Tag Archives: Steampunk

A Steampunk Diversion

Retribution_Falls_Cover I am a fairly regular consumer of science fiction and fantasy stuff, but I have not spent a lot of time reading within the Steampunk sub-genre.  This changed recently when the writer of a gaming blog I follow recommended Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls.  When someone tries to sell me on a book, I have often found myself most easily swayed when the “seller” employs a handy comparison to something I already know. So when this blogger casually compared Retribution Falls to a Steampunk version of Firefly, I immediately opened a new window in the catalog and placed a hold on it!  I consider Firefly and the universe Joss Whedon built around it to be some of the best sci-fi I’ve ever encountered.

The action in Retribution Falls takes place on the planet of Atalon, a world not unlike our own in the late 19th century. Technology and warfare benefit greatly from steam-powered engines, crude electricity, and a lighter-than-air gas called Aerium, a substance so precious two wars have been fought over it. Trade relies upon airships to move goods between the rugged lands that separate the various major cities of Vardia, the home country of our intrepid heroes rogues.

Mr. Wooding’s characters in Retribution Falls all share one critical element with the crew of Whedon’s  Firefly–they’re all broken in one way or another.  Like Captain Mal Reynolds in Firefly, Captain Darian Frey in Retribution Falls will do whatever it takes to keep his ship flying, but in the latter case the environment is terrestrial versus the deep space of the Whedon’s ‘Verse. If Wooding falls down anywhere in this book the lapses occur in making some of his characters too flawed. The crew of Wooding’s Ketty Jay wind up a lot less likable than the gallant rogues of Whedon’s Serenity. This does not spoil the book however, which expertly combines steampunk, military sci-fi, and a dash of political intrigue into a pleasing brew that makes me eager to finish the final few pages and move on to its sequel, The Black Lung Captain.

Beyond that the steampunk genre remains a bit of mystery to me. I will most certainly dive into the NoveList database for some recommendations, but I would also be curious what folks reading this blog might recommend. Got any great steampunk suggestions? Is William Gibson’s The Difference Engine worth a checkout?  What else?

Thanks for any feedback!

–Scott

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Sweet and Sour Chick Lit

Today I am wearing ridiculous shoes.

By “ridiculous” I mean “high-heeled,” which is normally not my style.  Alas, my favorite comfy shoes have finally worn out. And because you can’t run around barefoot in a public building — or, at least, you shouldn’t – I’m forced to navigate between the Scylla of wearing the one pair of fancy footwear I own, and the Charybdis of shoe shopping.

Thus is life for a certain type of broad, er, dame.  She doesn’t wear makeup, she doesn’t carry a purse, and, under most circumstances, she refuses to wobble around the library like a bad imitation of Grimm’s “The Little Mermaid.”

[Oh, quit that laughing.  Especially you menfolk with your consistently sensible, yet stylish, footwear!]

While the trappings of a certain kind of femininity don’t appeal to me in real life, I find them fascinating when they turn up in books.  In fact, I think I get a bigger kick out of reading about characters who are nothing like me; one of the primary reasons for reading, after all, is to learn more about who we are by examining who we are not.

Still, I reach what I call a “sugar point” in a book if the heroine is too pretty / perfect, or if her biggest problem in life is which of her many outfits she should wear to her glamorous job.  I like my chick lit with a bit of a twist, just enough doom and dismay to keep things interesting.  Here are a few examples from the county’s extensive collection.

The Late Lamented Molly Marx, Sally Koslow.  Molly is extremely wise, witty MollyMarxand stylish.  She’s also quite dead, and, justifiably, a bit miffed about it.  After all, if your corpse were found in a public park under mysterious circumstances, you’d want to know what happened and why.  With her newly-discovered post-life powers, Molly reviews her life to unravel the mystery around her death.  Designer clothes, dual infidelity, and a sexy angel named Bob add punch and pucker to this Manhattan mystery.

On My ListThe Next Thing On My List, Jill Smolinski.  June Parker drove the car that Marissa Jones died in, so of course she feels just awful about it, even though the accident was in no way June’s fault.  To make matters worse, Marissa’s “bucket list” turns up, a plan for all the fun and wonderful things she intended to do with what she thought would be the rest of her life.  To atone for her guilt, and what she perceives as her crime, June decides to complete the items on Marissa’s list, even though she finds some of them downright scary.  As June stumbles outside of her comfort zone, her life changes for the better in delightful, albeit sometimes difficult, ways, which makes for a page-turning treat.

If you’re fond of non-fiction that reads like fiction, you’re going to love Lorna couchMartin’s Girl On the Couch.  Martin has a great job, a great life, great friends, and a great boyfriend.  The only problem is, she can’t stop crying and she doesn’t know why.  Jetting from one cushy newspaper assignment to another can’t keep the demons at bay, so Martin reluctantly agrees to try psychoanalysis, with hilariously funny results.  Written in a dry, self-deprecating tone, this chronicle of the neuroses that can lurk underneath a polished surface will have you cheering as Martin learns to let down her defenses and change her self-destructive behaviors.

On a completely different, but no less complicated note, readers who like Iron_Duketheir romance novels both action-packed and bittersweet will want to check out Meljean Brooks’s The Iron Duke.  When the Horde ruled England, they used technology to enslave the populace; after the Iron Duke’s liberation mission, half-caste citizens like Mina can get a fresh start on life.  However, the “star-crossed lovers” plot that eventually unites Mina and the Duke is complicated by issues of racism, class warfare, and technological ethics.  If that sounds a bit too intelligent for a romance novel, let me assure you that the conventional romance parts are no less, er, arresting for all the high-falutin’ sentiments.

Your turn, Pittsburgh:  do you like your chick lit tart, or sweet?  Do you like to read about heroes/heroines who are just like you, or nothing like you?

–Leigh Anne

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Locus Pocus!

Rumors of my doing cartwheels in the foyer are nothing but lies, and sensible persons should disregard them.  I will confess, however, that I’m super-excited about the 2010 Locus Awards finalist list, because there are some darned spiffy books on it.

It’s hard to predict the winners when everything nominated is of such high quality.  I have, however, favorites in each full-length fiction category that I’m definitely rooting for.

Here are the titles I’m hoping will bring home the prizes:

Best Science Fiction Novel: Boneshaker, Cherie Priest.  Many people say being a mom Boneshakeris the toughest job on earth.  When you factor in protecting your son from zombies, toxic gas, and a mad scientist who may or may not be his father, the job becomes exponentially more difficult.   “Steampunk” is an overused word these days, but in this case, if the goggles fit, strap ’em on!  An excellent specimen of the sub-genre.

Best Fantasy Novel: Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett.  Thirty- seven novels into the Discworld saga, and Pratchett hasn’t exhausted his supply of tales regarding the mythical city of Ankh-Morpork?  For that alone he’s clearly winning material.  Never one to rest on his laurels, fantasy’s reigning king of snark delivers another pointy satire, this time focusing his razor-sharp wit on politics, academe, and sports.  Painfully funny.

Best First Novel: Soulless, Gail Carriger.  It’s really simple:  if you can  write a 19th-century urban paranormal romantic comedy of errors, you deserve to win whatever prizes exist.  Especially when your quirky heroine’s most interesting quirk — she has no soul — is refreshingly original.  First in the Parasol Protectorate series, Carriger’s novel redecorates the Victorian novel with wit and verve.

Best Young Adult Novel: Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins.  I hesitate  to praise this novel any more than I already have, lest you grow sick of it.  And yet, there’s nothing more thrilling than watching Katniss Everdeen fight a corrupt government.  Seriously.

Best Novella: The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker.  The most exclusive brothel in Whitehall is actually an intelligence-gathering ring for a clandestine organization.  You’ve got to love a spy novel that turns the tables on an era by giving the derring-do and techno-gizmos to the ladies, who succeed precisely because of their low/underrated societal status.  Bonus points for the madam with mechanical eye implants.  Juicy, risqué fun.

Best Anthology: Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds.  This loving tribute to one of the best authors ever — Vance’s genius both illuminates and transcends his genre choices — contains short stories from various authors, including luminaries like Matthew Hughes and Neil Gaiman.  Set in the universe of Vance’s classic Dying Earth saga, these tales made me weep with pure pleasure, and resolve to buy my own copy, something I never, ever do.  But this is genius, and must eventually be owned.  Try it for free here first.

My “Victoriana or bust” tendencies  indicate that I’m highly biased, which is why I’ve not been asked to serve on any book awards committees (and rightfully so, I might add).  Which of this year’s nominees are your favorites?  Whom are you rooting for?  And if you don’t read sci-fi or fantasy, how can I change your mind?

Tune in towards the end of June,when the Locus awards are handed out.  And if you stop by the library between now and then, be careful while crossing the foyer, just in case the waiting drives me crazy, and I change my mind about those cartwheels.

–Leigh Anne

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20 Most Recommended Steampunk Novels

I hate alternate history novels.  I’ve tried.  I just can’t get with the program.  It’s similar to movies about real people whom I’ve seen during my lifetime:  JFK, Martin Luther King, Jim Morrison.  I see them portrayed on the big screen and I think, no, that’s her/him. 

I’ve got nothing against Harry Turtledove, who is one of the finest purveyors of alternate history novels writing today.  It’s just not up my alley.

So, it would seem, there is no logical reason that Steampunk novels would appeal to me.  Fortunately, this isn’t necessarily about logic.

You might ask, what is steampunk?  The best definition I’ve run across to date comes from PC Magazine.   They describe steampunk as “a retro version of cyberpunk,”  noting that it is a term that was coined by K. W. Jeter to describe novels that “combine high-tech fantasy with Victorian-era surroundings.”  That era was when steam ruled as the most important energy source.  Still wondering?

Think Jules Verne and his fabulous flying machines and fantastic submarines and futuristic rockets.  Think H. G. Wells and his equally incredible time machine.  Think gaslit streetlamps, heavy fog, filagreed frocks, and ominous doings in the highways and byways of the late 19th century.

There you go.

Both Wells and Verne are thought as forbearers of the genre that would become steampunk.   Dickens and Stoker and Chesteron and Mary Shelley all fit nicely into the category of classic writers that influenced a genre which sprouted in all its magnificence in the 80s and is bigger today than ever before.   

What follows is a list of most recommended titles from any number of sites, including Library Journal, The Guardian, Solar Flare, Flashlight Worthy, and Fantasy Magazine and any other number of library and book-related blogs.  I compiled this list for myself and thought it might serve others interested in dipping their big toes into a history of Future Past.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore
Steampunk: anthology, ed. by A. VanderMeer & J. VanderMeer
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Perdido Street Station b y China Mieville
Extraordinary Engines: the Definitive Steampunk Anthology
Souless  by Gail Carriger
Leviathan by Scott Westerfields
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo
Homunculus by James Blaylock
Morlock Night by K. W. Jeter
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Julian Comstock: a Story of 22nd Century America by Robert Charles Wilson

You may notice that three of the novels in this list are currently unavailable in any library in the county: Homunculus, Morlock Night, and Warlock of the Air.  Both are older and, to remedy that situation, we will be ordering new copies ASAP.    Meanwhile, if you are so inclined, dig into the others.  

They’ll give you plenty to think about concerning the past, the future, and, most of all, the right now.

– Don

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