Jul 13, 2010

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel

ABOVE: The Canadian cover for the young adult version of Starclimber. Truer to Oppel's description of the astralnaut suits, it lacks the steampunk look of the alternate cover below.
Compare the previous covers to the one below, which looks like the same marketing ploy adult versions of Harry Potter attempted. Apparently grown-ups can't be caught dead reading  books about magic or whimsical tales of space exploration.

Before I get into my discussion of Starclimber, the last book in Kenneth Oppel's adventures of Matt Cruse, I wanted to bring attention to the audiobooks by Full Cast Audio. While Airborn was ironically not available in Canada from Audible.com, both Skybreaker and Starclimber were, and I thoroughly enjoyed David Kelly as the narrating voice of Matt Cruse, along with a full cast of character voices. I can't recommend them highly enough. Check out samples from each of the books at the Full Cast Audio site, as well as this YouTube video giving a "Behind the Scenes" look at the process.

Initially, Starclimber felt the least steampunk of all the books. And this wasn't simply due to the switch from airships in the sky to a spacecraft in orbit. Matt Cruse's adventures have taken him increasingly higher, with this final installment set in outer space, but I'm not so thick as to think the substitution of an airship for a spaceship constitutes a move from the science-fantasy of steampunk to science fiction proper. There are numerous steampunk books written about space travel (Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice, Philip Reeve's Larklight series, James Blaylock's "The Hole in Space,"), but the training of the Canadian astralnauts felt too close to the training of real-world astronauts to really constitute technofantasy. However, in hindsight, I realized that the Matt Cruse adventures are a very neat blend of light technofantasy with historical and scientific facts. It would make an excellent exercise for teachers using this series, to ask students to weed out the fiction from the fact, an exercise I proposed for Boilerplate as well.

Throughout the series, there have been elements of technofantasy: the mango-scented hydrium that allows the massive airships to fly; the inclusion of fictional life-forms such as the cloud cats and the aerozoans; in Starclimber, it's in the material used to make Russian scientist Yuri Artsutanov's Space Elevator a reality. Explaining the book's eponymous Starclimber permits me to demonstrate how Oppel masterfully weaves his fiction and fact: Artsutanov's idea was based on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's idea for a massive tower to reach into space. Tsiolkovsky was in turn, inspired by the Eiffel tower: Oppel begins Starclimber with Matt Cruse working aboard an air tug on the Celestial Tower in France, a structure "already...ten times higher than the Eiffel Tower," making a textual nod to the inspiration for Artsutanov's theory. Since Oppel's series takes place in an alternate world with a history similar to ours, he allows Russia to keep its place in the history of the space elevator, with the fictional Dr. Sergei Turgenev as the man who designs the Starclimber's astral cable, with airship mogul Otto Lunardi responsible for the design of the actual Starclimber vehicle. The cable itself is finally where Starclimber skirts the edges of technofantasy. In reality, it was discovered that prior to nanotechnology, there were no materials found on earth strong enough to create a cable for a skyhook approach to space exploration. Oppel gets around this by having the cable made from metal taken from the Badlands Crater: "They found metal that had never been seen on Earth before. It's light, flexible, and, when made molten, can be spun thinner than spiderweb, only a thousand times stronger" (173). However, this approach is very similar to other science fiction writers' means of space travel - dilythium crystals in Star Trek being a popular (albeit poor, given Trek's general lack of hard science) example of fictional fuel sources. Is it technofantasy? Yes, but it's coupled with passages that teach science facts such as Kepler's theories about the refraction of light on the earth's atmosphere, an approach Oppel takes in all three books: fantastic elements are paired with realities of the physical sciences, so that the world Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries inhabit gains a sense of verisimilitude a purely fantastic work like Larklight lacks.

In this sense, Oppel's "steampunk" books aren't as steampunk as Larklight or Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls, at least, by my definition of the current steampunk aesthetic. It permits me the opportunity to playfully try a sort of charting approach to the "steampunkness" of a book, an idea that I've been thinking about using here, but have been hesitant about using, simply because I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm dead serious about it. I haven't decided how useful such an approach would be, but here's what it would look like:

Technofantasy: 4/10 Oppel engages in technofantasy as the means to propel real-world scientific theories, or to include fictional life forms. In most respects, the world of Starclimber works very much like ours, aside from the elements of hydrium, alumiron, and the space-ore metal, and the inclusion of the Platonic "music of the spheres."  While there are fictional life forms presented in the text (Kate's aerozoan specimen makes a humourous appearance), they aren't utterly fantastic, but are still grounded in real-world physical sciences (contrast with the alien life-forms in Larklight). The technology is based upon real-world scientific theories that continue to have enough merit to warrant debate.

Neo-Victorian: 10/10 The book is faithful to early twentieth-century social conventions and technologies. Attitudes toward women are accurate, with heroine Kate DeVries' undermining of those conventions constituting  Oppel's commentary and criticism of those attitudes.  

Retrofuturism: 8/10 Both the astral cable and the Celestial tower are built on past conceptions of how to travel into outer-space. However, the training of the astralnauts felt too much like the training NASA astronauts undergo to be fully retrofuturistic.

Steampunk Score: 22/30 = 73% brass content! Very likely a book steampunks will enjoy! Once more, I want to remind readers I'm not altogether serious about this - please don't spam my comment section with how I'm ruining steampunk by my heartless academic taxonomies and evaluative rubrics. It just makes for a neat shorthand form of assessment. It should in no way construe my attitude of the quality of a book, as books of low quality might be thoroughly steampunk as well as throroughly shite, while books of great quality might score quite low on the steampunk scale and still be brilliant.

A few final words about Starclimber: Oppel seems to be aware of how well his readers know these characters, and plays with that familiarity, engaging Kate and Matt in a number of spirited and humourous adventures in the first few chapters that play off inside jokes and prior storylines: an incident between Phoebe the Infant aerozoan and a poodle, an irate park security guard with an obsession for park bench chits, and a light lampoon of French and Canadian relations are all part of the opening act in Paris, and they regularly brought a smile to my face.

I was surprised to find how Canadian this last book was, revealing that Lionsgate city, "all ragtime and jazz," with suffragette marches--"It's those ladies who want to vote, sir!"--in the streets, is Vancouver, making Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries fellow Canadians. Oppel makes little or no mention of their nationality until this last book, and it was a pleasant surprise. The Starclimber is the achievement of Canada, which is perhaps a nod to our own Space Agency, and the contributions Canada has made to space exploration in partnership with other nations. My hat is off to Kenneth Oppel for being the only other author besides Lisa Smedman to set a steampunk work in the Great White North.

At least, I thought they were the only two, until yesterday.

While perusing Arrowdreams: An Anthology of Alternate Canadas, I came across Laurent McAllister's “The case of the serial “De Québec à la Lune” by Veritatus," which co-editor Mark Shainblum describes as:
A snap history of nineteenth-century Québec liberalism, a mysterious author and his equally mysterious tale featuring Catholically correct resurrections, and an alternate history of an independent Québec that wants to add the Moon to its territory... Need we say more?
Laurent McAllister is the symbionym of French-Canadian writers Yves Meynard and Jean-Louis Trudel, and the work was translated for inclusion in the anthology. While it certainly belongs in a collection of alternate Canadian histories, this short story plays with a number of steampunk elements in its whimsical, satirical look at a past that never was. It clearly engages in technofantasy, with Dr. Victor Beaulieu, "just back from pursuing medical studies at the Sorbonne," inventing a "new science of life" which restores mortally wounded men to full health. This process involves "home made machinery, powered by steam boilers" which throw off "impressive electrical sparks," A succinct and accurate assessment of most literary steampunk tech. The resurrection is only fully achieved when the parish priest "provides a scapular, a cloth badge with the likeness of the head-carrying martyr St. Dennis" and places it on the patient. To this, Dr. Beaulieu adds a blessed medal, the removal of which results in death (175).

This is only the beginning of Victor Beaulieu's ambition (note the obvious borrowing of Dr. Frankenstein's first name for a French-Canadian doctor!): with the resurrection process, "he wishes to assemble an army of (quite literally) born-again Christians in order to win Quebec's independence by force of arms!" Once the unstoppable army achieves this, Beaulieu reveals his "third and most daring dream: to send a cannon shell to the Moon and thus annex the Lunar Territories to the R.C.Q.!" (177). The reference to Verne's De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) is obvious, and the story shares the tongue-in-cheek irony of Verne's classic story, which is more a satire of the American preoccupation with ballistics than a serious speculation of lunar exploration. Here too, satire is clearly the goal, with the villain Renaud de la Chevairie (who discovered "two new elements, both lighter than hydrogen: primium and legium," which he uses to "build a peerless aerostat with which to further his ambitions" (177)), who forces one of his victims to commit unspeakable acts such as drinking sangria and reading Voltaire! I won't spoil the rest of the story, but I wanted to include it as a late addition to my Canuck steampunk month, not only because it's set in Canada, but because it constitutes one of those "hidden gems," and in this case, very nearly a lost one, since Arrowdreams is likely out of print. Track down a copy from Indigo, Amazon or your local library and enjoy some space-bound Canadian steampunk as a companion to Oppel's Starclimber

A link to the official Starclimber website


  1. Actually, Baxter's "Anti-ice" was more about world domination than space travel. Steam-powered space travels have been covered mostly by gaming products like "Space: 1889", "Parroom Station", "Steam Trek", "Iron Stars", "Mission Planete Rouge", "Full Light, Full Steam" etc. And don't forget about brilliant "Steam Trek" short film (preceding PBEM).

    The space lift and the Brick Moon was described and beautifully drawn in British strip "Nemesis the Warlock: The Gothic Empire" by Pat Mills, Kevin O'Neill & Bryan Talbot (1984).

  2. Great links Piechur, thanks very much for clarifying and expanding, as always!


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