May 27, 2013

Mechanized Masterpieces, Edited by Penny Freeman

There is perhaps no better way to express my understanding of what steampunk has become in the 21st century than stories like those in Mechanized Masterpieces from Xchyler publishing. I consider steampunk  best read as a style, something applied to a genre, not a genre unto itself. So we can speak of "steampunking" fantasy, or "steampunking" science fiction, or in the case of Mechanized Masterpieces, "steampunking" nineteenth century classics.

The anthology features eight short stories which apply the steampunk aesthetic to Jane Eyre in "Tropic of Cancer" by Neve Talbot, Sense and Sensibility in "Sense and Cyborgs" by Anika Arrington,    
Dickinson's David Copperfield in "Micawber and Copperfield and the Great Diamond Heist of 1879" by David W. Wilkin, Andersen's "Little Match Girl" in "Little Boiler Girl" by Scott William Taylor, The Phantom of the Opera in "A Clockwork Ballet" by M. K. Wiseman,  Dickens' A Christmas Carol in "His Frozen Heart" by Aaron and Belinda Sikes and "Our Man Fred" by A. F. Stewart, and Frankenstein in "Lavenza, or the Modern Galatea" by Alyson Grauer. In all cases, the writers are engaging in pastiche or recursive fantasy, not mash-up mimicry. In addition to appropriating Victorian historical elements for its collage, steampunk appropriates Victorian literary elements, sometimes synthesizing both in a counterfictional, not counterfactual way. This appropriation and synthesis most often manifests in steampunk as recursive fantasy, rendering steampunk a highly intertextual aesthetic. In the EF, recursive fantasy is described as “exploit[ing] existing fantasy settings or characters as its subject matter.” Recursive fantasy can be parody, pastiche, or revisionist re-examinations of earlier works such as fairy tales, pulp adventures, or extraordinary voyages. These texts also play with what the EF calls “the flavor of true [recursive fantasy],” whereby “‘real’ protagonists [encounter intersecting] worlds and characters which are as ‘fictional’ to them as to us” (805). These approaches have been part of steampunk since its inception, from the use of Wells' Time Machine in Christopher Priest's Space Machine and K.W. Jeter's Morlock Night to the love affair of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in Paul Di Filippo's Steampunk Trilogy. Mechanized Masterpieces is as broad in its sources - arguably, steampunking Frankenstein seems an obvious move, whereas steampunking Jane Eyre is an odder, perhaps more innovative one. While it might be counted as a strength to be using works less traveled by in steampunk circles (no Verne, and only the barest mention of Wells), in some cases, this is to the anthology's detriment.

The counterfictional explorations of Mechanized Masterpieces are not only diverse in their sources, but to my eye, the success of applying the steampunk aesthetic to their respective literary worlds. Much as I will readily admit that just about anything can have the steampunk aesthetic applied to it, this is not always done well, and the choice of object to steampunk plays a strong role in this. I found the anthology's lead tale, "Tropic of Cancer," a weak execution of the application of the steampunk aesthetic to Jane Eyre. Neve Talbot gets full marks for her conceit, which is a short, steampunk approach to the same ideas Jean Rhys explored in Wide Sargasso Sea: how did Bertha Antoinetta Mason go mad? It's a perfect space for steampunk looking to investigate the marginalization of both women and persons of colour, but the image of Bertha in BDSM leather at one point seemed not only anachronistic, but tasteless. The inclusion of airships and steampunk prosthetic limbs was ultimately unnecessary, adding little to the tale. It is the fictional equivalent of those superfluous but stylish gears on top hats. Worse yet, it's a somewhat incoherent, poorly-wrought story, with some very clunky use of regional dialect, and as the first work out the gates, neither invited this reader to keep reading the short story, nor the anthology as a whole.

Consequently, I took the approach I do when selecting samples to use in a lecture on strong beginnings in fiction. I've told my students that good short fiction writers tell us everything we need to know about their work in the first 50 words. I would test these steampunked versions first by whether I was invited to read on, since that is arguably what all my readers are wanting to know as well.

Anika Arrington's "Sense and Cyborgs" fared much better, not only for inviting me to keep reading in its first 50 words, but also in the use of dialect as persona voice. Her story is an engaging, but I couldn't ascertain what it referenced in Sense and Sensibility, other than the use of Margaret Dashwood as heroine, a steampunked-cyborg-first-mate on a sailing vessel. I'm sure someone will take umbrage with me on this statement, but I think the lack of trying to fit steampunk elements into an already-established story is one of the reasons "Sense and Cyborgs" works, while "Tropic of Cancer" doesn't. While it's not impossible to steampunk Jane Eyre, I think it's safe to say it would be more difficult; Arrington doesn't so much steampunk Sense and Sensibility as she does write a steampunk story and then stick Margaret Dashwood into it. Again, it's a bit like putting a feather on that hat with the cogs, but at least it looks fantastic.

I gave up on "Micawber and Copperfield and the Great Diamond Heist of 1879" by David W. Wilkin, but for pretentious academic reasons. As I've said already, I want short fiction to tell me where we're going in the first fifty words. It doesn't have to give everything away, but it should drop hints about where we're headed. If "Micawber and Copperfield" was well-crafted, it was about to become David Copperfield meets Master and Commander, and while I like Patrick O'Brian's work a great deal, it doesn't have a damn thing to do with David Copperfield. Granted, the hero of  "Micawber and Copperfield" is Daniel Copperfield, not David, who meets up with a descendent of Wilkins Macawber (whose part ownership in an airship company is the reason his grandson is serving as Captain on board the airship), but both felt as disconnected as the inclusion of Margaret Dashwood in the previous story, without the advantage of a great introduction. It could also be that I think pastiches and recursive fantasy should either match the tone or theme, or of the original source, as is the case when steampunk appropriates Verne, Wells, Poe, or Shelley - there is already a sense of adventure, speculation, fantasy, or horror in these works. To take the ancestors of characters from a Dickens novel and have them playing out a steampunk heist is admittedly "gonzo" writing, but I keep asking the question, "Why bother?" Compare Wilkin's use of Dickens with Cory Doctorow's "Clockwork Fagin," which is still about orphans and oppressors.

This is precisely why Scott William Taylor's "Little Boiler Girl" really worked for me. Taylor takes the brevity of Andersen's short, tragic tale, and turns it into a steampunk story of resistance and rebellion without abandoning the ties to the source fiction entire. It shares a strong kinship with Doctorow's "Clockwork Fagin," and was a real pleasure to read. For steampunk scholars looking at comparing original works with steampunk versions, this one is worth taking a look at.

M.K. Wiseman's "A Clockwork Ballet" is an interesting pastiche sequel to Phantom of the Opera, exploring the counterfictional "what-if?" of Erik surviving, with attentions turned to Meg Giry instead of Christine Daaé.Like "Little Boiler Girl," it does a fine job of applying steampunk elements to the characters and setting of Phantom without resorting to the far-flung distance of Wilkin and Arriington's stories.

Aaron and Belinda Sikes' "His Frozen Heart" is dark pastiche-prequel to A Christmas Carol, providing the first meeting of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge in a steampunk quest for the key to bringing the dead back to life. It's a clever story that does a fine job of referencing its source material without being slavishly tied to it. The Sikes are able to combine fidelity to Dickens with the gonzo-steampunk distancing in a way that renders Scrooge and Marley's presences part of the narrative, rather than throwaway name-plates. This is less the case with "Our Man Fred," which, while being a fun steampunk spy-story, is tenuously connected to A Christmas Carol only through the use of the names of Scrooge's nephew Fred.

And finally, "Lavenza, or the Modern Galatea" by Alyson Grauer, which does a lovely job imagining an alternate origin and conclusion for Elizabeth Lavenza in Frankenstein. Along with "Little Boiler Girl," this one hews closest to its source material while forging out in new, counterfictional directions. If I'd been editing this book, it's the one I would have started with.

So, the question likely lingers: "Should I read Mechanized Masterpieces?" The e-Book is only $4.00, and I've given you an assessment of these eight stories that sheds a positive light on all but two. Only "Tropic of Cancer" and "Micawber and Copperfield" were unreadable for me, while the rest, despite varying in fidelity their original texts and artistry as written work, are all entertaining diversions of one stripe or another. It's not as good as my favorite steampunk anthology, Steampunk! from Candlewick Press or Tachyon's first Steampunk anthology, but it's as good as many of the stories in the subsequent Vandermeer anthologies, and at very least, would make for an interesting intertext for people teaching the original texts, or those doing research on steampunk as pastiche.

May 10, 2013

Lord Kelvin's Machine by James Blaylock

I'm reading my way through the seminal steampunk works of K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and James P. Blaylock for a chapter in a forthcoming academic anthology on steampunk. It's meant a re-read of some of the books, and in other cases, a first read. I'd read the short version of Blaylock's "Lord Kelvin's Machine" as it appears in Tachyon's Steampunk anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, but I'd never read the entire novel before.

In their anthology, the Vandermeers speculate that "Lord Kelvin's Machine" may be the "quintessential steampunk story, with its combination of darkness and diabolical invention and cosmic scope" (17). I'm not sure why darkness needs to be present in the quintessential steampunk story, since so much of Blaylock, Jeter, and Powers' seminal steampunk works are whimsical and light-hearted. Cynthia J. Miller and Julie Anne Taddeo make a similar minor error concerning how "dark" these early steampunk works are in their introduction to Steaming into a Victorian Future, calling these early steampunk books "darkly atmospheric novels" in a "London darker and wilder than anything imagined by Dickens" (xv). There's a good deal of night-time dealings in these books, but while Blaylock's Homunculus is filled with animated corpses, it retains Blaylock's signature whimsy. Lord Kelvin's Machine (LKM), however, has far less whimsy than Blaylock's other early steampunk, and so is arguably as dark at points as the Vandermeers indicate, quintessential steampunk notwithstanding. Nevertheless, I agree that the cosmic scope of the novel especially make it a strong candidate for the best of the seminal steampunk offerings, including the works of Moorcock and Priest.

The book is divided into three acts: The first part, "In the Days of the Comet," contains an expanded version of the text from the short story, "Lord Kelvin's Machine" ("LKM"), which originally appeared in Asimov's SF in December of 1985. The expanded first part begins with a new prologue and shifts the original prologue into the body of the first act. (Minor Spoiler Alert!) The new prologue, "Murder in the Seven Dials," tells of the death of Alice St. Ives at the hands of Ignacio Narbondo, Langdon St. Ives' nemesis. The rest of "In the Days of the Comet" reads very much like the original "LKM," concerning St. Ives and Co. racing to stop Narbondo from driving the earth into the path of an oncoming comet using volcanic eruptions while trying to thwart the Royal Society's plan to shift the Earth's poles using Lord Kelvin's machine, save that St. Ives is far more brooding, driven by his wife's death. The original "LKM" reads like most other St. Ives' stories, with Blaylock jumping back and forth from adventure to absurdity. The absurdity of sabotaging Lord Kelvin's device with famished snakes and mice seeking grain stuffed into the machine remains in LKM, but has become muted in the shadow of Alice's death. The first act ends much the same way as it did in "LKM," with Narbondo seemingly drowned in a mountain lake, and Lord Kelvin's machine ruined by the offending snakes and mice: we learn that the unfortunate animals "had rained on Leeds like a Biblical plague" when the Machine exploded (323).

The second part "The Downed Ships: Jack Owlesby's account" is weaker than the other two, mainly because Blaylock shifts to the first-person perspective of Jack Owlesby. Like "LKM," "The Downed Ships" could nearly stand alone as another short work. (Medium Spoiler Alert!) The reader learns of Narbondo's remarkable survival from the mountain lake, witnesses the return of Willis Pule from Homunculus, and is treated to a number of Owlesby's bumbling misadventures; while these are funny enough, Owlesby lacks the same wit and concision that Blaylock's third-person omniscient narrator possesses in Blaylock's other steampunk writing. In short, he's just not as funny. This is a credit to Blaylock, who can clearly write in another voice, not simply transferring all of this narrators' traits to Owlesby.  Nevertheless, the shift weakens the overall product somewhat, and is ultimately unnecessary.

The third part, "The Time Traveler" is really the tour de force of LKM. In it, St. Ives uses the reconstituted core of the Machine to travel through time. (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!) The journeys share a kinship with the time-hopping in Powers' Anubis Gates, with Ives changing himself as he changes the past. I don't know Time Travel in SF well enough to know if this is a first, but the way Ives' memories keep shifting as he changes the past might necessitate giving Blaylock creative credit on the concept for Looper. St. Ives seeks to change the past to save his wife, but in the process ends up saving the young Ignacio Narbondo from Menangitis. This act of compassion changes St. Ives as well, healing the bitter wound Alice's death left festering inside him. partly blaming the tragedy on his own indecision. When he finally succeeds in changing the moment of the past when Alice was murdered, he has changed enough to realize that he cannot remain in that past:
He looked out into the street, where his past-time self lay invisible in the water and muck of the road. You fool, he said in his mind, I earned this, but I've got to give it to you,when all you would have done is botch it utterly. But even as he thought this, he knew the truth--that he wasn't the man now that he had been then. The ghost in the road was in many ways the better of the two of them. Alice didn't deserve the declined copy; what she wanted was the genuine article.
And maybe he could become that article--but not by staying here. He had to go home again, to the future, in order to catch up with himself once more. (458)
This is a beautiful speculative reflection on the nature of identity and potential: St. Ives is no longer the man whose hesitation cost him his wife. He is no longer the man who stood and watched her die. He is another man, a man no longer driven by revenge upon his nemesis, but tempered by compassion, knowing the origins that may have driven Narbondo to the life he lead. The passages where St. Ives visits the fitfully sleeping child Narbondo are beautifully heartbreaking, given what a bastard Blaylock makes Narbondo out to be in Homunculus and more recently, The Aylesford Skull. St. Ives cannot conflate that villain with this child. The moment when he traces the spine for a hump is particularly touching, since it echoes the sort of touch a parent visits upon their own child, checking for injuries. St. Ives changes the past by curing the child's ailment, but more importantly, he changes himself. We often consider ourselves fixed entities, old dogs with an inability for new tricks, but plasticity has revealed that our selves are not nearly so fixed as we once thought. Blaylock's St. Ives, through the fictional novum of time travel, undoes even the fixed nature of the character in a play or novel, as Pierandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author once argued was set, always cursed to play out the same actions. While this is arguably still true of St. Ives in LKM and "LKM," even the existence of two versions of this story undermines the idea of a fixed self, a fixed path, a fixed destiny: as St Ives realizes in-between one of his time traveling jaunts, "he had come back to a different world than he had left" (448). Changing the past through time-travel is not only St. Ives' game, it is Blaylock; he is rewriting St. Ives' past in this novel by giving him a wife. And while we, in the real world, are unable to make such massive changes arbitrarily, we can, like St. Ives, change the world around us through the sort of compassion visited upon Narbondo as a sickly child. It is an act that doesn't change him so much as it changes St. Ives.   

I find this particularly compelling because of how it synthesizes with a challenge I issued to steampunk writers in my Verniana article on Captain Nemo: to take the Captain's example in Mysterious Island of committing anonymous acts of charity as template for a possible steampunk ethos. Rather than railing against Empire or thwarting enemies of the Crown, if steampunk really sees Verne as a narratological guru, than shouldn't steampunk characters and personas seek to do likewise? Nemo welcomes the strangers to his Island and cares for them, a radical act of hospitality. Blaylock makes St. Ives go the extra mile of Christ's beatitudes, loving his enemy, blessing the villain who has persecuted him. This is a far cry from the sort of politicized "punk" ethos that continues to be thrown at the doorstep of the seminal steampunk writers. But before anyone assume I'm endorsing it as some sort of essentialist core to steampunk, think again. Like the time traveling adventurer of Lord Kelvin's Machine, steampunk has changed its own future. That said, while I cannot claim Blaylock as part of a Holy Trinity creating the scriptures of steampunk, I can at least say that I far prefer the path he takes his hero upon to the one writers like Mieville and Moore lead theirs upon.
My references to Lord Kelvin's Machine (novel) are taken from Subterranean Press's The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives. My "read" of the book was via the excellent audiobook. Readers hoping to find the novel in print will be glad to know that Titan Books has released a new edition, with a lovely, albeit narratively incongruous cover.
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