Steampunk: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories is in our library’s YA section. Which is fine as far as it goes – I’m more than happy to recommend it to teens – but there’s nothing about it that really demands YAness. Perhaps it’s just easier than trying to figure out if steampunk is science fiction or fantasy.
Anyway, the stories Kelly Link got for this collection are pretty excellent. Cory Doctorow’s “Clockwork Fagin” is about a Dickensian orphanage where the children kill their cruel master, make an automaton to fool their funders and self-organize into a worker’s collective. There are time-stopping train robberies and ancient Romans dealing with clockwork oracles, but they story that hit me most in the feels was Dylan Horrocks’ “Steam Girl.” It’s about a contemporary high school boy who meets a girl dressed in a leather flight helmet who’s an excellent storyteller about this heroine from Mars.
I’m becoming a fan of suggesting anthologies to readers at the library because of the sampler effect that helps people find what it is they really like. Steampunk! will be suggested by me.
Maybe if I’d read Cherie Priest’s steampunk novel Boneshaker when it first came out I would have been more excited about it. But something about the confluence of time and self and book did not add up to a really great experience even though I can’t pin down anything about the book that might cause this.
It’s an alternate 1880s Seattle where 15 years ago a mad scientist named Leviticus Blue built a giant drilling machine and accidentally unleashed the Blight, a gas that turns people into zombie-like Rotters. This story is about Blue’s son, Zeke, going over the wall into the Blight-ridden parts of Seattle to find some answers about his father. It’s also about Zeke’s mother, Briar, trying to go find her son and bring him back safe.
The storylines don’t exactly alternate chapters, but we see both Zeke and Briar try to navigate the deadly world inside the wall in their different ways. There are airships and grand railway cars and drugs and big suits of armour and mechanical arms and you see a number of characters from both Zeke and Briar’s perspective at different times.
The portrayal of the Chinese people in the city bothered me. They were inscrutable, or scheming viziers, or mindless automatons or “amazingly bright” with technology and language but treated with casual racist condescension by the heroes. I know the 1880s weren’t a wonderful enlightened time, but there’s enough anachronism in steampunk I think you don’t have to reinforce all the racist stereotypes at once.
It’s a well-put-together tale, but I kind of felt like it was all just a chain of scenes to the end. There wasn’t anything that made me think differently about life or technology or mothers and sons or whatever. For something kind of similar that I loved, I’d recommend Mechanique.
Girl Genius is a comic that wins loads of awards, and that I’d never read. Now that I’ve read the beginning of the story in Agatha Awakens I can’t say I’d vote for it. Agatha is an assistant in a lab and through some mistaken identity she’s shanghaied into service because she’s got The Spark (which is what powers all the steampunky robot inventions).
The art probably gets more polished in later volumes as the story goes along, but I just didn’t like the style the Foglios use. The jokes weren’t that funny and I just didn’t like the characters. For a similar tale I liked much better, see Fullmetal Alchemist.
Terminal World is another one of these Alastair Reynolds books that reminds me why I read him sporadically. There are neat science fictiony adventurous ideas in his books but the writing makes me clench my teeth. No one behaves in a neurotypical fashion: everyone’s dialogue is clichés or exposition-speak. It feels more like the transcription of a bunch of socially-awkward 14-year-olds role-playing. Which is a shame because the plot and setting would be pretty spiffy if it was described by someone with a bit of flair for language.
It’s thousands of years in the future, on what appears to be Mars, even though everyone calls it Earth (I think that’s supposed to be clever, to show that they’ve forgotten they were once colonists). In the giant spire city of Spearpoint there are different zones of technology, from the Celestial levels where the angels who can fly and are filled with nanotech live, down to Neon Heights and Horse Town. These zones aren’t just stylistic; the rules of physics are different in each zone, making the technology from a higher zone cease to function in lower ones. It’s a pretty clever idea that gets developed as the story goes on, and is a good excuse for energy weapons and dirigibles to coexist.
Quillon is on the run from the angels so he’s heading out of Spearpoint for a while. He has a guide and they rescue a woman and child who will “change the world forever” (of course). There’s nothing really surprising that happens in the book. And the prose is boring. But it would make a pretty good RPG setting to play in.
Goliath is a fitting conclusion to Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. While Leviathan and Behemoth both referred to Darwinist creations in their titles, Goliath is an electrical super-weapon designed by Nikola Tesla to end the Great War.
The story follows Alek and Deryn as they ride the airship Leviathan over Siberia to Japan then California, Mexico and New York. The plot in this one was a little bit less urgent and more episodic. Alek is desperately trying to find a way to end the war, but can only really find a role in being an assistant to Tesla, while Deryn’s disguise as a boy is the big thing at risk for her in the book. It relied a bit more on meeting real people from history than the previous books as well.
But the climax was thrilling and fit the story perfectly, there were giant fighting bears (sadly not in the climax) and the thing ends happily. Good steampunk; great story.
Alek and Deryn/Dylan begin the story en route to Istanbul where the scientist/spy granddaughter of Charles Darwin has eggs to present to the Sultan to sway the Ottoman Empire from supporting the Clankers. Remember that in this alternate history, the world is divided into Clankers – cultures using mechanical power and walking tanks and the like – and the Darwinists – cultures who bioengineer their tools. Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire are Clankers. Britain and Russia are Darwinist. America is an odd hybrid that no one really wants involved in Europe’s conflict.
The story has exciting air battles, spy/sabotage escapades, gender-swapped shenanigans (Alek and almost everyone else is unaware that Dylan is a girl posing as a boy to be able to be in the Air Service), revolutionaries, unconventional weaponry, Tesla lightning cannons and of course a giant sea monstrosity that might be able to keep the Ottomans out of the war.
This series is something I’d highly recommend.
Paul Westerfeld’s young adult book Leviathan is a pretty excellent story. In all the reviews I’ve seen online they start with the history and the coolness there but I’m going to come at it a bit differently. See the story is about two main characters. One is a young prince who has to flee his palace in the middle of the night after his parents are assassinated, which will plunge the world into war. His two trusted advisors are supposed to take him high into the mountains to keep him safe until the war is over. The other main character is a girl who’s posing as a boy to get onto the kind of ship she was born to be on. After a slight misadventure she gets onto a ship but her job turns into minding the scientist they’re transporting. About halfway through the book the two stories meet up.
Taken like this, it’s a pretty decent adventure story. The girl, Deryn, is a plucky nobody who swears a lot. The prince, Alek, is learning how to get by in a world that’s changed drastically. They’re both depicted well, and the prickly counts and scientists and captains and all the supporting characters are pretty good. All of this makes for a fine, if unmemorable, book.
Now the stuff that sticks in your head is the setting. See this is all taking place in an alternate 1918. An alternate 1918 in which the Germans Austrians Prussians, all of them, have diesel-powered walking tanks. They’re known as the Clankers. Back in Britain, Charles Darwin also discovered DNA and how to manipulate it so they use bioengineered animals for everything, including their airships. The titular Leviathan is a hydrogen filled whale that people can walk around inside with gondolas strapped to its belly. Alek is the son of Archduke Ferdinand, and Deryn’s dream has always been to fly.
There are walker chases and fights. Soldiers get killed. The kids make kiddish mistakes that they beat themselves up for. There are messenger lizards which repeat what they’ve been told, and one of Leviathan’s big weapons is a flock of flechette-bats that get fed metal and then shit it out on zeppelins and such. It’s all pretty cool, if scientifically implausible.
After finishing it I was talking to a kid who wanted something good for grade 8. I hunted down the library copy I had and told him he had to read this. It’s fun how much a big cool image like “So the ship is a flying whale…” helps to sell a book. And the book is illustrated too. It feels very of its time. Plus flying jellyfish and mechanical spider-walkers. Good stuff. The only thing I disliked is how it has “first book in a series” disease, so nothing really gets resolved. It bothered me less than sometimes, because the story was good and I enjoyed the world and characters.
China Mieville is a writer whose name I’ve seen bandied about a bunch by other writers on the internets. When I saw Perdido Street Station at a used book store before leaving for Calgary I saw a perfect bus book: long and plotty. I hoped I’d like it, and I did. It’s kind of an urban steampunk/fantasy with birdmen and thaumaturges and science and flintlocks. It drew me along well, even though the main “We must save the city” plot only begins a third of the way in, which was an interesting choice. I liked it because we were being drawn into this other, less urgent, problem of science and art first which got us into our main characters (one of whom gets dropped once the big bad plot begins). By the time everything begins really happening we can see how much of it is our heroes own fault and we’re really attached to them. Very well done, and somewhat different from the school of thought saying you must start as late as possible.
The other interesting thing is whether this counts as SF or horror. In the shop I bought it, it was in the SF section but has a horror stamp inside. There were lovecraftian sorts of beasties in it, and a couple of descriptions were pretty nasty. Definitely not some sort of high fantasy, but I’d have a hard time seeing it as a pure horror movie. The main characters do have quite a bit of agency and though not everything is wrapped up with a nice neat little bow, not everything dies. There are more New Corbuzon novels and I’ll probably read them as they pop up in used book stores.