what the hell their exact problems were that my emotional investment was pretty well fucked. If I can’t figure what’s going on, I can’t care about the outcome. I couldn’t even try to explain what that final reveal was, or what it might mean. No sense, you has it. 

So why the three stars, you ask? Some of this is round up, I admit, because this as really just ok for me as a reader. But if I come at this novel with the romance reading part of my brain, there’s some interesting stuff going on. Waaaay back in the early days of my romance reading project, I complained about how some novel seemed to walk up to issues of domination and submission within sex writing, only to chicken out completely. (I think the exact scene was one where the heroine drove the hero to fuck make love to her so hard she bruised. And then nothing! No commentary about this desire for the hard fucking in the novel at all. Given Bella Cullen’s wedding night bruisings – complete with amnesia! – this seems to be A Thing.) While the set up to the sex-show thing that goes on in novella one is totally dumb and makes no sense, the ways that scene walked around consent and domination and voyeurism were pretty cool. There’s even some same-sex interactions that don’t seem to run TEH GAY PANIC, and gesture to the ways sex is often mechanically sex, while desire is a whole other issue. Neat. 

Novella two’s romantical story was hamstrung by my not getting what was going on, but the themes of domination and submission, when I did get it, were handled credibly. Novella two has to do with a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person, and I bitchily said somewhere that I expected her to get her spanks, and then love the dude for it. Which kinda happens, but then was more complicated than that. She’s having a crisis of conscience, and dude is confronting his own limitations as an alpha dude. I mean, there’s a fair amount of waaaaanghst here, but there was a charged push-pull that navigated personal sexual proclivities and personality pretty well. Plus, did I mention that she is a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person? Who isn’t slut-shamed? Good lord, a star for that alone.

So, anyway, I can’t really say I’m going to bother with book two of this series – my problems with the world-building are probably only going to deepen – but I wouldn’t be averse to trying out some of Grace’s later books, if she writes them. She’s got a pretty inventive world here, even if it makes no godmamn sense.