Jul 23, 2010

Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters

In the essay "Four Hundred Years of Fantastic Literature in Canada," John Robert Colombo constructs the following taxonomy of fantastic literature:
"Fantastic literature" is short for "the literature of the fantastic." I have in mind three literary genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, and Weird Fiction. The three genres are more distinct in theory than in practice, but they do represent different approaches to storytelling. Science Fiction is writing that is realistic and deals with reasonable change that follows the introduction of a scientific discovery or a technological invention or application. Fantasy Fiction is writing that seems closer to legend and myth than to realism; it describes heroic action in a world that is not out own. Weird Fiction, often described as "horror fiction," "occult fiction," or "supernatural fiction," offers the reader a realistic world that lies somewhere between the workaday world informed by science and the world charged with imaginative values; in Weird Fiction, the society and world are recognizably our own, except for the fact that someone finds a miraculous object or develops a strange talent, unexpected and non-scientific in nature. Within Weird Fiction, the difference between the literature of horror and the literature of terror is that in the former the accent is on physical menace, whereas in the latter it is on psychological menace, roughly equivalent to the difference between the physical horror of Frankenstein and the psychical terror of Dracula.
The three genres are easily distinguished, as a consideration of modes of transportation suggests. In Science Fiction, the given mode of transportation may be a rocket ship, spaceship, or starship, perhaps even a flying saucer, depending on the period and the sophistication of the writing. In Fantasy Fiction, the mode of transportation might be a flying carpet or a steed that is the descendant of Pegasus, based on the setting of the work. In Weird Fiction, there might be levitation or sudden appearances and disappearances without rationale. In any prose narrative, the mode of transportation is accepted as the norm, and the reader does not expect to encounter in a given novel or story both sleek spaceships and winged steeds, as consistency and appropriateness are required. Is interchangeability possible or impossible? C.S. Lewis thought it possible, for he once wrote, "I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus." (30-31)
This was written in 1995. Back then, it was a little easier to make rigid delineations: this is Fantasy, that is Science Fiction, that thing over there is Horror (It seems Colombo is referring to what we generally think of as horror, not necessarily the "weird" as defined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy). And yet, Stephen King and Peter Straub had already blurred the lines between Fantasy and Horror with The Talisman. Arguably, Lovecraft had blurred the lines between Science Fiction and Horror nearly a century earlier, and yet, Colombo's taxonomy isn't a bad one. Definitions aren't straight jackets: they're skeletons. In the case of fantastic literature, they help us talk in short-hand about works that don't fit into quotidian fiction.

Current fantastic writers are perfectly comfortable with interchangeability, as Mark Bould notes in his article "What Kind of Monster Are You?" in Volume 30 of Science Fiction Studies. Bould examines China Mieville's genre-blurring Perdido Street Station as a work of fiction that resists restraints. While not nearly as masterful in his prose, Canadian author S.M. Peters is equal to Mieville in terms of hybridity, mixing science fiction, horror, and fantasy in equal doses throughout his debut novel, Whitechapel Gods

The first time I read S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods was in the Spring of 2008, months before I'd made the final decision to do my PhD dissertation on steampunk. I'd spotted it in Chapters, and based on its delightfully enticing cover, thought it might prove a good choice for getting my steampunk-feet wet. I recall reading it too fast, skimming my way through it, and missing an awful lot. I took my time on this second read, giving it my full attention, and realized why I missed so much.

Whitechapel Gods is not a book to be skimmed. It is a book to be read carefully and in its entirety. While Peters isn't a Pynchon, Whitechapel Gods is far better fare than The Affinity Bridge, and more satisfying in its revelations and resolutions than I found Mainspring or Boneshaker. That said, it is dense. Peters' walled Whitechapel is an intricate secondary world, a blend of Dickensian London, the Whitechapel of the Hughes Brothers' film version of From Hell, Dante's Inferno, and Tolkien's Mordor. This setting is Whitechapel Gods' greatest strength and weakness: it's immersive enough to pull the reader into its fictional reality, but is so labyrinthine in its construction that it begs a map, or a diagram, a glossary, or all three. I drew my own as I read it, a three-tiered representation of Peters' Whitechapel. The upper level is the concourse, which is where the more well-to-do denizens of this Victorian hell reside, five stories above the Shadwell underbelly: a giant bowl of concrete supported, as the Concourse is, by a "maze of beams" that have grown up from the downstreets, the lowest level of Whitechapel.

You read that right: grown up. Elements of industry are treated like the flora and fauna of other fantasies, which lends the book one of the its two science fiction elements. Steel beams grow like the limbs of a great tree, and the levels of Whitechapel are constructed upon them. A disease called the clanks has infected the denizens of Whitechapel, so that they sprout industrial, mechanized protuberances, or find their bones replaced by steel: steampunk cyborgs: "The metal grew in a human being as easily as a in a tower or a factory" (61). The reason behind the growing steel and mechanical plague is pure fantasy: a product of the gods of Whitechapel. 

I found it amusing that some detractors of the novel have mentioned a deus ex machina ending. I don't know how shocked one can be at the inclusion of such endings in books that have the word "gods" in the title, especially when the gods are as immanent as the ones in Whitechapel Gods. The first is Mama Engine, a presence of heat and passion residing in the Stack, a great "mountain of iron" (11) that spews forth "smoke blacker than coal" (36), a steampunked Mount Doom, if you will. Her minions are the Black Cloaks, men in black coats and tophats with furnaces where their hearts should be, perhaps nod, homage, or ripoff from the Steampunk comic series (33).

The other God is Grandfather Clock, which I thought a clever take on the idea of a deity as absent clockmaker. Like Big Brother, Grandfather Clock watches over Whitechapel through every clock face, and is the balance to the heat and passion of Mama Engine. His minions are the Gold Cloaks, who are also half-men/half-machines, but are well-dressed versions of Mama Engine's Black Cloaks (33). While some might deem this characterization, it's actually more delivery of setting: the Black Cloaks and Gold Cloaks are representations of the powers they serve, and Peters admirably gives clear visual markers to distinguish them. Grandfather Clock is repeatedly referred to as an incarnation of logic and precision, of the inevitability of a predestined future. They are the dynamo and virgin of Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, the science and faith of The Kingdom of Ohio, the internal tension between SF and Fantasy in steampunk. There's a whole paper waiting to be written on comparing these elements within the context of Whitechapel Gods, I'm sure of it. 

To these Gods we add their servants, Baron Hume and Jonathan Scared. Baron Hume is also a mix of man and machine, formerly an architect whose designs were spurned. He is now a sort of "pope" to the gods of Whitechapel, serving as more immanent hand (though their presences are far from transcendent). His minions are the Boiler Men, virtually unstoppable automatons with high powered Atlas rifles (which seemed to be very advanced machine guns). Jonathan Scared felt much like Steampunk's villain, Absinthe, a madman with a penchant for perversion and torture. An organized crime boss, Scared's army is made up of youthful assassins and thugs he has corrupted since childhood. He is Mama Engine's consort, though his congress with her is never full explained. Scared is often the source of the sections of Whitechapel Gods that feel most like horror, though he is also the focalizer for actions inside virtual spaces that are reminiscent of SF cyberpunk. Scared is able, through a mixture of drug use and advanced mathematics, travel in the same plane of existence as the gods are most manifest in. So in addition to three levels of concrete reality, Peters adds a steampunk Metaverse, Matrix, virtual reality.

It's the only book other than The Difference Engine that shares any tropes of cyberpunk. The drug-induced, mathematically based divination (mathemagics?) engaged in by the villainous Jonathan Scared sends him traveling in ways that recalled Neuromancer's virtual spaces. The transference of resistance member Aaron's consciousness from his torture-shattered body into that of rodent cyborg Jeremy Longshore the Clickrat is a common cyberpunk approach (see Altered Carbon for an example), and the rebellion of Oliver Sumner and his crew of steampunks is the only instance I've come across so far, outside the aforementioned comic books, where a steampunk book has a "punk" resistance. Add to this the similarities between Wintermute as an AI god and the gods of Whitechapel, and I see another paper emerging from this book.

It's as though Peters had been ingesting steampunk from the '80s into the twenty-first century, then took these fermenting ideas and set them to paper. There are typical steampunk heroes: the orphan rebel (whose name is Oliver, as a sort of intertextual nod to Dickens), the hooker with the heart of gold, the Great White Hunter; he incorporates many icons of steampunk: steam men, steam machines, clocks, Victorian dress, manners, and social structures, and when we finally see an airship, it's a German one, delivering supplies to this city-within-a-city, since London stands at its gates, ready to invade if given the chance, to emancipate the people caught under the tyranny of Whitechapel's dark gods. Despite his utterly fantastic setting, Peters gets the Victorian period right in ways many steampunk writers rarely do, with details like the inclusion of Anglicanism (61) and praying before a mission (68). Steampunk has been too quick to throw out the church without letting us know the reasons why, and given the prevalence of religious life in Victorian England, its a conspicuous absence, one I suspect has more to do with authorial attitudes than anachronism. It's the mix of the details with the fantastic that make books like Whitechapel Gods work. As Steffen Hantke said, "the shaping force behind steampunk is not history but the will of its author to establish and then violate and modify a set of ontological rules" (1999 248).

Yet none of these feels self-conscious. It isn't clunky or overly contrived. Consider the following quote from Peters in an interview at Booktionary: "I work in images. I see scenes, in full colour. I know instantly when I get one of these that it will be, somehow, one of the defining moments of the story. I write towards these, hoping that they will happen, hoping that the moment will crystallize as I envisioned it. It’s really not up to me – the words pull me there or they don’t. I’ve always found intellectualizing or planning a story to be counterproductive." Peters works like David Lynch, interested more in giving us a feeling than necessarily delivering a narrative. As a result, there are narrative weaknesses in Whitechapel Gods, and were other readers and I to have a chat about it, I'm sure we'd agree on a number of them.

However, those are the proverbial trees, not the forest. Despite some narrative missteps, S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods is one of the most representative works of twenty-first century steampunk currently in print. No other book is as successful as capturing the secondary world of grit, grime, and gilding that the subculture, art, and fashion have suggested. All those costumes at the steampunk cons involving metal arms or ridiculously huge steam rifles? They belong in the walled Whitechapel of S.M. Peters' imagination.

It's not literary fiction, in the sense that it approaches Big Ideas, but never really completes dealing with them. Despite this, it is a wonderful puzzle box of a fictional world. I recommend reading with a pen and pad of paper at hand. Make notes about the world, read carefully the epigraphs from Baron Hume's Summa Machina at the beginning of each chapter (perhaps even take them and type them in their proper order, and see if there's any basis to those deus ex machina accusations), draw the diagrams and maps the editor failed to include, attempt to place the date the three days of the Uprising occur on. This isn't a novel to be read at the beach - it's a novel to be read in the cold of winter, when there is time to put the pieces of this puzzle together. My first read was frustrating, because I treated Whitechapel Gods like it was just another run-of-the-mill adventure novel. My second read was very rewarding, because I took the time to treat the depth of world Peters created with focused attention. If I were to use the scale I applied to Starclimber, it would get 30/30 for its steampunk-ness. This book is pure technofantasy in a neo-Victorian retrofuture. It is a mix of horror (it's like Clive Barker without the sex!), science fiction (steampunk your cyberpunk!), and fantasy (this uprising is against the highest order of tyranny - the gods!), all rolled into one glorious mess of steampunk joy.

Did I mention S.M. Peters is Canadian?


NOTE: I wanted to make sure to give a huge shout-out for On Spec, the Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic, which publishes all of the genres Colombo mentions in that monstrous quotation I kicked this post off with. In addition, they gave S.M. Peters his first publication with "Ticker Hounds," the short story that was the seed for Whitechapel Gods. Grab the back issue here, or get yourself a subscription to support Canadian SF, Fantasy, and Horror! Take it from a subscriber, it's a great magazine. Not convinced? Check out this sample issue for free!

6 comments:

  1. Sounds absolutely fantastic, like a steampunked "Imajica" or "Kult" RPG. I wish this book was published in my country.

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  2. Sounds very interesting. I'll see if I can lay hands on a copy.

    Since you mention it, can you recommend any other steampunk works that take the ubiquitous Victorian church semi-seriously (before violating and modifying it, naturally)?

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  3. That's a very good estimation Piechur. A lot like Barker's Imajica, or Weaveworld in spirit.

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  4. Jay Lake's Mainspring takes religion very seriously - the whole conceit of the book rests on God as clockmaker, and the world as a clock.

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  5. Hey,
    I'm an bookseller in Seattle, WA and I love your blog. However, some of the recent format changes make it harder to read your posts. While, the changes make it a lot easier to navigate through your older content, with the duel sidebars, the information flow within the articles is overly compressed. Because of your detailed posts and your goal for your blog, I think that the ease of finding older content should be prioritized as less valuable than the ease of reading your fascinating observations. Either way, I'll keep checking out your blog, it just may be less frequent.

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  6. Good thoughts Bubbles, I'll take that into consideration and do a revamp. I was just trying out the three-column approach.

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