Review Round-up: Alternate alternate histories
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Just when we'd thought we'd wrapped up our Steampunk discussion, two more pieces came along. Ian Sales' "A Light in the Darkness" and Geof Banyard's "The Steampunk Literary Review" showcase different extremes of the subgenre's spectrum - from the serious to the satirical.
Mr. Sales' "A Light in the Darkness" (2011) is an elegently constructed triptych. The first point of view is Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, entrenched at the front in 1917. The second is the inventor Nicola Tesla, also 1917, but in America (at his famous tower in Wardenclyffe, never completed in 'real' history). The third narrator is a nameless, contemporary figure - a prisoner in a mysterious institution.
While Owen endures the miseries of WWI trench warfare, Tesla schemes to reshape all of human existence. His tower is the final piece of his "Stratospheric Lighting System". It will send electricity leaping into the sky, starting a chain reaction that will end darkness forever. Tesla will banish the night.
The other two protagonists have more hesitant relationships with light, both physically and conceptually. For the unnamed contemporary figure, the bright lights of his cell blind him. They are both an instrument of torture and a warning that the next round of physical interrogation is about to begin. As his suffering continues, the lines between line and darkness, vision and blindness, begins to blur.
For Lieutenant Owen, hip-deep in the war, light is a forbidden pleasure. Night provides relative safety from the enemy. Light, however much he wants it, would bring in a hail of enemy shells. But the darkness is a deceptive ally, it conceals the horrors around him, but it doesn't remove them - the trenches may seem less dangerous after dark, but the broken terrain comes with its own threats.
A strong story in its own right, "A Light in the Darkness" is particularly interesting when examined through the greater lens of Steampunk (such lens is probably one enormous goggle, mounted in chrome and suspended from an airship).
First, Mr. Sales makes the minimum of fuss about his speculative elements. Although "A Light in the Darkness" is alternate history, he approaches the divergence from reality with his customary light touch. (An earlier story by Mr. Sales, "Disambiguation", is a showcase for how little one needs to speculate to make alternate history.)
Second, the introduction of the nameless 'everyman' narrator makes the story more than a period piece. The same issues of patriotism, powerlessness, light and darkness are as relevant today as they were in World War I (real or alternative). This character is the gutsiest addition to the triptych, but also the most powerful. Without sounding overly pithy, he's the one that drives home the point that anyone can be "blinded by the light". Both in the literal sense (a little darkness can be a soothing thing) and a figurative one. Unquestioning action for any cause, however good, can be indistinguishable from evil.
Finally, with the inclusion of Wilfred Owen's perspective, I was pleased to see that Mr. Sales didn't make a game of World War I. Steampunk is often accused of eliding the nasty underbelly of Victorian culture (a discussion that's been already held both on the Blackwell's blog and during The Kitschies' Steampunk Evening). Generally these accusations of elision regard race, class and the politics of imperialism. Another area, less remarked on, is the horror of war. Genre fiction - especially science fiction and fantasy - has a spotty track record when it comes to glamorising violence. For every Joe Haldeman there are a half dozen Robert Heinleins. Regarding Steampunk specifically, there's often such a rush to make steamtanks or steamships or steamguns that the real, existing horrors of WWI are overlooked. As if the poison gas and barbed wire weren't bad enough, fantasy adds aerial bombardment and electrocution into the mix.
Mr. Sales story unquestionably reflects the real horror of the real WWI. And even as the alternative elements (Tesla's machinery) become involved, Mr. Sales demonstrates how the beautiful concept of Tesla's vision translates into the very dirty reality of Owen's war.
On the flip side of the coin, not all good Steampunk has to be quite so serious. As the delightful Doctor Geof Banyard has shown with The Steampunk Literary Review (2011), there's quite a bit to be said about tongue-in-cheek self-awareness as well.
Doctor Geof is the twisted genius behind the webcomic Fetishman, a brilliantly drawn piece of work that, despite the name, is really no more NSFW than Pornokitsch. (Take that as you will.) The Steampunk Literary Review is a slick collection of new material that explores the (fairly wanton) fun of this subgenre. There are lots of airships and goggles, bared buttocks and ankles, terrible puns and occasional air-krakens. It is cover to cover entertainment, with a thousand tiny details and cheeky footnotes that make the Review a pleasure to read over and over again.
It is, in a word, "brilliant". (If more words are allowed, it is also "smutty", "hilarious", "beautiful" and "enormously cheeky".)
"A Light in the Darkness" by Ian Sales is available in Alt Hist (Issue 3) and can be found on Amazon, Smashwords and Lulu.
The Steampunk Literary Review by Geof Banyard is available directly from the author via his webshop. (Treat yourself to everything else while you're there, his work is amazing.)