Friday, July 13, 2012

It's Got Gears on the Cover!

Antikythera mechanism

That's how you know a book is steampunk; if it's got gears on it.

A close friend of mine and I have a running debate on steampunk.  He thinks it's an inherently flawed genre, whereas I think it's a genre with the potential to be good, if done right.

I've been trying to prove him wrong, to little avail.

The heart of steampunk, from what I can tell, is the fantastical machines.  Clockwork androids, aether flux shields, steam rifles and bicycle-powered flying machines.  It's about a future that might have been, where mechanisms were just slightly less complicated and inventors only slightly more brilliant and insane.  With a hammer, some wrenches, and a lathe, the dedicated professor can pound out some incredible piece revolution of precision engineering.  It attempts to capture that era of uncertainty and excitement that surrounded the huge technical advancements of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Any thing could have been made, anything could have been discovered; the world was young and large and waiting to be explored.

That is a good setting for a genre.  It has so much potential.

Sadly, I've found very little that really captures it.
Given, I haven't been searching very diligently or very well.  After the first few books proved so disappointing, I've mostly given up on the genre and the bet.  I don't have any one to recommend steampunk to me, so I'm largely on my own -- if you, random reader, happen to know a good one, feel no hesitation in recommending it.

My conclusion is that the people who write steampunk are just too weird for my tastes.

The first book I tried was called Mechanique.  It looked like the quintessential steampunk novel, about steam-powered cyborgs with clockwork lungs and mechanical hearts.  It had a lot of glowing reviews, from at least one author I respect I'm sure.  Also, there are gears on the cover, so I that I would know it was steampunk.

The book was largely incoherent.  Maybe it was supposed to be too "poetic" for my tastes?  Some elements made no sense and only seemed introduced to add to the tone and mood of the story -- and tone and mood are all that the story has.  Also, more than 50% of it was written in the second-person real future conditional.  I guess it's neat to see someone experimenting with verb tense and person in narration?  Mostly, I was bored and didn't care about the characters.

How could a book with this
cover possibly go wrong?
A: Pederastic sex scenes
Then I tried another book called Havemercy.  The novel takes place in a fictional world, in a country that feels very much like west Russia.  It is at war with another country that is very much like China, trying to make an alliance with a country very much like France.  There is a cultural feel that captures that "gas lamp" kind of atmosphere steampunk lovers describe.  There's magic, the users of which are called magicians.  And there are clockwork dragons (on the cover, complete with unnecessary gears).

The book uses the standard third person point-of-view narration thing, with several main characters being followed around.  One of them is a homosexual magician who has been kicked out of court for an indiscreet affair with a foreign dignitary and forced to live on his brother's country estate.  And I have close family who are homosexual, so I was okay with this.  Another is a pilot who is unbearably crude - I hated every single scene he was in and wished any of the other characters would just smack him or something.  He talks about sex and mistreating women incessantly, and has absolutely no redeeming characteristics.  Another is a boy who lives on the country estate and likes to read.  It's maybe 200 pages in before the first clockwork dragon appears, who is every bit as crude as its pilot.  At around the time that the magician and the boy began a pederastic sex scene, that's when I stopped reading.

Really, I have read several-hundred page boring and senseless novels put of pure devotion to reading.  I feel obligated to finish books when I start them, because books are a terrible thing to waste.  I put this one down.

I note the book was written by two women, because the male characters were just insane and over the top.  Some were too effeminate, and the ones supposed to be masculine were actually just intolerable jerks.

Is this how female fantasy readers feel?

Next I turned to an anthology of steampunk short stories, Extraordinary Engines, as I figured if they got picked then someone out there has approved of them.  (The cover doesn't have any gears on it, so the publishers made sure to put "steampunk" in the subtitle so that you could be sure.)  Some of these were fairly good, but this is when I really started noting the weirdness of steampunk authors.  I don't know how to describe what it is, but it's a kind of anti-cultural immaturity.  Maybe immaturity captures it most; the themes and ideas of the stories seem more like something I would have thought of when I was 14.  Maybe it is because the steampunk readership bizarrely seems to intersect with the Lovecraft fanship?  I don't want to totally dismiss the anthology; even the bad stories offered interesting insights.  It wasn't even so much that the stories were bad, but rather marred by singular failures in developing concepts and plots and having good resolutions.  Maybe, being short stories, they were previously unpublished and never got subjected to critical editorial reviewers?  Maybe the only people to review were too concerned with the writer's emotions to be pushy about problems to be fixed?

Still, I would recommend this collection, because, as I said, some of the ideas in some of the stories are very intriguing, if underdeveloped.

However, I don't think it satisfies my bet.

Another short story comes to mind, called "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon".  This was from a different collection entirely, and might not technically count as steampunk, being set in the 1980's or 90's.  However, it tracks the history of a totally bizarre machine that belongs in a Jules Verne novel.  The Bellerophon was some sort of early flying machine that rivaled the Wright Brothers, and is described as some sort of bicycle with impossible, ridiculous wings of every design and type flapping off of it to keep it in flight.  The idea of fantastical inventions and possibilities of discovery is very present in the story.  I recommend it.

One book worth mentioning, if not entirely appropriately, was Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings.  I have had another argument with another friend that this series isn't really fantasy fiction so much as a pre-industrial steampunk.  I stick to it.  I think that Sanderson is moving the series in a direction where fabrials are becoming more important and more useful, accomplishing more tasks that we would recognize as modern inventions.  Right now, the story is in the Galileo and DaVinci stage of development (loosely speaking), but as people figure out how Stormlight works, we are going to see more complicated automatons appear that use it as a power source.  That is, Maxwells and Faradays -- and then Edisons and Teslas -- are going to appear in later volumes and revolutionize society with new inventions using Stormlight.  We've already seen two monks discover the Uncertainty Principle as it applies to spren.  The atheist woman has figured out how to transmutate without a fabrial.  Maybe more developments will come?

If I am correct, and this series is "secretly steampunk" or is becoming steampunk, then this will be a good steampunk book and will win the bet.  I've heard that Sanderson has written explicitly steampunk works, and I intend to read these when my To Read stack is shorter.

Next, I looked towards Girl Genius.  This series has won multiple Hugo awards, and really is often used as a defining example of what steampunk is.  If there is going to be a good steampunk novel, it will be this.  (And there are gears on the cover, so you know it's steampunk!)

Bookstores do this idiotic thing, of never ever having the first book in a series.  I understand they can't stock every book in every series, but it seems like they should always have at least the first book... especially when they have every other book in the same series.  So when I went to buy the novel, all they had was Clockwork Princess, and not Airship City.

So I spent the next few days (literally, the entire day) on my computer scrolling through the entire back-archives of the webcomic.

My first impression was that all these chicks have massive breasts.  Seriously.  Every single female in the world is at least a size D.  It's crazy.  How do the men function in this world?  Did they just get used to it?  How do the women walk?  Do they have iron spinal columns?  And the amount of fan service gets to be a bit much -- like, "oh gee whiz, he mixed up the bomb with the clothes-incinerator".  Maybe in the novel versions, this won't be as distracting?

Aside from that, the first few volumes were incredible.  It deserves to be considered the quintessential steampunk work, because it gets that whole sense of discovery and fantastical engineering wonderfully.

The story takes place in East/Middle Europe, and the infrastructure seems to be at the level of the 1800s.  And yet, we quickly see that steam automatons are standard fare - in the story called clanks.  There are also weird humanoid creatures called Jager that we don't really understand until later in the series.  We follow one young lady, Agatha, a student in mechanical engineering, as she tries to understand her past.  And that is important, as the story does have a plot -- it's not just about neat clockwork stuff.  The main character is actually on a journey of development.  But also, the clockwork stuff is neat.  At one point, Agatha falls asleep, and in some kind of trance accidentally reconstructs an old farm tractor in to a bipedal tracking clank that roves the city looking for someone.  This shows the foundational steampunk idea, that technology is accessible, that anything can be invented, so long as the inventor is brilliant and insane enough.  She gets taken aboard a ginormous airship city where she is asked to invent things, and the story goes on from there.

What is good is that the fantastical mechanisms make sense, serve a purpose, and actually contribute to the plot without being the plot.  This all is very good.

It wasn't until about midway in to the arc at the Stormking's castle that I feel the story lost all sense of itself or its purpose.  After this, everything begins unraveling.  When Agatha shows up at her ancestral home in Mechanicsburg, that's when the story just completely falls apart, in my humble opinion.  Maybe this was when the authors began publishing tri-weekly, and being so harried they don't have time to actually develop the plot?  They've been inside the castle for I guess a few days, but in terms of the comic it is more than the rest of the series.

Also, at this point, the series falls in to the typical and annoying cycle of upmanship that is why I don't watch anime.  Every few minutes some character reveals new fighting techniques and proclaims what a fool the person was for underestimating them the whole time, that they've just been holding back and making them believe in their weakness, but are really stronger than they've let on.  I think the red-head guy does this like five different times just in the time they've been inside the castle.  So it becomes a constant splew of the intimidating posturing and dog-mounting, every character launching in to some rant of why they shouldn't be messed with while beating up some other character.

It got tiring.

The beginning segments of the series were largely free of this.   I think the authors knew exactly what they were doing in the beginning, and did it very, very well.  Again, let me reiterate, the beginning of the series is fantastic.  It is full of excitement and exploration in a world of strange and beautiful technology.  Highly recommended.

I have heard that the novel versions mostly just translate the comicbook dialog and action in to words, and not actually re-form the story.  I'm still going to read them anyway.  If the first novel is at good as the comparative first part of the series, then I think it will definitely win the bet for me.

Name one thing more steampunk than a mechanical London on wheels.
You can't.
I picked up another book recently, called Mortal Engines.  (You can tell it's steampunk because it has gears on the cover.)  I got it in the young adult section; I figured the weirdness of steampunk authors would at least be reigned in by the editors for young adult books.  I was right about the weirdness.  For a kids' book, it is pretty good.  A map would be useful.  The plot is pretty simple -- early villains, early twist for quest, early love interest, overly convenient coincidences, etc.  But that's how kids' books are supposed to be written.  The story is about mechanical cities that rove around on wheels, needing to devour smaller cities to stay alive.

Overall, I'm kind of burnt out and frustrated with the ordeal.  I've got some leads, but am more than open for me.  I truly think steampunk is fascinating -- not even as a genre, but as a concept.  I would love to start building computers that run off of steam gates instead of transistors, or have a home of ticking-tocking gadgetry.  The idea grants to machines, somehow, a more human level, and endows them with greater aesthetics than they currently possess in society.  I really think the genre can produce fiction as good or better than any other genre.

I just still need to prove it.

1 comment:

Dana said...

Reece, it makes me sad that you haven't run into any good steampunk because it really is a great genre with some really bad examples, just like any other genre. This is a really old post, though, so maybe that's changed by now. I hope it has. I have written a steampunk book (if you'd like to check it out, it's called Out of the Shadows by Dana Fraedrich). And guess what? It totally has a gear on the cover! Just like most romance novels have an impossibly attractive guy on the cover, design for steampunk novels follow a certain aesthetic, which you and your friend talked a lot about. You're right about that, but that's just part of the genre. If you're looking for more recommendations, The Ketty Jay series by Chris Wooding is very good. The first one, which you also probably won't find in a bookstore, is called Retribution Falls. Hope you find some you really like soon!