Jun 15, 2010

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

In response to a number of conversations, recommended hyperlinks, and posted replies and rebuttals to my post on Steampunk as an Aesthetic, I'm modifying my approach somewhat. I'd like to clarify that this has always been the intention of the blog: to air an idea in a seminar environment; to generate discussion that provokes further thought; which in turn, advances my research. So I owe great thanks to a number of online correspondents and writers who consistently push my thinking, and challenge me to think harder about it: Piechur of Retrostacja and Daniel Hemmens of FerretBrain have been directly responsible for me amending my thesis.

It's a minor amendment, but here it is: I'm conceding that the way in which I use "aesthetic" isn't drastically different from how some use "genre." As Daniel Chandler astutely notes in his well-researched "Introduction to Genre," "One theorist's genre may be another's sub-genre or even super-genre (and indeed what is technique, style, mode, formula or thematic grouping to one may be treated as a genre by another)." He goes on to list approaches to categorization in film theory, which made me wonder if, insofar as narrative media is concerned, I'm simply categorizing a genre by aesthetic. At the very least, I'd like to make sure I'm not confusedly communicating (as Daniel Hemmens' has assumed) that if something is an aesthetic, it cannot be a genre. This is not my point - I've likely been overstating my point, resulting in some confusion.

While Hemmens' analysis of my thesis is a bit premature, given that I promised it would be explained further in future posts, he makes a number of points that really challenged me (and apparently others, as the morass of comment thread following his post demonstrates), but the thought that was most influential on me was the following:
Were I in the mood to construct overly simplistic models for complex phenomena, I might say that genre is comprised of three elements: the aesthetic, the conceptual and the structural, aesthetic elements being cosmetic features like airships and dragons, conceptual features being the kinds of ideas the genre tends to engage with, and structural features being stuff about how the books are actually written. Some genres are defined primarily by conceptual features (horror tends to be scary, romance tends to be romantic) some by aesthetic features (fantasy tends to include magic and swordfights) and some by structural features (a three-volume novel will usually be published in three volumes).
I like that breakdown of genre: conceptual (I'd say thematic), aesthetic, and structural (which I would call technique). So the amendment is minor: I continue to view steampunk as an aesthetic, and insofar as it is expressed as a genre of fiction and art, I view it as a genre defined primarily by aesthetic features. If it has recurring concepts, or themes, that is largely because the steampunk aesthetic is often applied to SF, and consequently borrows SF themes and concepts. What is interesting to me is that these themes are explored through an aesthetic approach that borrows from both SF and fantasy.

Which bring us to today's post on Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding. This novel gets released in Canada tomorrow, but I had the good fortune of being sent a signed copy courtesy of Exhibition Hall editor-in-chief, Christopher Garcia. If you've heard anything about Retribution Falls at all, you've likely heard something to the effect of "like Firefly" or "think Pirates of the Caribbean with ships in the air instead of the water." Neither of those comparisons is wrong, and yet neither quite captures Retribution Falls properly. I've read scathing and glowing reviews, which makes me glad that I no longer write reviews per se. On the subjective end, I really enjoyed Retribution Falls and found that it was a fresh take on tired ground. The basic plot has been done to death, but for a Firefly-fan like myself, I didn't see a downside to the affinities Wooding and Whedon share here. I'll let those reviews be your gateway to plot synopses and opinions on whether Retribution Falls is worth reading.

I want to focus instead on how Retribution Falls works inside Hemmens' genre scheme, slightly revised: aesthetic, themes, and technique. We'll deal primarily with the aesthetic aspects (specifically within the structure of the three recurring signifiers I've posited as comprising the steampunk aesthetic: Technofantasy, Retrofuture, and neo-Victorian), but I'll make commentary on the theme and technique as well.

Technofantasy: One of the major characters, Crake, is a "daemonist," which is effectively an alchemist. Daemonists are contrasted with charlatan diviners in one scene where Crake explains that people want to see daemonists hanged, because what they do works. "It's a science," he tells the sky-pirate Captain Frey (109). This is the approach of technofantasy: it is the science of an alternate history or secondary world wherein the physical laws are radically different from our own. Consider the following description of a daemonist's workshop:
Plome, like Crake, had always leaned towards science rather than superstition in his approach to daemonism. His sanctum was like a laboratory. A chalkboard was covered with formulae for frequency modulation, next to a complicated alembic and books on the nature of plasm and luminiferous aether. A globular brass cage took pride of place, surrounded by various resonating devices. There were thin metal strips of varying lengths, chimes of all kinds, and hollow wooden tubes. With such devices a daemon could be contained. (70) 
A few people have tried to call me on this one, saying that the technology of Star Trek and Star Wars is technofantasy - and they're absolutely correct. It's why hard-SF aficionados are non-plussed about the conflation of these space operas with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov's work. It's why we have terms like "syfy" now. I don't disagree that Star Trek and Star Wars are technofantasy (Wars more than Trek). But in the case of Trek's dilithium crystals, you're dealing with a fictional substance based in scientific speculation. Compare an article on the properties of dilithium crystals with luminiferous aether to see the difference in the nomenclature. Trek is making an attempt to sound scientific. Steampunk rarely tries, and when it does, it's still pure technofantasy. Bess, the powerful automaton of Retribution Falls doesn't have a positronic brain; it is not a droid or robot, it is a golem, created through the Art of daemonism in a ritual mixing equal parts Frankenstein, Cthulhu mythos, and Full Metal Alchemist

As another example, consider the following passage from Frank Herbert's Dune, when Jessica Atreides is taking "The Water of Life," and synthesizing its poison. The passage is a mix of mystical and chemical language: "an abrupt revelation," is understood as the awareness of "a pychokinesthetic extension of herself." And while the mystical elements remain, the process is ultimately conveyed through science:
The stuff was dancing particles within her, its motions so rapid that even frozen time could not stop them. Dancing particles. She began recognizing familiar structures, atomic linkages: a carbon atom here, helical wavering...a glucose molecule. An entire chain of molecules confronted her, and she recognized a protein...a metyhl-protein configuration. (297)
Dune presents an excellent contrast for looking at how technofantasy is used in steampunk, vs. hard SF. Insofar as Dune contains elements of technofantasy, they are woven in with hard speculations about ecology, evolution, human consciousness, and astrophysics. These speculations contribute directly to the themes of Dune. In steampunk, it's hard to identify how technofantasy contributes to themes. In the case of Retribution Falls, daemonism serves only as marker of difference for Crake - daemonism is outlawed, which renders Crake an outsider. This relates to Retribution Falls' central theme, the idea of community and belonging, but this relationship is not intrinsic to how Wooding constructs daemonism as technofantasy. Crake is ultimately an exile from hearth and home because of an experiment gone horribly wrong, not because daemonism is inherently a ritual practice that encourages loneliness. Contrast this with the spice melange of Dune, which is inherently connected to the novel's ecological theme. I'm not implying that the technofantasy of steampunk can't be used to further a novel's conceptual aspects, simply that in the case of Retribution Falls, they don't. In my reading, this seems to the rule, not exception. Consider that Moorcock uses the airships of Warlord of the Air as a signifier of Imperial Colonialism. The airships communicate a period of time when Britain was a significant world power. They aren't just modes of transportation, they are indicators of theme.

Retrofuturism: The airships of Retribution Falls, while also serving as examples of technofantasy, largely operate in the steampunk aesthetic to signify retrofuturism. If a writer wants to convey the future without any nods to the past, they don't fly in airships like a "blubous cargo barque." Airships are a failed technology that require fictional motive power or construction materials to be made viable. Wooding describes the Ketty Jay, the airship of the novel's sky-pirate crew as an "Ironclad," a term that evokes images of the Thunderchild from Wells's The War of the Worlds, or the vessel the Nautilus sinks in the second half of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It evokes the nineteenth century (and thus is a marker of the way I use the term neo-Victorian as well). However, while evoking the past, the Ketty Jay and other ships in Retribution Falls are not merely copies of a Graf Zeppelin, despite references to the Ace of Skulls being "buoyed up with huge tanks of aerium gas," which is refined into "ultralight gas." While the Ketty Jay seems to have the overall  design of real-world airships "an ugly, bulky thing, hunched like a vulture, with a blunt nose and two fat thrusters," and is thus prone to the same threats they are, it is described as having "the notoriously robust Blackmore P-12 thrusters" (159), engines capable of taking the airship through a storm that heavier-than-air craft couldn't handle. Compare this with the opening chapter of Kenneth Oppel's Skybreaker, where the airship is at the mercy of the wind, and you'll understand how Wooding has made his air transport both a thing of the past and the future: The Ketty Jay bears more than a passing resemblance in spirit to Han Solo's Millenium Falcon, as a cargo-combat conversion meant for smuggling. Wooding excels at positing great airship-class names, including the Tabington Wolverine or the Besterfield Ghostmoth.

Neo-Victorian: In short, evoking the nineteenth century, with fuzzy temporal boundaries (I don't mean it has to slavishly remind one of Victorian London, but I haven't found a decent term for this other than neo-Victorian). One of the forum participants at Ferret Brain made a comment about pirate-punk, and I thought immediately of Retribution Falls. What's wonderful about Wooding's novel is that it doesn't immediately come across as having a eighteenth/nineteenth century aspect to it - there is a sense of another world, one which is not my own. Aside from the inclusion of airships, it is only through little details that the reader concludes an antiquated aspect to the decor and implements in this secondary world. Frey carries a cutlass and, along with his crew, uses revolvers (not blasters); the bounty-hunting Century Knights wear armor and carry swords (along with ballistic weapons like "twin lever-action shotguns" (74)) that lend a traditional, ceremonial aspect to their costume, which includes a "tricorn hat" for one (74); at one point, we are in a town where "electricity hasn't caught on here yet" (69); where there is electricity, the bulbs are in a "black iron candelabra" (39); one of the pilots has a "ferrotype of his sweetheart" (49); I could go on: a "black waistcoat" (206), a "single oil lantern" (268); a dreadnought (323). The aesthetic is the past, and taken on the whole, a past in the style of the nineteenth century. Just check out the cover to the forthcoming sequel to see what I mean.

Yet all of this remains aesthetic. Is there a thematic element? The thread that runs throughout Retribution Falls is hardly what one expects from an adventure story with a steampunk feel: relationship and belonging. It isn't the steampunk aesthetic that delivers this--Woodings characters could be in a Space Opera, a Western, a straight-forward pirate tale on the high seas. They would remain a crew with secret pasts revealed slowly, page by page, chapter by chapter, who move from motley to united as the book progresses:
"The Darian Frey they were about to kill wasn't the same Darien Frey they'd set out to frame for their crime. That man had been a failure, a man who had lurched from crisis to disaster at the whim of fate. A man who had prided himself on being better than the bottom-feeding scum of the smuggling world, and hadn't desired any more than that.
But he'd surprised them. He'd turned and fought when he should have run. He'd evaded and outwitted them time and again. He'd turned a bunch of dysfunctional layabouts into something approximating a crew." (343)
This is the core of Wooding's novel. The novel's catchy title has little to do with the theme of belonging, unless it is viewed as an analogue of the difference between dream and reality (I won't say more about this lest I spoil the reveal of the pirate-town of Retribution Falls). While Retribution Falls is mentioned early in the book, it isn't the mystery that keeps the reader turning pages: Wooding's best slow-reveals are character-based. Jules Verne reveals the nature of the Nautilus early in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then turns to Captain Nemo and his motivation to provide the basis of suspense for the remainder of the book. The reader knows Frey and his crew will find Retribution Falls, and so something else is needed to motivate interest. Accordingly, the entire novel acts as a sort of adventurous frame narrative (perhaps my only nod to the technique Wooding employs) for the character development of Darian Frey the freebooter, Crake the daimonist, and Jez the mysterious navigator.  Jez's back-story comes very nearly at the end of the book, at a point when the reader might feel cheated of learning the crew's fate. This is a failing of Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, largely because the characters in Perpetual Motion are so flawed they aren't engaging, unlike the crew of the Ketty Jay, who are flawed but endearing. When Wooding finally turns his full attention to Jez's past, the reader is just as satisfied to know "what happened then" as they are "what happens next." Wooding's novel is certainly Firefly-esque, but if Wooding is riffing off Whedon, it's his character development where he most succeeds in homage. Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn't stay on the air for as many seasons as it did just because people dig vampires: television is most successful when it combines entertaining escapes filled with characters we love.

If Retribution Falls is merely steampunked Firefly, it's not only because it's about a crew of outlaws in a flying vessel: it's because Wooding writes characters as rich and fun as Whedon does, whose dynamic arcs run parallel to an engaging, fast-paced adventure story. On the surface, Retribution Falls is steampunk: technofantasy daemonism, retrofuturist airships, and neo-Victorian sky-pirates. Beneath the veneer, it's a story about relationships and belonging - not in the way Adele Wiseman's Crackpot is, but in the way a summer blockbuster can elevate its material by refusing to just "blow shit up real good." I suspect this is why it was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award...or perhaps it was just because the judges were glad to see someone letting speculative fiction have a good time again.

I'd also like to suggest that Stephan Martiniere is both a blessing and curse to authors. He makes gorgeous covers, but sadly the text inside doesn't always live up to his brilliance. Thankfully Retribution Falls does. Martiniere excels at steampunkish, industrial art, having illustrated the covers of Jay Lake's Mainspring, Escapement, and Pinion, as well as Michael Swanwick's Dragons of Babel, as well as this smokin' cover for the comic book series The Victorian.  Click on those links to see the art.

Works Cited

Herbert, Frank. The Great Dune Trilogy. Bath: Pitman Press, 1979.


  1. Bravo! Now I see a light in this tunnel :)

    BTW, Have you read "The Victorian"? It's a comic-book equivalent to Michael Flynn's "In the Country of the Blind". A nietzschean uebermensch story written by someone using a pen-name "Trainor Houghton" (Flynn?)

  2. Wow, I've finally found Trainor Houghton, and he's definitely not a dead ringer for Mr. Michael Flynn. :) Another conspiracy theory failed the Google test.

  3. I haven't had the chance to read "The Victorian," but I'm very excited about the link to Penny Farthing Press!!

  4. Read it! It's one of the rare examples of pure steampunk set in our times and our world. This comic definitely sheds new light on the boundaries of steampunk.


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