Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Past + Future = Steampunk


Steampunk: it’s one of the most entertaining sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy, and its favorite question to ask is “What if?” The past, usually the Victorian era of steam-powered trains, is re-imagined, reinvented, and recreated with all manner of futuristic technologies and fantastic creatures. The well-worn paths of history are in for some surprising twists and turns when artificially-intelligent robots and tea-sipping vampires crash into the prim and proper sitting rooms of yesteryear. The sheer inventiveness of steampunk will knock your socks off. But that’s the point, really—to blend the past and the future into stories so out of this world that they push the boundaries of what readers will believe. To try to believe is, of course, all part of the irresistible fun.

Android Karenina by Ben H. Winter and Leo Tolstoy, 2010, Quirk Books (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Humor)


The quirky Quirk Books ushered in a new era of literary mash-ups with the runaway success of last year’s delightful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which in turn spawned Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. A slight shift from Regency romance to Russian classics and from monsters to robots gives us Android Karenina, a steampunked version of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 masterpiece about love and despair set against the chilly winter backdrop of aristocratic life in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The twist comes with the titular androids. Everyone who’s anyone has one, a custom-made robot that offers comfort, support, and service with a cute nickname (the Russians love their nicknames) to boot. Cyborgs are the hot new technology trend of the moment and inter-planetary travel is a distinct possibility. The steampunk setting grows richer with anti-gravity skating rinks and dance floors, but life is not all romance, glamour, and three-dimensional waltzes. Trouble is afoot, and much of that mischief stems from the androids and the technology they wield. Against this tumult, desperate housewife Anna Karenina carries out a passionately doomed love affair with dashing Count Vronksy, and moody country boy Levin pines after pretty but pouty Kitty. In both romances the opinions and actions of the androids (Anna’s Android Karenina, Vronksy’s mechanical wolf, Levin’s hulking Socrates, and Kitty’s newly-appointed Tatiana) have as much impact as anything the human lovers do or say. How illicit love affairs and political turmoil merge is all part of the drama—and in the case of this mash-up, all part of the fun. To toy with a literary classic as heavy as Anna Karenina is a bit of a risk, but author Ben H. Winters handles his task with verve, wit, and even respect. Tolstoy’s complex portrait of 19th century life is complete and little of the story’s bulk has been trimmed (Android Karenina weighs in at 538 pages, and there are several wickedly comical illustrations). But as any fan of steampunk lit can attest to, even the classics are improved by a little extra robot mayhem.

P.S.  Tell Quirk Books where you read this review, and you may win a few quirky classics of your own!

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, illustrated by Keith Thompson, 2009, Simon Pulse (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Historical Fiction/ Teen Fiction)


On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated, setting in motion a chain of alliances that sparks an international war. World War I, right? Well, kind of. The alliances of Leviathan’s alter-Europe are divided into the Germanic “Clankers” who build wonderfully complex and sophisticated machines, and the British “Darwinists” who genetically engineer astonishing animal crossbreeds. Prince Aleksander is a proud Austrian, but when his country turns against him after the murder of his parents, Alek is forced into exile with a small crew of loyalists and a steam-powered Stormwalker. Half a continent away, Deryn Sharp is an intelligent and skilled girl determined to make her way—disguised as a boy—as a British Air Service midshipman on board the living airship Leviathan, a massive hydrogen-breathing beastie. The fates of Clanker-born Alek and firm Darwinist Deryn seem unlikely to combine, but that’s exactly what happens when the Leviathan crashes near Alek’s Swiss mountain hideout. The only way for Alek (under the guise of a commoner) and Deryn (still dressed as a boy) to escape the approaching German army is to work together—even if that means overcoming a lifetime of suspicion about the other’s way of life and revealing their own true identities. Author Scott Westerfeld stays true to the shifting alliances that caused the Great War while inventing not one, but two, advanced new technologies. His description of the Clanker’s mechanical prowess is matched only by the complex symbiotic animal relationships that keep the Leviathan airborne. Westerfeld’s creations are visualized by illustrator Keith Thompson in inked drawings that breathe even more life into the fabulous construct that is Leviathan. The adventure continues in the upcoming sequel, Behemoth, due in October 2010.

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, 2004, Eos Books (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure/ Teen Fiction)


Matt Cruse was born in the air. He was born aboard a flying airship and now, fourteen years later, Matt’s a cabin boy on the luxurious passenger ship Aurora. He lives to fly; he’s devoted to his ship and is eager to pilot the Aurora himself someday. But first, Matt’s in for a very big adventure. One night while he’s on watch in the crow’s nest, Matt spots a hot air balloonist in trouble over the Pacificus Ocean. The Aurora takes the injured man on board where he dies, but not before Matt hears him whispering about mysterious winged creatures of the air. A year later the balloonist’s granddaughter, a high-spirited girl named Kate de Vries, is flying on Matt’s ship, following the trail of her grandfather’s research. Matt and Kate become friends, but before they can do more than theorize about what Kate’s grandfather saw, the ship is set upon by pirates, pushed off course into a storm, and wrecked on a tropical isle. Matt’s worried sick about the ship, but Kate brings him an interesting distraction: This is the same island where her grandfather spotted his strange bird-like animals, and Kate is confident she can find them too. But the pirates are still hot on the Aurora’s trail, ready to put the lives of passengers, crew, and winged beasts in danger. Author Kenneth Oppel reinvents the past in Airborn, setting his story in an alternate-1920s era where airships ruled the skies. Oppel draws on the stories of the Titanic and the Hindenburg and on classic adventure stories, but he’s created a unique world that’s brimming with original details and told in prose that’s precise and clear and packed with swashbuckling action. Two sequels (Skybreaker and Starclimber) push the boundaries of exploration higher and higher, with fantastic new technologies and thrilling adventures.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, 2009, Tor Books (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Historical Fiction)


It’s 1863. Gold Rush fever is running high, but Russia wants to make sure all that iced-over Klondike gold is really impossible to get before selling Alaska to the United States. Inventor Leviticus Blue is commissioned to build an immense steam-powered ice-drilling machine. But one day Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine comes bursting out of his Seattle basement and wreaks havoc on the city. Worse, the machine opens a vein of toxic subterranean gas (dubbed “the Blight”) that kills everyone who comes into contact with it—and then turns them into moaning members of the walking dead. Sixteen years later, with the Civil War still raging in the east, Seattle is an abandoned wreck surrounded by a two-hundred-foot high wall that keeps the Blight and its rotting victims contained. Outside the wall Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes, lives a hard and lonely life with her son Zeke. Briar is resigned to her status as social outcast, but Zeke wants to know the truth about the disaster that his father caused. So he sneaks over the wall into the city that was once booming Seattle. Briar, desperate for his safety, goes after him, and as Zeke searches for answers and Briar searches for her son, they meet a rag-tag crew of survivors who have eked out a life for themselves amidst the Blight-infested ruins. Some of these people help (Lucy the barkeep and her mechanical arm; Jeremiah Swakhammer and his zombie stun-gun) and some hinder (mad scientist Dr. Minnericht, who bears an eerie resemblance to the infamous Levi Blue), but all of them add to the action-packed adventure of Boneshaker. Author Cherie Priest paints a vivid portrait of a Seattle that is both based in history and wholly its own fantastic world, gives readers a delightful pair of heroes with wiseass Zeke and his tough-as-nails mother Briar, and throws in lots of good and gory zombie action on top of a whole mess of inventive steampunk technology.

Soulless: The Parasol Protectorate, Book One by Gail Carriger, 2009, Orbit Books (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Historical Fiction/ Mystery/ Romance)


Almost everything about Alexia Tarabotti goes against the grain of Victorian society. Her deceased father was Italian (inferior foreigner). Her looks are swarthy, full figured, and big nosed (not a delicate English rose). Unattached at age twenty-six, she’s considered unmarriageable (spinster). Plus, she’s soulless. She still has a personality and feelings and all that, she’s just lacking a soul. This is very rare condition in Alexia’s day and age, even though in this alternate history, Victorian England has fully accepted the society of vampires and werewolves. Members of both supernatural groups hold high positions in the government and in the aristocracy. So when Alexia comes across a vampire at a ball, she’s not at all surprised. She is quite taken aback, however, when the vampire launches himself at her, fangs drawn, without so much as a formal introduction. Alexia defends herself with her handy parasol and ends up an accidental murderess. When Bureau of Unnatural Registry official/ Alpha werewolf Lord Conall Maccon shows up to investigate, Alexia is tossed into a chaotic mystery complete with newly-made vampires, vanishing werewolves, mad scientists wielding devious new technologies, creepy robot men, and a relationship with Lord Maccon that blossoms—when the two aren’t bickering. Alexia is a delightfully fresh and funny character, wielding her parasol, sleuthing in a not-so-subtle manner, and ready to defy convention at every turn—especially if convention gets in the way of a platter of treacle tarts. Author Gail Carriger has a fine sense of humor and creates a witty parody that takes the genres of fantasy, mystery, romance, historical fiction, screwball comedy, and steampunk and stands them on their head in an entirely original fashion. Alexia is set to star in a whole series of mysteries called The Parasol Protectorate; the second book is Changeless and book three, Blameless, is due September 2010.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore, 2002, DC Comics (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Historical Fiction/ Graphic Novels/ Comics)


The Victorian Age saw the creation of some of the most famous characters in Western literature: Captain Nemo, usually found in his mythical ship 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Allan Quartermain, the adventurer who discovered King Solomon’s Mines; Mina Murray, the heroine who barely escaped from Dracula; Hawley Griffin, the original Invisible Man himself; Henry Jekyll and his alter ego, better known as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Comics genius Alan Moore collects them all here and turns them into team of superheroes who use their unique capabilities, powers, and experiences (not to mention Captain Nemo’s technologically-pimped out submarine) to save England from the clutches of a mysterious madman. The year is 1898, and the heroes have been gathered together in London from all corners of the globe by the head of the Secret Service. They’re a rough-and-tumble bunch, flawed and washed-up, but when a criminal mastermind with a dangerously high-tech taste in weaponry threatens to firebomb London’s East End and bring down the British Empire, these 19th century characters come to life and rally to the rescue. The illustrations are as bright and action-packed as anything out of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, or Moore’s own comic masterpiece The Watchmen. Originally published as individual comic book issues and then collected into two volumes, Moore and his team of artists at DC Comics created two additional adventures, The Black Dossier and Century 1910. Together, the series is as chock-full of superhero-style action, futuristic weaponry, and derring-do as it is of historical detail, literary references, and Victorian flair. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is another genre-buster that proves just how much mystery and adventure can be packed into one fantastic era.

Steampunk edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, 2008, Tachyon Publications (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Short Story Anthology)

For an in-depth exploration of the steampunk genre, look no further than Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s collected anthology, titled simply Steampunk. First, an excerpt from steampunk granddaddy Michael Moorcock’s 1971 novel The Warlord of the Air. Then comes a selection of short stories that revel in mad scientists, Martian mutinies, royal imposters, magic, monsters, and weird technologies while still providing humor, horror, mystery, adventure, finely-crafted characters, inventive settings, and thought-provoking plots. Don’t miss Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” or Michael Chabon’s “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance.” The VanderMeers are long-time steampunk writers themselves, which makes them ideally suited to comment, critique, and celebrate this unique avenue of science fiction and fantasy. Steampunk provides a comprehensive history of the genre’s evolution and the finest tales its writers have to offer. For both the newly initiated steampunker and the long-time fan, there’s something fresh and fantastic to be found in Steampunk.  And if you need even more steam-powered adventure, there's always Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.

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