My life in outer space

Steampunk

Interzone #248 – Andy Cox (Ed.) (2013)

Interzone 248

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone
The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt
Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa
Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef
Technarion – Sean McMullen

A very interesting collection of tales in this issue which push the boundaries of what the average reader would consider to be SF. I have always avoided trying to establish a definition, and although established names within the genre have put forward definitions in the past, there always seem to be works which fall outside the parameters.
I’m happy to consider it as a broad church with a fluid remit. It’s a lot easier to say what isn’t SF, and I have labelled some works as such in the past.
Luckily I have no such problems here. Interzone continues to publish excellent work from new – and not so new – writers which are engrossing and thought provoking.
A few of these stories have ambiguous and unresolved endings, something I find refreshing. There’s also a strong poetic element to some of them, such as the pieces by Van Pelt and Altabef which take us into the realm of the surreal and inexplicable.
The magazine also features an interview with Christopher Priest as part of Interzone’s review of ‘The Adjacent’.

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone

In a future where space flights are sponsored by media companies and reality stars, a married couple are sent on a mission beyond Pluto. This is a first person narrative told by the wife whose mental integrity is slowly crumbling.

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt

An American School built in the mid Twentieth Century acquires so many various extensions, annexes, basements and sub basements that it grows into a Gormenghast-esque world of its own in which reality becomes somewhat fluid. Beautifully written. Quite fascinating.

Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa

A man buys a house after the previous owner, an unsuccessful magician, disappeared. The house contains all his equipment and some notebooks and videotapes. In the basement he discovers something that looks like a submarine hatch which leads to a dark waterworld filled with houses and their eerie mannequin occupants.
A very compelling story, haunting and disturbing.

Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef

A very short piece set in a dystopian future which begins with an old man – sitting in a condemned opera house – recreating a lost opera and the opera house by means of some ingenious opera glasses. Poetic, atmospheric and evocative.

Technarion – Sean McMullen

An interesting steampunk piece from McMullen about the development of a computer in 1875, the consequences of which are far reaching.

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Boneshaker – Cherie Priest (2009)

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century, #1)

Priest has created a compelling alternate history steampunk world where the basic premise is that in Seattle in the early days of the American Civil War, Leviticus Blue, a renowned inventor, created a revolutionary new drilling machine. This is the Boneshaker, designed to drill into the hardest permafrost in a bid to strike gold in the frozen wilds. One day, seemingly for no reason, Blue takes the machine on a rampage beneath the city which not only collapses cellars and buildings but releases a deadly mist from the Earth.
Seattle is evacuated and a great wall built around the city to confine the gas, known as The Bight. During the somewhat hurried exodus, Blue’s father-in-law, Maynard Wilkes, releases prisoners from a local jail who would otherwise have been left to die.
Fifteen years later, Blue’s widow, Briar, is coping with bringing up her son Ezekiel while working at a gruelling job where all her colleagues object to the widow of Levi Blue working with them.
Zeke, as he is known, is obsessed with discovering the truth behind his father’s actions. Having discovered that there are still people living within the walls – albeit in sealed off tunnels or buildings supplied with air by ceaseless pumping mechanisms – he runs off to try and enter the city and return to his parents’ house.
Briar, having discovered his note, has no choice but to go after him and attempt to get him out alive. There are worse things to worry about than the deadly gas itself it appears as one of its properties is to animate the dead, converting them to ravening flesh-eating zombies or ‘rotters’ as they are known here.
Priest, to her credit, does an excellent job of combining steampunk, alternate history and zombies in what is – given the bald synopsis above – a bit of a far-fetched notion.
However, it all works remarkably well, structured in a dual narrative following Zeke and Briar alternately as they roam the rotter-infested ruins of Seattle where the inventions of Levi Blue have been adapted to produce various instruments of defence and survival.
There’s a cast of extraordinary characters such as Lucy, a low-tech cyborg bar owner who has had her arms replaced with functioning mechanical replacements (thinking about it, it would have been a neat touch to call her bar ‘The Clockwork Arms’) and the sinister Captain Nemo-esque Dr Minnericht who never removes his mask and runs a small empire from his marble and brass underground headquarters.
It’s a bit of a disappointment that Priest does not explore the mutant birds further, since the blackbirds in the city seem to have evolved some form of gestalt consciousness. They are mentioned in passing, but nothing more is made of them, at least in this novel.
There are sequels so maybe we may learn more of these strange denizens of Seattle.
As of the time of posting, ‘Boneshaker’ has been optioned by Hammer for a movie adaptation and a screenplay is underway.


Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology – Nick Gevers (Ed) (2008)

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology

An excellent anthology of the Steampunk subgenre from Gevers and the good people of Solaris, with not a bad story in the whole bunch. Of particular note are the stories by Marly Youmans and Margo Lanagan.

Steampunch – James Lovegrove (2008)
Static – Marly Youmans (2008)
Speed, Speed the Cable – Kage Baker (2008)
Elementals – Ian R Macleod (2008)
Machine Maid – Margo Lanagan (2008)
Lady Witherspoon’s Solution – James Morrow (2008)
Hannah – Keith Brooke (2008)
Petrolpunk – Adam Roberts (2008)
American Cheetah – Robert Reed (2008)
Fixing Hanover – Jeff VanderMeer (2008)
The Lollygang Save the World on Accident – Jay Lake (2008)
The Dream of Reason – Jeffrey Ford (2008)

Steampunch – James Lovegrove

A deportee narrates a tale of Steampunch, the strongest and best mechanical pugilist.

Static – Marly Youmans

A beautiful and descriptive tale of a world in which physical laws are far different to those of our own and where static is a powerful and possibly deadly force.

Speed, Speed the Cable – Kage Baker

The battle is on to save the laying of the transatlantic cable from being sabotaged, and secret agent Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax is on hand to save the day. This story is set within Kage Baker’s complex ‘Company’ Universe

Elementals – Ian R Macleod

A Victorian scientist attempts to trap an ‘elemental’ in an electric cage, with disastrous consequences for himself.

Machine Maid – Margo Lanagan

One of the most powerful stories on this collection is this unashamedly feminist piece from Lanagan, set in a Victorian Australian outback where automata can be programmed to do almost anything

Lady Witherspoon’s Solution – James Morrow

Morrow’s satirical piece follows a young lady’s initiation into the charitable work of Lady Witherspoon, whose main aim is to deal with the worst excesses of male behaviour with a unique Darwinian solution.

Hannah – Keith Brooke

An investigation into a child’s death leads a Victorian forensic scientist to investigate the identification of blood, which leads to the culturing of the victim’s blood cells, and the cloning of the dead girl

Petrolpunk – Adam Roberts

A rollercoaster of a story from Roberts which features parallel worlds, an immortal Queen Victoria and the fight for petroleum across the dimensions

American Cheetah – Robert Reed

A robotic Abraham Lincoln attempts to dissuade robotic representations of the infamous James gang from their criminal pursuits.

Fixing Hanover – Jeff VanderMeer

Borderline cyberpunk in which an android is washed ashore in a post-apocalyptic world and found by a primitive Viking like people, one of whom is a refugee from a more advanced culture, and wants to rebuild the android.

The Lollygang Save the World on Accident – Jay Lake

Complex steampunk goings on in what seems to be a generation ship launched by a Victorian society.

The Dream of Reason – Jeffrey Ford

Fantastical story about a scientist who believes that matter is light slowed down and that the stars are diamonds. He hatches a complex plan for an experiment which involves slowing down light and firing it into the eye of an expendable volunteer.


The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers (1983)

The Anubis Gates

It’s a bit of a tour-de-force to pull off one of those Time Travel novels where someone travelling to the past, although they are not aware of it, are carrying out predestined actions which actually create our present, rather than alter it.
There have been variations on this theme notably from Clifford Simak and Harry Harrison, while Michael Moorcock used the principle for a more serious and controversial purpose in ‘Behold The Man’.
Here, Power succeeds admirably in his purpose to conserve the timeline despite the intervention of 21st Century humans in 19th Century London.
Brendan Doyle, an academic expert in the work of Coleridge and the obscure poet William Ashbless, is recruited by a company called DIRE. He learns not only that Time Travel is possible and that he will be travelling back to hear a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but also that there are points in time where magic not only works, but is very effective.
Doyle duly travels back with a group of men wealthy enough to have bought a ticket to the past. Their stay will be brief. They must return to the Time Travel spot by a certain time, from whence they will be catapulted back.
All goes well until the guests are ready to leave. Doyle is knocked out, kidnapped and taken to the gipsy camp of Dr Romany, where he becomes trapped in the past, embroiled in a fantastic plot involving evil sorcerous clones, Lord Byron, body-swapping souls and the possible subjugation of Britain.


Northern Lights – Phillip Pullman (1995)

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials, #1)

For a juvenile novel, this is an impressive piece of work, and rather hard to classify. Like a lot of modern genre fiction it tends to blur the boundaries. One could possibly class it as Science Fantasy or post-modern fantasy, since it bears similarities to work by Mervyn Peake, Michael Swanwick (particularly ‘The Iron Dragon’s Daughter’) and De Larabeitti’s ‘The Borribles’.
Technically it is Science Fiction, since Lyra, the intriguing and engaging central character, lives in a world parallel to our own. It is a world where some things are familiar and others very different. All people in Lyra’s world, for instance, have a personal daemon. Until the onset of puberty, the daemons are shape-shifters and take on the shapes and abilities of a multitude of creatures, but following puberty they are fixed into one shape. Lyra’s Uncle Asriel’s daemon is a white leopard, while the daemon of Mrs Coulter, head of the General Oblation Board, is a golden-haired monkey.
Lyra does not know a great deal about the world she lives in. Her Uncle Asriel (who performs, it seems, important work on behalf of the Government) has sent her to live at Jordan’s College, Oxford, where she spends most of her time exploring the ancient buildings or fighting and playing with local children.
So consequently, the reader learns about the world as Lyra learns, and many things in Lyra’s world are not what they seem.
Stylistically, rather like the Harry Potter book, this has a retro feel to it, and an atmosphere which is very much enriched by the classical names and references (Asriel, for instance, is the name of the Angel of Death), and the Steampunk mixture of Victoriana and more modern sciences.
There’s also an interesting moral ambivalence which seems to permeate all the way through as, since we don’t really know whether certain characters are on the side of Right or Wrong (if such a thing applies in this book) we are never sure whether they are performing nefarious acts for the greater good, such as when the Dean attempts to poison Lord Asriel in the first chapter, if indeed, that was what he was planning to do, since we never discover what it was that he put in the wine.
Indeed, Lyra discovers that Lord Asriel has been lying to her and is not her Uncle at all, but her Father, and that the sinister Mrs Coulter is her mother. Mrs Coulter also lies to her daughter and ultimately, Lyra, having rescued her father, is betrayed by him also.
Things are not well between Asriel and Coulter, however, as Lyra discovers later that it is Mrs Coulter who was responsible for having her father imprisoned in Svalsbad, in the Land of the Armoured Bears.
Lyra sets out in this book to not only rescue the children kidnapped and severed from their daemons by the General Oblation Board under orders from the sinister Mrs Coulter, but also to free Lord Asriel.
Revelation follows revelation, and the reader is constantly surprised by yet another exposure as the layers of Lyra’s world are slowly peeled back.
Controversially, the Christian Church is depicted as being a powerful political influence in British society and not, it would seem, a beneficial one, since the echelons of The Church (rather like the Vatican one imagines) spend an inordinate amount of time arguing obscure points of theology while excommunicating those who point out unpalatable truths which conflict with standard doctrine.
Some sectors of the real Church have attacked this trilogy as being ‘Anti Christian’ and have called for the books to be banned, although thankfully so far parents and teachers have wisely considered these outbursts to be the rantings of people with too much time on their hands.
Oddly enough, one of the published paragraphs of praise in the frontispiece comes from the Church Times so perhaps there is some degree of common sense to be found in the corridors of organised Christianity.
The Christian element comes to the fore in the concluding chapters when Lord Asriel announces his belief – which seems to be shared by both his enemy, Mrs Coulter and The Church authorities – that Dust (a mysterious subatomic particle which humans attract) is a manifestation of original sin.
Dust is only drawn to humans who have passed through puberty which is why Mrs Coulter was so keen to sever the children from their daemons in her experiments since the result appears to be similar to that of castration.