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Review in brief: What Ho, Automaton!

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What Ho, Automaton, Chris Dolley. Book View Cafe, 2011, ebook.

Steampunk P.G. Wodehouse. OK, what do I do for the other 22 words?

If the concept appeals, the book should. It’s been years since I’ve read any Wodehouse, but the story of Reginald Worcester (pronounced like . . . ) and his human-appearing steam-driven automaton manservant Reeves (rescued from a closet at the Drones Club, where he’d been confined some 14 years after being lost at poker) struck me as letter-perfect. The steampunk framework is overlaid lightly, but works well. I did get a bit of the sense I was reading fanfiction; that didn’t bother me. There’s nothing particularly original about What Ho, Automaton, but it’s a loving tribute.

This ebook was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers’ Program giveaway; there is a 25-word minimum for Early Reviewers’ reviews there, hence the reference to the other 22 words.

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Written by Catherine Siemann

June 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm

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The Difference Engine Revisited

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When I first thought about blogging my steampunk reads and rereads, The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, was at the top of the list. I read Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil. I acquired a book about Babbage’s actual Difference Engine. I had clearly set up for myself a dissertation-chapter length blog post. Of course I never wrote it. Having recently reread The Difference Engine for the formative stages of a couple of academic papers, I’ve realized that I do have a great deal to say about it, but that this isn’t the forum for all of it. Here’s a shorter version.

This book was my first introduction to steampunk as a concept, back in the 90s. I’d been delaying my reread because, I think, I’d seen mixed reactions to the book in reviews, and I wondered if it could live up to my very high level of memories and expectations. It’s a dark novel, but this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Gibson’s and Sterling’s cyberpunk fiction; if a reader is looking solely for fun and adventure, this isn’t really the place.

But did the book live up to my remembrance? Very much so. This book is an amazing read for someone with an existing knowledge of the period. The first time I read it, I was someone with an interest in the period and its fiction, but not a specialist; I was already a fan of Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, as well as an avocational reader of Dickens, the Brontes, and George Eliot. I liked it, despite not being able to decode every single character or social movement presented. The second time I read it, I was in graduate school specializing in the nineteenth-century British novel, and I was stunned at amazingly well-researched and well thought out the text was. Of course The Difference Engine can be appreciated by the general reader; there are many details that add richness but that the story is absolutely fine without. (For example, you really don’t need to know that Sybil Gerard was originally a character in a Disraeli novel to appreciate Gibson & Sterling’s Sybil. In fact, differing circumstances have caused her to develop so differently that she bears little resemblance to her original, in ways that make perfect sense.) A wonderful online resource, The Difference Dictionary http://www.sff.net/people/gunn/dd , can help the reader catch up and appreciate the intricacy of the planning that went into the novel, but again, it’s not necessary to know the details to enjoy the novel.

Most of the more readily recognizable historical characters appear offstage (Byron, Babbage, Shelley) or in smaller roles (Ada, Disraeli, Keats); this is something of a relief when you consider how many fictional versions of H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, and Oscar Wilde inhabit steampunk and gaslamp novels. (Okay, I admit, there cannot possibly be too much Oscar Wilde.)

The Difference Engine hinges on a single major event from which everything else stems: Charles Babbage has actually constructed his Difference Engine (computer) in the early nineteenth century. The various historical and fictional personages have lives that have turned out differently, accordingly, and as someone who does know the figures and the milieu in which they lived, I’m very impressed – it’s all quite credibly developed. The attention to detail is impressive. I loved seeing threads from early in the book reappear later in the book. I love that a miraculously middle-aged Keats has become a kinotropist, that, as aforesaid, characters are lifted wholesale from a novel by Benjamin Disraeli (and their fates play out very differently), that Lord Byron’s become prime minister and that ideas of Chartism, Luddism, etc. are adapted to the new circumstances.

Is it flawless? No, by no means. (And I could do without the cyberpunk-y last two pages, although I appreciate their significance.) Is it fun? Intermittently. Is it a deeply satisfying read to me, is it something that stands up to my knowledge of the period? Absolutely. Jeter/Blaylock/Powers may have originated steampunk, but for me, this is where it first explored its true potential.

Written by Catherine Siemann

June 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm

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Embassytown by China Mieville

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A Goodreads entry that grew and grew, so I thought I would crosspost it here, despite it being neither steampunk nor Victorian.    There are some spoilers, but they are after a clearly-marked spoiler space.

If you know me, and we talk about books, chances are pretty good you know I’m a fan of China Mieville’s writing. Still, I haven’t loved all his books equally. Embassytown, however, is not one of those mere four-star Mievilles. No, it’s really, really good.

First of all, as everyone says, it’s a science fiction novel about linguistics, but it manages to remain compelling throughout. There’s also a very interesting take on colonialism, which of course interplanetary travels are all about. I’m going to leave a spoiler space at the end and then say more.

I’ve always wondered, if there was life on other planets, whether we might be such different orders of being that we would be incapable of perceiving each other. Certainly, there would be significant communication and cultural barriers, and language structures and basic assumptions would be immensely different. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God, but she addressed some of the cultural incomprehension effectively.

Mieville, here, deals with the language, or rather, the Language, and the whole concept of how humans can possibly communicate with beings who process language in such different ways that signifiers mean nothing to them and that lying is impossible. Smart, challenging stuff.

The book has its flaws. I’m not ordinarily one who chides Mieville for lack of characterization; as far as I’m concerned he’s created indelible characters in a number of his books. Here, though, I don’t have a very solid sense of most of the characters, except in terms of their functions and some basic characteristics of each. Also, Mieville can be an incredibly visual writer, but here there’s a lack of description; I can imagine Embassytown and the surrounding Arieke world, but I can’t really *see* it, not in the ways he usually shows things to his readers. However, that may be the point. Bas-Lag and the cities in The City and The City, not to mention Mieville’s various takes on London, are solidly grounded in reality, even if it’s simply the reality of the imagination. Embassytown may be beyond what narrator Avice can show us with the language we have.

Now, please bail if you don’t want to know.

Seriously.

S
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The novel presents a tragedy, the downfall of the Ariekei people (the Hosts) and that what we don’t realize until the very end is that our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is actually on the wrong side. That is, the Ambassadors accidentally addict the Hosts to a particular performance of Language, but then deliberately continue to feed it, first for their continued survival, but then for their reshaping of the planet’s society. (Opium Wars, anyone? Supplying Native Americans with whiskey?) And Avice is one of the colonists who does it. The “happy” ending, in which some of the colonists survive, to form a new society along with Hosts who have lost their Language, but learned to speak various “Anglo-” dialects, represents so many colonial histories. Avice compares the Embassytown of the conclusion to “deadwood planets and pioneer towns,” consolidating the Old West metaphor. Avice’s estranged husband, Scile, confined at the end to a prison/asylum for his support of the Ariekei resistors, is neither insane nor villainous; he’s taken a morally correct position and he’s lost. As Avice says, “he must think he’s fallen among Lucifers.” At the end of the novel, Language is on its way to being wiped out in the urban center, Ariekei collaborators are speaking forms of English and have learned to lie, and “drug” addiction is rampant.

I haven’t heard anyone talking about this, and it may be because the novel is so recent that most of what’s out there are book reviews which necessarily can’t give away the ending. But I think Mieville is also playing an interesting game with us. We’re presented with Avice as a sympathetic narrator, and don’t expect her to be implicit in the systematic destruction of a culture. And yet . . .

Written by Catherine Siemann

June 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm

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An excellent discussion: steampunk vs. steampulp

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http://ageofsteam.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/how-do-i-write-a-steampunk-story-by-dru-pagliassotti/

A must-read for anyone who’s seriously inquiring into the boundaries of steampunk;  Pagliassotti talks about avoiding the cliches and keeping the -punk integral.

 

Written by Catherine Siemann

April 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

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CFP: International Steampunk City 5/6-8

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I’m in the process of pulling together an Academic Track for the International Steampunk City, to be held on May 6-8 in Waltham, Massachusetts.  The event, which is a benefit for the Charles River Museum of Industry, is going to involve the entire town of Waltham, with performances, exhibitions, and events of many kinds.  I’ve been given a room in the public library, with the mandate to program it with academic panels, lectures, and roundtable discussions, dealing with steampunk, or with 19th century history, culture, technology, literature, architecture, fashion, etc.

We’re looking for the following, for programming on Saturday May 7 and Sunday May 8:

1)      Academic panels: I’m looking for proposals for individual papers or entire panels on topics related to steampunk or to relevant 19th century history, culture, technology, literature, architecture, fashion, etc.   Because of the relatively short time frame in planning this, I would encourage you to submit informal indications of intent sooner, rather than later.   Formal proposals are due by March 15.

2)      Lectures: If you have a 30-45 minute presentation you’d like to make on a relevant topic, there will be room on the schedule for some presentations of this type.  Again, formal proposals by March 15, but I would appreciate hearing sooner, if you’re planning to propose something.

3)      Roundtables: These would be more informal discussions, with a single moderator or a panel, again on topics relevant to steampunk or 19th century history and culture.

 

If you’re interested in participating, please contact me at csiemann@gmail.com and let’s discuss it.  This is going to be a major event, and one well worth being involved with.   There has been media coverage on Boing Boing:   http://www.boingboing.net/2011/02/13/waltham-mass-becomes.html

The official website is here:  http://internationalsteampunkcity.com/

Written by Catherine Siemann

February 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm

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The Obligatory Introductory Post

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I started this blog to have a semi-public place to park my thoughts about steampunk and neoVictorian texts and culture.  I started reading steampunk . . . when did The Difference Engine come out?  . . . but it’s only in the past year or so that I’ve been conscious of the broader subculture that’s grown up around this “future that never was.”   If you’re unfamiliar with steampunk (which means you’re probably reading this because you know me), it’s an aesthetic with its origins in nineteenth century science fiction.  But it’s far too complicated to explain it in a sentence or two:  take a look at some of the blogs I link to and you can get a broader sense of the many things that steampunk can mean.

I did my Ph.D. on the nineteenth century novel at Columbia, so I’ve  had a fairly intense immersion in the culture and literature of the period which gives steampunk its origin.  I’m fascinated by ways that 21st century popular culture addresses the 19th century: what do we find interesting?  important?  what do we feel the need to revise, and what do we explore and critique?

I thought it might be useful to have a place to review books, note down passing thoughts, and otherwise start working through ideas.  I’d love it if people read this blog and had comments;  certainly I don’t expect everyone will agree with everything I have to say, but I would love to hear from you in any case!

Oh, and certainly not least important — thanks to the wonderful luis_mw for the Alice manips — I think Tenniel would like what you’ve done!

Written by Catherine Siemann

September 25, 2010 at 1:46 pm

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