Aurorarama, by Jean-Christophe Valtat, is a surreal new release from Melville House. The author's first work written in English, it has a distinctly continental feel. Despite combining hedonism, political philosophy and the surreal, Aurorarama manages to avoid being in any way ponderous.
Perhaps more importantly, despite the fantastical urban setting and steampunk trappings, Aurorarama also avoids being in any way trendy. This is a contemporary fantasy classic - not another fly-by-night book with an airship on the cover.
The city of New Venice adorns the frozen north. Founded by explorers and settled by wealthy immigrants, it is a tiny attempt at utopia, separated from the rest of the world by miles of frozen wasteland.
The city is governed by a ruling council, a small (but efficient) corps of secret police ("The Gentleman of the Night") and a tidy military presence ("The Subtle Army"). Due to technological trickery, the necessities of life (food, warmth, etc) are all well taken care of. With that out of the way, the people seem to spend most of their time writing pop singles, sampling new drugs and engaging in political upheaval.
It seems that, despite the (or perhaps "because of the...") relative prosperity and isolation, the people of New Venice are constantly under threat. A mysterious black airship hovers over the city, anarchist bombers are at loose, there's constant bickering with the native Inuit population, the secret police are cracking down on the drug trade and the ruling council are up to something very sinister.
Aurorama follows two prominent citizens, Brentford Orsini and his friend Gabriel, as they try to preserve their beloved city and sweep away all the plotting. One of Valtat's most stylish, and admirable, decisions was to create the impression that this was one of many adventures for the pair. Orsini and Gabriel frequently allude to previous adventures - battling a mad scientist, chasing polar kangaroos, falling madly in love. Very little explanation is given, but this, in no way, hinders the enjoyment of the book. Sherlock Holmes and his Sumatran rat have nothing on Orsini's connection with the oft-cited and never-seen "Helen".
This is only one of the author's many distinctive stylistic maneuvers. New Venice itself is a world of surprises, with every nook and cranny possessing some sort of unique trait. Valtat skims over entire neighborhoods, but then lingers for pages detailing Gabriel's mezzanine library. As the protagonists zip around the frosty north, the reader gets tantalizing peeks into the local fortress, the forgotten subway system, the dingy nightclubs... all, again, punctuated with cryptic references to other venues that are never seen or described.
The adventure, such as it is, is more of a series of vaguely-organized wanderings. The two heroes (well, the rakish Gabriel is distinctly un-heroic), rarely control their own destinies. Orsini, perhaps, will set forth with a plan in mind, but very swiftly will find events spiraling madly out of control. It doesn't help that half the time the two decide to do nothing: choosing to delay investigating something mysterious in favor of a night out on the town or perhaps an intriguing new concert. Trouble always finds them, of course, but still - fans of proactive protagonists will find Aurorama a very frustrating read.
The core conflict is between a vaguely dictatorial, vaguely sinister government and a fragmented, philosophical resistance. Combined with the extremely odd, but captivating, urban setting, comparisons with China Miéville are inevitable. New Crobuzon and New Venice are, without a doubt, very similar. Valtat's commitment to stylish prose is also reminiscent of Mieville's, although the two certainly do not scan in the same way. Valtat's writing is more immediately accessible than Miéville's, but also slightly more superficial.
As a final note, Aurorarama has airships, machine guns, top hats, frock coats, pneumatic whatnots and even a bustle or two. None of this, I'm sad to say, is particularly uncommon anymore. However, Aurorarama doesn't just capture the veneer of Victoriana, it also, incredibly, captures the society - the decadence, the arrogance, the inquisitive spirit and the relentless desire for self-improvement. This is what steampunk ought to be - not just varnishing traditional fantasy in brass, but looking beyond the cogs to the culture. Steampunk is a fusion of two words, and this is often forgotten. It is easy to add an airship, much harder to capture the revolutionary spirit.
Aurorarama is an engrossing, entertaining book with a brilliant setting, a good story and a distinct style. Readers looking for the next steam-powered Serenity will invariably be disappointed, but I suspect, in twenty years, when we critically examine the steampunk era, this will stand out as something truly notable.
Also, the cover is gorgeous.