Tag: steampunk shenanigans

Review: Everfair

It would be interesting to compare Nisi Shawl’s alt-historical novel Everfair with the Broadway musical Hamilton. It’s not a comparison I’m going to go into in great detail here, because I only just thought of it, but: both works are trying to make space in history, and in narratives of nation-building, for people of colour. Two interesting things come out of this comparison: firstly, that Everfair does this less problematically and more honestly than Hamilton does; secondly, I still like Hamilton a whole lot more than I like Everfair. (Given how much I like Hamilton, this isn’t actually as much of an insult as it sounds.)

So. Everfair is a “what-if” novel, set against the horrific backdrop of the Belgian King Leopold II’s exploitation of the Congo Free State in the late 1800s and early 1900s – a period of perhaps twenty years during which, historians estimate, up to ten million people died as a result of Leopold’s insatiable greed for rubber.

Shawl asks: what if a group of British socialists had got together with a group of African-American missionaries to buy a parcel of land in the Congo and set up a new country there – the eponymous Everfair – a haven for refugees from Leopold’s atrocities?

The resulting novel is a series of short chapters told from the points of view of eleven different characters, ranging from the white middle-class English housewife Daisy Albin – who also happens to be Everfair’s national poet – and her mixed-race female lover Lisette, through the African-American Christian missionary Thomas Jefferson Wilson, who gradually becomes assimilated into the local religion, to King Mwenda, ruler of the territory bought by the European founders of Everfair, who enters into an uneasy alliance with them. Each chapter jumps forward in time, by as little as a week or as much as a year. So we are given a series of short vignettes, almost, that together build a picture of the founding of Everfair, from early in Leopold’s reign of terror to the end of the First World War.

It’s exactly this multiplicity of voices, this fragmentation, that makes Everfair, and Everfair, what it is. The Europeans and their African-American allies see a potential utopia in Everfair; but those eleven points of view show us exactly how much of a contested issue utopia is. The missionaries want to spend charitable donations on Bibles and religious material to convert the local people and the refugees. The socialists, broadly speaking, abhor religion, and want to build Everfair along modern socialist lines. King Mwenda wants his traditions to be respected, and for the settlers to remember that Everfair was originally his land, sold out from under him by the Belgian government.

And so on. All of these people are playing politics with each other; all of them have broadly the same goal – a peaceful life under a fair government – even if they have widely differing interests and worldviews. (One of the most interesting things about Everfair is how it treats science and magic – as exactly that, different worldviews, equally valid. The airships that feature so prominently in the economic development of Everfair are built by science; the heaters that keep them aloft run on magic and traditional belief. Doctors in Everfair’s hospitals use modern medicines to keep patients alive; King Mwenda and Thomas Jefferson Wilson are both told things by their gods and ancestors that they could not possibly know rationally.) The novel takes no sides: each character’s point of view is valid. And so we see how messy the work of nation-building is, how ideologically fraught it is from the start, a tangle of compromises and conflicts that means nobody quite gets what they want, but everyone gets as good a result as they can. Everfair is a novel about people working together, productively if not always harmoniously, to build a society that includes everyone. It’s not utopia. It’s not perfect (because the world is not perfect). There are crises and there are moral compromises. But we get the sense that, mostly, it’s the best anyone can do.

Why don’t I like it more, then?

Partly, I think it’s a case of mismatched expectations. The novel calls itself steampunk; from the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book:

The steampunk genre often works as a form of alternative history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences: clockwork Victorian-era computers, commercial transcontinental dirigible lines, and a host of other wonders. This is that kind of book.

See, I think this gets steampunk wrong. For me, a vital part of steampunk is a transgressive sense of playfulness; it knows, fundamentally, that no Victorian was ever a steampunk, that it is impossible except in modernity. It is constantly winking at its audience to let them know that its ahistoricity is deliberate, and fun, and a little bit ridiculous. That’s not to say that steampunk can’t do serious things; just that what it’s doing usually has little to do with history. Steampunk, at heart, is playing meta games with its audience.

Whereas Everfair is anything but playful. I read it fast, travelling home by train after Christmas, and it resisted me every step of the way. It’s a novel that demands to be taken seriously, to be read slowly and with great attention to detail. Look at that “Historical Note”; the three-page list of “Some Notable Characters” at the beginning of the novel (only some); the detailed, serious-looking map, not at all like a fantasy map. From the “Historical Note” again:

Of course steampunk is a form of fiction, a fantasy, and the events within these pages never happened. But they could have.

As I’ve said above, the function of steampunk is precisely not to say “this could have happened”. That’s the function of alt-history. Everfair is really alt-history. Its project is to create a space in Western historical fiction for people of colour as participants in nation-building. Its project is to bring an under-studied and terrible interlude in recent European history to the attention of readers who at best only know it through reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at university once – and to do so in a way that casts people of colour as more than victims.

To be clear: this is important work, and I think it’s work that Everfair does very well – I don’t want to diminish that. I also think that the novel is basically all worldbuilding, in M. John Harrison’s sense: despite its multivocalism, it’s not a novel that leaves much space for interpretation or exploration (although, I suspect, every reader will empathise with different characters – I spent a lot of time rooting for Lisette and willing Daisy to realise how racist she was being). As a reader, I prefer baggier, more playful novels; steampunk novels, not alt-history ones. But that’s on me, not the book.


Review: The Compleat Discworld Atlas

The Compleat Discworld Atlas is a lovely book. Let’s get that out of the way first. Thick, richly-illustrated pages describing each of the colourful countries and lands that make up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; one of those elastic loops to keep the book closed; an impressively detailed fold-out map, complete with lines of latitude and longitude (appropriately adjusted for a flat world), magic concentrations and temperature ranges. It’s very geeky. And, for a Discworld fan like me, it’s…fun.

But less fun than it should be. Because there’s a sense in which a book like this (which was, it seems, one of Pratchett’s last creations) misses the point of Discworld. Discworld was built out of a series of jokes. There are consistencies between the books, especially as the series goes on, but we always have the sense that Pratchett’s happy to bend the setting around the story he wants to tell. It’s not a place that was ever meant to be mapped. (I think there’s actually a joke to that effect in the preface to one of the books. It goes something like: “This book does not contain a map. Feel free to draw your own.” Fourteen-year-old me loved that.)

That’s…not a problem per se. The problem is, I think, is that this particular book completely misses the sense of fun and parody and transgression that characterises Discworld as a body of work. (There are fun Discworld maps that exist! I’ve seen an Ankh-Morpork map drawn by Stephen Player which I particularly covet.) It takes itself too seriously, its mock-encyclopaedic objectivity unleavened by the wit and wordplay of the novels. (There are some puns. They are leaden and over-explained.)

And codifying Discworld in an atlas like this makes the novels’ Anglocentrism particularly overt and particularly problematic. Everyone knows that Ankh-Morpork is the heart of the Discworld. It is its vital, beating heart; it feels like a real city even in the early novels. It’s also pretty explicitly a London analogue. That’s sort of fine in the novels, because Pratchett was a British author, and the books’ humour is specifically British, and most of their main characters are recognisably British in some form or another (with a few exceptions): so it makes a certain amount of sense that this vast and teeming world should be filtered through a British point of view.* But the objectivity of an atlas means that equal weight is ostensibly placed on each country. Which makes it very obvious when many of those countries are made up of vaguely racist stereotypes. Seeing “wives” listed alongside “camels” as an export from an African-coded country of nomads was a particular kick in the teeth: a vicious form of sexism thrown off as a careless, racist joke.

There is a vague conceit that the atlas has been partially compiled by Rincewind, the cowardly wizard-hero of some of the earlier Discworld novels, who comes with his own bundle of (partly-unexamined) insecurities and prejudices. But this is mentioned once in the preface and then never again; the text has none of the colour that might otherwise serve to distance narrator from author. (See, by way of contrast, the Discworld companion book Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, which is a delight throughout, sprinkled with quintessentially Ogg-ish gems like “If you go to other people’s funerals, they’ll be sure to come to yours.”)

I don’t want to say “this is a terrible book”. Pratchett gets a lot of leeway from me, in part because it’s impossible for me to have any kind of critical distance from his novels. But this doesn’t feel like Discworld, this overly fannish work of codification and reification. (It’s perhaps telling that the Discworld Emporium, the company licensed with selling Discworld merchandise, is listed as one of the copyright holders.) Or, rather, it feels like the worst of Discworld. The map itself may turn out to be a lovely reading companion; but I can’t imagine ever really going back to the gazetteer. Which is a shame, given how expensive the whole package actually is.

*Even so, I think Interesting Times and Pyramids might make me uncomfortable if I read them for the first time now.

Review: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage is the first novel in The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s prequel trilogy to the metaphysical YA juggernaut that is His Dark Materials. Which means, inevitably, that it comes with a whole load of not-necessarily-fair reader-response baggage. (I can’t imagine anyone reading La Belle Sauvage without already having read the original series. But maybe that’s short-sighted of me.)

I found it an odd beast, compared with His Dark Materials. Our Hero is Malcolm Potstead, a precocious eleven-year-old whose parents run the Trout, a country inn a couple of miles from Pullman’s alternative and vaguely steampunk Oxford. (The Trout is a real, and moderately famous, pub; one of the delightful things about reading La Belle Sauvage is tracing its characters through slightly different versions of places that really exist.) When the nuns at Godstow Priory, just opposite the Trout, take in a baby girl called Lyra (who’ll grow into the heroine of the later books), Malcolm gets drawn into the machinations of a secret society called Oakley Street, which works against the oppressive state church which controls the Britain of the novel. He becomes a spy for Oakley Street alethiometrist Hannah Relf, taking her news of Lyra and the church’s incursion into his school and anything else vaguely unusual.

The novel intertwines chapters from Malcolm’s point of view with chapters from Hannah’s. This feels unusual in a novel that’s ostensibly YA/MG (although it’s something that Pullman’s done before, with Mary Malone’s chapters in The Amber Spyglass). What’s more, Hannah’s chapters are (unsurprisingly) markedly different in content and feel than Malcolm’s. They’re filled with worries about academia and Oakley Street politics and her spywork, the complexities of functioning as an adult in a very real, and very hostile, world. Malcolm’s chapters are no less complex, exactly, but they register the world in a different way: to his single-minded and still childish intelligence, the world is a puzzle to be solved, not quite participated in as a full agent. So, when a great and unprecedented flood comes to Oxford, threatening to put Lyra in the way of her father Lord Asriel’s enemies in the church, Malcolm’s solution is one only a child could come up with: ride the flood (in his canoe La Belle Sauvage) to London, to take Lyra to her father there.

The flood chapters are…interesting, and don’t exactly seem to take place in the same world as His Dark Materials. As John Clute points out in Strange Horizons, they are Spenserian rather than Miltonian: they take place in an England (or, an Albion) populated by hidden, allegorical magic beings (Father Thames, for instance, pops out of the flood at one point). As Malcolm, Lyra and their abrasive, accidental companion Alice float down the swollen river, chased by Lord Asriel’s enemies, they encounter strange and mist-bound perils, which they escape through a combination of fairytale logic, ingenuity and childish literalness of thought. I couldn’t help comparing the linearity and narrow focus of this Spenserian quest structure with the much more exploratory bagginess, the dead ends and reversals and multiple plotlines, of His Dark Materials. (If I recall correctly, Hannah Relf’s chapters in La Belle Sauvage end when the flood comes, leaving us with a single narrative thread to follow.) Put more simply: Father Thames doesn’t feel like something that can exist in the wonderful but ultimately scientific-rational world of His Dark Materials. His is a less comprehensible magic, one unencompassed by Hannah Relf’s understanding of the world as a web whose threads, however tangled, can be followed at least in theory.

One of the things I think Pullman is interested in, then, here and in his earlier trilogy, is the difference between childhood and adulthood, and, more precisely, the transition between them. Malcolm’s story may look like Spenserian allegory, but it’s not immediately clear what it might be an allegory for. Certainly not innocence: like His Dark Materials’ Will, and older Lyra to a certain extent, Malcolm and Alice are forceful about getting what they need for Lyra (nappies and bottle feeds are major plot drivers), and about escaping those who hunt them. They break into shops and houses, they are canny about how to elicit people’s sympathies, they don’t hesitate to use violence. Which isn’t to say that they are horrible people, of course (although I remain, frankly, unconvinced about Malcolm); merely that Pullman is pushing back against conventional representations of the child. As I’ve said, the novel’s form suggests that, for Pullman, the difference is one of outlook: a child’s (or teenager’s; Alice is fifteen) view of the world is narrow, specific, and observant, and occupies a position of relative powerlessness, while an adult’s is strategic and participatory, looking for networks and intersections with a view to influencing and inhabiting them. Adults create the waterways that children navigate, to force a metaphor perhaps too far.

So it’s a book about power and powerlessness (and wouldn’t this post have been so much shorter if I’d realised that an hour ago?). It’s very much a first-in-series novel, so it doesn’t come to any conclusions (unlike Northern Lights, the first His Dark Materials novel, which stands by itself very nicely both plot-wise and thematically) – which, to me, makes it feel vaguely unsatisfying. As does the fact that I don’t think Pullman does Spenser nearly so well as he does Milton. Faerie requires a lighter, more ethereal touch which Pullman’s storytelling is too robust to deliver. La Belle Sauvage feels like – well, not exactly a minor work, but nothing equalling anything in His Dark Materials either. In the most clichéd of reviewerly sign-offs: it remains to be seen what he’ll do with its sequels.

Top Ten SF Novels I Want to Read

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold. I suspect this will be on my must-read list for a while.
  2. New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson. I read Robinson’s 2312 last year and it was much better than I expected it to be and I’ve heard good things about New York 2140.
  3. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. It’s a novella, though, which means it’s stupidly difficult to find in libraries or bookshops.
  4. Dhalgren – Samuel Delany. I mean, I’m picking randomly from Delany’s backlist here, on the basis that Nova surprised me and I want to read more.
  5. The Word for World is Forest – Ursula Le Guin. Because it’s sort-of in the same series as The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, both of which are fantastic, dialectic novels. And I’m kind of on a vintage SF kick at the moment.
  6. Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer. This is popping out as one of the canonical works of SF of the last few years, and it’s always sounded pretty awesome to me.
  7. Bats of the Republic – Zachary Thomas Dodson. I’ve been revisiting old Tournaments of Books, in preparation for this year’s (less than a month away! squee!), and remembered that this existed and that I want to read it and it more-or-less counts as SF. Sadly, no bookseller in the UK apparently seems to stock it.
  8. Downbelow Station – C J Cherryh. I’ve heard Cherryh’s SF spoken of as quiet, considered, political, paying attention to relationships between people – just the kind of SF I like.
  9. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I vaguely want to read this, for completeness’ sake and because the Long Earth series is moderately interesting. I probably won’t get round to it for a while, though.
  10. Raven Strategem – Yoon Ha Lee. I liked Ninefox Gambit? It was…unusual? I’m not in any hurry to read the sequel, but I’d borrow it if I found it in my local library.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Sequels I’d Like to Read

  1. The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin. This is on my TBR pile! I will read it soon! I promise! (Not least because The Fifth Season was one of my top 10 books of 2017 – seriously, if you haven’t read it, you should get on that soon.)
  2. Infidel – Kameron Hurley. I have been wanting to read this for ever (since I read God’s War, in fact), but it suffers severely from the First Law of Libraries, which is that if a library has the first book in the series it will never, ever have the second, and vice versa.
  3. Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers. Apparently this is due out in July. I. AM. EXCITED.
  4. Changeless – Gail Carriger. This is the second Parasol Protectorate novel; the first, Soulless, is probably the best self-consciously steampunk novel I’ve read in terms of pure fun.
  5. Minority Council – Kate Griffin. My faith in the Matthew Swift series has been shaken a little, but it has not yet fallen! Plus, I have definitely seen it in my local library. It exists. I shall read it.
  6. The Black Lung Captain – Chris Wooding. Retribution Falls had its problems, but it was fun to read, and sometimes you do just need a world to curl up in.
  7. The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman. This is the sequel to The Book of Dust; the title implies that it will focus on the more fantastical elements of that first novel, which were the bits I thought didn’t work so well, but we also get to meet grown-up Lyra, so it might be worth it.
  8. Raven Strategem – Yoon Ha Lee. There were things I liked about Ninefox Gambit – it was certainly different, and not afraid to plunge readers in at the deep end. I’d probably get the sequel from the library rather than buying it, though.
  9. The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home – Catherynne M. Valente. I have my doubts about this one: the later Fairyland books are all a little less magical than the rest of her work. But I have to read this at some point, just for the sake of completeness.
  10. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I have to admit, I kind of lost interest in the Long Earth series: all the books essentially tell the same story. But at least this last Pratchett will almost certainly be better than the later Discworld novels.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Characters Who Should Have Their Own Novel

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November is admittedly one of the protagonists of Palimpsest, but there are also four of them, so we don’t get to spend that much time with her. I’d love to know more about her past, or even her future in Palimpsest.
  2. Balthamos – The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. It could be called THE ADVENTURES OF A SARCASTIC GAY ANGEL. (Except it couldn’t, because that’s a terrible title.)
  4. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. I couldn’t remember his name when I was brainstorming this list, so I called him “that bisexual pirate from The Fifth Season“. Which just about covers it all, really.
  5. Belladonna Took – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. Because there’s a point when Gandalf refers to her as “poor Belladonna”, and as far as I know nobody ever explains why. Also, The Hobbit uses the word “she” once. Once.
  6. Lieutenant Tisarwat – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. What’s it like being half-tyrant? Not really knowing who you are any more? Tisarwat is a fascinating character who deserves more screentime.
  7. Foaly – Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer. Foaly is hands-down the best supporting character in Colfer’s series: sarcastic and paranoid and clever and brave in his own way. How did he end up as LEPrecon’s version of Q?
  8. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. What’s it like being a woman in the Aviator Corps? Does she experience sexism from her fellow officers? Her crew? How does she feel about being completely and irrevocably cut off from genteel society? Does she want to get married? Did she always know she was going to be an aviator? SO MANY QUESTIONS.
  9. Mogget – Sabriel, Garth Nix. We know that Mogget gets up to all kinds of mischief between his appearances in the books. How does he manage that? And why? There’s also an opportunity here to explore the morality of enslaving Mogget: on the one hand he’s a highly dangerous Free Magic creature; on the other hand, he’s a sentient being, and definitely unhappy with his situation. The books don’t really go into this, but there could be a rich seam of storytelling here.
  10. Miranda Carroll – Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Miranda gets one of my favourite lines ever: “You don’t have to understand it. It’s mine.” I’d like to know more about the comic she’s writing about Station Eleven, about her marriage to Arthur Leander, about her life before the flu comes.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay

So, spoiler, it turns out I like steampunk, um, quite a lot.

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November’s probably my favourite Valente character, and she’d be reasonably straightforward to cosplay. You’d have to get the birthmark exactly right, though.
  2. Alexia Tarabotti – Soulless, Gail Carriger. Admittedly I have no idea what would distinguish this from a Generic Steampunk cosplay (maybe a sharpened parasol?), but Generic Steampunk is in itself awesome, so.
  3. Roland Deschain – the Dark Tower series, Stephen King. I mean, Roland would be problematic in that probably no-one would recognise him. And, you know, also the revolvers. But he’s such a charismatic character, and it would be…interesting to be him for a day.
  4. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. You would not believe how long I just spend looking at Discworld cosplays to determine exactly which female character would go on this list, but look at this dress. It is the most awesomest dress in the world. Also, attitude. (It’s all in how you hold the cigarette, I reckon.)
  5. Susan Sto Helit – the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. Turns out one Discworld character WAS NOT ENOUGH. Susan is intelligent and takes no shit from anyone and has cool hair.
  6. Death – The Sandman, Neil Gaiman. Can we all agree that Death is far, far more interesting than the Sandman? And also incredibly attractive? Yes? Thank you. And her costume looks easy to replicate, too.
  7. Kell – A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab. Once again I am seduced by a swirly coat. One which is actually three coats in one. Why wouldn’t you?
  8. Door – Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman. I don’t like the book, particularly, but I think the mismatched layers Door wears could be fun to try and recreate.
  9. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. YES LADY AVIATOR YES
  10. Steerpike – Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake. Nobody does “tortured villainy” quite so well as Steerpike. Plus, he wears a swordcane.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)