Full Steam Ahead by Nathalie Gray
Gray begins her book with a brief note to the reader, explaining steampunk:
Dashing pirates, odious villains and mouthy heroines fight for survival in this momentous steampunk story. I pulled out all the stops for this one. For those unfamiliar with this awesome genre, steampunk is a delightful mix of Victorian aesthetics and oh-so-shiny fantastical machines. If you enjoy a good historical romance mixed with an action ride that never stops, or a romance that will sweep you into a fantasy world of petticoats and steam pistols, armored dirigibles and floating fortresses, then FULL STEAM AHEAD is for you. Strap on your brass goggles, my lovelies, we’re weighing the anchor and hoisting the mizzen. Ahoy!It's not a bad explanation of steampunk, or at the very least Victorian Scientific Romances, but I can imagine a number of self-identifying steampunks will cringe at such an introduction. After two months of taking things far too seriously at the Great Steampunk Debate, this is exactly the sort of description of steampunk I was pining for. There's only so many conversations one can have about the ideology of steampunk before you want to read some freebooting, fast-shooting, escapism mixed with eroticism.
If you're hearing a bit of pique or cheek in my writing, then I'm succeeding. I was nonplussed to hear folks at The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition getting down on Katie MacAlister's Steamed, not because I think it's a great work of art, but because they largely hadn't read it. They were mad because of the appropriation of various web images for the book's trailer, which ostensibly conflated their inflated view of steampunk with the book itself, seen by many steampunks as opportunistic dreck. This as the same sort of snobbery that applauds when a laptop is steampunked, but laments when the same thing is done to Mickey Mouse. Before casting stones at writers like MacAlister and Gray, steampunk fans, aficionados, adherents, and acolytes need to ponder why steampunk is popping up with regularity in romance and erotica. Why is the steampunk aesthetic seemingly suited to sexy storylines? Is it just because of the association with corsets, or is there something more to consider?
I've read enough of MacAlister's Steamed to know that it shares the same approach to steampunk as Full Steam Ahead. Both books are crosshatch fantasies, of which C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles are a famous example: the story involves multiple worlds, and as the Encyclopedia of Fantasy notes, "normally one of these worlds is our own and the other (or others) some form of secondary world" (237). Steffen Hantke, in his crucial article on steampunk scholarship, "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk," states that "Hardly ever is steampunk concerned with the transition from narrative universe into another," setting steampunk into Nancy Trail's "fantasy mode," a typological framework wherein "the natural domain is altogether absent or it is a framing device, a domain...with a very limited function" (footnote 4, 254). Hantke was right about this insofar as pre-2000 steampunk is concerned, and remains largely correct when considering the greater body of steampunk writing. Yet in both cases of steampunk romance listed here, there is a transition from one narrative universe into another.
The story begins in our world, with Laurel Benson, our feisty, independent, mouth-like-a-trucker heroine facing a storm-of-the-century while in the midst of a sailing race. While it's not going to win any literary awards, I have to admit smiling several times at Gray's descriptions of massive waves: "A Hoover Dam made of liquid emerald. The sea was such a beautiful, beautiful bitch" (9). Not having read any of Gray's other works, I can only say that she seems to be some strange mash-up of pulp and romance writer. Maybe it's her military background. It comes as no surprise when a strange vortex opens up in the storm - after all, it was clear this story was taking place in a modern setting, and this was supposed to get steampunk at some point.
Once in this other world, the thoroughly twenty-first century girl meets quasi-nineteenth-century-air-pirate Phineas Hamilton, captain of the Brass Baron (I really hope someone has written a steampunk erotica story called Brass Balls or something like it, about real clockwork lust). The crew of the Brass Baron read like a steampunk-by-numbers gathering of con attendees, with names like the female first mate Dame Augusta and Miss Carmina.
"She was forced to twist her neck this way and that to keep facing the dangerous crowd. And a strange one, too, with colorful garments fit for Victorian times yet equipped with tools and weapons that clearly didn't come from any era she knew. Jesus, she really was in a hospital somewhere. These hallucinations had to be the drugs' effects." (17)This returns us to Hantke momentarily. In the same footnote mentioned earlier, Hantke contends that because there is no "ontologically different "outside" to the steampunk universe" there is also no "transitional hesitation in the face of the supernatural, which Todorov speaks about as the hallmark of all fantastic narrative" (though he does cite a few minor exceptions to this rule). One does not find people questioning the steampunk world they inhabit, save in moments where a new break is introduced into the fictional steampunk universe. In Lisa Smedman's The Apparition Trail, the main character does not question the perpetual motion machine which runs the technology of the world: he hesitates in the sense Todorov speaks about The Fantastic only when exposed to First Nations magic, which is heretofore something he had not encountered. By contrast, the First Nations people do not find this strange at all. Yet both MacAlister and Gray come at their steampunk universes via the crosshatch approach, which often results in hesitation.
"From this angle, the dirigible part looked as if it carried a sort of pirate ship underneath its belly, with a superstructure stuck to the top of the balloon. It seemed so implausible that she rubbed her eyes to make sure she wasn't seeing things...Around her were all sorts of fantastical machines that ranged from boilers to stuff that looked like giant radiators and long narrow water tanks. Steam was omnipresent. It jetted up and billowed, rose in thin spires and whistled out of brass tubes, curled like pig tails and twisted in long ribbons, hissed and wailed and rumbled. Nothing like this existed. Did it? It couldn't." (21)
Further, this is ostensibly an outsider's perspective of what steampunk looks like. This is what Gray thinks steampunk looks like. MacAlister provides another outsider's perspective, though she goes about it with less finesse, clunkily inserting references to Abney Park and cosplay, pushing the boundaries of fictional self-reflexivity to their breaking point. Hantke notes that steampunk foregrounds "the fictionality of its narrative universe" (247), that is, the text is 'aware' of its own fiction, and celebrates this without apology. While MacAlister's Steamed is aware of its fictional quality, it seems to do it in a self-conscious rather than self-aware manner. It's the textual equivalent of someone who knows they're overweight and keeps drawing attention to it in a manner that makes people uncomfortable. By contrast, Gray celebrates the fiction of her world by reveling in the tropes in a playful manner which is truer to the spirit of steampunk than Steamed.
The battle scenes are a mix of Star Trek and Master and Commander, which make them fast paced and fun, though sometimes glaringly familiar to a longtime geek like myself. Gray makes a nod to the two classes of The Time Machine in her opposition of humans and their albino-Viking enemies, the Varangians, though literary aficionados shouldn't go looking for too much social subtext here. The Varangians are caricature villains, made thoroughly contemptible through overdone threats of torture and rape. Gray also uses some very tired approaches to creating a secondary world, referring to pulses and cycles instead of seconds and hours, calling the battleships of the enemy Varangians drekkars instead of dreadnoughts or destroyers - there's only so much spacey or fantasy nomenclature one can take before it starts sounding like a B-movie, lampooned soundly by Galaxar in last years Monsters vs. Aliens. While I'm aware that this sort of writing is the literary equivalent of B-movies, I think Gray's got better chops than that. If the people in your secondary world speak English, don't bother making up words for ones already in the dictionary. That said, for Gray's audience, this might be the right approach. Taking her reader into a steampunk world via a crosshatch device enables Gray to introduce them gently to it - repetition of reading within the same genre builds up a repository of shorthand for the experienced reader. Longtime SF fans don't need explanations of the laws of robotics, or the issues surrounding time travel, or the complexities of contact with alien species, but neophytes do. In that respect, Gray's approach might be far more successful for readers unfamiliar with SF and Fantasy tropes.
As far as the romance aspect of Full Steam Ahead, I'm hardly the best judge. I've not read very many romance novels, so I can't really judge the quality. To that end, I sent the book to a friend who is far better versed in this genre, and she enjoyed it. From my own experience, I found it a much better read than my two excruciating attempts at reading Twilight, but that's largely because Laurel Benson is a character, not a cypher for teenage girls to imprint upon: she kicks as much ass as any of the men in the book. There's an awful lot of swash in her buckle. When she reflects on Phineas' appearance, she gets down to business: "The man was dangerously sexy" (43). In their later sexual escapades, Laurel is the aggressive one, with Phineas exhibiting a stereotype of Victorian propriety: it's a clumsier approach than Gail Carriger takes in Soulless, but is no less amusing if taken within the context of the popular romance genre. As Gray states in her bio, "I write high-octane romance. No damsel in distress." This is right in line with what I wrote about in my Steam Wars article concerning Bjorn Hurri's steampunked Princess Leia: "this Leia would likely have charmed Jabba with her wiles before killing him, so that by the time Luke arrived, she would have been drinking tea while waiting for Han to thaw from his carbonite freeze, the steampunk damsel without distress." Back to the question I asked at the beginning, I think this might be one of the reasons steampunk is working so well in romance: many steampunk heroines are women of agency--unlike Victorian women of history, steampunk heroines not only have a voice (as Laurel does, much to Phineas's initial chagrin), but they can wield a pistol, or fly an airship, or storm into a zombie-infested Seattle to rescue their son. While it won't be heralded as either literary writing or a classic of steampunk, Full Steam Ahead deserves to be included in the library of steampunk fans who enjoy a swashbuckling crosshatch adventure and a steamy romance. While I'm unlikely to be the first person to make this joke, I will nonetheless: maybe these romances are a sub-sub-genre of steampunk...called steamypunk.
Yes, it's a terrible joke, but I'm a professor - what did you expect? For those of you looking for light beach reading with gyrating that involves more than gears and gadgets, pick up Nathalie Gray's Full Steam Ahead. Just be warned, that if you're reading it within boarding distance of your significant other, that you may find your corset or cummerbund in disarray.