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The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

July 17, 2014 2 comments

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo is a reprint collection from Open Road Media, 2014. It was originally published in 1995 by Four Walls Eight Windows, and contains three novellas: “Victoria” (1991), “Hottentots” (1995) shortlisted for the 1996 Locus Award for Best Novella, and “Walt and Emily” (1993) published in two parts by Interzone and shortlisted for the 1994 Locus Award for Best Novella. Ignore the title: recognise that these novellas are not about great airships and mechanical inventiveness on a large scale. Rather this is steampunk as a state of mind. As emotionally repressed people, the Victorians feared they would lose control if their inner passions were allowed free rein. Think Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with a beast lurking inside the sack of skin, just waiting for the chance to take over and cause mayhem. Although it may make us feel more comfortable to restrict this historical trait to sexual behaviour and the threat of men being overtaken by their lust, the reality was a more general exuberance of greed and selfishness, cruelty and ambition — build an empire before tea, exploit it to the maximum possible, and then lose it all as night falls and the downtrodden refuse to accept the continuing abuse.

We start off in the same style as The Importance of Being a Nest by Wilde Birds with The Importance of Being a Newt. Yes, this is the story of Cosmo Cowperthwait who, having expunged Letchworth from the map (those of you interested in this phenomenon should read the excellent Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W Clark), turned his attention to genetic engineering, hoping to satisfy his scientific curiosity by scaling up a newt to human size. Coincidentally, because books like this thrive on the comic effect generated by coincidences, he names his life-sized newt Victoria so, when the Queen of the same name goes walkabout, who else should the prime minister think of putting on the throne as a temporary replacement but the newt? As you will gather from these few sentences, this novella begins with a certain level of absurdity and then elevates the absurdity to previously undreamed of levels. It’s a masterpiece as our heroic inventor and genetic manipulatist ransacks London in search of the missing queen, fighting off temptation from an early suffragette whose self-appointed task is to relieve the suffering of women at the hands of men, only to end up where he started out albeit on a more private basis. Di Filippo’s take on the half-human, half-newt is as a sex toy for the rich that may, in the long term, prove to have a mind of her own. It’s simply an ironic commentary on the science that the combination of the animal and the human produces a more naturally sexual “animal” save that the human Queen Victoria is also discovering the diversity of sexual experience in an upmarket brothel. It seems newt genes and leadership pressures make sexual champions of us all. Although some of the humour is a little “obvious”, this remains great fun to read.

Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo

“Hottentots” is high quality satire that begins by skewering some of the prejudices that would have been prevalent in Victorian times. Fortunately, in our current post-racial times, we could not possibly hold such bigoted views or, if we did, we would carefully avoid expressing them in public. From our position of enlightenment, it gives us a chance to consider the basis of the beliefs that produced ideas of Übermensch, racial supremacism, eugenics, and so on. Our hero, Louis Agassiz, for want of a better way of describing the man, is a Swiss national working to establish a scientific centre in America. Apart from the intellectually elite to be found in places of learning such as Harvard, he considers America a dire melting pot in which miscegenation has run riot, irrecoverably polluting the gene pool and producing a potentially subhuman underclass of simple-minded people. You can therefore imagine his horror when his calm progress through life is disturbed by the arrival of a white man and his Hottentot bride who are intent upon recovering a lost fetish. There’s much tooing and froing as Agassiz attempts to reconcile his desire for a rational view of the world with the somewhat irrational occurrences around him. All this would have been more successful if the character of the man had been more likeable. But, from the outset, we’re shown how ghastly he is (by modern standards) and so have no sympathy for him at all.

“Walt and Emily” is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson who are involved in that most Victorian of pastimes: the pursuit of the supernatural through the séance and other mechanisms for interacting with the spirit world. Emily’s brother, Austin, seeks a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He hopes the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy is the real deal and engages Walt and Emily to investigate the medium’s claims not only to communicate with the dead, but also transport the living into the spirit world. This involves us trying to reconcile science and the supernatural as the medium discharges ideoplasm from her breasts and transports our poets to an encounter with Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. There’s a general sense of fun as literary sensibilities are explored across the ages but, as with the other stories, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As in the other novellas, there’s also a sexual component to the story.

Although there are monsters on display, some more Lovecraftian than others, and there are some beautifully rendered mechanical ideas to satisfy those who want their steampunk to be about machines rather than ideas, full enjoyment of these three stories is somewhat dependent on being familiar with the more general Victorian writing styles and the particular literary flourishes of the poets in the last novella. This is not to say the modern reader will not enjoy these stories, but they will deliver more enjoyment if you have some background in the history and literature of Victorian times. With that caveat, I recommend The Steampunk Trilogy as producing a nicely balanced and occasionally humorous set of alternate histories for us to explore.

For a review of another work by Paul Di Filippo, see Cosmocopia.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo

August 13, 2009 1 comment

Cosmocopia

This is a short novel, printed in a non-standard but interesting layout, and packaged in a box with a jigsaw puzzle and a postmodernist, pulp-style piece of jacket artwork laid in as a full-colour print. The artwork and design is by Jim Woodring in an edition limited to 500 sets, signed by author and artist and published by Payseur and Schmidt. I have been buying limited editions for more than twenty years and, without doubt, this is one of the more eccentric to add to the collection, particularly because it will not conveniently sit on a shelf. It will have to be separately stored. This is somewhat annoying in that I collect the works of authors I like rather than collecting pieces of art in more abstract form. As I write this, I find myself resentful at having to pay so much to get the latest work of an author. This is aggravated by the fact that this is what one politely calls a short novel. Perhaps it will work out well in the longer term and, in the event I decide to shed books from the collection, I will find collectors prepared to pay out for a mint first edition. But, in general, I prefer more words for my initial cash investment.

As to those words, we find ourselves immersed in an extended metaphor about artistic creativity and redemption. The painter in question is a man whose talent is matched by his ego (or perhaps that should be the other way around). He is at the top of his profession and commands the highest prices when he chooses to sell from the works he has so assiduously salted away over the years. Now old and left weakened by a stroke, he no longer has the enthusiasm for painting. In part, this is because he has lost his muse whom he painted repeatedly. The woman who used to be his model and lover no longer seeks congress with a man who is but a shadow of his former self. This reflects an assumption about the relationship. Between artist and model, there is mutual impregnation. He may have sex with her, but she penetrates his mind. He gestates and delivers a work of art from the womb of his mind.

This may seem a somewhat flowery way of putting it, but Di Filippo spends this short novel considering the process whereby an artist produces art from his mind. It is, perhaps, a cliché that the best artists are obsessional and monomaniacal in the pursuit of perfection. If their ability to perform at the highest standards is diminished, this can be deeply frustrating. Indeed, at the crunch, the passions raised could be dangerous, if not actually, homicidal. This sets the scene for the transition of our artist into a different dimension where art is literally created by force of mind. Before leaving this second world, he creates a portrait of the woman who has come to be his wife but dies in delivering their child — a process that mirrors the delivery of art. In this, he changes to the style of Rubens, Renoir, Bonnard et al who repeatedly painted their wives. As he and his son force their way into the interstitial void between the dimensions, he is motivated by a spirit of revenge. If there is a God, he wishes to kill God for allowing the death of his wife. In this void, he resumes his status as a giant of the art world and physically acts out the killing of his hated rival in the human world. He also acquires a new partner. And then, in order to return to his own world, he gives up his desire for revenge, sacrifices his love for his child, leaves his new partner behind, and is restored to the human world. I will leave it to those who read the book to decide whether there is anything redemptive about this. My current opinion is that the human artist is a work-in-progress and another is probably using him in the role of a muse.

In this story, there are parallels with the relationship between Matisse and Monique Bourgeois. In 1941, Bourgeois both nursed Matisse who had cancer and acted as his model. They were separated by the war in 1943 and did not meet again until 1946 when, at her request, he produced what was arguably his greatest work in the Chapelle du Rosaire. The original mythological cornucopia gave the person in possession everything he or she most desired. Matisse would have used the cosmic horn for the chance to be reunited with and inspired by his muse, Bourgeois. The interest in Cosmocopia lies in seeing how Di Filippo’s artist will use his access to the horn.

The telling of the story is up to Di Filippo’s usual high standard — he really is one of the best writers of short fiction around. The evocation of the alternate world is richly imagined and the emerging love between two very different people (both culturally and biologically) is affecting. But the artist as a protagonist is unsympathetic. Even in love, he remains self-obsessed, focussing on the provision of material comforts while relegating his wife to the role of household drudge. As a father, he is happy to abandon his son to get what he wants. Frankly, I don’t think he deserves to be saved. Assuming, of course, that the situation in which he ultimately finds himself is what he would have wanted for himself. There may be a certain irony at work in the concluding pages.

So the book element is interesting and provokes some thought. I confess I am not going to do the jigsaw. I last did one as a child and have no desire to do so now, even though I am theoretically well into my second childhood. As to the package? Sad to say, I do not think it worth the money. Hopefully, a collector will disagree with me in the event that I do decide to sell.

For a review of a collection of novellas, see The Steampunk Trilogy.

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The Revolution Business by Charles Stross

In theory, writing should be the easiest activity in the world. It is, after all, nothing more than speech captured on paper. Since everyone seems able to speak at nineteen to the dozen, dashing off the odd short story before lunch and a novel or so on your summer hols should be no problem. Except that, if you ask the few who can string more than two sentences together to make a coherent paragraph, there’s a lot of craft to learn before the paper version is worth reading. One of the key problems to resolve is the issue of narrative structure. Starting on page one, the author has to offer a coherent exposition of events, sufficiently interesting and credible to lead the readers through to a satisfactory ending.

One approach is like building a tower or digging a tunnel. Once the author sets off up the tower or down the tunnel, we are all obliged to follow, limited in what we can see because of the structure through which we pass. If you’re like Ted Chiang, you write something like the Tower of Babylon which, incidentally, won the Nebula in 1990. This should be the ultimate linear story of a man who climbs up the titular Tower, except the only discovery is that, like Ouroboros, what goes up, must come down. In non-linear stories, the events as described are not necessarily chronological or immediately related to each other. They exist like pieces in an unmade jigsaw until the author assembles them in some hopefully pleasing manner. The most common example is a multiple point-of-view structure that introduces a cast of characters that may not meet until the end or may not meet at all but influence each other indirectly. In the vast majority of all plots, we get to see an increasing convergence between all the narrative strands as the plot develops and more characters do meet.

Under normal circumstances, the author is modest and limits the cast of characters. This keeps the storytelling manageable. All of which brings me to The Revolution Business by Charles Stross. This is the fifth volume in what has been projected as a cycle of six although, unless everyone with nukes uses them in a MAD way, there could be a new series involving expansion into, or interaction with, different worlds as they are discovered. Stross has been attempting something only rarely seen. He has been building an upside-down pyramid, i.e. he placed the apex stone on the ground and then began to fan upwards and outwards without the structure falling over. It has four faces, one for each world and, as new characters are introduced and situations develop, the volume above the apex stone has been expanding. Frankly, I thought the whole thing too ambitious. It would have been an easy ride to take if the lead character, Miriam, had been the sole point-of-view. But Stross has been running multiple characters in each of the worlds (albeit the fourth world has merely been visited so far and appears enigmatically empty).

I thought the monumental effort was threatening to fall over in the fourth book, The Merchants’ War, but Stross seems to have more discipline in this latest episode and I feel more confident that the sum of the parts will prove an interesting whole when we can all look back and see how we ended up. The plotting here is more taut and, it must be said, all the better for being less ambitious. Much of the activity surrounding a subset of the lead characters is kept in outline. We see only as much as we need to see to get us where we need to go. It’s all building up towards an interesting high-stakes game in the final episode.

As one final thought, I was amused to see Paul Krugman’s endorsement on the front of the jacket. I find Krugman’s twice weekly columns in the NYT a fascinating read. My estimation of the man has been enhanced by his willingness to publicly endorse science fiction. Too few big-name intellectuals are prepared to admit opening the boards of an explictly SF book. As a world-renowned economist, I wonder what he makes of Mack Reynolds and Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo. Reynolds was a one-man army when it came to speculation about economics and, although it’s all a little wooden by modern-day standards, the ideas remain interesting. Spondulix is just good fun and should be read by all — it’s probably slightly better in the short version rather than the full novel. Di Filippo is one of the very best short story writers around.

For a review of a collection by Charles Stross, see Wireless. The concluding volume of this series is The Trade of Queens. Also see The Apocalypse Codex, Neptune Brood, Rule 34 and The Fuller Memorandum.

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

June 29, 2009 3 comments

Following in the footsteps of David Copperfield, you should continue reading to find out whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else.

But, just in case you’re of a nervous disposition, I’m the eponymous author of this piece, so be reassured. I survived to the end otherwise I couldn’t have written as much as I did before I (was) stopped. Ain’t no-one who can chop logic better than me (or something).

In this, I’m following the general trend in modern fiction. Most stories with an “adventure” element promise from the outset that the main characters are almost certainly going to survive whatever is thrown at them (like the cat in Ridley Scott’s Alien). If the authors want to introduce tension and suspense, the tried and tested tactic is to build up empathy between the readers and the most favoured characters. Thus, when they are exposed to the threat of injury or death, we can feel the vicarious thrill of danger. Escapes by the skin of teeth generate the “white-knuckle” quality that makes a good thriller. If the authors can’t manage a real sense of danger then they have to fall back on wit or satire or something else that will engage our interest and make us want to read to the feel-good ending of hero/heroine triumphant. There are, of course, famous exceptions where the author cheats and the hero/heroine dies. Sometimes, this happens in a first-person narrative which increases the shock value when we read the last page.

A different exception to the general rule crops up in some time travel stories where the authors happily maim or kill off lead characters in one version of history because they can be continued uninjured in sequential or parallel timelines depending on whether history is retrospectively changed (and no-one remembers) or multiple universes are created (as in the TV series Sliders). An example of mutable timelines is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus where a small group of time travellers make sequential attempts to change history for the better. The alternative is the assumption that the timeline cannot be changed (as in the Company novels by Kage Baker). The best known example I can give you to explain why never to write a book based on this proposition is probably J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry because, having struggled through the overblown first version of history, you then get to read it all over again as the “hero” loops round to ensure that what was predestined actually results.

All of which brings me to The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Berkley, August, 2007). Joe (sorry about the familiarity, but I need to distinguish brother Jack) is getting a little long in the tooth. In conventional PR-speak he’s an “old pro” or a “veteran”, having first leapt into prominence with Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Forever War in 1975 — a triumph that should never go out of print. His approach to writing is simple and uncomplicated, telling the story in a straightforward way with little embellishment. This directness works really well when the plot moves along. Unfortunately, this latest effort is genuinely pedestrian. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with pedestrians. They lurk forlorn in the corner of our eyes as we swish past in our gas guzzlers. But, in a different way, Joe is following a genuine favourite of mine, Jack Vance. The young Vance was full of passion and imaginative fire, and reading almost all his books is a delight. But that delight peters out when we come to what I assume will be his last book, Lurulu. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly readable book. But it’s not a good advertisement for Vance. Similarly, Joe’s latest book is a big disappointment with his simple prose now wooden and lifeless.

Joe is peddling the saga of a young researcher as he hops forward through time. Structurally, time travel is simply a narrative excuse to jump from one culture to another, much as Swift pushed Gulliver into meeting people of varying size, avoiding uncultured Yahoos and inquiring whether sunbeams could be extracted from cucumbers. Swift was, of course, writing a satire which might continue in a cycle with Wells’ The Time Machine, detour via Huxley’s Brave New World, and end with Sheckley’s The Status Civilization. Wells tells us a straight-laced allegorical story about innocence and Morlocks. Huxley creates a dystopia of genetic manipulation which produces a sterile, drug-based, caste-ridden society. And Sheckley gives us another of his rollicking over-the-top satires. In short, the writer’s motive for introducing cultures that contrast with our own is to hold up a mirror to edify, amaze or amuse us.

So what does Joe offer us here? Well, the two pivotal episodes are religious and economic. As to religion, early writers like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis set the bar high, closely followed by individual classics like Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. but Joe seems content to dally with the notion of a new Church Militant, prepared to cast the first missile and smite the unbelievers in a restoration of an archaic Puritanism. Given the polarisation in the USA between believers and non-believers, I can understand that such a theme may have a certain contemporary resonance, but the delivery is curiously unconvincing. We’re given little more than a flat description of what our hero sees with no explanation or rumination to enliven the proceedings.

In the second set-piece, we’re in a culture based on barter. Telling it straight, one of the best writers of economic SF was Mack Reynolds, always prepared to extrapolate albeit with slightly naive political overtones. Personally, I prefer to laugh and so love Dario Fo’s theatrical farces like Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay in which a protest over shop prices has unexpected consequences. But the big comparison is with one of the best fictional barter societies — another delightful satire, Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo, where the owner of a sandwich shop inadvertently invents a new currency. Sadly, Joe doesn’t measure up.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to a book is that it lacks momentum. In the barter sequence, the society is managed by an AI character called La. “She” describes the people as  “. . .complacent and rather stupid. . . addicted to comfort and stability”. Later explaining, “This is one boring world.” Was ever an admission so ironic from an author supposed to be interested in keeping us amused?

In short, this is a competent book that goes through the motions of a time loop because that’s how plots of this kind have to work. But, instead of maintaining interest with subversive wit, boundless imagination and a satirical eye, we get descriptions of societies that even the author admits are boring. If you haven’t done so already, read the early Joe Haldeman. The man genuinely deserves his royalties for past glories rather than for this current effort.

Hey, guess what? I survived to the end of this episode. Next week, I’ve scheduled a heart attack during a visit from my mother-in-law. You’ll have to read on to find out whether I can be bothered to survive. Hopefully, I’ll find a better book to read in the meantime.

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
Earthbound
Work Done For Hire.

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