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Posts Tagged ‘steampunk

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

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“This is the time of myths. They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeating motif. Don’t dismiss myth, boy. And never, ever, dismiss the Bookman.”

The thing about steampunk novels is that they make you want to Google everything. It’s the reimagined history element that does it; the fascinating with British Romantic poet Lord Byron and the English inventor Charles Babbage alone will leave you guessing what’s fact and what’s fiction. The urge to search is even stronger with Tidhar Lavie’s novel The Bookman thanks to cameos by Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and Jules Verne.

Externalities alone make The Bookman is irresistible. David Frankland’s gorgeous cover illustration is worthy of professional framing and the title is one that no book nerd can ignore.  Dig a little deeper and a quick thumb through shows literary epigraphs at the start of each chapter.

Set in Victorian London, as one would expect from a steampunk novel, The Bookman, laden with questions at every turn and sparing with its answers, is a riddle to its core. Although the multiple twists can be confusing if not read with the utmost care, the mystery is one of the driving forces of the book. The unresolved relationships between characters, their conceivable motivations, and possibly most compelling, the unknown origin of the protagonist, Orphan, keeps the eyes moving and the pages turning.

Orphan, both a name and an apt description, is a poet-hopeful and a lackadaisical employee and resident of Payne’s Booksellers. Although the store is owned by a known seditionist and doubles as a meeting place for those looking to overthrow the government—an alien reptilian race known as Les Lézards, the Lizard Kings, who have infiltrated Britain and now occupy the empire’s throne—Orphan’s earthly concerns extend little beyond his romantic interest, Lucy, a slightly aloof, whale-loving girl. Head-over-heels for her, Orphan proposes one night and all seems right with his world.

Unfortunately, the political climate, growing tense by the day, can no longer be ignored. Terrorists, presumably headed by the Bookman, an esoteric and feared figure, have begun setting off bombs in the public arena with deadly consequences and Lucy, unwittingly, becomes a casualty of another attack. Heartsick and desperate, Orphan is forced to play the Bookman’s game, becoming his pawn and setting off on a preternatural adventure.

The vividity of the worlds Orphan passes through on his quest to retrieve his one true love is a strength of Tidhar’s writing. His lyrical prose and use of metaphor ties the fantastical elements to an emotional realism. The outcome is a romantic voyage along the boundaries of absurdity.

The Bookman was a fun and engaging read; Tidhar’s imagination, responsible for creating a world of royal lizards, convincing simulacrum, multicultural pirates, and a shifting island with a strict entrance policy, is something I look forward to experiencing again in his follow up, Camera Obscura.

::[Excerpts]::

On Orphan . . .
“Who was Orphan and how had he come to inhabit that great city, the Capital of the Everlasting Empire, the seat of the royal family, the ancestral home of Les Lezards? His father was a Vespuccian sailor, his mother an enigma: both were dead, and had been so for many years. His skin was copper-red, his eyes green like the sea. He had spent his early life on the docks, running errands between the feet of sailors, a minute employee of the East India Company. His knowledge of languages was haphazard if wide, his education colourful and colloquial, his circle of friends and acquaintances far-ranging, if odd.

He learned poetry in the gutter, and from the public readings given by the great men and women of the age; in pubs and dockyards, in halls of learning and in the streets at dawn — and once, from a sword-wielding girl from France, who appeared mysteriously on the deck of a ship Orphan was helping to load with cargo bound for China, and recounted to him, in glorious, beautiful verse, a vision of God (he had never forgotten her) — and he learned it from the books in the public library, until words spun in his head all day and all night, and he agonised at writing them down on paper, his hand bleeding as the pen scratched against the surface of the page.”

On love . . .
“Orphan had first met Lucy one day at the bookshop. She came through the door like — sunshine? Wind? Like spice? Orphan wasn’t that much of a poet — looking for a book about whales. He fell in love the way trees do, which is to say, forever. It was a love with roots that burrowed deep, entangled, grew together. Like two trees they leaned into each other, sheltering each other with their leaves, finding solace and strength in the wide encompassing forest that was the city, holding together in the multitude of alien trees. Orphan loved her the way people do in romantic novels, from the first page, beyond even The End.”

On books . . .
“Paynes was a haven of light in a dark world. Stepping inside, he was nearly overwhelmed with the feeling of home. The familiar, conflicting smells of the books vied for his attention. The musty tang of old volumes, the polished smell of new leather bindings, the crisp clear scent of freshly printed books, all rose to greet him, like a horde of somewhat-dysfunctional relatives at a family event.”“There is nothing sadder than an unused bookshop. Volumes of words, ideas and stories, blueprints and diagnostics, illustrations and notes scribbled in the margins — they did not exist unless there was someone there to hold them, to open their pages, to read them and make them come alive, however briefly.”

::[Links]::
The Bookman at IndieBound
Lavie Tidhar’s page at Angry Robot
Lavie Tidhar’s World SF Blog, a site dedicated to science fiction writing from non-English speaking writers
An interview with Lavie on the Functional Nerds podcast
Follow Lavie on Twitter @lavietidhar

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Written by Gabrielle

August 23, 2011 at 6:11 am

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

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In my mind there are a few reasons that warrant a less than favorable review: you are paid by a publication and want to be honest or a book is being widely praised and you disagree either with the quality of the writing or the quality of the content. The nature of this blog is to bring attention to works of art I can wholeheartedly recommend and to shed light on their deserving artists. However, in the case of this latest book I read, The Difference Engineby William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, I feel compelled to say a few words even though it fell short of my expectations.

The Difference Engine, published in 1990, is held up as a seminal work in the steampunk genre, a category of science fiction whose stories take place in an alternate version of the Victorian era. Often cited as one of its best examples, this collaborative work is a mystery-adventure novel set in 1855 Britain with Gibson and Sterling imagining what it would have been like had Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, inventor, and mechanical engineer, created his Analytic Engine, a machine controlled by punch cards that would act as a calculator, formulating results based on preceding computations.

According to these two giants of cyberpunk, a category of science fiction known to speculate on the effects of technology in society, the outcome is devastating. In this retelling of history there are two forces at work—the Luddites, a group of working class revolutionaries who despise technological advancement, and the Industrial Radical Party, a political party led by Lord Byron who are brought to power by trade unions.

The story is told in five parts—or “iterations” as they’re called—and made up of three distinct story lines: one following Sybil Gerard, a “fallen” woman and daughter of the executed leader of the Luddites; the next, the escapades of Edward Mallory, a paleontologist and explorer who is dragged into the fray by Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter and Charles Babbage’s protege, after she hands over a much sought-after box of punch cards; the third strand is the story of Laurence Oliphant, portrayed in the book as a journalist who often comes to the aid of Mallory.

These three threads form a socio-political adventure complete with fight scenes, anarchy, espionage, and intricate historical manipulations weaved throughout. The Difference Engine is sophisticated in its writing and well detailed but large chunks felt murky and forced and failed to retain my attention or interest. The characters, while fleshed out on paper, failed to create any emotional connection throughout their 429-page life, ultimately leaving me ambivalent about their fates.

The Difference Engine is possibly best appreciated by someone with knowledge of and passion for British and American history. For the rest of us it would have benefited from being about 100 pages shorter.

If you’re a connoisseur, aspiring or full-fledged, of science fiction in general and steampunk in particular, this is a must-read but keep your expectations low. If I were the star-giving type, this one would get 3 out of 5.

::[Excerpt]::
Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines—so many that at first Mallory thought the walls must surely be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant to trick the eye—the giant identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as rail-cars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The white-washed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White-coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. Their hair was swaddled in wrinkled white berets, their mouths and noses hidden behind squares of white gauze.

Tobias glanced at these majestic racks of gearage with absolute indifference. “All day starin’ at little holes. No mistakes either! Hit a key-punch wrong and it’s all the difference between a clergyman and an arsonist. Many’s the poor innocent bastard ruined like that . . .”

The tick and sizzle of the monster clockwork muffled his words.

::[A Conversation with William Gibson]::
In the latest issue of The Paris Review, William Gibson speaks with David Wallace-Wells about his life as a science fiction author. Here are some highlights:

“I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing technoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness.”

“Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their [the Victorian] landscape. bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were very few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.”

“The only computers I’d ever seen in those days [late-1970s, early-1980s] were the things the size of the side of the barn. And then one day, I walked by a bus stop and there was an Apple poster. The poster was a photograph of a businessman’s jacketed, neatly cuffed arm holding a life-size representation of a real-life computer that was not much bigger than a laptop is today. Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe. . . . I think I got cyberspace on the third try, and I thought, Oh, that’s a really weird word. I liked the way it felt in the mouth—I thought it sounded like it meant something while still being essentially hollow.”

::[Links]::
The Difference Engine at Random House

Written by Gabrielle

July 25, 2011 at 8:45 am

Classic Steampunk :: Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter

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“An innate trust was an element of my nature that had been dissolved through harsh experience.”

The sepia tone-inspired cover of Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter typifies the sub-genre of science fiction to which it belongs. The image of a man, mouth made of metal, face half covered in leather, wearing a top hat and tux, the background a layering of gears, industrial-sized screws, shiny pipes, and a pressure gauge all scream steampunk.

Steampunk, as it’s often described, takes elements of Victorian-era Britain—its fashion, culture, architecture, art, and the advent of steam-powered technology—and combines them with elements from science fiction and fantasy. Authors, filmmakers, and other artists find inspiration in what was the historic rise of communication and travel and infuse world domination, mass destruction, and conspiracy.

Early influences are Jule Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895. Steampunk novels, as we think of them today, were published as early as the late 1960s but ascended to popularity in the 1980s and 90s with authors such as Tim Powers and James Blaylock—in addition to Jeter who published his first steampunk novel, Morlock Night, in 1979.

In an attempt to explain what he and his fellow writers were doing, Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to the editor of Locus magazine, printed in their April 1987 issue. In it he says, “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks’, perhaps…”.

Jeter’s second steampunk novel, Infernal Devices, published in 1987, is a surrealist mystery set in Victorian London. The story begins with George Dower, the son of a deceased watchmaker left in charge of the family business. One night, George is visited by an unknown creature who he names, because of his deep brown skin, Brown Leather Man. Having been a client of his father’s, the man brings with him a mechanical regulator in need of repair. Though George protests, having been estranged from his father and never trained in the ways of the trade, Brown Leather Man insists on leaving it with him. As partial payment he hands George a silver coin embossed with the face of a Saint Monkfish, a holy man previously unknown to the unwitting heir. The object is met with mixed results throughout the story: at one point leading George directly to the person he’s looking for and yet at another nearly causing his death.

By accepting the device, George enters into a clandestine conflict between warring factions—the Royal Anti-Society, the Godly Army, and the Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice—finding himself in murky waters, often not knowing which of these questionable characters is friend and which is foe. As intentions unfold so does the depth of George’s father’s skills and the story grow darker.

Full of fantastical elements, gear-driven gadgets, elegant language, and rich descriptions, Infernal Devices is a twisting tale that reads like classic literature.

::[excerpt]::
The gentleman ignored my forays towards his name, and produced a paper-wrapped parcel from the crook of one arm. Placing it on the counter between us, the Brown Leather Man (as I had already begun  to identify him in my thoughts) undid the knotted cord and pushed aside the paper with his dark hands. “I was a client of your late father,” he said. “For me he built this, upon my commission. Some elements of disorder has entered its workings, and I seek to employ you in the setting right of it.”

The last of the wrappings fell away. “What is it?” I asked. My eyes turned upward at the Brown Leather Man’s silence, and found the narrow slits studying me with an unnerving intensity.

In relief I looked back down to what lay before me. A mahogany box a little over a foot in length, half that in its other dimensions; a pair of brass hinges faced me. With one finger I attempted to swivel the box around, but the surprising weight of it kept it motionless upon the counter. I was forced to grasp it with both hands in order to turn it about.

I unlatched the simple brass hasp and tilted the box’s lid open. My heart sank within me as I looked down at the intricate anatomy of the device.

This feeling of despair was not unfamiliar to me; it often welled up at the sight of one of my father’s creations. His genius had not been limited to the production of the packet watches and larger time-pieces whose subtlety of design and intricacy of execution had established his name among admirers of the horological art. Since his death and my inadequate assumption of his place, I had become acquainted with facets of his work that are still little known, having been undertaken at the behest of a select arid discreet clientele. Scientific and astronomical apparatus of every description, ranging from simple barometers, though of a fineness of calibration rarely if ever equalled, to elaborate astrolabes and orreries, the latter distinguished by a set of reciprocating eccentric cams in the clockwork drive mechanism capable of showing the true elliptical orbits of heavenly bodies rather than the simplified circular motions employed in other such mechanical representations of the universe — all of these and more were my father’s children. More so than my own self, I would often think as I gazed at some intricate intermeshing of gears and cogs such as the one revealed inside the Brown Leather Man’s mahogany casket. The bits of finely turned and crafted brass showed the care and attention that had been absent in the creation and assembly of my own personal manhood.

The purpose and function of some of the devices brought to me were unfathomable, and an odd secretiveness prevailed among my father’s former clients. Amateur scientific pursuits had long been a preoccupation with serious-minded gentlemen of property and leisure, but the ones who came to me were often as uncommunicative as the devices they wished to be repaired. Sextants that devided the sky into angles not found in the usual geometries, microscopes whose hermetically sealed lenses distorted the viewed object into shimmering rainbow images, other instruments whose complexity and manifold adjustments quite overwhelmed my powers of speculation as to their use — all of these had in time been brought into the shop.

—copyright: K.W. Jeter / 1979

::[Link]::
Infernal Devices on the Angry Robot website

Written by Gabrielle

July 12, 2011 at 6:11 am

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