Ganymede by Cherie Priest
Ganymede by Cherie Priest continues the Clockwork Century series, this time bringing us a steampunkish submarine. Except, it’s rather more real than fictional. To understand why this is a problem, we need to go back to Jules Verne who launched the Nautilus and several hundred different versions of submersible craft when he published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870. That’s the problem with a very good idea. It spawns copies so, for a while, the literature we might loosely call science fiction or fantasy had every manner of different underwater machine floating around causing mayhem. This explosion of discussion was also useful because it helped a naïve public explore issues of morality in warfare. Up to this point, war had theoretically been conducted according to rules of honour. So, you would announce your presence, muster your forces in plain view and then engage. Combatants would always be proud of any wounds they received on the front or sides of their body, and be deeply ashamed of any wounds on the back which might suggest they had been running away from the field of battle. Underwater craft that could sneak up on their enemies without being seen were thought dishonourable ways of fighting. Here was the British navy with vast dreadnoughts commanding the waves. The idea some pipsqueak little boat could attach a mine to the side of one of our battleships and sink them without warning was “beyond the pale”. Only uncivilised folk would fight using such subterfuge — this despite Carl von Clausewitz suggesting wars were always potentially chaotic affairs in which anything might happen. However, by the time we get to the 1930s, real-world engineers have almost perfected the submarine and so there was little point in continuing to treat them as science fiction or fantasy — they rarely appear in the “Gernsback” years and later. Indeed, with only one or two notable exceptions like The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert, you only find them in historical novels and contemporary books involving naval warfare.
Ganymede features a version of the H L Hunley, a submarine built in Mobile, Alabama in 1863. Now I’ve no particular interest in defending genre boundaries. I don’t care if a book labelled steampunk is actually historical so long as it’s a good read. A classic example of such a blurring comes in The Ebb Tide, a novella by James Blaylock. It has series characters Langdon St. Ives, Jack Owlsby and Hasbro navigating the Thames in a bathyscaphe, while Narbondo commands something approximating a submarine. Except, apart from the British locations, it’s more or less pure fantasy with a shipyard under London’s streets and the final confrontation with the villain taking place in a “nightmare” realm under the sea. Cherie Priest has more or less limited herself to the reality of the Hunley and speculates on how it might have been modified to be safer while on the move and in battle. The navigation down the Mississippi and subsequent naval engagement is historical in style. Indeed, apart from the obvious exaggeration in the use of airships and the odd appearance of a rotter, this could be an action version of, say, one of the Benjamin January novels by Barbara Hambly — set in New Orleans in the 1830s, they deal with the difficulties of people of colour in a blend of historical and mystery genres.
This is not to say Ganymede is stronger or weaker because of Cherie Priest’s effort at greater historical accuracy, but it does disturb the general level of inventiveness on display. In Boneshaker we have a digging machine releasing an underground pocket of gas with unfortunate results i.e. it’s a blend of fantasy and horror. Clementine has pursuit and aerial warfare in airships. Dreadnought has a remarkable train and Wellsian fighting machines in a cross-country spy thriller. Ganymede is a more conventional war novel with an army of occupation intent on finding a dangerous newly-invented weapon. There’s a minor flirtation with magic but, with the exception of using the zombies as target practice, the overall feel is realistic. In a sense, this runs contrary to the spirit we would normally expect of a book labelled steampunk.
So we have a brief catch-up on the gossip around Seattle, finding out what the folks have been doing since the last novel, then it’s off to New Orleans for the delivery of the submarine to the waiting Admiral Herman Partridge. It’s competently done but it lacks interest and excitement. The whole point of steampunk is that it exaggerates the reality the Victorian Age engineers could deliver. This dumbs down the adventure to the level the contemporary engineers might have delivered and, with the addition of an air crew, the submersible proves easy to “drive” and use to sink enemy craft. This is disappointing, recalling the by-the-numbers adventure stories I read fifty and more years ago.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still
The jacket artwork is, yet again, by Jon Foster.