Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Book catch-up: October

Two motifs feature in October's reading, and neither of them were intended at the start of the month. The first is steampunk - all five novels either are steampunk (or are considered to be so by one genre editor/critic or another), or are related (the Harrison is listed by Wikipedia as "proto-steampunk"). I'd already borrowed The Anubis Gates and bought The Difference Engine - after reading Infernal Devices - when the Upper Hutt SF group decided that steampunk would be the topic for discussion in November, and that pretty much settled my reading for the rest of the month. The second is second chances - for the books and for me as a reader. Three of the five are books that I'd previously failed to finish reading, for various reasons; Morlock Night I'd previously read and enjoyed, but wasn't sure what to expect on a re-read 15 years later.

The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Borrowed from a friend. I tried reading this some time in my mid-teens, which quite honestly wasn't the right time - I just didn't have the patience for a book of this length at that age. Got on much better with it this time around. An authority on Victorian poets is hired to be the expert guide on an eccentric billionaire's time machine trip to 19th century London, ends up stranded there and finds himself fighting for survival against a conspiracy of ancient Egyptian wizards.
This was briefly hailed in retrospect as the first steampunk novel (until KW Jeter's Morlock Night trumped it) and is still recognised as part of the original canon of steampunk (alongside Jeter's recently reprinted pair of novels and the Blaylock stories to be mentioned in the November book round-up), so it's surprising to find none of the generic features of modern steampunk in here. Apart from the apparatus that initially catapults the hero from the 20th century to the 19th, there's no weird technology in sight - no airships, no clockwork automata, nothing powered by steam or aether. The story is driven instead by the supernatural, which generally only manifests itself in the modern sub-genre in the forms of zombies and spiritualism, and neither of those are in evidence here. Powers seems less interested in the visual and technological aesthetics than in the literary aesthetics of the Victorian era - there's a definite Dickensian atmosphere, a hint of the mock Gothic, particularly about the characters. Good rich reading, although the resolution is a bit pat. I'll probably track down other Powers novels fairly soon.

The Difference Engine, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
Second of this month's books that I failed to finish on long-ago first reading (and second reading!), although uniquely in this case it wasn't because I failed to get to grips with the book, but because I got caught out in heavy rain with it in my coat pocket (twice! gah!). Well, third time lucky.
Imagine that the Industrial Revolution became a political revolution, and that consequently Charles Babbage's wildest dreams were realised. Twenty years after the Industrial Radicals seized power and Lord Byron became Prime Minister, London leads the world in analytical engine technology, and information - in the form of computing punchcards - is the most highly valued resource. This book follows a handful of characters through an adventure plot involving an anarchist conspiracy, a disgraced Confederate general on a lecture tour, and Lady Ada Byron, all of whom are trying to get their hands on the compendium of punchcards known as "the Modus". Is it the ultimate gambling system, or could it have something to do with the strange behaviour of the Grand Napoleon engine in France?
This is certainly a great book, but it lacks the pulp wildness of its forebears. It does have a different kind of wildness in the way that it rewrites Victorian England. Worth noting that it's the first steampunk novel to actually do that, to present a completely transformed nineteenth century, whereas the original steampunks - Tim Powers, KW Jeter and James Blaylock - worked more in the vein of "secret history". There is a kind of wry knowing about the way the authors imitate contemporary developments with period materials - for example, the latest technology favoured by public speakers is a kind of cross between an airport departure board and an 8-bit pixellated display. This is really the book that set the template for all the steampunk that's followed it.

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, Harry Harrison
Not steampunk - straight alternate history, set in the (then) present day, but in a world still dominated by a British Empire with some lingering Victorian sensibilities. Elements of the past superimposed on the present, so really the opposite of steampunk. Augustus Washington is a noted civil engineer and a descendant of the disgraced war criminal George Washington - overseeing the successful construction of a rail link between London and New York is the nigh-miraculous feat that will clear his family name, and this is the story of how he does it. Not a lot more to it than that.
I have a soft spot for Harrison as his Stainless Steel Rat novels were among my earliest SF reads, and I plan to (re-)read some more of his work in the near future to see how it strikes me now, but this feels pretty light to me. It's a straightforward adventure yarn, regularly punctuated with descriptions of underwater tunnel-building and scenes in which volatile Lord Brassey-Brunel blesses and then immediately un-blesses Washington's engagement to his daughter. It's generally entertaining, but feels like it was something the author knocked out over a rainy month while the main part of his attention was focused elsewhere. I expect to enjoy his other work more.

(Some of) The Light Ages, Ian R MacLeod
Third re-attempt of the month, but sadly this one fared no better this time round. I just cannot force myself beyond the first hundred pages. Yes, I can see that things are happening in there, and yes, I can see that some of the prose is pretty, but the whole thing just feels so utterly leaden.
For those curious to know, it's a Bildungsroman set in a kind of parallel Industrial Revolution-era England, one in which aether is mined instead of coal and in which magic takes the place of electricity. Considered by some to be steampunk, although I'd say it's a borderline case.

Morlock Night, KW Jeter
This is a sequel to The Time Machine, in which the reincarnation of King Arthur has to save Victorian England (and the very fabric of time!) from an army of Morlocks who've stolen the Time Traveller's machine and used it as a bridgehead for invasion. If that sounds pulpy, well, it's hard to make it not sound pulpy. I can only assure anyone reading that in Jeter's alchemical hands, this pulp material becomes SF gold. It's even better than I remembered it being!

No comments: