Dec 23, 2009

Cold Duty by J. Daniel Sawyer

Despite how Charles Dickens seems to feature as a pivotal precedent for the Steampunk aesthetic, the author's considerable influence on North American and UK Christmas traditions has not extended to steampunk Christmas stories. One has to look far and wide for steampunk Christmas images, and the literature is far more spartan. J. Daniel Sawyer's podcasted short story "Cold Duty" (to be released in a print anthology in 2010) is one of the only ones I have stumbled across, and thankfully, it's very good. While I definitely wanted to post something seasonal, I didn't want to compromise the integrity of the blog in the process.

I had the double-pleasure of listening all the way through "Cold Duty" on podcast through Steampod before recalling how I knew J. Daniel Sawyer. I had the honor of being on a panel about Victorian technology with Daniel at Steam Powered, along with Christopher Garcia. Dan and I had a couple of excellent chats that weekend, and I was glad to find out that his star was rising in steampunk circles.

As already stated, I liked "Cold Duty", which I first experienced as a podcast audiobook. The reader does an excellent job of conveying the narrator's voice, in accent and emotion with an authenticity that captures Sawyer's admirable writing style. One of my complaints with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is how the main characters lacked individual voices, and how the text overall was too contemporary - it didn't read nineteenth century. "Cold Duty" is packed with aphorisms and slang that provides verisimilitude without becoming inacessible to the modern reader. I had no trouble following the storyline, and understood the meaning of period phrases by their context. The presence of a highly personal voice is key to Sawyer's text, not only because it is told in first person, but because it is written as the transcript of a mix of journal entries and actual recordings on wax cylinders (of interest, an audiobook producer recently asked me if steampunk fans would buy an audiobook on a wax cylinder as a collectible - perhaps "Cold Duty" is the story for such an undertaking!).

It's the historical authenticity that sets "Cold Duty" apart from other steampunk short fiction I've read outside the two steampunk anthologies released so far. It feels like it takes place in a world as rich as that of The Difference Engine, or The Peshawar Lancers. It's difficult to say, due to the brevity of the medium of short story, but I never felt the secondary world of "Cold Duty" was clumsy or contrived. Sawyer has a strong enough knowledge of the nineteenth century to write comfortably in it. Good steampunk should understand history well enough to understand the ramifications of "the moment of the break" from our reality to the possible world, or else that break becomes a forward-acting deus ex machina, as is the case in Jonathan Green's Unnatural History.

Daniel was good enough to send me a text copy so I wouldn't have to to transcribe any quotes from the story from audiobook, but as I read it again, I was struck by how this is a story best left like a Christmas present - all wrapped up. Sure, I could tell you about how it has some great anachronistic technology, like the nearly-trope-status Babbage engine, or the enigmatic Gelusian room, but I wouldn't be able to say much about the latter without ruining the surprise. Yet, perhaps to entice you, I will leave this extended quotation, like a piece of torn wrapping paper where you can see some of the box peeking through, or perhaps like the sounds coming from within when you shake it. Get on over to Steampod and unwrap yourself a little bit of free Christmas steampunk.
In the fifty-seven London Christmases I seen, I reckon I've seen just about every kind there was. Plague years, snow years, wet years, years when everything changed and the world opened up, like this one.Never thought I'd see German industry in, but there it is across from my company. A strange sight, but maybe not the strangest. Not as strange as the year after the Ripper when everyone were afraid to stay out after dark, until the carolers came and filled the streets with music. The demons don't come out to play when the candles and holly is out.
I heard carolers today on my walk at Hyde Park. They stood in the middle of where the Crystal Palace used to stand, for the Great Exhibition. I only ever got to see photos of it, they tore it down before I arrived in the city. Sometimes, it's hard to remember being anywhere else.
The snow was fresh. The sounds of the city – the six-stroke steamolines, the hoof clops of horses on the sidewalk, the voices of lost people, sifted through the trees and the powder, carried on the wind, rushing through the trees like it were a cold steam. Their voices, singing “O Come Emmanuel,” sounded like God took the world's heartbreak and made it into a diamond, then wrapped it around a symphony. I don't know if I've ever heard anything so beautiful.

Get a print copy of "Cold Duty" and other J. Daniel Sawyer stories in Podthology!

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