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Love Lust, and a brief review

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Last night I appeared on the Sundance Channel’s documentary series Love Lust, in an episode on The Undead. Mostly, I talked about Lord Byron and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although I got in one soundbite on Dracula and a snarky one on Twilight. It’s available on iTunes, and Sundance will be replaying it all week (go to http://www.sundancechannel.com/love-lust/ ) for more information.

Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman, in brief:
A steampunk romp that *gets it* — there’s a cast of historical and fictional personages intermingled here, but it never feels like they’re forced or obligatory. Rather, Tidhar’s clearly having a good time with the story of Orphan, who works in a bookshop and loves marine biologist Lucy, in an alternative England ruled by the Lizard Queens and Kings from Caliban’s Island. Other reviews here have complained that too much is going on, but that’s one of the book’s strengths — Tidhar knows his stuff and plays with it delightfully. With Isabella Beeton and Karl Marx as unlikely members of the same revolutionary cadre, Irene Adler as a police Inspector (while Moriarty serves as Prime Minister), and a Lord Byron automaton with a will of its own. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Written by Catherine Siemann

June 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Posted in steampunk

The Famous Five

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We saw a biopic of Enid Blyton over the weekend; hence the title.

Katherine Mosley and Brandon Herman guested hosted a webcast on steampunk over at averageintelligence.net; I was asked to provide a list of some of the best or more representative steampunk literature. Here are my choices:

1.  The Classics:  The Difference Engine, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling.   While steampunk originated with Jeter & Blaylock, this is the book that got my attention when it came out in 1991.   Iconic cyberpunk authors Gibson & Sterling use history in an informed and purposeful way;  their use of alternative technology (Charles Babbage actually develops his Difference Engine — an early computer — in a functional way) is well-thought through.  They deal with politics, including class and gender issues, effectively.   And they repurpose characters and situations from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil, in a way that’s far more realistic than Disraeli himself.

2.  American Steampunk:  Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.   Priest’s Clockwork Century series imagines a world where the U.S. Civil War continues on into the 1880s.   She’s good at strong female protagonists and at nonstop action;  reading Boneshaker feels like seeing a good summer action movie.  Her worldbuilding is solid, and I’m particularly fond of the way she takes all of the cliched steampunk tropes (goggles, airships, etc.) and gives them purpose.   The series continues with (so far) the novella Clementine and the novel Dreadnought.   She engages with issues of race, class, and gender, though some of the ethical issues in Boneshaker take a backseat to the action.  Plus there are zombies.

3.  Drawing-Room Steampunk:  Soulless by Gail Carriger.   Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series is steampunk meets paranormal romance meets Oscar Wilde and/or P. G. Wodehouse.  Protagonist Alexia Tarabotti is a smart and independent woman constrained by the social circumstances of Victorian England, although this is a Victorian England which has come to terms with the presence of vampires and werewolves in its midst.   Consistently amusing, Carriger’s series also does a good job with gender issues.

4.  YA Steampunk:  Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.   Westerfeld’s trilogy has a fascinating premise, an alternative World War I, fought between the Austo-Hungarian Clankers, with their classic steampunk technology, and the British Darwinists, who’ve genetically engineered living weapons.   In later books, Westerfeld takes his characters out of Europe and into the wider world.

5.  Science Fiction/Fantasy with a steampunk feeling:   Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.   Elsewhere in this blog I’ve discussed where Mieville’s Bas-Lag books fit in the steampunk spectrum, but this smart, highly-political novel certain has the technology and the feel of a steampunk world, in addition to political situations (oppression of the workers, imperialism, etc.) very much connected to steampunk’s nineteeth-century inspiration.  It’s set, however, on another world, with well-conceived alien cultures and lush, gorgeous descriptions which situate the world extremely well.

Bonus:  though I haven’t yet had the chance to read all of it, Joelle Vanderhooft’s anthology Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories brings both queer and multicultural perspectives to steampunk, two things I hope to be seeing a lot more of in the near future.

Written by Catherine Siemann

April 27, 2011 at 11:28 am

Posted in steampunk

Rereading Perdido Street Station: Mieville and the Boundaries of Steampunk

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I confess that I spend relatively little time trying to define steampunk.   While I was drawn to the genre though my interest in Victorian literature and culture and in how people were using steampunk to play with and interrogate the ideas and boundaries of the period, its technology, and its ideologies,  I find myself in agreement with a more open conception of the genre.   While one still occasionally comes across statements implying that setting a steampunk story in the American West of the period is a radical departure from the norm, that seems par for the course to me:  I remember watching syndicated reruns of the proto-steampunk television series The Wild, Wild West as a child.   Moving away from Eurocentric settings, multicultural steampunk is a vital and important part of the genre, valuable for its critique of imperialism and other problematic aspects of the time period, and filled with rich storytelling possibilities.   Dieselpunk and other forms of retrofuturism clearly belong in the Big Tent with steampunk, and when elements of fantasy and horror are incorporated alongside the historical and science fictional aspects, my only question is how they fit into the story and whether they’re done effectively.

Nonetheless, when I sat down to reread China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station for discussion with a local steampunk reading group, I found myself wondering: it’s art, but is it steampunk?[i] I was delighted to be rereading the book, which I had loved on my first encounter with it some years back.   But, despite the John Clute quote on the back of my copy, claiming it as “the best steampunk novel since Gibson and Sterling’s” [their monumental The Difference Engine], and despite my keen appreciation of the book as a vast Dickensian social problem novel, it hadn’t shouted “steampunk” at me.

The book claims a place on many steampunk reading lists, certainly has a Victorian-inflected aesthetic, and engages with social issues that echo Victorian reality.   But it takes place on another planet, one with a rich variety of nonhuman races.  Miéville has been publicly identified with the New Weird, not with steampunk.  I’ve never heard him mentioned as a prospective guest for a steampunk convention, though he’s someone whose readings  I’ve attended on a number of occasions.   And, considering he’s not shy about political critiques, I wonder if he might be disturbed by the perceived uncritical embrace of Victorian imperialism in steampunk.[ii] Taking all this into consideration, I find myself wondering why, or why not, Perdido Street Station might be considered steampunk.

Adopting Mike Perschon’s definition of steampunk-as-aesthetic[iii], the novel fits very well.   Miéville’s wonderfully envisioned city of New Crobuzon, and Bas-Lag, the world it is a part of, is very much not our own earth or our own history, of course.  But the city itself, which many readers have commented on as being perhaps the book’s real hero, has a feel which echoes Victorian London.  The various neighborhoods, especially the slums, have a vivid feel, often decaying and squalid, but filled with the persistence and determination of the inhabitants who make of them a home.  From the opening scene, where a basket is let down into a marketplace square, and the food retrieved by two of the characters who will become major viewpoint characters, the city is real, and lively, and compromised, and vital.   Whether Yagharek’s approach to the Glasshouse, inhabited by the core of the city’s cactacae population, or Lin’s travel through Spit Market into the khephri districts, or Derkhan’s visit to the editor of the underground newspaper, Runagate Rampant, among the abattoirs of Dog Fenn, we see again and again the lives and the existences, both marginal and mainstream, of a city comparable in every way to Dickens’s London.

But not only is there a parallel to Victorian London in its vital, overcrowded urban context, haphazard in design and in growth.  This is a port city, a city filled with factories and warehouses.  References to technology are rich in both steam power and thaumaturgy; the rivers of New Crobuzon are polluted sometimes with post-Industrial Revolution toxic sludge, and sometimes with equally dangerous magical overruns.  Transportation is by elevated rail, by airship, or by horse-drawn cab . . . or rather, by Remade-drawn cab, as the cruel technology of altering humans and animals alike into cyborgs, for functionality and for punishment, means that a passenger in New Crobuzon may find herself in a taxi drawn by a horse with steam-powered mechanical limbs, or a restructured ox, or even a human/animal/machine hybrid.  Pubs are filled with artists and writers, or working class drinkers, or the tragic and the destitute.  The government looks down from its towers in the heart of the city.  This is neither our world, nor the nineteenth century, but it is a city which contains many echoes of that London.

Finally, and perhaps most important, what makes this novel steampunk are the social issues with which it engages.   Steampunk is not necessarily political, but there is no reason why it cannot be.  And one of the political functions it can productively engage in is to critique the society that gave rise to its ascetic.   The Victorian social problem novel, such as Dickens’s Bleak House and Hard Times or Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South , is inherently a mode of the period, and certainly represents one possibility for steampunk; it’s a challenge that Miéville easily meets.   The range of political issues in the novel echoes the reality of nineteenth-century Britain quite strongly:  laborers’ strikes, ruthless military actions against working class unrest, press censorship, voting inequities, and a government that seems only to support the upper classes (and possibly only to support itself).  Karl Marx, of course, was writing and working in nineteenth century London, and his doctrines were shaped by the reality of workers’ lives in that time and place;  Miéville has serious Marxist credibility, having written his dissertation at the London School of Economics on Marxism and international law.

Perdido Street Station gives us one model of what steampunk can be.   Fans of airship pirates need not fear that I’m attempting to redraw the boundaries in order to exclude them; far from it.  But if steampunk is to grow as a genre, it must include novels of purpose, of politics, of ideas.   This novel does that.  Before you walk away, you might want to know that it also includes an interdimensional giant spider, and dream-moths that can suck your brain; it has adventure and romance and long monster chases.  It has those things, but it also has ideas[iv], and it’s not afraid to consider them.


[i] Thanks to the fabulous Katherine Moseley for making it, and for the NY Steampunk meetup group for a great discussion!

[ii] I hope it is needless to say that the steampunk community is aware of these associations, and through various forums including Steampunk Magazine, blogs like Beyond Victoriana and Silver Goggles, and efforts by various writers, musicians (the self-parodic rapper Professor Elemental, with his pith helmet and explorer’s gear, for one), artists, makers, and other steampunks, at least some portion of the community has been addressing them.

[iv] As do I, but for fear of this post becoming too long, I am saving them for another day.  I want to further consider gender and politics in the novel, among other things.

Written by Catherine Siemann

March 4, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Posted in steampunk