The Steampunk Empire

The Crossroads of the Aether

Tell me about what you're reading, so long as it's steampunk, neo-vic, or even proto-steampunk like Verne and Wells.

I'm currently chewing my way through Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, which is not only a great Young Adult novel, but is great fun as well. The artwork by Keith Thompson makes a stunning companion to the text, which matches wonderful pacing with strong (albeit somewhat typical) YA style protagonists - a girl masquerading as a boy in the British Air Navy, and the renegade son of the recently assassinated Franz Ferdinand. On one side, we have the biologically altered Hydrogen Breathers (imagine a genetically altered balleen whale) of the Darwinist powers (Britain, France, and Russia) and on the other, the "Klankers" of Germany and Austria, with their metal machines and airships. I've been listening to the audiobook this past week, and just got my hard copy in the mail. Allan C****** (Nightcrawler in the X-Men films) narrates the story beautifully. Highly recommended for those looking for some steampunk that won't make you think too hard.

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I fully agree. That Stephen Hunt spins some good yarn...or darns it...or knits it. Whatever, it's a fun book, and tough to put down. I was reading a couple of books in tandem this week, and this one was the easiest to pick up and hardest to put down.
I recently finished Larklight by Philip Reeve. Aptly subtitled A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space, this is an enjoyable read for ages nine (or thereabouts) and up. It's an adventure set in a Victorian space age, written as Jules Verne or H.G. Wells might have imagined it. The plot is exciting, the writing deft and witty, so that adults are likely to enjoy the reading experience just as much as kids. There's some fun and interesting playing with gender conventions, too, as the narrator's older sister yearns and strives to become a perfect young lady and finds her efforts in that direction consistently thwarted, to the ultimate benefit of all.

Larklight is handsomely designed and illustrated, too, with endpapers that feature a range of pseudo-Victorian advertisements for such products, events, and firms as Coalbrookdale's Phlogiston Ranges, Rossetti's Goblin Fair, and Jaggers Law Firm ("THE Specialists in AETHER-CRIME, also Wills and Dowries Administered with the Utmost Discretion"). Throughout the book the attention to detail is thorough and delightful, including even the copyright page, which asserts, "The pages of this volume are impregnated with Snagsby's Patent Folio-dubbin to preserve them against the depradations of space moth and paper bats."

Here's a brief excerpt, which will convey some of Larklight's flavor without giving away much plot:

"Among my mother's books I had once discovered a volume of stories by a gentleman named Mr Poe, who lives in Her Majesty's American colonies. There was one, The Premature Burial, which gave me nightmares for weeks after I read it, and I remember thinking that there could be no fate more horrible than to be buried alive, and wondering what type of deranged and sickly mind could have invented such a tale. But as I lay there immobilised in a jar on the wrong side of the Moon with only a ravening caterpillar for company I realised that Mr Poe was actually quite a cheery, light-hearted sort of chap, and that his story had been touchingly optimistic."
You'd think none of us read anything anymore! It's been weeks since anyone posted here!

Here's my latest blog post, for your reading pleasure.

I absorbed Gordon Dahlquist's The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters as abridged audio, and augmented that with reading what the audio omitted. Sadly, while I was reading, I wasn't doing as much highlighting or annotating as I normally do, so my thoughts are going to be less detailed than they normally are. Instead of just analyzing details about what Glass Books contribute to the steampunk aesthetic, I want to reflect on Glass Books as an example of steampunk in mainstream fiction. First, a quote:
"For even the finest writer of horror or SF or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto. From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter or focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out. New, subtler covers are placed on these writers' books, with elegant serif typefaces. In the public libraries, the little blue circle with the rocket ship or the magnifying glass is withheld from the spine. This book, the argument goes, has been wifely praised by mainstream critics, adopted for discussion by book clubs, chosen by the Today show. Hence it cannot be science fiction."  -- Michael Chabon, p. 21 "Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the modern short story" from Maps and Legends.

I can't count the number of times I thought of Chabon's words on genre fiction while reading Glass Books. This book should be in the science-fiction/fantasy section of your local Borders or Chapters, but it likely isn't. Borders has it listed as "historical fiction", which is odd, as it's not terribly historical. In fact, aside from cursory references to European locales, there aren't any historical references. None of the standard steampunk history faves have walk-on parts: no Tesla, Edison, or Babbage.

This book is also an unabashed adventure story, complete with contrived coincidences, close escapes, and abundant cliffhangers. The three heroes are standard neo-Victorian types: the jilted Miss Temple, a mix of elegant manners and boudoir curiosity, utterly at home in the nineteenth century when it comes to tea and fashion, but anachronistic in her post-suffragette tendencies; the mysterious Cardinal Chang, the chivalrous assassin-thief; and the endearing Doctor Svenson, reluctant hero, and awkward academic. These three oppose a mysterious Illuminati-like cabal in battle of good vs. evil lacking any postmodern sympathies for the villains.

 The heroes of Glass Books as rendered by Drew Johnson

The villains, in good steampunk fashion, are employing an infernal device of alchemical technofantasy: books made from a strange blue crystal, imprinted with people's memories. These books seem at first but a steampunk version of pornography until the true motive of the cabal is revealed. This is one of Glass Books' great strengths: reading steampunk book after steampunk book, one begins to think they know what to expect. The sensuality and eroticism of Glass Books caught me a bit off guard, but seems very appropriate, given what we know about nineteenth century double-standards regarding sex -- keep your kink behind closed doors, and all is well. The kink is definitely present in Glass Books, and should be of interest to the same type of steampunks who attended the sessions on proper bondage techniques at Steam Powered.

So it's not historical, it's kinky, and it's high adventure technofantasy. Then what the hell is it doing in the regular fiction section? One wonders the same thing while reading Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day or Mark Frost's The List of 7.

In short, it's because, like Chabon and Pynchon, Dahlquist writes very well. That isn't to say you'll like his pacing, or characterization, or the books themselves. That's simply too subjective. But for a story about derring-do, it's very well written. People often misunderstand me when I say this. I'll tell steampunks I think the Difference Engine is beautifully written, but that I thought it a bit tedious. For many people, good writing means enjoyable writing. Twilight is ostensibly very enjoyable, but it's awful writing. I'm enjoying the self-published Chenda and the Airship Brofman for its characters, but I can't say I think it's well-written.

It's the level of prose I'm talking about here. Dahlquist's conceit is ridiculous, a mix of  Machiavellian conspiracies with Sadean mad science and Dumas-like adventure, written so well that you're unaware of how silly it all is until one of the characters escapes yet another cliffhanger moment. And even once you become aware of how silly it all is, you just smile and keep reading, because it's simply too delicious to put down.

Perhaps that's the reason I can't post about the details. I'm simply too biased about what may very well be only a guilty pleasure. But if you're looking for some steampunk masquerading as serious fiction to read while you're hanging around your serious literary friends, then Glass Books of the Dream Eaters are for you. The covers even have those elegant serif typefaces.

These books are *so much fun* -- I didn't really think of them as literary at all (and I read as much litfic as I do sf/f); what I did think of them as was "unputdownable" -- and I'm very much looking forward to the next in the series.
A very interesting point Professor. There certainly is a bias towards SF/Fantasy fiction which is confounded by the best of the genres. I suppose it brings an advantage to the author in that it broadens the base of readership, with those who are put off by the thought of reading a scientific romance happily picking up an adventure story set in an alternative reality as long as it has been placed in the same section as more publicly palatable fiction, and alongside such genre-hopping titles as The Time Traveller's Wife.

In Great Britain there are a great many negative associations with all things science fiction & fantasy. Even, unbelievably, with science itself! It is considered the province of 'geeks' and 'nerds'. I myself have been called such derogatory names for choosing, on rare occasions, to express my appreciation of a scientific endeavour or a work of fantastical fiction in front of people who claim not to see the benefits of such things. Often the hypocricy is revealed when those same people admit to secretly liking the same things.

There is a certain shame felt by many people who like SF/Fantasy, and they seek to hide their shame by insulting the more open fans, by denying their own guilty pleasures, and by disguising their choice of reading material in more socially acceptable covers (books by JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett are published here with alternative, more 'grown up' cover art) or by seeking them on the more socially acceptable shelves.

It is all so reminiscent of schoolyard politics and the juvenile need to be popular and deflect negative attention onto others. A need, fuelled by insecurity, to be seen as one of the 'in-crowd' and never to be associated with the oft bespectacled, intelligent children who are spurned for no other reason than someone has to be spurned in order for an 'out-crowd' to be established and contrasted with.
To use the cliche Richmond, that's definitely the "nail on the head". I think the Harry Potter adult covers are the funniest (although I do like them), simply because the titles are dead giveaways.
I have just finished reading 'London Dust' by Lee Jackson.
A very enjoyable read! I recommend it thoroughly. I plan to aquire and devour his next two novels at least.

London Dust is Mr Jackson's first novel and a very strong effort in my humble opinion. I lack the highly developed critique skills of Professor Perschon, but I hope I can at least discern a novel that is well-written. I would be very interested to hear the opinions of others on Mr Jackson's work.

This first of his four neo-Victorian mystery novels stands alone as a complete story set in 1850s London (the next two feature the same detective and are set 20 years later). Popular singer Ellen Warwick has been gruesomely murdered and her maid-of-all-work Natalie Meadowes is the chief suspect, having been witnessed smeared with Miss Warwick's blood and fleeing the scene and apparently committing suicide.
As the story progresses divers characters are introduced and each is a highly enjoyable, well-fleshed-out individual that would not be unfit for a role in a Dickens novel.
Meadowes, it is revealed, was more than just a maid to Miss Warwick and, by contrivance of 'flashbacks' interspersed with the murder investigation and the to-ings and fro-ings of the low criminal Mr Shaw who witnessed Meadowes apparent suicide in the first chapter, we are taken through a journey from their first meeting, through the rise of Miss Warwick's career from performing in 'penny gaffs' to the somewhat more respectable music halls, to the night of the murder.

If I have a criticism of the book I would say that the end, when it comes, comes too swiftly. I dislike a conclusion that takes only a few pages when it is preceded by a whole book's worth of mystery. There were some questions left unanswered and a sense that the author sprinted across the finish-line once it came into view. Nevertheless, I eagerly anticipate acquiring the next of his books and look forward to seeing how he has developed as an author.

Before then, however, I have a number of other books to read, some left over from Christmas and a new batch received on my birthday. They include:
'Shadows Over Baker Street' - a collection of short stories (the first by Neil Gaiman) using characters from the Sherlock Holmes stories in a Lovecraftian setting.
'A Study in Scarlet' - Arthur Conan Doyle
'The Diamond Age' - Neal Stephenson
'The Court of the Air' - Stephen Hunt
Great review Richmond, I'm intrigued!
Praise indeed Professor!

I am unsure if Mr Jackson is known to many and I have yet to see his books stocked by any high street retailers, but he is available through Amazon. You can also download at least one of his novels from his website www.victorianlondon.org
I highly recommend the site as a rich primary source of information.
Note to self: YOU MUST FIND AND COMSUME SHADOWS OVER BAKER STREET!!! after all, what self-declared guildmaster of the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight would not? ;)

As for the Court of the Air... I loved every minute of it... although I'm still holding verdict on whether it's an alien world or (much like Saberhagen's Books of Swords) possibly set in a far future Earth.

Study in Scarlet is a must read (especially as the introduction of the two main characters we have come to know and love)
Dear Guildmaster Kendrick

Having now completed ‘Shadows Over Baker Street’ I certainly recommend it as good fun. I enjoyed most of it enormously and some of the tales were extremely good. When I find the time I will review it more thoroughly for this thread and the Literary Salon, but for now I will say a few words.
There are eighteen short stories in the book and perhaps this was just a few too many. By the end of the book I felt somewhat saturated. Also there was an inherent flaw in the concept - the character of Holmes is unflappable and Lovecraft’s themes are the unstoppable loss of reason and sanity. Here the irresistible force meets the immovable object and the authors were left with two choices – Holmes is unmanned when confronted by nameless eldritch horrors and his sanity begins to unravel (the classic Lovecraft plot); or Holmes is revealed to be well-versed in the relevant details and his analytical mind quickly solves the mystery (the classic Doyle plot). Almost all the stories took the latter path and I can understand why. A book of tales showing Holmes going mad again and again would seem like an attack on Doyle and the book would start to lose coherence. Although the stories are not linked to each other, each occurring in an isolated version of Holmes’ & Watson’s world, taken as a whole the book reads better as a series of triumphs than it would, I am sure, as a series of descents into insanity. One or two tales concluded with Holmes at his wits end, the threads of his neatly woven and predictable world unravelling before his eyes and I enjoyed these most of all. The majority depicted Holmes in his element and not missing a step. Watson generally fares somewhat less well however.
That said, the book is still good and most of the tales very well written, but with a few blunders here and there (a reference to the Metropolitan Police investigating a murder in Wales in the 17th Century was the corker among these). I would suggest perhaps not reading the tales consecutively, but I would certainly recommend reading them.

RS

As I stated in my recent blog post on defining steampunk as an aesthetic, I knew I'd be referencing that definition of "Technofantasy in a neo-Victorian Retrofuture" in my ongoing posts. Looking at the cover of Zeppelins West, one might ask "what's neo-Victorian about that?" While we've got an airship, a common steampunk icon, we also have Buffalo Bill Cody, a legend of the Wild West, not Victorian London.

I'll remind my readers that I am using the term "neo-Victorian" by its Oxford English Dictionary definition: “resembling, reviving, or reminiscent of, the Victorian era”, limiting that to its temporal, not geographic value. I have yet to find a better term to denote the nineteenth century. Using "nineteenth century" instead of "neo-Victorian" would be more confusing: if I say "nineteenth century," then the temporal limitation is fixed. If I say "neo-Victorian, then it needs only resemble the nineteenth century, not necessarily take place within the nineteenth century. So while Zeppelins West isn't about the Victorian culture, it does draw its recursive fantasy from both historical and literary figures from that period. Truthfully, the book evokes the Belle Epoque decadence of the turn of the century and the shift (hardly noticeable) from the Victorian to Edwardian period.

While steampunk in openly embracing the Old West in its aesthetic, it's been part of steampunk literature since Rudy Rucker wrote The Hollow Earth in 1990. Rucker was using the frontier of Mark Twain's Huck Finn, not Billy the Kid, but his book is set in nineteenth century America nonetheless. The notion that the steampunk aesthetic was unilaterally based in London or the British Empire up until recently is incorrect, especially when one includes (as I do) the television series Wild, Wild West as a steampunk precedent. Zeppelins West was published in 2001, only a few years after the film version of Wild, Wild West was released, but don't conflate them. Zeppelins West was published by Subterranean Press in their standard limited printing run. Subterranean is responsible for releasing some of the best steampunk books out there, including the Nebula award-winning The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker. So publishing Zeppelins West was really just "business as usual" for the folks at SP. I highly recommend ordering something from them, as it will remind you what a book is like when, instead of pandering to current trends, a publishing house releases something because it thinks it kicks a**.

Zeppelins West is a great example of this. I've never read anything like it. Honestly. Coming up with a precis of this book is as challenging as defining steampunk. In the first 35 pages, we've been introduced to Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickock, all traveling in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show to Japan by airship. But the airship is only scratching the surface of Lansdale's anachronistic deviations (and deviances): Buffalo Bill isn't half the man he was in history, he's perhaps 1/8: he's been reduced to a head in a Mason jar filled with pig urine. The jar can be affixed to the top of a steam man, designed by (who else?) Frank Reade, who often invents in steampunk what he only wrote about in real life (see Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett's Boilerplate for another instance of this). We have learned that the Japanese discovered Western America, and that samurai fought with Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn. It is implied that Jules Verne desgined a communications satellite. And, if all this weren't enough, Sokaku Takeda, the "soon to be ruler of Japan", is slowly cutting off slices of the captive Frankenstein's monster, to consume them. I'd tell you what he's consuming them for, but I don't want to spoil the naughty fun.

You might think to yourself, "I love off-the-wall writing like that!" and hurry to order yourself a copy. Stop for a moment before you do, because if you don't like your batshit crazy novels to include the craziest sex you've seen in fiction since John Varley, cannibalism, and off-colour humour on every other page, then you might want to overlook Zeppelins West. I'm an academic, so I have to read it even when it might make me cringe. Lansdale doesn't make me cringe, but I thought a warning was necessary, as I know some of you take my writing to be recommendation, which it isn't always. I loved the book, but if ever there were a moment to say, "it's not for everyone," this is it.

Warnings aside, I think Zeppelins West is one of the best examples of what steampunk could be. It's the sort of book written without any consideration for a subculture, political correctness (although that isn't to say that Lansdale doesn't treat his subjects fairly - Lansdale is like The Simpsons: nothing is sacred, so he's equal opportunity with his lampooning), or marketability. It's a perfect example of "gonzo" writing, which is one of the words K.W. Jeter used to explain what he, Powers, and Blaylock were up to with what he dubbed "steampunk." In addition to everything in those first 35 pages, Lansdale takes the reader on a literary who's who, a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for the Coen Brothers to direct (I'd have said Tim Burton, but his films are generally sexless - you need someone who won't flinch from flesh here): before the book is done, he'll have borrowed characters and plot devices from Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, H.G. Wells' Island of Doctor Moreau, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz.

The following quote should give you a taste (all pun intended) of how crazy this book gets: it takes place right after the beast men of Doctor Momo have decided they are free to eat anything and anybody they want, with the exception of the Goat Man, who says "I'm sticking with vegetables."
They howled at the great big moon. They danced on the beach. They made love to each other. They drank spoiled fruit juice. They had a big time. Of course, the next morning they were mighty sick, two of the creatures had bleeding a****, and the Lion Man, high on fruit juice, had eaten one of the goats. (137-38)
 I'm sure there are some who would exclude Zeppelins West from steampunk on the basis of how crude it is, forgetting that "gonzo" is part of what gave steampunk some "punk." The writers were far more playful, far less serious than some of our current steampunk writers. Lansdale isn't interested in history so much as histrionics, and the result is far more interesting than other books with zeppelins on the cover, such as George Mann's The Affinity Bridge. While I decried Jonathan Green's writing chops, I can still applaud how over-the-top his story ideas are. I think a lot of recent steampunk is trying too hard to explain the goggles and the airships. This isn't hard SF. As evidenced by my "technofantasy" label, steampunk doesn't often explain itself. Lansdale doesn't spend any time explaining why the Frankenstein monster or the Tin Man can be alive. They're both automatons of sorts, and in Lansdale's mind, that adds up to a good reason to get them in bed together.

I'm not advocating for all steampunk to be this bizarre. I like how serious Theodore Judson is in Fitzpatrick's War. But those who are writing "ripping yarns" should check out Lansdale, the first act of The League of Heroes, or any steampunk by Blaylock for a sense of how to incorporate some "gonzo" into their steampunk. In all the seriousness surrounding certain steampunk debates, let's not forget that steampunk is often about whimsy, and not take ourselves too seriously.

Zeppelins West is a tough book to track down. You're likely going to be ordering it from Ebay or Amazon.com's used option. You'll likely also pay more than $30 for it, but if anything I've said here has piqued your interest, it's worth your while. With the renewed interest in steampunked wild west, one can always hope for a reprint.

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