The Steampunk Empire

The Crossroads of the Aether

Custer's Last Jump by Utley and Waldrop, reviewed by The Well-read Steampunk

Welcome to The Well-read Steampunk, my blog about Steampunk literature. I will comment on Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Wild West/Weird West, and other sub-genres that share the Steampunk aesthetic.

I have been reading Steampunk since before the term was coined, enjoying works by Michael Moorcock, Kieth Laumer and Harry Harrison in the 70′s and the nascent Steampunk literature of the early to mid-eighties when the seminal work The Difference Engine emerged to energize the genre and set the Science Fiction world spinning anew in its orbit.

I do not wish to stir up controversy, merely to share my love of Steampunk literature, but I must disagree with recent comments by G. D. Falksen, who called Verne, H. G. Wells and Boroughs “Proto-Steampunk.” They were not Proto-Steampunk in that they were Victorian Science Fiction. Proto-Steampunk, as I see it begins with the writers of the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s who reached back to Verne and Wells for inspiration; the Moorcocks, Laumers, and Harrisons mentioned above.

My first selection is one from the Proto-Steampunk years. I recently re-discovered Custer’s Last Jump by Steven Utley and Howard Waldrop. The short story appeared in Universe 6 in 1976 and was included in Gardner Dozois’ 1976 edition of Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year. It has also been anthologized as the title piece in a compilation of Waldrop’s collaborative stories. Custer’s Last Jump was, as a collaborative effort, more succesful than I might have expected. Both writers were experienced collaborators and worked together more than once. They were part of the Austin-area Turkey City Writers’ Workshop, and with this story and Black as the Pit, From Pole to Pole they have been credited with helping to shape Steampunk literature.

Custer’s Last Jump is presented as a series of excerpts from after-action reports, magazine articles, and a Mark Twain travelogue. The sense of verisimilitude is completed by an extensive “suggested reading” section at the end. The story begins with Chapter 27 of the Smithsonian Annals of Flight, Vol. 39: The Air War in the West. The text describes a battered warbird in the Smithsonian collection. It reads like one would expect until we get to the plaque that identifies the German-built aircraft as “Crazy Horse’s Krupp Monoplane.”  To further emphasize that we are not in our familiar reality, the plaque also contains the information, “Captured at the raid on Fort Carson, January 5, 1882.” The text pushes the development of aviation forward to deliver Netherlands-built Austrian aircraft into the hands of the Confederate Army Air Corps in the Fall of 1862. Utley and Waldrop use the series of “excerpts” to weave a completely believable alternate history of  the American Civil War and the events leading up to Little Big Horn. The balance of detail and reference to implicit “prior knowledge” makes a very readable and understandable alternate history. I picked it up and internalized the history in no time, having to remind myself on several occasions that this history was not “real” when I tried to mentally superimpose it on other historical accounts.

The Confederates train Indian pilots to harass the Union forces out West. In a footnoted account, Capt. Smith describes Crazy Horse as “the best natural pilot I have seen or it has been my pleasure to fly with.” Crazy Horse and two of his Sioux compatriots distinguished themselves when Union airships attacked the Confederate airfield, taking down one dirigible and severely damaging two others. While returning from the engagement with the airships, Crazy Horse and his cohort found the Union cavalry that were to capitalize on the confusion generated by the air attack and hit the Confederates at ground level, burning the base to the ground. The Confederate planes strafed the Union troops, routing them utterly.

Meanwhile, Custer is distinguishing himself in the Union’s parachute corps. The swashbuckling reputation he earns is given a tongue-in-cheek homage by referencing the fictitious Erroll Flynn- Olivia deHavilland opus, They Died with Their Chutes On. The narrative continues to lead inexorably toward the Little Big Horn where Custer leads his paratroops as they jump  to raid the Indians massed there. Just as Custer was outgunned and outmaneuvered in the “real” encounter, he is met by Indians in aircraft strafing his men as they float down.

Utley and Waldrop do allow Custer to (possibly) exit in a blaze of glory: they hold out the possibility that he stood up in his harness, shooting at the Indian aircraft as they decimated his troops.

The story appears in several anthologies: I found it recently in the books my school’s library was preparing to discard. It may be difficult to find, but is definitely worth looking for.

TWS

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