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Freedom! Jane thought. She rocked back on her heels and imagined Stilt flapping off clumsily into a bronze-green autumn sky. Her thoughts soared with him, over the walls and razor-wire and into the air, the factory buildings and marshalling yards dwindling below, as he flew higher than the billowing exhaust from the smokestacks, into the deepening sky, higher than Dame Moon herself. And never, oh never, to return!

I have had the good fortune to experience that age-old cliché of ‘escaping into a good book’. It is a rare occurence, but it does happen. To be completely transported away into a world conjured up by an author’s imagination is a delicate and wondrous thing.

Over the course of this challenge I have experienced this only two or three times. Geoff Ryman provided one such diversion, as did David Mitchell. As I write each entry for this blog, I become more eager to feel the sensation of sinking into another imaginary world once more.

The opening pages of Michael Swanwick‘s novel promised just that. Jane Alderberry has been raised in a factory that supplies the Elven kingdom with dragons. She is human, but just as much a slave as the other workers, elves, shapeshifters and other examples of fey kind, owned and controlled by the factory itself. Jane is persuaded to help the roguish Rooster sabotage the factory in an attempt to murder their overseer the disgusting Blugg. The assassination plot fails and its mastermind loses an eye for his troubles, but Jane returns to her bunk with the means to her own escape. A grimoire detailing the making of dragons.

As her knowledge of the workings of these incredible metal sky-destriers grows, she becomes aware of a voice compelling her to the factory yard. There she meets the dragon No. 7332, who enmeshes her with promises of freedom from the suffering of the factory. However, she soon realizes she has exchanged one master for another and the indiscriminate havoc he wrecks on the factory claims the lives of both her enemies and those few friends she had.

What follows is a broadly Dickensian narrative of Jane’s rise through Elven society, a cruel and callous pagan universe that nonetheless is fuelled by industry. The various races of the ‘fey and the weird‘, share in a society based on domination and exploitation. Jane begins her schooling disguised as an ordinary wood-nymph in order to learn how to repair No. 7332, discovers a love of theft and through her scheming wrangles a scholarship to university studying alchemical sciences. With each elevation through society she finds herself trapped in the same narratives, love triangles and bitter emnities. Faces and names reoccur with such frequency that she comes to doubt the reality of her existence. Beneath it all, she knows the dragon is controlling her, moving her forward in a game of cosmic strategy that she cannot comprehend.

Swanwick serves up a delicious gumbo of fantasy and steampunk tropes that revolves around two poles of cosmic nihilism and alchemical transformation. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a perversely mischievous book, unrestrained in scope and possessing a wicked sense of humour. There are touches of Dickens strewn throughout, including a reference to the breaking of a barrel of wine as a sign of the building foment in Paris during A Tale of Two Cities. The naming conventions also resemble Dickens’ whimsical malapropisms, but Swanwick also includes allusions to Welsh mythology to remind us that this is ostensibly a fantasy novel. The scenes of ritualistic sex magic, the mating habits of gargoyles, elves snorting lines of coke and Jane consulting a witch on methods of birth control do add to the categorical confusion.

For it has to be said this is a profoundly twisted vision of fantasy, a weird psychodrama that far outstrips the likes of China Miéville, cleaving perhaps closer to the likes of Samuel R. Delany and M. John Harrison.

To say more would, I fear, only spoil the experience of reading this book for yourselves. Writing this review has been as much a pleasure for me as reading the book that informs it. A revelation, whimsically profound and delightfully twisted. Another roaring success for Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series.

Last week the official trailer for Keneth Brannagh’s Thor was released (click here for a gander).

Personally I am looking forward to this one. Yes it’s another comic book movie. Yes, Marvel Studios are shoving the story into some kind of shared continuity along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man to build anticipation for the planned Joss Whedon Avengers picture. I do not really mind all this as Brannagh has nailed one aspect of Marvel’s Thor - and that is the paradoxically futuristic vistas of the city of Asgard from Norse mythology envisioned by Jack Kirby. Paradoxical as Stan Lee set the comical precedent of having Asgardians speak in a bizarre, faux-Shakespearean version of English, yet they reside in a cloud-borne metropolis that outstrips Fritz Lang.

What disappointed me the most about the recent Thor relaunch by J. Michael Straczynski was that Kirby’s vision of Asgard was completely lost, with the Norse deities cleaving more to Stan Lee’s anachronistic medieval type. This much-praised take on Thor, to my mind, mislaid much of the original storyline’s appeal. Kirby had a recurring notion that gods worshipped by man were in fact a higher form of alien life, an idea he made more explicit with his Fourth World/Eternals books later on. He avoided a simple repeat of Chariots of the Gods by having familiar gods, such as Thor and Loki, be at once technologically advanced aliens who appeared to humans as ancient warriors.

It is an entertaining conceit and one which Kieron Gillen appears to be returning to in this collection. The story follows Straczynski’s recent departure from the book and so at present Thor is in exile from Asgard for murder; Balder the Brave has taken his place as ruler; and Asgard itself is stranded on Earth, no longer seperated from Midgard.

As such the Norse gods are vulnerable and supervillain Doctor Doom has decided to exploit their weakness by kidnapping and experimenting on Asgardians to learn the secrets of their power. The gods have recently been guests of his nation of Latveria, thanks to the trickery of Loki, which explains the title. Doom would be a modern day Prometheus, steal the power of the gods themselves and elevate himself above them using only his intelligence and reason.

When the gullible yet noble Balder, who is beginning to realize just how much he has been manipulated by Loki, attempts to lead an attack on Doom’s fortress he is faced with a horrific sight. Former comrades and loved ones taken by Doom, twisted and corrupted into new cybernetic bodies, utterly brainwashed. The Asgardians are forced to fight against these tortured creatures, with the tide of battle finally turning upon Thor’s arrival. Unfortunately Doom has anticipated this also and has discovered the secrets of Asgardian technology such as the Destroyer.

It is of course no coincidence that the same alien weapon features so prominently in the movie trailer linked to above, with Marvel ramping up the release of Thor titles in advance of the movie’s release.  I am grateful to see such welcome synergy between the two mediums, as too often in the past Marvel Comics has dropped the ball in terms of capitalizing upon the films success. How many Blade books were sold after Stephen Norrington‘s box office hit?

Thankfully Gillen is not just writing a tie-in book. His story mixes elements of tragedy and some very decent character development. Balder’s insecurities about leading in his brother’s stead are well-realized and the script even allows the constant betrayals of Loki to be seen in perspective. He is the master of deceit after all, the most famous ‘trickster god’, who is capable of winning the trust of even his most fierce enemies.

However, it is of course Doom who steals the show, refusing to accept the superiority of gods themselves. He finds the very idea of a god insulting and demonstrates a degree of malevolent sadism in the treatment of his Asgardian prisoners.

I am happy to see such an epic tone return to the Thor franchise, which has recently become too enamored of the cliched ‘gods with feet of clay’, story conceit. A return to Kirby high fantasy and science fiction would be welcome.

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