Tag: steampunk shenanigans

Doctor Who Review: Empress of Mars

First reactions to popular media can tell us a lot about what the work is trying to do, and also, if we can look beyond them, whether it succeeds.

Which is a pretentious way of saying: I liked Empress of Mars. In fact, my first thought after the closing credits was: “That worked!”

This episode is the much-anticipated One With The Ice Warriors. Briefly: when present-day NASA discovers that someone has written “God Save The Queen” on Mars, despite the fact that to their knowledge no human has been there yet, the Doctor and Bill go back to 1888 to investigate. They discover that an Ice Warrior awaking on Earth has persuaded a unit of the British Army – which, in true colonialist style, has called him Friday and made him a kind of pet servant – to travel to Mars in an Ice Warrior rocket, under the pretence that there are unfathomable riches there. In fact, Friday has returned to Mars to wake his Empress from a five-thousand-year sleep. This is, unsurprisingly, bad news for the British Army, who haven’t yet worked out how to get back to Earth, and moreover are disinclined to back down, having claimed Mars for Queen Victoria.

In other words, Empress of Mars is old-school Who, to go with its old-school monsters: a scenario with more than a whiff of the ridiculous about it; an old-fashioned science fantasy mystery; a stand-off in which the Doctor must intercede to avoid violence. It’s neatly plotted, with a finely-adjusted mix of sentimentalism and plausibility. It has characters we can root for, or at least understand, on various sides of the conflict. It works.

We should be cautious, when something works as well as this does; because a lot of narratives that feel like they just work at a fundamental level feel like that because they’re based on familiar, nostalgic narrative structures. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just something we need to be aware of in encountering these texts; because it means that popular media can lie to us quite efficiently, looking superficially benign, neutral, even progressive, when in fact the assumptions of the underlying structure are deeply suspect.

So: Mark Gatiss* has given us an episode that feels very  Victorian, ideologically as well as aesthetically and thematically. It’s tempting to make comparisons with Thin Ice, the other historical episode of the season; but Thin Ice  did not actually feel very Regency, and was moreover actually aware of the unfairnesses inherent in the class system in a way that Empress of Mars emphatically is not. The emotional meat of Gatiss’ story is the power struggle between commanding officer Colonel Godsacre, a sensible man who nevertheless turns out to have been a deserter, and the technically loyal but hotheaded Captain Catchlove. Godsacre is outed as a deserter, and Catchlove takes control; it surprises no-one that Godsacre turns out to save the day.

It’s a predictable story, but then most Doctor Who episodes are when it comes down to it. What’s interesting about Empress of Mars is the way that it makes Doctor Who – a show that’s usually deeply mistrustful of traditional authority, especially military authority – co-opt the colonialist military values of the late Victorian period. The superior officer turns out to be morally superior, while the lower ranks are busy endangering the unit by trying to steal gems from the Ice Queen’s hive: officers are intrinsically worthy of command, soldiers intrinsically need to be commanded. Moreover, the episode is pointedly silent on the issue of Godsacre’s previous desertion, and in fact rewards him for symbolically undoing it – offering his life to the Ice Queen for the sake of his men in a gesture which turns out to be the key to the whole situation. By its silence, the episode supports the Victorian concept of desertion as a capital crime – a concept unquestioned even by Bill, who has developed over the course of this season into the progressive voice of the twenty-first century. Note: we have no details of exactly what Godsacre did. Did his troops die for his cowardice? Presumably the episode would have mentioned it if he had. And yet we’re supposed to make a moral judgement of him based only on the label “deserter” – a moral judgement that’s specifically Victorian.

I don’t think this necessarily has to spoil the episode for us. It is, after all, a non-trivial achievement to write something that so thoroughly enacts the mores of the time period it’s about; and it is a very well-structured episode of Doctor Who. But this season in particular seems to be feeling its way towards a more progressive vision for the show than I think we’ve seen yet in Moffat’s run, and I think it’s worth looking closely at where that works well, and where that throws up structural inconsistencies.

Next week: more historical high jinks, in what looks like Roman Britain. Hurrah!

*I just looked up the writer of the episode, and it surprises me that it’s Gatiss; his episodes are usually not so…coherent.

Top Ten Book Covers I’d Frame as Art

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien. Illustrated by Alan Lee, naturally. Look how gorgeous this Rivendell painting is! You can actually get prints of it, apparently, for the low, low price of £400.
  2. The Last Hero – Terry Pratchett. Paul Kidby’s covers just about edge out Josh Kirby’s action-packed paperback ones; they’re a bit softer and feel more like the kind of thing I’d want on my wall. And I particularly love all the art for The Last Hero, a “Discworld fable” that’s probably as close as Pratchett ever got to writing an actual graphic novel.
  3. Saga 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I think this is the cover of the big collected editions, not the individual volumes. I love the way Alana’s glaring right at us. I love the way that explosion bisects the page, but that Alana and Marko and Hazel are still more important than it. That’s exactly what it’s like to read Saga.
  4. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. The Art Deco, stained-glass feel this cover’s got going on is what made me read the book in the first place. The bubbles! The colour! The space rocket!
  5. The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell. I like the movement in this cover: the way that labyrinths twist into spirals twist into circles. Again, it’s a great reflection of what it’s like to read The Bone Clocks: feeling all the certainties twist with every chapter you read, and yet knowing there’s a grand plan, a common thread, to it all.
  6. Inkdeath – Cornelia Funke. Not my favourite of the Inkheart trilogy – that would be Inkheart itself – but I like how that illustration in the centre, with all its lush fantastic detail, draws your eye in, and it’s only with a lurch of focus that you realise it’s also a skull. (Or perhaps I’m just exceptionally unobservant.)
  7. The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath – Ishbelle Bee. This was really not a good book. But I do like the elaborateness of this Gothicky cover, that steampunk-fairytale title font against the simplicity of the gold silhouettes in the foreground.
  8. Goldenhand – Garth Nix. Again, really not my favourite Old Kingdom story. But there’s something about the wild slash of gold against that black background that would make a great, evocative piece of abstract art.
  9. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I find the naivete of this cover quite interesting: the faces look like something from a 1950s Famous Five cover, but then there’s that half-glimpsed steampunk balloon above, and the rust on the basket, and that vast thing belching black smoke. And no Famous Five sky was ever that colour. It’s a book about the hidden structures of oppression beneath the familiar, so the unease this cover generates is perfect.
  10. Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman. That coloured woodcut of the skies of Oxford, with the Radcliffe Camera, and Carfax Tower, and the tower of St Mary’s…well, it’s everything. (The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books for Firefly Fans

  1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. It’s been noted across the internet that this book is pretty much Firefly with aliens. It’s an episodic amble across the galaxy, complete with crew tensions, individual character arcs, space pirate invasions and dodgy cargo. There’s even a bubbly lady engineer.
  2. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. Consider Phlebas is a lot chillier than Firefly, but it wears the same kind of pessimism about the universe. It centres on a mercenary ship, the Clear Air Turbulence, whose crew feels like Serenity‘s without the rose-tinted goggles: a group of ruthless pirates without loyalty, love or hearts of gold, who kill without a moment’s thought.
  3. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy is all about doing what you can in your small corner of space, which is very much a thematic core of Firefly‘s. Its universe also feels as culturally immersive as Firefly‘s does, and it’s about resisting a totalitarian government.
  4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This may seem like a weird pick: it’s not SFF at all, but an epistolary novel about how the people of Guernsey survived the Second World War. But, like Firefly, it celebrates the power of community to resist and overcome evil.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delany. Another space-pirate story, this one’s about the importance of the ordinary and the powerless.
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams. It’s set in space! I’m not sure why I feel like this should be on this list. It’s got Firefly‘s lightness of touch, its irreverence for authority.
  7. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. Although it’s a Regency military AU with dragons, I think Temeraire has something of Firefly‘s emotional heart, as its hero Laurence carves out a space for empathy in his rigidly defined social world.
  8. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. This is a steampunky story about a far-future world in which cities eat each other to survive. It’s got Firefly‘s beaten-up, lived-in aesthetic, and its deep, cynical distrust for capitalism.
  9. Railsea – China Mieville. Railsea‘s characters are, like the crew of Serenity, nomadic: the novel’s set on a train that hunts moles through the desert of capitalism. It’s about radicalism and salvage and storytelling, all concerns of Firefly‘s.
  10. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. This is about a travelling theatre wandering through an America devastated by superflu. It’s nowhere near as depressing as it sounds: again, it’s about carving a community in circumstances that seem hostile.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

My Top Ten “Gateway” Books

  1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
  2. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
  4. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
  5. Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
  6. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
  9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
  10. Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!

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

Top Ten Things on My Bookish Bucket List

  1. Get a novel published. I mean, I have no intention of stopping at one if I can help it. But one is a start. One is the doorway.
  2. Have my own personal library, i.e. a room that is just for books. This is a goal that is very much for when I am Grown Up and am living in more than one room. I mean, you don’t really need a living room, right?
  3. Own one of Jay Johnstone’s Tolkien paintings. Like, one of the big oil paintings with a commensurately big price tag. They are gorgeous: very different to how Tolkien’s work traditionally gets represented visually, but at the same time instantly recognisable as Tolkien art. It would go in my library.
  4. Get a reader’s card at the British Library. You’re only supposed to use the BL’s collections if you can’t find the text easily elsewhere. So I need a good excuse to do some proper primary text research – which would, in itself, be very cool.
  5. Write a long research piece about how buildings and texts work in the Gothic. I did my undergraduate dissertation on “breathing buildings”: how crumbling Gothic piles take on lives of their own and threaten the reader as well as the characters. It had Freud in it. I got a First for it and I feel like I have so much more to say on the topic – so whether it’s a Master’s dissertation or something else, I definitely want an excuse to do some more work on it.
  6. Know more about book binding. Ever since I read Inkheart at age 12 I’ve wanted to be the kind of person who can look at a book and go, “Yes, that is a classic Coptic binding with oak boards,” or whatever. I went to a British Library conservation day the other week, which was fascinating, and I need more!
  7. Meet, have a book signed by or otherwise interact with China Mieville. Mieville is probably the one author I would fangirl at meeting. (Terry Pratchett would have been, too, but alas, that chance is gone forever. I have a birthday card signed by him, though. It has a cat on it.) Not only is he a stupidly clever fantasy author, he is also really quite attractive.
  8. Watch the upcoming film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and pray that it is not terrible. I’m seriously nervous that it’s not a straight adaptation but an alternative take on the series – that could be a great decision, or…not. Plus, they seem to have cut Susannah? And Eddie? And Oy? This teaser poster, though. I approve.
  9. Read all of Saga. I think I got to…about #5 and stopped? This one is probably dependent on finding a library that has the volumes in it.
  10. Make one of the projects in my Steampunk Your Wardrobe book. This could be tricky as I am terrible at sewing – and, indeed, anything requiring more than a modicum of hand-eye coordination. I want to try doing a bustle skirt, though.

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

Review: Steampunk Fairy Tales

Steampunk Fairy Tales is pretty much what it says on the tin: a collection of seven stories, all versions of fairy tales with a steampunk twist. Most are Western stories of various origin, and there are two Japanese stories – although neither of them are by a Japanese author. Which is fine, but a bit awkward when the preface to the book specifically flags up its cultural diversity:

…the authors represented three continents and were retelling myths from Germany, England, France, Italy and Japan.

Anyway. I’m still trying to come up with a personal Working Theory of Steampunk, so what I found most interesting in thinking about the book was its approach to the genre. What makes these stories steampunk, according to the preface, is that they are “set in an advanced Victorian society powered by steam” – which is interesting, because it suggests that steampunk here is not defined by its politics (in spite of the “punk” part of the name) but by its technology: steam power. (In context, I think what the writer of the preface means by “advanced” is “technologically advanced”.)

That’s borne out by what the writers have done to make the stories steampunk. Most of the stories turns not on character or circumstance but technology, a steampunk novum, to steal a term from SF criticism. “The Clockwork People” retells “Pinocchio” with living dolls made of clockwork – and the end of the story sees a young doll made spontaneously from the wreckage of its parents. “Perfection”, a retelling of “Bluebeard” and not coincidentally the best story in the book, turns on the fact that its heroine is herself a clockwork automaton. “The Copper Eyes” features an evil inventor mother who turns her children into machines and is herself defeated by a machine. “Strawberry Sins” is a version of “Beauty and the Beast” in which a soldier tries to work out a cure to his increasing beastliness by tinkering with a scientific formula (although this story felt more dieselpunk to me). And “Aubrey in the World Above” features a beanstalk, apparently activated by electricity, that swallows people up to take them to the land of the Giants. Also a mechanical hen.

Interestingly, it’s the two Japanese stories – “The Mech Oni and the Three Inch Tinkerer” and “The Yellow Butterfly” – that are most focused on their characters; and even they are set against a background in which technology and materialism is a looming threat. “The Mech Oni and the Three Inch Tinkerer” features a vast steam-powered robot monster which its three-inch samurai is rewarded for defeating, and the hero of “The Yellow Butterfly” is grieving the loss of his family in a submersible accident, working in a factory for a tyrannical ex-samurai capitalist. (This would be the second-best story in the collection if it weren’t creepily male-gaze-y.)

So, materialism and mass production is at the heart of what the book sees as steampunk. If each of these stories hinges in some way on technology, each of them also enacts a highly specific anxiety about technology: the subsumation of the human into the mechanical. Clockwork dolls turning into people; mechanical monsters consuming frail human bodies; a scientific formula robbing someone of their humanity. Central to the book’s idea of steampunk is this tension between human and machine, this questioning of where the borderline is. Siting that tension in an “advanced Victorian society” ideologically enacts a return to an era in which modern capitalism is just about to get started properly; when factories are treating humans like machines, when human labour is being replaced by this explosion of new kinds of machine: a tipping point, an edge-moment.

(I’m distinguishing here between the “real” Victorian period and the Victorian period that lives in our cultural imagination. “Victorian” is almost unique in that it can be considered as both a historical moment and as an aesthetic – Ancient Rome is the only other such cultural signifier I can think of.)

And it’s also, ideologically speaking, the last moment when humans have tangible, Newtonian control over their machines. You can look at steam engines and clockwork and see how they work, how the piston over here spins to make this happen so the wheels move like this – a tangible, instinctual grasp of how machinery works that we’ve lost with the advent of computer chips. These stories feature characters who, despite their fears of being consumed by machinery, also exercise their power over it, through invention, or fine-tune destruction that depends on knowing how machines work. They are exercising control, even as the machines push back against that control.

And it’s here, I think, that the book displays the bourgeois bias that steampunk can be prone to. Invention – the exercise of power over machinery – is throughout most of these stories the preserve of upper-class inventors with rambling Gothic mansions and time to spare; or it’s supplemented by magic, which is by its very definition exclusive. The two best stories in the collection – “Perfection” and “The Yellow Butterfly” – are those that recognise that there are people other than these privileged inventors; people who have no power over machinery and cannot stop the dehumanising march of capitalism by invention.

I don’t actually think this is a very successful collection: the stories mostly feel very old-fashioned in their concerns, and (with the exception of “Perfection”) don’t engage very extensively with the politics of their originals. I’ve had more fun thinking about it than I did reading it.

Review: Blood of Tyrants

Blood of Tyrants is the eighth in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series; there’s just one novel left to go. Which is interesting, because although it trundles on in much the same manner as the preceding books have, it also brings some things into focus, I assume in order to set up for the Grand Finale.

It sees Our Hero, Captain William Laurence of the Aerial Corps, washed overboard during a sea voyage to China. He’s washed up onto the shores of Japan, a country notorious for its hostility to foreigners; what’s more, he’s lost all memory of the Aerial Corps and thinks he’s still a navy captain with a fiancee and the prospect of an illustrious career.

The novel alternates between his perspective, navigating an utterly alien culture with no idea of how he came to be there, and that of Temeraire, who of course is beside himself at Laurence’s loss and is determined to find him – much to the dismay of the captains of the other dragons.

That’s not the interesting bit, though. The interesting bit is what happens later, when Laurence and Temeraire are eventually reunited: they find themselves leading a vast contingent of Chinese dragons into Russia, where Napoleon’s forces are threatening to crush the thinning list of Britain’s allies. A key plot point here is the Russians’ abominable treatment of their dragons, who (in direct contrast to the Chinese dragons, who have citizenship and titles and wealth) are kept hobbled in breeding grounds, or starved as couriers, unless they happen to be heavyweights, who are merely bribed with large piles of gold instead. The Russians are afraid of their dragons: afraid of going back to days when feral dragons would prey upon vulnerable villages and carry off maidens to eat, etc. A particularly nasty French tactic is to make this story come true, setting the starved, imprisoned dragons free to carry off Russian supplies and, in many cases, Russian fighters. The French general who leads this tactic offers up the defence that the Russian treatment of the dragons is clearly wrong; Laurence agrees, but thinks to himself that to redress that wrong in this manner, which can only make the dragons’ lot worse in the long run by making the Russians turn against them, is irresponsible.

This ending, then, really brings into focus, retroactively, what the series has been about, and where its final battles (so to speak) will be fought. It’s clear that the Napoleonic Wars, far from being background political detail, are central to Novik’s plot; it’s also clear that dragons, and specifically the treatment of dragons, is key to resolving the wars. Those cultures that respect dragons – France and China, mainly – are stronger; those that fear them – chiefly Britain and Russia – have a harder time.

Why’s that interesting? Well, I think that what’s been going on across the arc of the series is a kind of socio-cultural disintegration. Early in the series, I suggested that it might be depicting a change from an Augustan social culture to a Romantic, individualistic one; from one based on shame to one based on personal guilt. I think we can broaden that reading a little. Laurence is changing, thanks to his encounter with the Other, in the form of Temeraire. His amnesia is a symbol of the disintegration of his social identity, the total destabilisation of all his cultural touchstones, as a result of that encounter; even when his memory is inevitably restored, the gulf between the man he was and the man he is is unbridgeable. A central tension of Blood of Tyrants involves him re-learning of his own treason at the end of Empire of Ivory: before he recovers his memory, he cannot fathom why he would have done such a thing. It’s a stark reminder of how far he has come from the Regency Everyman of Temeraire.

And the world is changing, too. The total destabilisation of Laurence’s amnesia is reflected on a grand scale in the global destabilisation enacted through the Napoleonic Wars, which have affected every continent Laurence has visited in the course of the series. Really, it’s a destabilisation of history: because Novik’s been writing in not only her dragons, the Other that has changed everything, but also everyone else who has been written out of history – the female officer, the black officer, the gay officer, the unmarried lovers, the woman who decides her own prospects, a whole swathe of sophisticated non-Western cultures. Not only does her fictional world have to change radically to accommodate a new reality in which dragons are key citizens whose treatment can decide the very fate of nations (just as Laurence is astonished and dismayed to learn of his treason, we are astonished and dismayed to return to Europe and find dragons being mistreated, as they were in Britain towards the beginning of the series); our own shared notions of history have to change radically, disintegrate and be rebuilt, to fit in what had previously been alien.

This is fascinating. And if this is the series’ denouement, I can’t wait to read its finale.