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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.

The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder

July 9, 2014 6 comments

TheReturn Of The Discontinued Man-large

The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2014) is the fifth in the Burton and Swinburne series and it amply demonstrates the problem in having to deal with multiple parallel universes when, as an author, you have taken the strategic decision to limit yourself to a single protagonist. As an aside, the alternative approach is in the completely wonderful, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, where one man begets a multitude of himself (and, surprisingly, herself which is good for the perpetuation of themselves). Because we have a single point of view, we therefore face a slightly obscure first few chapters to this novel. In theory, each separate reality in the multiverse is a closed channel but, for our purposes, there’s a coincidence overload, i.e. because so many people in different universes do exactly the same thing at the same time, there’s an overload that breaks down some of the barriers. We first get to see the results of this at precisely 9 pm on the 15th February, 1860, as Babbage performs a critical experiment on the damaged time-travelling suit worn by Edward Oxford. Almost simultaneously in multiple time tracks, the damaged suits disappear. As the time bubble forms around them, there’s damage to Babbage. In part, this is physical with the precise removal of a limb. But it also induces a non-responsive (fugue) state. There’s no sign of life but, in an entirely mechanical being, it’s hard to tell what might have happened to the person stored inside.

In different parts of London, we also get the sudden appearance of Spring Heeled Jacks, all of whom prove to be disoriented but determined to find Burton. As a form of running joke, Burton is then serially barred from restaurants, clubs and organisations such as the Royal Geographical Society because he’s held responsible for all these Jacks turning up and disrupting normal business activities. Thanks in part to his ingestion of Saltzman’s tincture, Burton’s mind is also moving between universes and times. During these episodes, we pick up clues and pointers as to how the parallel worlds are faring and, perhaps more importantly, what happened in the future to persuade Edward Oxford to research time travel. We also have some unusual weather phenomena and, with the deposit of seeds, what seems to be a homage to H.G. Wells’ Martian red weed (the great man does show up again later in the book). However, once this excitement abates, the book becomes a slightly more conventional linear time travel exercise as our motley crew of chrononauts sets off into the future.

Mark Hodder

Mark Hodder

This has the supreme advantage that they may well be the catalyst for rewriting what happens in their future but, whenever they arrive when they are going, there should be a single timeline between their Victorian stating point and their finishing point (whatever the name of this era proves to be). In order to avoid overtaxing themselves and their machine, they plan to make the journey in a series of short hops. To pave the way, members of the Cannibal Club are told to go forth and multiply so there will be children and grandchildren waiting to greet them at each stopping point. Financial arrangements are also put in hand to ensure there will be enough money, if necessary, to rebuild their machine as they move forward in time. This gives us a series of snapshots of how the world could change. This is rather more successful than the first section of the book. It also shows us how Edward Oxford is emerging as the villain of the piece, and prepares the ground for the final battle when our heroic team arrives in the year when Edward Oxford first set off to travel to Victorian times. Needless to say, the time they find is nothing like the time Edward Oxford left. The bow wave of change has preceded them and the first version of Edward Oxford’s time has been completely overwritten.

In tone, most of the humour of the early books has disappeared to be replaced by a slightly more grim feeling as we survey the wreckage of the world as Edward Oxford and Burton’s movement through time, bends the future out of shape. Some of the ideas are interesting and we do have unintended consequences to genetic engineering albeit slightly more heavy-handed this time around to make a political point. But I have the sense this series is reaching the point it should stop. The freshness has gone out of it and there’s a slight air of repetitiveness about some of the elements we encounter. This is not to say another book would not be interesting. The inventiveness to bring this to fruition is outstanding. Indeed, I stand to applaud the sheer ingenuity to weave the preceding four books together to produce this plot. But any more than one to follow The Return of the Discontinued Man would probably kill the golden goose. Needless to say, you should not read this unless you have read the others. You will not have a clue what’s happening.

Once again, the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.

For reviews of the first four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

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

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke

April 29, 2014 5 comments

longlivethequeen

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke (one of the several pseudonyms of the suitably anonymous Kathryn Smith) (http://www.orbitbooks.net/, 2013) is the third and final in The Immortal Empire series which bills itself as dark fantasy. So, fearing nothing, I step into the life of Xandra Vardan. She’s the sixteen-year-old slip of a girl who thought she was just an ordinary kid and then discovered not only that she was a rather special supernatural being but, perhaps more importantly, the heir apparent to the Goblin throne. Yes, not only does she have to adjust her understanding of how the world works, but also learn to wear the crown. For all this to work, we have a fantasy alternate version of London. Queen Victoria is one of these rather long-lived vampires, there are werewolves and, of course, the goblins live underground in tunnels next to the London Underground. All this might have been harmonious except for the group of humans who seem to think all supernatural beasties are an abomination. They act like terrorists, killing those who can be killed, blowing up stuff and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Indeed, with the news media somewhat on the fence, there’s a risk of the majority human population rising up and attempting their version of a final solution.

 

Rather like Blade (1998), our heroine has an important mutation which enables her to walk in daylight — it seems crossbreeds can develop useful attributes. Indeed, there are secret laboratories experimenting on the supernatural creatures and also looking for a variety of the Plague that might spread fast through the human community. Think of the “one ring to rule them all” and you’ll get the idea as to what the labs are actually trying to produce. Because this is a covert romance, there’s a lively relationship between our Goblin Queen and Vex, the alpha male of the werewolves. And, supposedly to add a little spice to proceedings, the catalyst for this book’s action is the escape of one of the lab creatures. In the last book, Xandra was briefly held by one of these labs and they harvested some of her eggs. Now we have the product of artificial reproduction out of the streets looking not unlike our heroine when she chooses to (yes, a shape shifter with facial recognition software built in). It’s a not uninteresting idea that our heroine should have to relate to and occasionally fight an enhanced version of herself.

Kate Locke

Kate Locke

 

First the strange feature. This is a book written by a Canadian set in London. As you might expect, this requires a certain scattering of Britishisms to give the idea the setting might actually have something to do with Britain as one of the language centres of the world. Because the setting is somewhat ambiguous in terms of technology — genetic manipulation, cloning and other advanced techniques mixed in with occasional steampunk elements — the colloquialisms are “old”. For example, I haven’t heard anyone refer to another as His Nibs for more than fifty years. But here’s the thing. I was not at all surprised to see our heroine frequently curse by using the phrase, “Fang me!” (she’s dating a werewolf and her father is a vampre so fangs run in the family). Amongst themselves, we British folk can get quite salty if the mood takes us. Yet I then discovered most of the characters curse and swear like navvies. There may be marginally more fangs than fucks in all its grammatical forms, but it’s the presence of other Anglo Saxon expletives that intrigue me. Shag, knob and the other less obvious words appear quite regularly, but it’s relatively unusual to find a cunt (or two) in a book with romantic overtones presumably aimed at the delicate fair sex. Not that I care one way or the other. It’s language you hear everyday on the streets. I was just faintly surprised to see it in a book like this.

 

The second oddity is what’s presented to us as the mystery plot. Just who is behind this fiendish plot with the laboratories? Why has this mastermind created this heroine lookalike? What is this new plague? Well, the answers to these question are remarkably obvious. I may not have read the two earlier volumes but, if you actually care, there’s really only one person it can be.

 

So there you have it: a thin plot stretched to tedious length to comply with modern publishing standards. A few decades ago, this would have been a satisfactory half to an Ace Double. As it is, Long Live the Queen overstays its welcome as dark fantasy (it’s not that dark), as urban fantasy (too much real sex in both language and deed), as steampunk (only the names of modern devices are changed to make them sound Victorian), as mystery (which it isn’t), or anything else you might care to throw into the genre mix.

 

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

 

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

December 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Fiddlehead-The-Clockwork-Century--330949-85cd313e3798cda3bd59

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest (Tor, 2013) is the sixth and supposedly final book in The Clockwork Century series. The fact this is intended as the final book is both a strength and a weakness. The positive virtue comes from the need to resolve as many of the different threads that have been running through the series as possible. To do this, we finally get upstairs to the place where the major players have been manipulating events. The problem with the series to date has been we never got to see the big picture. We were always trapped down in particular events without a proper context. This was a growing frustration. Hence we can be relieved it’s all over. The weakness is that no groundwork has been laid for the resolution of this alternate history Civil War. There have been five books showing us the scale of the growing problem and all this is going to be resolved in one book? It’s a stretch, particularly if the final book is to be a satisfying steampunk adventure story in its own right.

So how does it actually play out? Well, from the off, we’re introduced to the ultimate calculating machine. It’s the titular Fiddlehead which has been constructed by Gideon Bardsley, a brilliant ex-slave who’s managed to convince Abraham Lincoln, disabled after the attack at the Ford Theater, he can get all the answers needed to stop the war and reunite the country. Not surprisingly, there’s a hawkish faction that wants the war to continue for its own profit. This gives us the dynamic for the plot. Abraham Lincoln joins forces with President Grant and sends out agents to investigate what’s actually happening and, wherever possible, to frustrate events likely to perpetuate the armed struggle. At the sharp end, we have the return of Maria Boyd, southern spy, and Henry Epperson of the US Marshals Service. They combine forces and collect the necessary information to confirm what Fiddlehead has predicted. Then it’s a chase to prevent the proposed shock and awe moment in this Civil War scenario. Yes, just as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed to undermine the confidence of the Japanese, Katharine Haymes is pushing the North to use an explosive device to release the gas against civilian targets. She claims this will demoralise the South and produce a surrender. In reality, she believes the South and the watching world will be outraged the North has attacked an unarmed population centre and will rally to the cause. Since she runs an armaments conglomerate, this reinvigorated conflict will lead to even greater profits with sales to both sides in the immediate conflict and to other nations who join in the fight.

Cherrie Priest

Cherrie Priest

The politics is not unrealistic but it’s kept at a superficial level because, to be honest, the book is not long enough to produce a convincing context while maintaining an adventure pace. The fan base for this series expects to see a strong woman character fight her way across America to save the world (if the zombie plague is not contained, the world will soon be eaten up). And herein lies the unfortunate compromise that prevents the book from being satisfying. If we ignore the gunplay, the airship dogfighting and the occasional explosion, we have only a glimpse of one side of the Civil War. Wars have their own momentum but, ultimately, it comes down to the few people who hold positions of power on both sides to agree terms for peace. We meet up with President Grant and Abe Lincoln who send a message suggesting talks to the other side. That’s all we see. There’s no direct contact shown to discuss a truce. All we get is an announcement at the end of the book. It seems everyone just sees sense after Boyd and Epperson prevent the gas attack on the South.

There are also timeline problems as the events in the North are supposed to parallel the movement of the agents around the border areas and the South. In particular, we have a night-long siege at Lincoln’s home which keeps going in alternate chapters. This is an unnecessarily long night. There’s no reason why we cannot follow Boyd and Epperson in their campaign and have more political cross-border efforts to stop the war. The climax can therefore come with the physical attack on the Lincoln home as things our agents get closer to their target in the South. That way, it can all be tied up and lead into a peace conference to settle terms for a joint defence against the zombies. In many ways, Fiddlehead is a success in resolving matters but, after the catastrophe that was The Inexplicables, it may just be we’re all relieved it’s all over (for now).

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus

December 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Transform_You-1d_SK

I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus (Apex Publications, 2013) Apex Voices: Book 2 gives me pause for a slightly nonstandard reason. Some years ago, I ran my own small press. For reasons which need not concern us here, it was not a great success but, rightly or wrongly, I believed in the authors and their books. It would not have occurred to me to publish something that I thought poor or second-rate. I note with some degree of derision, the emergence of a new breed of small press publisher who sees crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo as removing the risk from their decision-making. Instead of backing their own judgement with their own money, they raise the necessary cash from future customers. This does not apply to Apex Publications. They have the confidence to put their own capital at risk. My apologies. I’m diverting from my theme. This collection of two stories from Maurice Broaddus contains a somewhat ironic pair of effusive panegyrics as to the author’s worth. Why ironic? Because the shorter piece is titled, “Pimp My Airship” and these two prefatory pages are implicitly titled, “Pimp My Author”.

Anyway, this excess takes nothing away from the actual quality of the two stories, the first of which is the longer “I Can Transform You”. We’re immediately pitched into a noir science fiction police procedural in which Mac Peterson, an on/off police detective is called in when his ex-partner has taken a dive off one of the tallest buildings in the neighbourhood. Like Icarus, she did not make a soft landing. Sadly, she’s one of a growing number of people who have taken their leave of the world by this extravagant swan-diving and no-one has been able to come up with a convincing explanation for this aberrant suicidal gesture. His boss, Hollander, introduces our hero to Detective Ade Walter who’s to take lead on this case. On top of the building, there are signs of a struggle and she has trace amounts of DNA under her nails suggesting defensive action on her part. This sets the plot in motion.

Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus

Mac is, of course, a man with a past. He was ousted from his role as a full-time detective because he busted a ring of paedophiles with connections to the rich and powerful. He’s retreated into the demimonde as a problem-solver or PI if you want to dignify what he does for cash to fuel his increasing dependence on the drug called Stim. Just about holding himself together, he sets off to ask questions of the “gang” of desperate homeless people who had connections to this latest “suicide”. As a piece of noir science fiction, it’s similar to Michael Shean’s Shadow of a Dead Star and the rather better Bone Wires. In this type of story, our hero finds himself forced to work outside the formalised law enforcement structure in a world suffering environmental damage to investigate the activities of a shadowy “organisation”. He may or may not be augmented or, as in Guy Haley’s Omega Point, he may have a cyborg as a friend. As a basic plot, it’s not very original. What saves this version to some extent is the quality of the characterisation. There’s some heft to the protagonist but, in comparison to Clean by Alex Hughes which also deals with a consultant to the police (he’s a telepath) struggling with addiction in a future noir dystopia, Broaddus is a little thin.

The shorter “Pimp My Airship” is a political steampunk allegory in which the American revolution failed and Britain retained control. The colony prospered by exploiting the free labour force and building on the backs of the slaves. The status quo of corruption and racism would have continued, filling the coffers of the British masters, but for the arrival of automation. Since machines, once deployed, are easier to manage than slaves, the newly redundant were ghettoised and left to their own devices (sic). Pacification through opium was the norm, with imprisonment for any who chose to speak out against the racial oppression. This story sees a very public blow being struck for the practical emancipation of the ex-slaves. It initially requires a group to be freed from imprisonment rather along the lines of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille. For this purpose, an airship is required. The Afronauts fly to their destiny and the appropriately named “Sleepy” must decide where his loyalties lie.

In the confines of a short story, it’s a challenge to develop beyond broad brush strokes. The problem with this particular vehicle for mirroring modern racial discrimination is the lack of an economic context. In contemporary America, the racially oppressed groups are maintained in a state of dependence with just enough earning capacity to sustain life, doing the work the racially advantaged consider beneath their dignity. In time, this will change as the better paid jobs dry up and the bare subsistence jobs are all that are left. But for now, the potential for revolution is lacking. The oppressed have been brainwashed into apathy, convinced they are powerless to effect change. In this story, there are no low paid jobs for the poor to fight over. They have been condemned to slum wastelands. So who feeds them and provides shelter from the elements? If automation replaces all the low-pay, no-pay jobs, the elite should be thinking in terms of eugenics and a final solution, rather than picking up a bill for charitable works and free opium for all (cf “This Peaceable Land” by Robert Charles Wilson).

I might have thought these two stories published as I Can Transform You rather better if the book had begun without the broadside of unrelenting praise. Having raised expectations with a concerted sales puff of epic proportions, the actual stories were almost bound to disappoint. In American terms, the politics underpinning both stories is probably quite edgy. In European terms, it’s superficial and unchallenging. Though the writing style is above average, the substance is lacking for a European reader like me. Perhaps American readers will find more grist.

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

Fiendish Schemes by K W Jeter

November 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Fiendish Schemes by K J Jeter

As I move ever faster into advanced adulthood, I await with interest the supposed memory phenomenon which permits me to recall what happened thirty years ago as if it was yesterday. This would be very convenient for the purposes of this review. All those years ago, I was collecting the work of K J Jeter. He was considered very edgy, producing distinctly different novels upon which to feast. One of these published some twenty-five years ago, was Infernal Devices. This, you understand, was long before the label steampunk had been invented. The book was marketed as a “mad” Victorian style of adventure story in which various weird and rather wonderful things happened. As it is, I have no difficulty in remembering what I had for breakfast this morning (to eliminate doubt, I have eaten the same breakfast every morning for sixty years), but cannot remember clearly what the earlier book was actually about. All I know is that I read it. Fortunately the absence of symptoms of Alzheimer’s is not a problem for these purposes. The sequel, Fiendish Schemes (Tor, 2013), stands up well on its own.

First let’s resolve the problems of labels. The marketers would have you believe this is a return to steampunk as conceived by the prophet Jeter. In literal terms, this has some mild credibility given the majority of technology on display is either powered by clockwork or those machines have been converted to steam. Not out of concerns for the environment, you understand. This is not steam produced by the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels. For now, climate change is not rearing its head. Rather the Victorian entrepreneurs have hit upon geothermal power. Following the designs of Arthur Conan Doyle channelling Professor Challenger in “When the Earth Screamed”, they have driven deep shafts into the earth and now draw up magma to superheat water and distribute it by a complex network of pipes from the blasted landscape of northern areas to the sultry, steam-ravaged cities of the south. The result is an apparently inexhaustible supply of steam piped into every home which can afford to pay the going rate. Needless to say, the businesses investing their capital in this source of power have grown excessively rich.

K W Jeter

K W Jeter

If we had stayed at this level, we would probably have been willing to accept this as mere steampunk, but the actual book is rather more rooted in surreal or absurdist fantasy. Set in Victorian Britain, one fact is inescapable. Britain is an island that has, since recorded time began, depended on trade to survive. Secure logistics for shipping are therefore essential. This was achieved until the seas achieved sentience. Yes, large bodies of water are now intelligently watching what we do on the land. If they disapprove, they can raise or lower the water level in their area. This can rip the bottom out of ships plying routes normally full fathom five or flood low-lying farm land. To deal with the first, Victorian scientists have developed mobile lighthouses which can literally walk from one point to another as required to warn ships of changing conditions in the area. Of course, this movement is expensive, inconvenient and reactive. It would be so much better if we humans could negotiate treaties with the seas or at least predict where the shallows might move next. The answer is to talk with the whales. They can already converse with the seas. All we need do is find the notorious universal language machine built by a brilliant inventor before his death. To help us in our quest, we rely on his son. If anyone can find this machine and make it work it will be him. Unfortunately, he lacks the inventive brilliance of his father and, in many ways, is an innocent. This book therefore follows him as he moves through this alternate history Victorian England, observing his strange escapades with the steam-powered orangutan, his exposure to fex, his introduction to parliamentary debate, and his encounters with divers other strangenesses and oddities.

All this peregrination is described in a wonderfully antique first-person writing style which captures the rather dull and podding qualities of some Victorian prose while actually describing some completely extraordinary events. In general, this is a great success, producing smiles from the juxtaposition of our naive protagonist and completely surreal events, e.g. the coupling of a man and woman who have had their biological systems surgically attached to steam engines. The only problem lies in the sometimes quite extended dialogue between our innocent protagonist and the duplicitous antagonist who lures our hero into ever greater difficulty with promises of great wealth. Although these debates offer an opportunity for some satire and commentary on modern morals, they do go on. . . As to the schemes in which our hero becomes embroiled, they are genuinely fiendish in a surreal replay of future history (if you see what I mean). The resulting climactic dispute between two behemoths lurching over a burning London is an appropriate way of bringing much needed sanity to the proceedings. The only note of sadness is the essential determinism. The fate of the whales seems to be sealed no matter which version of the future comes to pass. So with the caveat that I think some of the debating goes on too long, I find myself impressed. The old master has not lost his flair for the absurdities of the world. Fiendish Schemes is recommended.

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

Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2011 – 13)

November 3, 2013 Leave a comment

GLHeader

I suppose I should not be even faintly embarrassed to admit watching animated versions of the superhero stories. I read the comics decades ago when I was a child (and sometimes later). Seeing traditional characters in animated form is a pleasing way of updating and developing old ideas. For, yes, when you only have a few pages in illustrated form to play with, the ideas tend to be superficial when the edition is a stand-alone. Even when the narrative arcs stretch over multiple issues, there’s no real chance to go into the character development and plotting sophistication possible in novel form. This makes the “half-hour” animated format more appealing because seeing the characters interact offers more scope than a static drawing with speech bubbles.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series is a case in point. This comprises two narrative arcs of thirteen episodes which show Hal Jordan and a team come together to meet a variety of different challenges. The structure is a balance between the broader development of character and plot, and the immediate need for an “adventure” subplot for the individual episodes. I’m not going to go through the individual episodes but there are a number of elements that are worthy of comment.

Kilowog

Kilowog

When the first episode kicks off, we have Hal Jordan, Kilowog and an advanced AI to control the systems of the ship called the Interceptor as the core team members. The AI who’s addressed by the name Aya becomes pivotal to the major emotional narrative arc. Although this is a rerun of Pygmalion, it manages to set up and then develop the trope in a particularly pleasing way. The original myth was first committed to paper by Ovid in Metamorphoses. The point of the story is that the inanimate can become animate. In the first version, a statue comes to life. In this animated version, the onboard ship’s computer becomes self-aware and, later, creates a body for herself. Her “mistake” is to base her physical appearance on Razer’s dead wife Ilana. Aya believes this likeness will be more appealing to Razer, not understanding that successful long-term relationships are based on personalities, not on simulated external appearances. This departs from the traditional story in which artists create a representation and then animate it through their love. Obviously a team of individuals would have worked together to code the AI system, but this artifact is essentially intangible. The “person” is brought into being through interaction with the crew and the effect of exposure to the pure Green Lantern energy. Over time, the artificial “person” becomes increasingly “real”. This is drawing on the later idea found in Pinocchio where the wooden puppet becomes a real boy, except Aya retains an artificial body, later plugged into the remnants of the Anti-Monitor.

The second theme is the generality of human emotions, principally of rage, fear and love. It may be simplistic, but the culture of the Red Lanterns and Razer’s slow embrace of a more peaceful outlook on life represents the “teaching” element in the series. Insofar as any series of this type is able to influence the fanbase in its behaviour, the evolution of Razer into a potential Blue Lantern is making a peaceful worldview appear more cool. Similarly, although the imagery is annoyingly clichéd, the discovery of the yellow crystals in episode 8 offers the chance to consider whether fear is a positive or negative emotion. Some people are motivated to act because they are afraid of the consequences of inaction. This can lead to spectacular successes and we acknowledge those individuals as brave. Others are paralysed by fear and hide themselves away in the usually forlorn hope the threat will somehow overlook them. As we move into love, this dual nature of fear comes sharply into focus. People often fail to say what should be said if relationships are to be formed and maintained. Episode 9 therefore plays with the superficial world of sexual attraction, ignoring the reality of the emotions underpinning what happens in the long term when relationships mature.

Razer and Aya

Razer and Aya

It’s amusing to see Hal Jordan confront his replacement on Earth and his alternate when he travels into a steampunk dimension. Jealousy is just another way of addressing the fear that status or reputation has been damaged or lost. When you’re working your way into a role, you build up your self-confidence by telling yourself you’re the best. When you later come back and meet a young man doing exactly the same, it’s difficult not to feel threatened. That’s where humility comes in. The mature leader embraces the newcomers and helps them. Thematically, the steampunk version in Episode 16 plays this perfectly with Steam Lantern being almost excessively humble. It takes Hal Jordan to build up the man’s self-image so the alternate can accept himself a truly heroic. In a sense it also plays with the same idea at a societal level. The culture is doing its best to survive with only limited resources. The one scientific genius has saved the world by doing a deal with the Anti-Monitor, but then has problems in readjusting the scale of his thinking to meet the immediate needs of the people. With the fight appropriately led by a woman in an airship, democracy is restored and the world “saved”.

Steampunk meets superhero

Steampunk meets superhero

The relationships between Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris, and between Razer and Aya are developed in a particularly satisfying way. For the first couple, the problem is physical separation. While Hal was still based on Earth, they could see each other on a regular basis. Once Hal goes off to defend the galaxy, maintaining the relationship becomes more problematic. That makes the episodes featuring Zamaron, the Star Sapphire homeworld, fascinating. For the second couple, this is a “first love” situation for Aya. Neither of them come equipped with the usual emotional tools to make the relationship run smoothly. The tragedy of Aya’s overwriting her memory to erase painful emotions is therefore inevitable given both Razer’s inability to confront the loss of his first wife, and her literal mindedness. The moment in the fight against the Anti-Monitor when, in the heat of battle, Hal gives inadvertent relationship advice is a rerun of “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov. She loses herself for the greater good. The ultimate sacrifice in Episode 26 is the perfection of the cycle. It’s the only way to save the galaxy. For once, my literal mindedness sees this as amor vincit omnia except, this time around, love saves all except those personally involved.

I’m not going to say this series of twenty-six episodes is one of the best of its type. There are many problems with some of the individual episodes and times when I cringed. But this is a very good attempt at making a galaxy-wide threat scenario work at both a space opera and a personal level. Although the name on the shingle is Green Lantern, i.e. Hal Jordan, I prefer to see this as Aya’s story. She may start off as an AI system piloting a starship, but she ends up a very brave woman.

For a review of the film, see Green Lantern (2011).

The Executioner’s Heart by George Mann

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

teh-us1

The Executioner’s Heart by George Mann (Tor, 2013) is the fourth in the series featuring Newbury & Hobbes, i.e. Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes. Those of you familiar with the reviewing style will know I never stoop to simplistic headlining. So this is not a steampunk Sherlock Holmes inspired mystery thriller. Its rather more subtle than that. The temptation to see this as following in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle flows from the decision to set these stories in a version of Victorian England about the same time as the Great Detective ruled the fictional waves from Baker Street. So this author has an investigator who is not averse to abusing the poppy, tobacco and absinthe, lurking in a part of London. Because all those who aspire to investigative greatness need an assistant, he’s joined in his endeavours by a spunky woman who fights and shoots in the best female style (think Elementary which applies the same logic to produce a so far platonic pairing for an explicit Holmes and Watson).

 

If Victorian science is going to get bent out of shape, it’s not unnatural that there would be social change. Some move towards gender equality is therefore to be expected. Yet, strangely, that has not happened in the broader society described here. Even when Veronica is recognised as in immediate danger and the best course of action would be for her to occupy the same house as Sir Maurice, they all worry about what such a move would do to her reputation. This is a slight dissonance, almost an anachronism. In the real world, the watershed Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 had begun to dismantle the patriarchal assumption that women could not own property or keep the money they earned. If an author shows technology driving change in everyday life at an ever faster rate, why is this not also destablising the culture? With a Queen on the throne and women working as spies and in other capacities representing the interests of the Crown, greater freedom than allowed in 1882 would seem inevitable. There would also be significant impacts arising from the adoption of technology into industry. There would be new jobs to learn requiring an improvement in the education service, and many old jobs would be eliminated by automation leading to unemployment and greater poverty. So this book is almost exclusively upper class and dominated by white men (spunky sidekicks notwithstanding), and the culture is set is aspic without regard to the environment in which it has been preserved.

George Mann

George Mann

 

Of course, this is unfair. I have started on the fourth book in the series. The social dynamics may be explored in the earlier books. So what does the book actually offer? Well, in genre terms, our investigator blurs the line between conventional investigator and occult detective. Here the primary focus is on a serial killer whose signature is cracking open the rib cage and extracting the hearts of her victims as trophies, and the activities of German spies intent on stealing the basis of lasers as a “death beam” weapon. Yet the supernatural is never far away. In the last book, our duo rescued Amelia, Veronica’s psychic sister. Because he’s been able to steal a book of magic from the local Cabal, Sir Maurice is able to treat her, but the price is that he has now taken on the burden of her ability as a seer. They both now dream of the titular Executioner and see Veronica to be at risk.

 

As steampunk, there’s a range of technology emerging from the expected automobiles, airships and clockwork automatons, to genetic manipulation, cloning and steps towards prolonging life. But interestingly, technology on its own is shown as inadequate to make the required progress at the speed desired. Hence, the Executioner has been converted into a form of cyborg by the joint application of the mechanical and the supernatural. The heart itself may be clockwork, but the runes and other symbols inlaid into her flesh in ink and precious metals signify a different form of partnership to prolong her life. Just as the personality of the woman transformed undergoes a dramatic change, so the body of Queen Victoria is being sustained by machines while her mind is allowed to age without intervention. This may make her appear less acute as leader. Hence her son, Edward Albert, Prince of Wales and interested factions in government are positively investigating whether the Queen is actually fit to rule.

 

All this gives the author the chance to write something really exciting and, at times, there are some genuinely pleasing set-pieces with dark hints as to other forces at work. But it does not quite cohere. The reason? I think there are two problems. The first is the steampunk elements seem incidental rather than integrated into the social fabric being described. For example, the menagerie constructs and predatory birds are just there for a brief effect and as props in the generally excellent fight scene that follows. There’s no attempt to explore how such innovations might affect society. Even the Executioner as a walking-talking embodiment of the steampunk trope fails because supernatural powers keep her body preserved as a young, athletic woman as the decades go by. Yet the fantasy side of the novel is also peripheral. Instead of the supernatural given full prominence, this is more a political thriller with an investigative duo who are rather more reactive and positive in solving the case(s). Which, of course points to the second problem. The book is promising to give us a Holmesian detective but, apart from lolling around in a drugged state, there’s very little to show this character draws on the Conan Doyle canon. Indeed, Sir Maurice doesn’t really solve the Executioner case. He has to be told who she is and others work out where she’s hiding. Worse, in structural terms, we have a prologue that removes much of the potential suspense. That it happens to be very well written does not excuse the loss of suspense when Veronica finally decides to go to “the” address. So we end up with a scattergun of different genre tropes fired into the book and, because none of them are fully exploited, The Executioner’s Heart ends up slightly underwhelming. This is not to deny there are some excellent moments. But this is a sum of parts novel, not a great whole. Perhaps that’s the fate of all books numbered four in a projected sequence of six.

 

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

 

The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley

The Osiris Curse

The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley (Pyr, 2013) Tweed & Nightingale Adventure 2 should have a young adult health warning on the cover. In all innocence, I pick up the next book from the pile and discover myself cast adrift in a dumbed down science fantasy, patronisingly aimed at the young. This is Sherlock Holmes meets Hyperborean lizards from a Pellucidar underworld who threaten to destroy the human world because we have inadvertently been destroying the underground environment in our search for additional energy sources. Ah ha, another version of Sherlock Holmes and a story somewhat adjacent to the ingenious manga, anime and film series Dectective Conan by Gosho Aoyama (because someone thought this might be confused with that barbarian fellow, the series was renamed Case Closed to avoid distressing Robert E Howard fans who might not be able to understand the jacket artwork on the manga or the words used to describe the television and cinema versions). The hook for the Japanese story is that our brilliant amateur detective is forced to take an experimental poison but, instead of killing him, it reverts him to childhood stature which is actually a convenient “disguise” because it enables him to access places and talk to people who underestimate him. Note his dependence on Rachel Moore and, to some extent, Amy Yoshida — females of the species. In this book series, the mind of Sherlock Holmes is salvaged after his demise at Reichenbach Falls and relocated to a cloned body, then nine months old in chronological age. At that point in cranial development, the cloned body was not able to absorb Holmes’ memories, just most of his intellect, so the emergent young man is an erratic detective genius. He’s “adopted” by Barnaby Tweed, is christened Sebastian Tweed and partnered with Octavia Nightingale.

Paul Crilley

Paul Crilley

So our young detective with female sidekick takes on the role of defender of the British Empire which is full of stupid adults with the possible exception of Queen Victoria who puts in a cameo appearance at the end. The setting is very strongly located in a steampunk era. Under Queen Victoria’s benign rule, Babbage has perfected the difference engine, Tesla has done just wonderful things with electricity, and so on. Looking around the streets, we have both steam- and electric-powered conveyances. Large robots are slowly finding acceptance in heavy industry and on the docks to do the heavy dirty work, while “android” robots act as house servants. And in the air, ornithopters and hydrogen airships with electric engines driving turbines rule. There’s also a grey area in which spiritualism and a more general interest in the practical side of the medium’s experience has led to the capture and manipulation of “souls”. In Tweed’s case, the mind was placed into a cloned body, but they can also be placed in bottles and inserted into machinery. That gets around the programming problem since oral instructions can then be given. Even H G Wells comes into play as the inventor of an invisibility cloak (and time machine). There’s not a single original element on display nor, in the world building, is there any any sign of a unique version of Victorian steampunk emerging. It’s all very generic (as you might expect from a YA title — teen readers are not expected to know what else has been written in this field, nor to care for any particular logic in its execution).

There’s some minor angst from our young hero. He’s feeling like a cuckoo in the nest, like someone who doesn’t quite fit into this world (and who can blame him for that assessment of his situation). Naturally, there are romantic twinges in the relationship between our two heroes and some experimental osculation at the end as acceptance of the consequences of the male/female thing is completed. As to the plot, it’s a mishmash of espionage adventure tropes being forced into Edgar Rice Burroughs directions with a vague attempt at Sherlock Holmesian detective analysis thrown into the works. It’s all rather embarrassingly bad for someone like me to read. I suppose it might be acceptable for ten to twelve year-olds who have never read anything intelligent in the steampunk subgenre to start off their reading careers but, to be honest, I suspect The Osiris Curse is more likely to drive them away.

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

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder

June 21, 2013 2 comments

Secret Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder

There’s real skill required to write a series. Far more than most people realise. Let’s say the author has signed a three-book deal. That ties him or her to the agreed formula which, in most cases, will be both a group of characters and a particular setting. So, for example, Miss Marple lives in St Mary Mead and, although she’s wont to travel around a little, the basis of her investigative style is drawn from her observation of life in the village. That way, even when she’s on holiday in the West Indies, she can remember what the butcher did to the baker’s assistant that so upset the candlestick maker. In other words, there’s a core magic formula that, after the first few books, turned the remainder into must-haves for the loyal fans. To depart from this formula is to lose the fans. But to do nothing more than repeat the formula will also lose the fans through boredom. There has to be development to keep the core ideas interesting. Hence even Miss Marple must go on holiday.

So, after a highly successful opening set of three, we’re back with The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2013) which is the first in a new three-book deal featuring Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne in a steampunk version of Victorian England which, appropriately enough, began with the assassination of Queen Victoria. If you’re proposing to derail readers into an alternate history, killing off the titular queen for the age is the best possible starting point. The magic of the first book lies in its exuberance. There’s not a page goes by without some new idea or sly joke. As debut novels go, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is one of the best. However, in this moment of heady success, there’s a problem. Once you’ve described the setting and cracked all your best jokes, you have to find something new to write about. Fortunately, the plot of The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is terrific and kept everything moving along nicely even though the repetition of some of the jokes was wearing very thin towards the end. This led us into Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon which opened the door into some very interesting and more serious possibilities. As I said during that review, “. . .an inventive mind could devise a way into a different future. It will be interesting to see whether Pyr offers us the chance to see it unfold.” So my thanks to Pyr for renewing the book deal. This proves to be a particularly ingenious way of developing the plot.

Mark Hodder anonymous in Spain

Mark Hodder anonymous in Spain

Notice my reference to the plot. All the humour that characterised the first in the series has gone. This is altogether darker with the death of an important character, albeit not one we see too often. We’re nevertheless aware of this individual’s significance throughout. The key to understanding just how ingenious the plot lies in the need for all time travel books to follow strict logic. With the death of Queen Victoria in the first novel being caused by a time traveller, we’ve been following the cause and effect of the different changes in history as they occur. At the end of the last book, the situation had grown more complex as a new player entered the game and tried to destabilise the new version of history. With that threat defeated, Burton was left. . . Well that always was the question. Just where was Burton left?

At this point, I’m going to get a little vague because I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of this book. I emphasise that this is a direct continuation of the last trilogy and, although you might enjoy this as a standalone, you will not appreciate just how good it is unless you’ve read the other three in order. This is a serial, not a series of standalones in the same place with the same characters. This time, we’re into Bram Stoker land (appropriately young Bram is a character) with the arrival of a vampire-like force by sea. This time, the ship crashes on to the rocks of Anglesey during a terrible storm with the captain lashed to the wheel and all the crew and passengers (bar one, of course) dead on arrival. This gives us a broad supernatural framework on which to build our multiverse plot. Yes, that’s right. All the messing around in time has been multiplying the branches except there’s one common feature. Sooner or later, there’s a major war. Those of you with some grasp of history will recall our First World War occupied the years 1914 to 1918. In different timelines, this conflict comes at different times but it always happens. However, in this timeline, under the guidance of Abdu El Yezdi, the British have been moving towards a political rapprochement with Germany, therefore making war less inevitable. So the big questions for Burton are to identify Abdu El Yezdi, to explain how he has been giving such good advice, and to find him — sadly this fount of wisdom has stopped transmitting thereby leaving the British government up a creek wondering where their paddle has gone.

We still have some of the steampunk but most of the more extravagant technological innovation has gone in this timeline. There’s also slightly less political discussion, leaving more time for this rather pleasing blend of Victorian/Edwardian style adventure to be updated for modern sensibilities. Putting all this together, The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi is a wonderful continuation of the earlier trilogy, i.e. you really should have read the others in order before coming to this.

Once again the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.

For reviews of the other four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Return of the Discontinued Man
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

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

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