Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

January 11, 2011

Cherie Priest – Boneshaker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 6:20 pm

This is the first serious novel-length piece of self-identified steampunk I’ve read, and I’m more impressed with it than I’d expected. It seems rather churlish to praise a novel by the flaws it lacks, but I fear this oft-maligned genre requires a little of that before I pass to its undoubted virtues. Most of the fluff I’d read previously was not much more than a caricature of Victorian England, and often seemed rather confused about which literary era it was from. Infested with aristocrats and implausible brasstech, it seemed rather to be a celebration of a hypocritical, decadent Empire than a problematisation.

Boneshaker, on the other hand, is utterly American in its mythology; set in an alternate 1863, where the Klondike gold rush (and thus Seattle) boomed much earlier, it constructs itself without any reference to class divisions or to the English beyond a mention of their forces in the South. It’s also a post-apocalyptic dystopia, with the survivors living beyond the two-hundred-foot wall around a town centre infested with – well, it’s an early 21st century post-apocalyptic dystopia, what do you think is infesting it?

Considered as steampunk—which is to say as a literary universe featuring anarchists, revolutionaries, strange and ambitious technology, realistic solutions to implausible problems, no shortcuts for hard work, and the dead hand of economic & political hegemony[1]—it’s really good. Our protagonist is a middle-aged widow, aptly named Briar, and she takes us on a tour of Seattle’s abandoned inner city during her efforts to rescue her son. The family itself is a microcosm of the city, torn apart and left damaged by capitalism and the American Dream—Briar’s husband, Leviticus Blue, destroyed them both in his efforts to rob a bank using his immense tunnelling machine, the titular Boneshaker.

The survivors of the disaster, predictably, have organised themselves into a series of competing gangs, armed with experimental weapons and kept from the more-than-deadly gas by improvised air-conditioning technology, made from “treated cloth, paper, pitch, anything else that might seal out the awful gas outside”.

I’ve never been a zombie fan, but they work perfectly with steampunk, even steampunk without British aristocracy[2]. The pervasive influence of Something (a poisonous gas, here) turns otherwise perfectly ordinary people into ravenous monsters, intent on eating you and/or turning you into one of them—it’s no coincidence that the three “infectious” monster types (zombie, vampire, and werewolf) have become Big Business in the last few decades.

For a zombie novel, Boneshaker is curiously anaemic. The horror of zombies depends on the idea that these are real people, turned into mindless ravening monsters – people like you, people you knew, perhaps even you yourself – and there’s very little of that here. We get quite a few lovingly detailed descriptions of walking corpses, perhaps sorted by type or previous occupation, but the closest we come to seeing a person we already knew “turned” is having to watch a precautionary mercy killing, and a moment of tension as everyone waits to hear whether Briar’s arm is going to have to be amputated.

That’s not a serious fault, though, because the “rotters” are more of an atmospheric sideshow or an environmental hazard, and the plot resolution doesn’t really involve them at all.

This is a well-constructed novel, very gripping & readable, with a great deal of deep structure and a very solid literary root system ranging from Arthur Miller to Mark Helprin, and it features several tough, competent older women. Definitely recommended, and I’m going to have to look for more of Priest’s work in future.

[1] I don’t define by material-culture tropes, so the “goths discover brown” and “random brass shite” stereotypes are out, and I have to try and make a stab at themes. This is not intended to be exhaustive, complete, or even particularly accurate. Other suggestions very welcome!
[2] They’re rather stupid, but unstoppable. They often walk with a strange lurching gait, they have an odd slurred accent and very small vocabularies if they can communicate at all, and they thrive on the bodies & brains of other people. All these things also characterize zombies.

November 13, 2010

Gwyneth Lewis – The Meat Tree

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Sam @ 4:44 pm

Seren Books, 2010—part of the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series. Paperback, 256 pp., £7.99.

The Mabinogion is the mediaeval Welsh myth cycle; it comprises the Four Branches themselves; the four native tales; and three romances. There are several English translations available online, linked from the Wikipedia page above, and they’re well worth reading. You don’t need any familiarity with the original to read this, and I’d be really interested in hearing from someone who came to the story fresh with this version. For me, it’s in my blood & bone; I read it in English and in Welsh before I was fifteen, living in the same green valleys where it’s set, so when I was reading this I had the ghosts of a half-dozen different versions reading over my shoulder.

The Meat Tree is a version of the Fourth Branch, called in most translations “Math son of Mathonwy”; here it’s “Blodeuwedd” after the woman made from flowers to be Lleu’s bride, and Lewis’s narrative moves away from the traditional masculine-centred tale of magic and war towards a story centred on relationships—sexual & familial, through love, hatred, resentment, and obligation—and on what it means to be a flower and what it means to be meat. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy’s journey to Annwn, and the War of the Pigs, is passed over in a paragraph, but we hear a lot from Blodeuwedd herself and from Aranrhod. None of the women are given much page time in the original, and are mostly positioned as villains, victims, or (usually) both, so this is a good change.

Trigger warning: the myth deals with rape and incest, and this version doesn’t sugar-coat it.

The framing story is explicitly science-fictional, with two people going to board an unknown derelict near Mars. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks, a fussy old man nearing retirement who sublimates himself in his work; Nona is an up-and-coming young student, sent out for some practical experience. The wreck looks like an old-time Earth ship, but it’s come from entirely the wrong direction; that’s the first mystery we see, and the story keeps circling back to it.

Inside, there are no bodies, and nothing in the logs to indicate what happened. There’s a clunky old VR immersion unit, though, and our protagonists decide to experience it in order to reconstruct what was important, what the crew valued, what might have happened.

The whole book is told through the crew logs; we open with the Inspector of Wrecks, in his distinctive (and very Welsh) narrative voice.

Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.

We alternate between his narrative, Nona’s, and the shared channel they use when exploring the wreck and in the VR environment. The VR sessions themselves are done at a remove, because all we have is the log, with the two of them discussing what’s happening and trying to analyse both the story and the game system—the story behind the story.

Lewis is an extremely accomplished poet (Torchwood viewers will know her work through the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre, Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen) and she uses the myth to examine ideas about storytelling, imagination, and the writer’s process. More than that, though, the story is about itself, about this Welsh national myth, with its tricks and transformations and the struggle to claim independent selfhood. It has a great deal more in it, but in the end, it’s mythlore; it has a whole peoples’ world in it, and there are a great many perspectives on it.

Science-fictionally, it works well; the framing plot is an interesting twist on the old “something comes from outer space, and it’s not what it seems” plot so popular in Golden Age SF, and both the story-within-a-story and the game-that’s-more-than-a-game have been used to good effect recently as well. (I’m thinking of The Habitation of the Blessed, and Stross’s Halting State, respectively—though that’s the only similarity with the latter.)

The only issue I have with Lewis’s SF writing is that her explanations of her future technology are occasionally a little clunky.

Inspector of Wrecks: No, it can’t be. I’ve heard old-timers talking about something like this, but I’ve never seen one. I think it’s something called an audio-cassette player. There’s even a tape in it. Early personal entertainment system.
Apprentice: You’re kidding, when technology was still outside the body? That’s hilarious.
Inspector of Wrecks: See those couches? I bet they’re old VR systems.
Apprentice: VR?
Inspector of Wrecks: Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

The formatting is from the book there, incidentally—the whole thing is written in the style of a play script, and I’d love to hear a radio play á la Under Milk Wood. Her characterization is amazingly expressive; the Inspector of Wrecks came fully formed from his first words. Nona was less real for me, but I think that’s at least as much because I have more trouble empathizing with her.

Overall, I recommend this highly; it’s very accessible poetic criticism, it’s a new (and woman-centred) take on the mediaeval myth, and it’s good SF.

March 15, 2010

Alex Bell – Lex Trent Versus the Gods

Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:52 pm

This is a very fun book, and a very quick & easy read. It’s told by a seventeen-year-old confidence trickster and second-story man, who’s a horribly unsympathetic narrator, but it’s still a lot of fun being inside Lex’s head as we rush through a lightly but vividly sketched fantasy world.

Bell’s setting & worldbuilding imagination is wonderful—a world divided in two, with hundreds of ladders connecting the Realms of the Gods below with the Upper Lands, inhabited by humans, enchanters and their crones[1], and any number of strange animals[2].

On the one hand, this book is about overcoming a set of challenges and Humorous Mishaps in the course of winning one of the Games of the Gods for Lex’s patron. On the other, since this is YA, it’s about personal growth & repairing a relationship with family, and for once it isn’t the tedious dealing-with-your-parents’-divorce novel we’ve seen so many times before.

The Gods here are I think the one weak point of the book. Bell’s used the bog-standard Edwardian/TSR interpretation of the Graeco-Roman pantheon, with “X god of Y”—named deities with standard invariate portfolios. Which is simplistic and historically inaccurate.

Take Apollo, for instance. He’s “God of” music, poetry, healing, plague, colonization, and the sun. Animals especially associated with him include dolphins, ravens, roe deer, hawks, snakes, cicadas, wolves, and mice. He’s a pastoral shepherd, a great horseman, the Lord of Hounds, and a catcher of mice. He’s worshipped differently in nearly every site or text, and conflated or aggregated with any number of local deities.

I want fantasy gods with that much realism! Mostly, though, I want fantasy gods derived from ideas about real-world ones, rather than AD&D sourcebooks or half-remembered Edwardian mythology summaries.

[1] This is slightly troubling: old women are presented effectively as a separate species, and mostly the subject of mockery. “Crones need”, “Crones aren’t happy without”, “Poor crone, she thinks she’s a fairy godmother”…

[2] With an actual ecology, no less. Farmers have to wear protective suits, because the hay that drayfii eat (a drayfus is a shaggy hippo with wings, extremely placid and obedient) is a favourite habitat of nasal lice, which live inside nostrils and induce violent sneezing in order to find new hosts.

August 29, 2009


Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:38 pm

A children’s book by Adèle Geras, telling the story of those Odysseus left behind on Ithaka when he went to war – Penelope, his queen; Telemachus, their son; Klymene, her handmaiden, with whom the gods converse; and Ikarios, her twin brother.

I read this courtesy of Second Judith, or to be more accurate I was asked to carry it back to her and accidentally read it myself instead.

It’s a good book, with lots of warmth and vitality; the characters are fairly lightly sketched, but with a myth I (and most of us) know so well then it’s easy for us to flesh them out. On the other hand, this is the same familiar myth from a very different standpoint. The Greek myths are very much Hero Tales – stories of musclebound idiots throwing spears at each other and setting fire to things for the sake of a local beauty queen and the hope of undying fame. Of course, one of the reasons Odysseus is so popular is because he subverts this stereotype; he’s the classic trickster hero. I remember seeing a really interesting adaptation on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith a while back, with Odysseus as a scrawny guy with a dodgy beard and bags of charisma, trying to get his war-weary troops home and ending up stuck in a refugee detention camp with a bunch of Trojans.

The thing about having kings turn up and drag the menfolk off to war, however, is that that leaves the womenfolk at home to mind the house, bring in the harvests, milk the goats, and generally keep life going while the men muck around with their little toys. And since they’re culturally discouraged from violence or effective self-defense, Penelope’s in a sticky position when a whole bunch of suitors show up and start making comments like “Νιγε πλαγε ιου ηαυε ηερε”.

Of course, since this is like Ultimate Patriarchy, Telemachus is also in a sticky position. He wants to toss all the suitors out on their collective ears, and feels he won’t get any respect unless he does, but he’s just a teenager, not a hero, and since he’s a smart lad (he’s Odysseus’s own son, he’s got smart and plenty to spare) he knows he won’t manage it.

This tension is basically what the novel’s about – that space where the family left at home try and maintain their lives in the face of bullying on one hand and abandonment on the other. Of course, just because Odysseus has abandoned them doesn’t mean his actions don’t still affect them; Poseidon, in his grief for his child Polyphemus, goes to the sea strand and the taverns of Ithaka to mutter about his Plan and prepare his revenge.

Because we know that the myth is going to end well – for values of well that include a lot of blood and guts everywhere, and Penelope staying with the man who took ten years to get home from Troy to Ithaka, a distance of about 1,000 miles or three months’ leisurely hike – then we have the liberty, as readers, to focus on Klymene’s coming-of-age story, her relationships with the other Ithakans and the separate peace she forges with one of the suitors’ men, instead of the mythic backdrop. It’s a really good book, and definitely recommended.

June 14, 2009

Harry Harrison – The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 12:47 pm

I adore the Stainless Steel Rat books. I grew up with them – my father’s old Sphere paperbacks, and then 2000AD serialized The Stainless Steel Rat For President in 1984/5. (I was 8. I was in heaven.)

Slippery Jim DiGriz has always been the epitome of the fast-talking, high-living, straight-shooting trickster hero (and First Person Smartass), and what’s more he never kills people. He’s rather the Technical Pacifist, though, and it’s stated fairly unambiguously that this is down to his not wanting to kill people rather than, you know, not wanting them to die. And I don’t have a problem with that… it’s more honest than the A-Team version, where they very carefully show everyone escaping from the burning building or the car crash. And Jim rarely sheds a tear (except in a melodramatic smartass kind of way) for the mooks who do insist on dying. This happens a lot around his wife Angelina.

Speaking of Angelina, though… she’s a former psycho killer mastermind, who was born Extremely Ugly and had herself reshaped into ravishingness. She and Slippery Jim fell in love, and he had top Patrol doctors surgically implant a conscience in her. This is possibly a littlIe too close to Taming Wild Women for my taste, but, well, 1972 SF.

Speaking of 1972… well, 1975 really. This is one of that odd sub-genre of SF where the protagonist travels to the author’s time (or timeline) and generally place, and we’re supposed to derive some enjoyment from their attempts to understand our world or their gleeful rampage through it. And, of course, from recognizing things they don’t.

It seems to be closely related to that odd sub-genre of SF set in a fantastical world which halfway through turns out, with a nod and a wink, to be a postapocalyptic version of our own.

I suppose you could call them reverse portal-quest stories; there’s probably a case for understanding them as a kind of mooreeffoc story, with the same abrupt disruptive perceptual shift in the Way Things Are.

On the other hand, the past is a different country, and 1970s America even more so; I feel that that perceptual shift trivializes and distances the interestingness of it. Which is probably useful in context, since that lets us focus on the characters and the capers instead of the scenery.

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