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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.
He turned to the back of the paper, and studied the advertisements. For sale, one Lilliputian, good needleworker. For sale, two Lilliputians, a breeding couple; one hundred and fifty guineas the pair. For sale, stuffed Lilliputian bodies, arranged in poses from the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Scott. For sale, prime specimen of the famed Intelligent Equines, late of His Majesty’s Second Cognisant Cavalry; this Beast (the lengthy advertisement went on) speaks a tolerable English, but knows mathematics and music to a high level of achievement. Of advanced years, but suitable for stud.
My first exposure to Jonathan Swift was not Gulliver’s Travels, but his satirical essay A Modest Proposal, an attack on the view held by the English that the Irish were a barbarous people. Let’s just say it spoke to me. When I saw the title of Adam Roberts’ book I was intrigued. How would he go about writing a sequel of sorts to Swift’s most famous work? As it turned out his objective was a broader one than that, touching on several authors during the course of the novel.
Abraham Bates credits himself as a moral man, moved by Christian mercy to plead the case of the Lilliputian people enslaved by the British Empire. It is over a century since Lemuel Gulliver returned from the lands of the so-called ‘Pacificans’, his tales leading to an occupation of those wondrous countries by European nations. The ‘little people’, are now reckoned to number only in the thousands across the whole world as a result of this invasion by ‘big folk’. The British Empire owes their great successes since the invasion to the technological skill of the Lilliputians, gifted with powers of invention due to their miniature size that have led to clockwork wonders. Even still Bates is dismayed by their enslavement and is contacted by an agent of France. In exchange for his assistance, he is promised the swift liberation of the Lilliputian slaves and the overthrow of the British Empire at the hands of an alliance between the French and the Church of Rome.
This is also the story of Eleanor, sold into marriage with an industrialist who business thrives on Lilliputian handiwork. Her mother made the match in order to secure her own lifestyle and Eleanor becomes resigned to her fate. She buries herself in the study of the natural sciences, with reading her sole pleasure, a retreat from the cruelties of the world outside her door. One night following her marriage to Mr. Burton, she witnesses an event that she feels might be turned to her advantage, but shortly thereafter the French invade London, with an advance force of Brobdingnagian Giants laying waste to everything in their path.
The French have yet another weapon to hand. A calculating machine, perfected by one Charles Babbage. When Eleanor and Bates meet, they learn that whoever should control this computational device, could decide the course of the war. Together they race across England, unaware that their world is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.
If that’s not a broad enough hint, it soon becomes apparent that Swiftly uses its relationship to Gulliver’s Travels as a skin. In reality the book is a parody of H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds. Through this comparison Roberts draws out the similarities between both writers, equal in their criticism of the British Empire and the brutal hidden histories of civilization. The Brobdingnagians marching across the Channel resemble the Martian Tripods of Welles’ book; there is also a sudden outbreak of pestilence across England.
My one complaint is while the period detail is excellent – religion and the fear of committing some social impropriety are straitjackets to each of the characters; the evolutionary theories of Lamarck are rejected as the ‘Pacificans’ are seen to be proof of God’s plan – I am frustrated with hints of condescension towards the views of sex held by these characters. One of the pleasures of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of books is that he made the thoughts and actions of historical figures from the 17c seem modern. Here there’s a mocking tone to Eleanor’s discovery of sexuality (she takes out a book from the library of the mating habits of pigs) and Bates’ tortured excitement at his own desires.
While that made me think less of the overall project, the book is gifted with an excellent premise. In keeping with its Anglo-Frankish conflict it swings from Swiftian to Rabelaisian satire. Fascinating.
Shakespeare, like any Englishman of the sixteenth century, was required by law to use the language of the conquerors, but because he was Shakespeare he became a master of the tongue. His lines throbbed with life and vitality. They say that he hated writing plays about the Turkish sultans and their triumphs, that he would much rather have written of Richard III and King John and Henry IV, our English kings before the Turkish Conquest. But he wrote of Turks in the Turkish tongue, and made such a job of it that to this day the Turks revere him and blush to think he was an Englishman.
Robert Silverberg is known as one of the literary architects of steampunk, experimenting with alternate histories in his novels. This book is yet another return to the trough, with a Muslim dominated Europe and the Americas ruled over by the Aztec Empire. It is a slim volume, but one which raised a number of questions for me.
Dan Beauchamp is descended from a proud line of Englishmen who refused to abandon their Christian faith during the Turkish rule of Europe. Making the signs of the Islamic faith in public, but holding mass behind closed doors, Dan is tired of hiding. He decides his fortunes lie to the West and sets sail for the Hesperides. The continent was discovered by Portuguese sailors late in the 16th century, shortly after Europe recovered from a devastating plague that wiped out three quarters of the population. The New World did not prove to be as welcoming as the sailors had hoped and they were sacrificed to the Aztec gods. The year according to the Gregorian calendar is 1985. Mankind has not yet invented air travel.
Dan sails from London, now known as New Istanbul, for Mexico. He has studied Nahuatl in secret for months and is determined to make his fortune and attach himself to a member of the Aztec Imperial Court as a bondsman. During the long voyage Dan happens to make the acquaintance of a high ranking member of Aztec society, who advises him to seek out the rebel prince Topiltzin. After making the acquaintance of a sorcerer who explains that this world is just one of many, Dan is warned that his choice to follow power-hungry nephew of King Moctezuma will lead to tragedy and disaster. Nevertheless our hero sets off to find a new kingdom for his prince to rule, convinced he is close to forging his own future in Industrial Mexico, far from the devastation of conquered England.
There are some similarities here to Silverberg’s novella Sailing to Byzantium, which also featured a traveler from a dominant Muslim superpower arriving in a very different America from the one we know. The Gate of Worlds was written in 1967, which I find fascinating as it is a steampunk work that dabbles in quantum theory, with the sorcerer Quequex explaining to Dan Beauchamp how every decision creates a new world within the multiverse of possibilities. It explores the differences in the timeline, with a far more devastating outbreak of the Black Death leaving the European mainland unable to defend itself from a Turkish invasion. Fewer than nine million inhabitants live in Britain. America is never discovered by Columbus. Africa is free and independent. Asia is under a Russian yoke. I love the idea of William Shakespeare writing epics lauding the Turkish invasion though.
The book also disturbs with its thesis that without an expansionist Europe, significant technological advances would never have been made. The Aztec and Incan civilizations seem happy to retain their tribal natures well into the twentieth century. Cars are unreliable, steam-powered, miniature trains. Given the date of publication I am surprised at the degree to which it resembles the central argument of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which came out in 1997. Diamond argues that a densely populated European population, that had survived devastating waves of disease and internecine warfare, had a greater incentive to become expansionist, defeating the indigenous peoples of conquered lands courtesy of the three elements of the title. Willingness to kill, infectious disease and technological invention.
Beyond all this theorizing, Silverberg has given a steampunk veneer to the 19th century novel of fortune, akin to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Kidnapped. If that’s something you think you would enjoy, The Gate of Worlds might be for you. Personally I left it feeling troubled by its implications.
Seattle used to be an uncomplicated trading town fed and fattened by gold in Alaska, and then it had dissolved into a nightmare city filled with gas and the walking dead. But people had stayed. People had come back. And they’d adapted.
Whelp, (spit!) looks like we gots ourselves a steampunk novel! And what a delightful rip-roaring yarn it is too. With Boneshaker Priest essays an alternate America, with the town of Seattle abandoned in the wake of a catastrophic man-made disaster. Or has it?
The civil war between the Confederacy and the Union continues to be waged. The Klondike gold rush happened over a decade earlier than in real-time, drawing thousands to the environs of the one-time fishing village of Seattle. The Russians never successfully sold off Alaska. Oh, and there are zombies.
Leviticus Blue was a mad inventor who designed the Boneshaker, a device that could burrow through the earth. Instead of delivering it to the Russians as promised, to aid in their attempts to recover gold from the frozen tundra of Alaska, Blue used it to rob the vaults of the city’s banking district. This led to earthquakes, collapsing buildings and an untold number of deaths. Blue’s creation also caused a strange gas to be released into the atmosphere, slowly poisoning Seattle’s city dwellers.
The gas came to be known as the Blight, killing its victims before resurrecting them as the shambling creatures called Rotters. In an effort to contain the Blight a wall has been erected around the city of Seattle. Life went on, those who survived moved to the Outskirts, where Leviticus Blue’s name was a curse.
Which would be fine, but for his widow Briar who has been left to live with the actions of her mad husband. She has struggled to raise their son Zeke on a menial income, suffering abuse from their neighbours, and not even able to retreat to the safety of her maiden name with her father regarded a traitor for rescuing prisoners left for dead during the Blight outbreak. Zeke, now aged fifteen, has many questions Briar cannot answer and in frustration at being trapped in poverty decides to cross the wall into the Blight equipped only with a breathing mask and torn scraps of old maps.
Boneshaker is the story of a mother braving a multitude of dangers to rescue her son. Briar encounters zeppelin pirates, marauding Rotters, and the machinations of the strange Dr Minnericht who controls the lives of those who remain behind the wall. Briar Wilkes is a heroine giving the likes of Aliens’ Ellen Ripley a run for her money, driven by a fierce desire to protect her son, but also able to blow a zombie’s head off with a single gunshot.
Priest invests great effort in describing the period detail while ruefully confessing the changes she has made to the historical timeline facilitating the advent of zombies in 1880s Seattle. The addition of steampunk standards such as prosthetic limbs, sophisticated suits of armour with built-in breathing apparatus and yes, sonic disruptors, is all part of the fun. It’s a swashbuckling historical novel that doesn’t pretend to verisimilitude, except when it’s convenient. Chapters switch from Briar’s point of view to that of Zeke and it’s always nice to see well written, colourful and strong female characters, such as Lucy the one-armed cyborg and Princess Angeline who’s a dab hand with a knife.
Boneshaker is a fun work of steampunk and alternate history. It’s a breezy ride with a good eye for period detail, melancholic in tone with a kick-ass heroine. Really, what more could you ask for?