Feb 27, 2012

Heartless by Gail Carriger


When Soulless was first released, detractors stated it wasn't "steampunk enough." Justification was often on the technical end: the book was set in Victorian London, but where was the anachronistic technology, the retro futuristic mechanical innovations?  This simplistic approach to determining what was or wasn't Steampunk bothered me, since it seemed an exceedingly narrow understanding of technology. At my first panel at a Steampunk convention, Victorian technology with Christopher Garcia and J. Daniel Sawyer, we discussed medicine and chemistry at length. At the time, both were rare in Steampunk narratives outside a nod to Moreau or Jekyll and Hyde. Spiritualism was also a 'science' in the Victorian era. In the dabblings of the Hypocras Club's theories of the soul, Carriger had effectively dealt with these less-taken roads of steampunked technology.

Nevertheless, there were those in the Steampunk community who continued to act as naysayers to The Parasol Protectorate series. I suspect a number of factors contributed to these dismissals: the series was  marketed as a romance, and "real steampunk" couldn't be romance (this by the 'serious' Steampunk aficionados, who didn't want any silly girls in their tree fort), there wasn't enough science (as though there was science in any Steampunk at the time), and it had vampires and werewolves (this was a variation of the "not enough science" argument which only underscores how ignorant the scene was of its own aesthetic -  despite usually being used as a catch all substance for making impossible technologies work, aether was somehow scientific,--but werewolves and vampires weren't, despite Carriger's pesudo-scientific treatment of them within her fantastic ontology). In short, I found the arguments unconvincing, especially as I got further into my own research.

Initially, I must admit I was swayed by what others were saying about what steampunk is/was/will-be: if so-and-so said it, it must be true, because they're an important author/editor/artist/designer/maker/pretentious-ass. But by the time Changeless was released, I had a much firmer grasp of what I thought about the steampunk aesthetic, and could say with firm conviction, since I was constantly being asked if this or that book was steampunk, that the Parasol Protectorate books were, quite clearly, steampunk (or as I would put it, clearly using the steampunk aesthetic).

I know there are still those who erroneously think Steampunk must contain steam technology, despite scant few steampunk books before Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century using real fuel sources. There are also those who still debate the old chestnut of punk in Steampunk, which is equally vain, since there's nothing inherently "punk" in Jeter, Blaylock, Powers, or more recently, Westerfeld or Priest. This argument actually admits there isn't enough punk in Steampunk, and then proceed to impose a definition that includes punk ideals in it.

The point of all these digressions being, there were those who sought to exclude Lady Maccon's adventures from the Holy Steampunk Canon.

When I finished Heartless, the fourth book in the series, I tweeted something to this effect: "naysayers who dismissed @gailcarriger's novels as not Steampunk enough should brush up on their crow recipes," because the mayhem Alexia finds herself surrounded by in Heartless contains everything the narrow-mind Steampunk demands. I can't help but wonder if the steam-powered automaton shaped like an Octopus which goes ins rampage in the final acts was a polite "f**k you" to the exclusivists: "Go ahead--tell me THAT isn't Steampunk enough."

But as I argued in my last post, echoing Jess Nevins, our discussions should be getting beyond this game of IS or ISN'T Steampunk. If we treat it as an aesthetic, then it becomes a discussion of how that aesthetic is applied, and what difference the aesthetic makes to the narrative, if any.

In the case of Heartless, we again see examples of social retrofuturism, with Alexia is at the far end of her third trimester with the "infant inconvenience," refusing to be sidelined from an investigation involving a potential plot to assassinate the Queen. On the basis of social retrofuturism, I could easily argue an oppositional "punk" attitude in an upper-class woman of the nineteenth century battling an automaton, negotiating the labyrinthine politics of vampire Hives, and orchestrating the rescue of a young werewolf, all while going into labour. The prevailing attitude of the nineteenth century towards pregnant women was that they were "semi-permanent invalids," and that  “It was dangerous for any woman to expend energy on anything other than her primary reproductive purpose, as the consequences could be grave not only for herself, but for her children” (King 18). Alexia's response to the Woolsey butler Rumpet's emphatic, "“But, my lady, you’re about to, well, uh, give birth!” is meant for comedy, to be sure: “Oh, that’s not important. That can wait” (Carriger 350). But it is also a moment where the nineteenth century is imbued with our twenty-first century sensibilities which reject "that woman’s highest fulfillment [comes] from motherhood” (King 9).

I am uninterested in converting those who simply don't find The Parasol Protectorate their cup of Darjeeling, but I am very interested in seeing an end to prescriptivist approaches to delineating what steampunk is. In his “Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: Defining Steampunk,” Jess Nevins identifies two approaches to defining steampunk: the prescriptivists, who adhere to Jeter’s definition of steampunk in Locus or Peter Nicholls’ in the 1993 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and the descriptivists, “whose preferred definition of the term is far broader than Jeter/Nicholls and reflects its current (shambolic) status rather than its past (traditional) use” (513). Nevins rightly identifies me as the “most descriptivist” (515) of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies articles in the steampunk issue, though this was not always the case. When I began my research, I looked to the definitions by Clute and McAuley in the EF, but soon found it was ill-suited to how newer steampunk had expanded since 1997. Likewise, Hantke’s article only dealt with steampunk up to 1999, when it was still largely a literary category. Interviews with early steampunk writers Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Rudy Rucker were equally useless for application to current steampunk, as the writers openly admitted they knew little of current steampunk literature, let alone fashion or art. It became clear that in order to construct a definition of steampunk, I would need to immerse myself in primary research. In short, many of my findings and conclusions are original. As Nevins states, I am a descriptivist: my work is evidence based. Having read some 60+ steampunk novels in their entirety, I am treating the texts as artifacts, and basing my conclusions on textual evidence. The project of identifying the aesthetic alone is the first and arguably most important step in steampunk studies, in the process of offering a critical vocabulary for the discussion of steampunk.

My approach to researching steampunk has been to observe what it is, not what I want it to be. While this is a slippery enterprise, given the ever-changing nature of culture and art, I find it a better approach than prescriptivism. Prescriptivism implies we know what steampunk is without looking at evidence. This permits definitions of steampunk without any basis in evidence, often based on what a critic or fan thinks steampunk ought to be, as though it were a religious or political aspiration rather than an aesthetic.

I am glad to see Nevins' recent call to move beyond binary approaches to what is or isn't Steampunk. Both Nevins and Cherie Priest are advocating a spectrum approach: I had suggested something similar last April at the CNSE in Toronto, when I explained why I prefer speaking of Steampunk as an aesthetic, not a genre. As you can see from these slides, we discussed how one episode of Doctor Who, "The Girl in the Fireplace," can contain a great deal of the Steampunk aesthetic while another, "School Reunion," contains very little (the joke of course being that any episode that shows the interior of the TARDIS uses the aesthetic).



Popularly, genre is a classification we use to help us choose our reading or viewing. In fan circles, genre is one more excuse to engage in snarky pissing matches: is this SF, or is it just space opera? Is it hard or soft SF? Supercilious fanboys use such designations to create exclusivity: Moorcock is steampunk, Carriger is not. I advocate a broader approach, though not an entirely delimited one. In this way, we can speak of the "steampunk features" in The Diamond Age without losing sight of its the post-cyberpunk elements. We can talk about how Firefly is related to steampunk without getting into a massive pissing match over whether it's space opera or steampunk.

Likewise, we can talk about the steampunk features of The Parasol Protectorate books while admitting they contain elements of paranormal romance, the comedy-of-manners, and detective fiction. And in the case of Heartless, we'd be investigating many steampunk features. However, rather than reduce those to steam-powered automatons, I'd prefer to focus on a "lady who scurried around whacking at automatons and climbing into ornithopters," (60) who believes "the running of her household was best left to the gentlemen" (64), a position traditionally held by women, and who "spent a goodly number of years immersed in books . . . [attending] Royal Society presentations" (97). While steampunk technology is all good and fun, if we learned anything from The Difference Engine, it's the differences the difference makes that matters.

King, Jeannette. The Victorian Woman Question in Contemporary Feminist Fiction. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Nevins, Jess. “Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: Defining Steampunk.” Science Fiction Studies 38:3. (2011): 513-518. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

Feb 17, 2012

Blameless by Gail Carriger


SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read the previous two Parasol Protectorate books, I'm going to wreck all the surprises, so go read those before you come back and read this.

I begin our discussion of the third installment in the Parasol Protectorate by quoting another Gail--Gail Cunningham, in The New Woman and the Victorian Novel: "The fallen woman was a stain on society and had to be punished, either by the intolerable pangs of conscience or by death--preferably both." (21) Blameless finds Alexia in the role of fallen woman, rejected by Lord Maccon on the assumption of adultery, newly with child, firmly at the center of "The Scandal of the Century" (10).

When I taught Soulless, Carriger was mildly skeptical I'd find anything worth teaching. After all, as she once told me, the adventures of Alexia Tarabotti were a reaction to all the dystopic fiction she'd been seeing, in steampunk and speculative fiction in general. "I wanted to make people laugh," she said simply. And she succeeded. But being an addict of Masterpiece Theatre style drama rubs off on a writer, and insofar as such cinematic and televised adaptations are faithful to their nineteenth-century sources, so does the culture that informed them.

Without necessarily intending to, Carriger created a character who embodies and challenges common character tropes for women in nineteenth century fiction. Alexia’s desire to be useful to the BUR and later, the British Empire, provides a character arc that parallels the aspirations of the New Woman, that fin-de-siècle phenomenon of the New Woman, that “Protean figure” (Richardson and Willis xi), to quote Lyn Pykett, to whom Wilhemina Murray compared herself while seated at a typewriter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While it must be readily admitted, as Pykett states in her foreword to The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminisms, that the New Woman never existed, but “was (and remains) a shifting and contested term. It was a mobile and contradictory figure or signifier” (xi), the idea of the New Woman can be understood as the hope for social regeneration, a striving towards a future through the conception of “new, or newly perceived, forms of femininity which were brought to public attention in the last two decades of the nineteenth century” (1). Alexia embodies new forms of femininity, even for the radically different society of Carriger's London. She enjoys reading and pursues scientific knowledge at a time when “Education in itself was generally thought deleterious to female health” (King 18). And while she enjoys the attention of her husband, does not need him in order to survive, or to some degree, even thrive in Carriger's neo-Victorian alternate world.

Consequently, when this steampunk New Woman is cast in the role of the "Fallen Woman," she does not, like Madame Bovary, resort to self-destruction nor self-loathing. Her reaction to the women of London society in a Tea shop  may well engender applause in the theatres should Blameless find itself adapted for film, responding to invective with sharp wit:
Lady Blingchester, a mannish-faced matron of the stout and square variety with curly gray hair and too-large teeth, stood frowning down at her. She was accompanied by her daughter, who shared much the same expression and teeth. Both of them were known for having decided opinions on matters of morality.
"Lady Maccon, how dare you show your face here? Taking tea in such an obvious manner . . . in a respectable establishment, frequented by honest, decent women of good character and social standing. Why, you should be ashamed! Ashamed to even walk among us."
Alexia looked down at herself. "I believe I am sitting among you."
"You should be at home, groveling at the feet of your husband, begging him to take you back."
"Why, Lady Blingchester, what would you know about my husband's feet?" (57)
It is essential that we note Alexia's combative response to Lady Blingchester and her ilk, lest we be tempted to understand Alexia's next actions as flight. Alexia's response to her husband's dismissal, of society's gossip and reproach is not retreat: rather, she leaves London to go on a quest. Alexia's response to becoming the Fallen Woman is to ignore the dirty laundry and head for Italy and the society of the Templars. Admittedly, her motivation has come in the form of ballistic ladybug automata, but her undertaking of finding a solution on her own, without her husband's assistance, further supports what I said about steampunk women in "Steam Wars" when I called them damsels without distress. That isn't to say there won't be crisis after page-turning crisis once Alexia crosses the channel, but simply that Alexia and her steampunk sisterhood do not require the rescue of a Prince Charming to deal with it. They have inherited the earth prepared by the likes of Ellen Ripley.

Last year in Locus, I argued that steampunk isn't as interested in history so much as the history of Victorian and Edwardian literature:
"The mix of the historical and the literary have been the game of steampunk since its inception . . . Steampunk offerings continue to utilize a mix of historical figures whose lives have become legend, and fictional heroes whose stories have become truth in the minds of their readers, carrying on the tradition of blurring the lines between fiction as history, and history as fiction" (Sept. 2010 40).
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. puts it this way in his section on steampunk in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction: "Steampunk works are, accordingly, not so much counterfactual, as, to use Matt Hill's term, counterfictional" (108). He clarifies by using Sterling and Gilman's London in The Difference Engine:
"Their focus is no on what might have been historically possible, which would presuppose the discourse of historical realism. Instead, they focus on the imaginatively possible, a dialectical mesh of fantasies of the Victorians' social, political, and cultural institutions, as both the Victorians themselves and the fin de millenium U.S. techno-bohemians might imagine them." (109)
Most discussions of steampunk retrofuturism are concerned with technology; but Carriger's heroine, as well as companions such as Madame LeFoux provide what I'm calling "social retrofuturism." Retrofuturism isn't simply how the past imagined the future - that would be Victorian futurism in steampunk's case. Instead, it is the way we imagine the past seeing the future. The ambitions of late Victorian progressives were less concerned with sky dreadnoughts and phlogiston powered rayguns than they were with medical advancements and human rights. Consequently, while Carriger's books have been somewhat derided as not being steampunk enough, as we'll speak of further when we discuss Heartless, I would argue that any work exploring the situation of women in the nineteenth century is as retrofuturistic, if not moreso, than ones positing technofantastic anachronisms, automatons, and airships.

For the steampunk New Woman is not the New Woman as she was imagined in the nineteenth century: she has far more agency than those women did, and is given the option to have her proverbial cake and eat it too. Unlike some expressions of the New Woman movement, Alexia does not hate the domestic sphere she occupies. This is arguably because she has power as part of the Queen's inner circle of advisors, but even still, she is not an Atwoodian heroine. Further, Alexia loves the fashion the New Women rejected: she is not an advocate for rational dress, as is seen repeatedly throughout the series, whenever Alexia becomes aware of how ill-suited her clothing is for high adventure. Yet she is still a type of New Woman, a fictional construct that may sadly still be needed to inspire women to transcend social conventions' constraints, if H.G. Wells' statement in Marriage still holds true:
"All the movement about us . . . women have become human beings. Woman's come out of being a slave, and yet she isn't an equal . . . We've had a sort of sham emancipation, and we haven't yet come to the real one." (qtd. in Cunningham 157).
Works Cited

Cunningham, Gail. The New Woman and the Victorian Novel. London: MacMillan, 1978. Print.

King, Jeannette. The Victorian Woman Question in Contemporary Feminist Fiction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Richardson, Angelique, and Chris Willis, Eds. The New Woman In Fiction And In Fact : Fin-De-Siècle Feminisms.  New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2002. Print.

Feb 3, 2012

Changeless by Gail Carriger


With a background in Comparative Literature, I think a lot about translation. When Carriger's Parasol Protectorate novels got translated into German, something got lost in the titles. Soulless, which is a lovely play on audience expectations of a novel about "Vampires, Werewolves, and Parasols" became Glühende Dunkelheit, which translates roughly to "Burning Night," or "Glowing Night," with connotations of torrid, hot and bothered, etc. It reduces the clever word play on reader expectations: I assume many, like myself, expected the soulless referred to the werewolves and vampires. Discovering it was the spinster protagonist subverted those expectations: the supernatural are not soulless. Rather, they have an abundance of soul. Alexia, our heroine, has none. There's nothing in a title like "Torrid Nights" or "Red-hot Nights" to subvert expectations at all. It plays directly into the assumptions many have about the Parasol Protectorate, based on the cover: they're romance novels, chick lit, bodice rippers (or bustle busters?).
Further, the translation of Changeless became Brennende Finsternis, which can again be translated as "Burning Night" with associations of a torrid, hot and bothered nature. You can imagine the "typical" male of Germany looking to see a sequel to that last "Fiery Night" book and thinking, "wow, that writer must be a one-trick pony." I suppose that's how some would view Carriger here as well: "It's the "-less" author - don't take a class on writing with her - you get to discussing titles and she just recommends taking a word and adding '-less' (insert guffaw)." Even I stooped there with Daniel Sawyer one day on Twitter. But all cheap shots aside, these titles are clever, and Changeless might be the best of the bunch, given how it refers to several elements of changelessness: a mysterious power that nullifies a supernatural's power, so that in the case of werewolves, they are unable to undergo their change from human to wolf form; the tradition of Scottish werewolves, which refuses a woman the ability to be Alpha; and Alexia's assumption that intercourse with Lord Maccon, while dynamic, will never result in a particular change for her.
The absence of change for supernaturals highlights how the change affects them, and got me thinking about how Carriger has inverted yet another set of commonly held ideas about women in the Victorian era. Menstruation, a time of change, has been conflated with lycanthropy in several werewolf stories, but most notably to this Canadian in the Canuck horror film Ginger Snaps. The film's tag line read, "They don't call it the curse for nothing." In the Victorian period, menstruation was associated with madness, a "temporary insanity," and as Jeanette King notes in The Victorian Woman Question in Contemporary Feminist Fiction, was used as grounds to "defend women convicted of crimes like abortion, otherwise incomprehensible in women" (20). Carriger's uniformly male werewolf society are the ones subjected to this temporary insanity, in a way that highlights and satirizes the cult of machismo. This becomes clearer in the third and fourth books when a dandy becomes a werewolf, but is played out nicely in Changeless in both the verbal sparring between Alexia and the arrogant Major Channing of the Woolsey Pack, as well as the Rob Roy/Braveheart kilt-culture lampoon of the Kingair pack.

SPOILERS AHEAD.
Someday, I'm going to buy all the Japanese books and take off the covers. Then I'm going to a book bindery to get them put on my current copies. 
Yet change is needed in the Kingair pack: their Alpha has died, and the best man for the job is a woman: Sidheag, Lord Maccon's granddaughter, who joins Alexia and the cross-dressing champion of the New Woman's "rational dress," Madame LeFoux as another hyperbolized, fictional realization of the nineteenth century New Woman. Carriger takes this egalitarianism a step farther than most would, not only permitting Sidheag to become the Alpha in the novel's last chapters, but doing it in a way that utilizes what Stephen King called "the gross-out" in Danse Macabre. It's akin to the violation of the nude female form in Ghost in the Machine, where a perfect manniquin-like female body is subjected to Robocop-level violence. Anyone expecting typical chick lit would find their horizon of expectation brutally savaged in the same manner Maccon must mutilate his granddaughter to affect the lycanthropic change. It's a profoundly disturbing scene that places the reader off balance for Carriger's final sucker punch.

The third changless/change interplay was controversial when the novel was first released. Some readers were angry, others impressed at Carriger's temerity, to end the second book on a book-chucked-against-wall-in-rage-that-you-don't-have-the-third cliffhanger. And what a cliffhanger.

Alexia and Maccon assume they cannot have children. We are told they cannot, and assume this is how Carriger's secondary world works. Then Carriger sneaks in Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park telling us how nature surprises us. Nature surprises Alexia and Maccon with a pregnancy. But Carriger's not done hitting us with surprises, like Alexia bashing us over the head with a parasol. Maccon accuses Alexia of infidelity, as this clearly cannot be his child. And just when the reader thinks this roller-coaster can't get any crazier, the tracks end, and we plunge into an abyss.

Talk about subverting expectations. If you were expecting a romance, you got none: that happened in the first book, and Maccon was largely absent for most of Changeless. It made me wonder if Carriger could construct a really serious conflict without her characters trying to get together. The finale of Changeless is a slap-in-the-face to conventional romance tropes: conventional romance can't have an unhappy ending. At least, not this kind. This isn't some tragedy where Maccon dies to save Alexia, which is sad, but bittersweet in a Titanic sort of way. No, this provokes hatred towards Maccon for his suspicious nature (which is, yet again, a subversion - isn't it usually the female that's considered suspicious?), and his histrionic reaction, to reject Alexia and render her as another icon of Victorian literature: the fallen woman (which we'll discuss next week with Blameless).

So one wonders what the German reader thinks of the title "Burning Nights" when she gets to the end of Changeless in Deutsch. After all, there wasn't a lot of burning, either pyrotechnic or passionate: marketing is a capricious beast at the best of times, and in this case, a savage werewolf chewing on your horizon of expectations. I at least had a relevant title, and I still wanted to throw the book across the room. My wife, who was nodding off to sleep woke up while I was reading it to her, and demanded to know, "Is that IT? You've GOT to be kidding me."

Which ended me up at a Chapters the next day, buying book three. If it had still been open at 11:30 the night before, I'd have been in the line in my housecoat. Talk about torrid nights.

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