Dearly, Departed

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

 

Now, I admit my upbringing was in some ways unorthodox (and in other ways completely not), but this was a favorite aphorism of my mother’s. It comes from the climax of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by St Flannery O’Connor. The Misfit has just murdered an entire family while they were on a road trip, ending in the death of the grandma. She’s a horrible old bitty who doesn’t deserve to be gunned down on the side of the road, but maybe it’s also not the biggest tragedy ever either. But, you know, violence is cathartic and purifying, at least in St Flannery’s brutal theologies, so the horrid grandma has a humanistic epiphany at the barrel of a gun. Baptism by drowning, the last moments as your lungs constrict and your eyelids flash and flutter, reborn as your best self right before you die.

 

I think of this quote every time I encounter something that has all this incredible potential — this heat of possibility — and then it spins out into something more dreary and obvious. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel has a shitton of potential, for me anyway, being as it is a steampunk zombie novel. Steampunk is maybe more problematic for me, in that I have undertaken its perusal because of my husband’s interests more than my own, but I am all over zombies all day. Both zombie and steampunk narratives often deal in social stratification, though obviously to very different ends. Smooshing them together could be fruitful in examining a rigidly class based society, but I know well enough not to expect such a thing, especially after Deck Z.

 

Occasionally this novel hits a mild frisson of this cultural examination, but mostly it opts for the spunky heroine and glaring infodumps over, like, insight. I was okay with the spunky heroine — she is a creature too ubiquitous to truly criticize — but the infodumps killed me. Apparently (and I use this adverb when I’m being an asshole), peak oil and maybe a nuclear devastation and probably the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone lead to everyone heading south to central America, where some folk recreated the Victorians, and some other folk did not. I just…this was one of many situations where the explanations for the universe killed me, even if the universe did not. I’m going to accept your fictional world if you don’t overexplain, because the minute you do, I’m like, hold the phone. No, no, no. The world-building needed to be shot every day of its life.

 

This aside, Habel did get into some interesting stuff about the ways the lower classes are used against themselves, and as fodder for border warfare as a stand in for class warfare. The set up is that there is a border skirmish between the Vickies and the Punks, and a zombie outbreak has been bubbling in this DMZ, alternately used as biological warfare and “shock and awe”. The zombies in this universe go rabid, but after a time they resettle with their former personalities intact. The zombie soldiers were well realized, suffering both from the trauma of warfare, and from the guilt of their actions while rabid.

 

“Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

The problem is sartorial, in the end. Steampunk, maybe at its most basic, must dress a certain way to be steampunk. There will be corsets and umbrellas and bustles, and there must be the cruel social architecture to justify such a costume (cf. the museum exhibit Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.) Habel does a fair amount of pushback against the social stratification — more than the usual, well, duh, of course a rigidly stratified society is unfair kind you see in steampunk — but I think trips over the skirts of gender politics. Her heroines are the usual spunky middle class ladies who behave almost entirely like modern girls, but there’s all this hand-waving to gender norms that just couldn’t produce such a creature. They put on the clothes, but it didn’t do more than touch their skin.

 

I’ve been burbling along with all my socioeconomic whatnot, and I feel like I should say I totally get that this is a steampunk romance zombie novel written for teens. My bitch isn’t that this book isn’t more than it is. It is what it is, and moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the turns and twists. All this aside, my real problem is the romance between a living girl and a walking decomposing corpse. (Admittedly, these zombies are more desiccated than rotting; still.) Habel honestly gave it the college try, and their courtship — taking place, as it does, like Pyramus and Thisbe, through a wall — was honestly sweet. But it’s like the ultimate catfish to find out that dude’s a corpse who doesn’t have the requisite blood flow to, you know.

 

Tons of women lost their damn minds over Edward Cullen’s cold, lifeless body, so I think there’s probably something to say about the sexualization of undead flesh, especially in teen fiction. (Warm Bodies tried too; ugh.) There could be something here, probably, about love and sexual desire and the death wish in adolescence, etc, but I felt like Habel was too busy selling it as not-gross and self-evidently kinda racist to think this pairing might be squicky. I guess I’m not buying it on those terms, and I can’t get past my shudder at the thought of making out with cold, blue lips. Maybe this could have been twisted in such a way to turn my revulsion back on me, but it wasn’t. I’d pay good money to see such a thing though.

 

And then shoot it every day of its life.

 

So that you would know it was a lady.

 

Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

I’ve read four novellas out of DarkFuse‘s novella series now, and that this is the first that didn’t really do it for me is a pretty great track record. All signs pointed to Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger being in my wheelhouse: big, steampunky habitation called the Machine, an authoritarian dystopia with religious overtones, a planet-wide storm called the Maelstrom, a big freaking chthonic Pit of Doom. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, I felt like the all that very cool stuff ended up being used as little more than ornament on a fairly perfunctory infidelity plot.

The horror novella seems to be a perfect thing, in a way: long enough to get some good grist, short enough not to exhaust the spooky possibilities. Here, I don’t know, this seemed to fall in a fallow area. I can imagine this story being relocated to an apartment complex in the Soviet Union – or any other society with a harsh cultural ideology and dense industrial landscapes – without too much tweaking. Some gross and crazy things happen, but I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were intended to be dream sequences or not, or if that would matter.

While I freely admit that my disappointment is based on false perceptions of the book, I think I could have liked Marrow’s Pit despite my disappointment if the main character held any kind of resonance for me. There’s something clever about creating a character who has these gauzy and indistinct fantasies about revolution getting sidelined so thoroughly by domestic drama. However, schlubby cuckolds with no particular energy don’t turn my crank. Also I straight up do not get that ending. While I can see that it should slash does have meaning, I just can’t access it.

I don’t know. I always feel bad about disliking this sort of thing. It’s not doing anything wrong and I can see how the whole cabbage-redolent dread of the Marrow’s Pit might work for someone else. Better luck next time, I guess.

 

 

I received my copy from the fine folks at DarkFuse and Netgalley. Thanks.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

If I had read Blood Red Road by younger, I would have loved this. People say stuff like this all the time, and sometimes it’s a dig. You know, the old saw about how teens are stupid and they cannot differentiate good writing from bad so we as older readers should either a) not read books directed at the teen market or b) not judge it according to the literary standards of books aimed at adults. A pox on both ideas. I don’t think we should just hang out in our little genre marketing ghettos: I only read YA, you only read sewious literary fiction, she only reads mysteries, etc. I don’t think we should let marketing labels dictate our reading choices. 

I also predict that this book is going to be compared to Hunger Games a lot, and some of those comparisons are going to be in the “this is a rip-off” strain. No. The Hunger Gamesis many good things, but it did not invent the post-apocalyptic landscape. When The Hunger Games came out, lots of people pointed a Japanese manga book I had never heard of called Battle Royale. I thought they were talking about Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the short story that comes out of it, called “Battle Royal”. (Which, now that I think of it, would make an interesting compare/contrast with The Hunger Games.) I had been out of reading YA long enough that I had no idea what these critics were talking about, because I thought of an Ice-T movie from the early-90s? called Surviving the Gamewhere suckas try to hunt Ice-T on an island, and he totally hands them their asses, because he is Ice-T. Then there’s other stuff like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Lord of the Fliesor, well, you see where this is going. And also, just recently a friend of mine pointed out the connection between The Hunger Games and the Theseus story, what with the tributes and the fighting. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that whatever genre commonalities this has with The Hunger Games, or The Road, or whatever else I just mentioned, this book is its own thing in terms of narrative voice and landscape, and that is all there is to it. 

 Blood Red Roadstarts incredibly strong, written in dialect that took me maybe 3 pages to get over. I am no fan of dialect, except in some notable cases, but I thought it completely worked here. The language was stripped down, conversational, without the ornament of apostrophes and other punctuation; just the unhatched thoughts of an unhatched person. Wonderful, really. And the description of landscape, be still my beating heart. Much of what I love about post-apocalit is the landscapes it writes into being, all this prosperity and functionality of our modern world run to dust and a lone chimney standing up out of the ruin of nature run its course. I don’t even want to speculate on why I find this appealing, because there is something self-annihilating, society-annihilating in my affections. The patchwork houses, the patchwork clothes, an anecdote about a bit of an airplane used to patch the roof that flew away because it remembered its function, despite the fact that the protagonist doesn’t really believe in airplanes, all this was wonderful to me. 

Anyway, there’s sequence very early on with our protagonist walking through dunes that keep shifting to reveal a ruined settlement, or the bones of an airport, and the shift and dusty beauty of that knocked me over. And the set up leaves me breathless too: a set of twins, a sister, a lost mother, a physically present but absent father, all living out their familial trauma in the bare edge of land with no one but themselves for company. One of the twins is taken, and his twin sister goes to get him back. She is twitchy and weird, as those raised in that kind of claustrophobic environment would be, and I really enjoyed her single-mindedness and social ineptness. 

But, and I’m really sorry to say this, I think Blood Red Roadblows off course at about mid-point. The sequences in the ugly city; the human-trafficking; the brittle, painful conversations whispered between prisoners in an unfair system that values human life only in the taking of it: this is what I loved about this book. By mid-point these things had been wrapped, and we start in on a love story and a continuing chase that I had very little interest in. I know, I know, some of this is age on my part. The plot still moves pretty quickly, despite several needless interactions between our heroine and her love interest that are repetitive and cliche. But there was something compelling to me in how isolated her upbringing was, something weird and unknowable about it, and I didn’t think she would behave in these broad tough-girl mannerisms that she does, especially later in the book. She would not want to ditch her younger sister as often as she does, because her younger sister would be one of the few human she understands. I feel like maybe the characterization lost its moorings in the reality of the environment, instead drawing on the character traits of the imagined readership. 

Frankly, I have no idea if this is a bad thing entirely, even though I think it weakens the character. Just to refer to a) and b) in my first paragraph. Much as I grumble about genre distinctions that divide readerships, I understand that I may not be included in the intended readership of this book. The concerns of the protagonist felt like they drift into the formula for teen romance. While I do not enjoy this formula, it might ring true for other readers. Additionally, I thought the denouement was swift, cheap, and hackneyed, and the set-up for the next book contrived and obvious. Sssst. 

I don’t want to end on a bad note, because this is still a strong and worthy book. The language is impressive; the landscape dangerously beautiful. Clunky though the ending was, I do look forward to more walks within this world, with its shifting sand dunes that reveal and conceal, the chimneys of our modern world standing mute in the green growing and the red dust. I look forward to where this story might go, given how strong the voice is now. Let’s hope it only gets stronger. 

Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin by Sarah Bartsch

I swear by all that is holy that I’m going to figure out how to punch the Goodreads search engine right in the freaking neck. Twice. Hard.

Why, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, but uncaring bystanders are next on my list when my blood is up.)

Let me explain. 

It all started a couple years ago when my husband dragged me to Bubonicon so we could see his boyfriend and hang out with other nerds. Being a somewhat reticent girl – don’t let my shouting online fool you; I am naturally a homebody and an introvert – I was maybe not all that jazzed about this in the abstract. But it was pretty much like coming home, because nerds (or more importantly, bookish, writerly nerds) are my people. One of those people I met was Sarah, and she is absolutely one of my favorites. 

So, it was with some trepidation I picked up her novella, Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin, because I know what a horrible bitch I am in reviews sometimes. And she knows that too, which makes this whole process a little awkward. Mostly I just don’t write reviews for friends’ books that I dislike – truth is beauty and all that, but we all gotta live on this globe, and friends are better than any critique. But – phew! – I honestly liked this. 

Miyako is a samurai-daughter in an alt-Japan, c. 1915. My Japanese history is a little furry, but it seems that the reforms instituted in the Meiji Restoration never happened, and samurai continued on into the run-up to the first world war, but spreading out to the gentry and merchant classes in a way your more daimyo types wouldn’t have particularly liked. Miyako is one of these: trained into a system of honor and warfare, but not exactly comfortable there because of her class and gender. This Japan, not unlike the real 1915 Japan, is isolated from Western technology, but worried about the war brewing. She is sent on a mission into one of the semi-magical portals managed by the military to scavenge technology from whatever she finds on the other side. 

She walks through the glowing door into a world of scorched air and bandits, a dome city and automata. Which, oorah. This is deeply fun stuff, the kind of play through harsh, alien environments by competent but still uncomfortable girls that turns my crank as a reader. Miyako blusters her way through an environment alien to her sensibility, managing to keep from goggling at cars and trains and showers, but just barely. I want to ride on one of those, she thinks, again, and again, about all the wonders that this more modern, but still alternate Japanese city provides. Which is why I love science fiction, when you get down to it: the barely held-down freak-out about all the very cool things we can imagine and then walk through, as readers. Miyako supplies wonder to even the terrible things in the harsh world she ends up in.

But here’s my problem: two alternate history Japans are a lot of alternate history Japans to manage in a novella. So I did some googling, and it turns out that Unforeseen is one of a number of shared world novel/las, which start with Gateway to Rust and Ruin. From the Empires of Steam and Rust website:

It is 1915, but not the one you know.

In Europe, the old empires stand on the brink of war, and war zeppelins darken the skies. In the East, China has spread its influence as far as the South American Coast, and may soon come into conflict with America, which has annexed Mexico, and is looking further south. But the plans of the great powers may all soon come to naught, for something new has come into the world.

On every continent, in every nation, holes have appeared, in the sky, in the ground, in the water, that seem to lead to another world. Some are no more than pin-pricks in reality. Some could swallow a battleship whole. Some seem to provide an instant conduit from place to place. A man entering one in Zurich might well come out another in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies an instant later. Others have no exit, and those who enter them are never seen again.

All are leaking.

Some emit strange gasses. Others birth weird animals and insects. Still others alter the environment around them in subtle, unsettling ways, and may eventually change the whole world.

Which, cool. I’m all in. I find the whole idea of shared world writing – where different authors bring their craft to a world with specific parameters – totally worthy. It’s such a friendly, personable way of writing fiction; a call and response between people who are often congenital introverts. But I would have really appreciated this introduction to the Steam & Rust world when I began reading Sarah’s story as some sort of preface or introduction. I am absolutely willing to sort all this stuff out on my own as a reader, and I did, but I admit my default is laziness.

So, you’re welcome, Steam & Rust readers. I went in and tried to make an Empires of Steam and Rust series on Goodreads, so you could see in in one place all of the shared world novel/las, but I ran into the absolute freaking shittiness of the Goodreads search function. Even though I was able to add three of the fictions, for some reasons Goodreads couldn’t cough up Revolution of Air and Rusteven though I can find the damn novella on a google search and it looks like Summers even did a godamn Goodreads giveaway. Double-you the actual fuck here? Why can’t Goodreads even see this novel? Rarrrrrrrrr, and then the throat punch.

Miyako makes her way through her adventure in her own alternate history with wit and some badass sword skills, learning the way the young often do that her world is more complex and crappy than she thought. Here’s my next criticism, and it’s the best one: I want more about her. Having established not one alt-Japan but two, and a set of characters and even a robot I admire, I would kill to see how this all plays out and what happens next. More, please, Sarah. <3

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud – the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. 🙁

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist – with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete – had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

Perdido Street Station: Race/Race

Despite having declared Mr. Miéville my literary boyfriend some time ago, I have to come out and admit I’ve only read one (1) book by him. I’ve read his foray into YA, Un Lun Dun, which thumbs the touchstones of his writing: urban spaces, a bunch of weird ass shit, and literary genres ground through the pulper of his baroque writing. But, being YA, the profanity and sheer globbing fuckallery of his writing was dampened a bit. No so, here. And dag, yo, that’s some stuff.

Man, I don’t even know what to say here now. I guess I could get into the plot, but you can go consider the mechanics of who did what where in other places. Despite this being a tumbling, active book, I’m not sure that will give you anything. Something about this book kept reminding me of Lightby M. John Harrison, and has strangely convinced me to go back and give that book another star. I didn’t get what Harrison was doing there, how he sliced open the childhood teddy bear and sewed it back together inside out and upside down. I looked at that ravaged bit of stuffing with the black zig-zags of thread, and thought, what the fuck are you doing? That is wrong, and possibly gross. 

There’s a lot in New Crubuzon that is wrong and possible gross, and I feel like I’m too close to the end the my read to articulate the totality of what exact teddy bear Miéville vivisected. Here’s one little stuffed arm I can grope toward: race. We use the term race in daily life to mean different kinds of people, different ethnicities, different colors, what have you. (I’ve found I’ve lost all the nomenclature for talking about race, so sorry. Like profanity, I can’t describe it succinctly, but I know it when I see it, and so do you. And like profanity, we’re going to define it differently. This parenthetical comment is getting out of hand.) Fantasy uses the term to mean different species, although this term is a little off because fantasy doesn’t pretend toward scientific rigor, and the term “species” implies that a bit. Although Prof Tolkien has warned us against allegory, I think we can safely say that often, and maybe even always, the fantastic races are symbolic chits of our racial discomfort. No, an orc isn’t exactly, allegorically a Black Man, or an Arab, or whatever racial boogey we’ve got, but an orc is a biologically determined creature who holds inherent moral worth, or worthlessness, as you will. Race is deterministic, so is race. 

Perdido Street Station opens to a pair of lovers working through their morning languor. It’s a sweet, slow-moving, romantic coupling and decoupling, two beings who love each other sweet-talking though their morning, but the sweet-talk is familiar and clouded with the near-conflicts and innuendo of couples who have been together a long time. Of course, one of the pair has a beetle for a head, and the other is a walrusy, wheezing human scientist. They are different races, and their love is shot through with their sense of perversion and transgression. The beetle-headed artist, having shucked her kepri community, can more or less openly admit the two are lovers; the human scientist has a lot more to lose, as humans are less understanding of bug-fuckery. Their love is tense, an open secret, complicated because of the paradox of that term. 

Let’s now think about a similar scene with Aragon and Arwen. First off, I’m pretty sure there was no pre-marriage post-coitus for those two. Second, the elves were, yes, totally skeeved that Arwen wanted to marry a human, but the embodied disgust is so coded, so reified. Instead of “Omaigawd, I can’t believe you’re banging that mortal meat-sack”, it’s “Marrying him will take away your immortality.” And ultimately, thirdly, there is no disgust at the bodies themselves. Aragon is rough and unattractive, but he is understood to be imbued with the power of his rule, his sentience. Arwen and he meld their minds, the Platonic forms of themselves, their love arches over the dirty business of knocking boots, carefully ignoring the cat-ears of Arwen’s that fire the lusts of so many readers. I am not bagging on this; it is nice work if you can get it. 

Hmm, I want to say I’m not after Tolkien here at all, but I can’t help falling back on his stuff because it’s so much more memorable than a lot of the fantastic twaddle that gets written in his loooong shadow. And this book isn’t high fantasy either, it’s…well, who the fuck knows what it is. Like New Crubuzon, it’s a patchwork of stuff, steam-punk arms, magical boxes, science-y glass tubes, natural philosophy with wings pinned to cotton, the horror of the flying death, in their non-discreet neighborhoods, throwing grappling hooks over one another, building up and digging down, heaping trash from one genre to another, running shit and blood and cables through the whole mess, throwing a switch and cackling, EEETS ALIIIVE. Still though, I think there’s something in the story of the lovers that is about the difference between miscegenation and bestiality in the slash between the terms race/race, and how both of those terms are pretty gross. 

I’m kind of flailing here with the stitching and the stuffing, but I was honestly, genuinely, purposely affected by the strange, quiet love story between the human and the kepri. I love the ways the various races were cataloged as having this set of characteristics or that, but almost no one hewed to those characteristics, a constant sly denial of race/race; one that doesn’t pretend there isn’t a perverse glimmer in bug-fucking, or banging the mortal meat sack; one that isn’t about love as a moral force, tied to our moral bodies, but a social one, a plank thrown between neighborhoods where we construct our racial identities and have them constructed for us. Occasionally people walk that creaking tightrope from one side to the other, their arms outstretched, and it is a dangerous, scary, heart-pounding thrill. 

There’s more in this book, a lot more stuffing and wires that I’m sure my brain will sift through in the coming months, and I really like that about it, how it’s this this baffling, active monster slaying quest on one hand, and then this lazy walk through a bazaar on another. (I see I have failed to mention completely that the main plot is about hunting down and killing some badass killer moths who are much scarier than the term “killer moth” might imply. So. Now I have mentioned it.) I guess I also feel like I should mention that Miéville’s writing style is likely a love-it or hate-it proposition. He does not use 5 words when 50 will do, and 5 of them will be made up, and another 5 will be thesaurus words, and another 5 will be profanity. I like all of these things, but you may not. So, yeah, that’s what I’ve got for now.

Un Lun Dun: I Love You For Your Mind

China Miéville is my new boyfriend. I mean, look at him:

Hubba hubba. I mean, I’ve always had a thing for guys who have had their noses obviously broken at some point, but this man is just wicked attractive. Now that I’ve been super lame and girly about this authors merits, I do want to say that I love you for your mind, Mr. Miéville, your hot, hot mind. And the fact that your name is weird. And you’ve got those little French thingees over the e that I can’t get my word processor to do. (I roll with cut-and-paste; it’s a kluge, but it gets the job done.)

I’m too young to have this be emotionally real for me, but one of the reasons Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was so upsetting is because it discombobulated the viewers notions of main character. Hitchcock spends all this time documenting Marion and her crime and escape, lavishing scenes on her switching cars, chatting with the bf, all that. Then she checks into a motel, has a little dinner, dips into the shower and SWINK SWINK SWINK end of story. Like, WHAT? I imagine everyone in the theater thinking. You just killed off the main character! In steps Lila, Marion’s sister, and we all kind of breathe a sigh of relief, but it just has to be said: Lila’s not as interesting. Norman is, though, and then you realize that the story’s about him, and he’s a bloody killer.

But maybe that’s not even it, maybe it’s that we can’t trust Hitchcock anymore because stories should be about one thing and not another, one person and not another, and we like it when character is destiny, but more importantly, we like it when characters have destinies, because, like, isn’t that the point of fiction? Fiction winds up these little marionettes who trundle forward in little dioramas, and maybe the fictions are more or less life-like, maybe the dolls have real silk dresses, or the walls are actually lathe-and-plaster with horsehair and newspapers from the turn of the last century as insulation, but it’s still fiction, which means there’s a simplicity at it’s soul, even when it’s complicated – there’s just no way to make a 1-to-1 model of everything. We root for main characters, even when they suck and are terrible, because we are main characters all; I don’t care how much empathy you have, you simply can’t know what goes on in another person’s head, anyone’s. So Hitchcock kills his main character, and we all start, because, holy wow, man, you just killed us.

Anyway, Miéville does this with the concept of Destiny in Un Lun Dunand I just want to give him a big smooch for it. (Well, okay, for other reasons too.) A pair of girls fall into the Un Lun Dun/unLondon of the title. UnLondon is just fantastic, not entirely because it’s trying to be fantastic, but because it isn’t, sort of. Man, that didn’t make any sense. Okay, here’s an example: our protagonists run in with folk called the Roofrunners, who seem like those sort of aggressively clannish Klingon types who are always crowing about how no one has stepped onto the ground in three generations and wear a lot of leather. You can see where this is going, right? Some Roofrunner is going to have to step onto the ground at some point very soon to Save Them All, but then, when it actually happens, turns out the roofs are false roofs, just sitting there on the ground with no houses under them, so all they really have to do is STEP DOWN. That is so freaking funny! I mean, it’s all fiction right? The roofs, the city, the people inside, why not have the roofs on the ground? Why not make the danger something that comes from the stories these people told, and not the imaginary gravity of their imaginary environment? Whoa. I just freaked myself out.

There’s other sublime weirdness as well: a school of fish in a diving suit who constitute a sentient entity, or a bird in a robot man with a birdcage for a head, or any of a hundred other frightening or comic people and things. There’s pictures too – little pen and ink sketches by Miéville himself – more swooning – that aren’t obnoxious or distracting, but help catalog the oddments without interrupting the narrative. He has the good sense not to interfere with my notions of how the main characters look, instead stuffing the peripheries with the ideas I might miss out of the corner of my eye.

BUT, all soul mates have to have their their first fight, and here’s my opening salvo: sometimes puns just piss me off. There should never be places called Webminster Abbey…made of webs! Inhabited by the Black Window…who is like a window with spider legs! It’s just, you know, lame. (Although, the actual descriptions of the Black Windows, even though just typing those words made me die a little bit, was unsettling and powerful.) Gaiman’s Neverwheregets mentioned a lot with this book – I think it’s mentioned by and Miéville himself – I had the same problems with that one. Additionally, one of the reasons I didn’t groove on Neverwherelike some of Gaiman’s other stuff is that Richard Mayhew is milquetoast as all get out, and his problems with his gf were kind of stupid, Sex and the City style antics, and he just needed to sack up, in general. Deeba is similarly unrealized, in some ways: I don’t have a good sense of how she is when she’s alone, but at least she didn’t have a harpy-ish girlfriend who seemed like a sexist caricature.

Sorry Gaiman! I still love you too, but I’m throwing you over for this Miéville fellow!

Heart of Steel: I Love This Series Despite the First Book

Heart of Steeltakes place in the same world as The Iron Duke, a profoundly alternate history where the Mongolian Golden Horde, using superior technology, slowly devastated Europe in the 1500s, and enjoyed several hundred years of complete control. In roughly 1800 – and this date is important – the titular Iron Duke of the first book broke the Horde’s technological enslavement of England. As befits a steampunk novel, much of this technology is patently ridiculous – nanotechnology, megolodons, gene splicing, chainsaw arms, &c – but this is engaged with the proper amount of hand-waving and acceptance. Brooks does not make the mistake of trying to detail the history of this alternate history/tehnology too closely, but instead throws her efforts into creating a complex world of believable politics and motivations. Gee whiz.

  I say the date is important, because even though this is steampunk, this is not your daddy’s usual Victorian gaslight playset. The referents are all solidly Regency/Georgian, from the name “Iron Duke” – this was Wellington, the man who routed Napoleon at Waterloo – or the sugar boycotts, which were bound up in Regency abolitionist movements. The sugar boycotts are mirrored here explicitly in a distrust of sugar – this was how the Horde deployed their controlling nanotech into the blood of the conquered – but also in a series of arguments about consumer choices and allegiances between the two sides of the American hot/cold war going on about slavery, though it is coded in terms like indenture. Honestly, I could go on and on about all the really cool shit Brooks does encoding history, and the complicated ways one’s allegiances are never perfect, but a series of compromises between lesser evils and expedience.

 Which brings me to a thing about genre, which is pretty much per usual for me. This is solidly marketed and sold as a romance novel, and that’s not wrong on some level. Yasmeen is a mercenary captain of an airship with cat eyes and hot pants, and she is being pursued by one Archimedes Fox, a man whose exploits as a daredevil are written up as penny dreadfuls (sorry, I know this is an anachronistic term) by his sister. Unlike the central couple in The Iron Duke, this relationship is much less rape-y, almost chaste in its reserve. But their relationship still has the fingerprints of a romance novel relationship all over it. Archimedes decision to fall in love with Yasmeen and his strange justifications for his reserve are part and parcel with the doled out endless frustration/final cure of the format. But, unlike The Iron Duke, the relationship doesn’t devolve into a 50 page sex interlude that profoundly fucks up the narrative.

 But back to genre. This is the smartest steampunk alt history I’ve encountered in a long time. With another cover and a different publisher, nerds would be all over this like corsets on cosplayers. Just to be clear, I don’t think nerds are somehow better than the romance reading audience that this is sold to, primarily, just that, as a nerd, I think this would be something my people would enjoy. I’ve bitched before about how genre as a marketing tool divides readerships in ways I think is unhelpful, and this is a shining example of that. And, especially because steampunk is so full of godamn shite. Here’s my digression. My husband loves him the steampunk. I’m probably going to misrepresent his feelings, and that’s okay because he’s almost never online to contradict me.

Anyway, back in the day we both read some of the formative novels in the genre, stuff like The Difference Engine or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Difference Engine has bloody brilliant ideas, wrapped in a fish-wrapper of boring. The technology is pushed just that much, leading to some interesting stuff about how the Victorians constructed criminality and the class system. Unfortunately, the rest of it was feh…zzzzz. League is more beholden to the pulp fictions of the Victorian era, a series of literary hat-tips that ramp to a statement about colonialism and the hero in that mode. To get to the misrepresentation, my husband has this big thing about the feel of technology, some sort of Ruskin-esque reappropriation of mass produced goods towards the individual purpose. I feel a little eye-rolly about a lot of this stuff, because I feel like much of steampunk cosplay is just as rigid as any other folk costume. You can tick off the elements: goggles, corset, walking stick, hat. It’s just another anti-establishment genre that establishes itself with a dress code and not an ethos.

But, when I’m not being a cranky bitch, I love this stuff. I love the interplay between consumerism and identity, and the ways steampunk, when it’s not busy playing dress-up, can get to the beginnings of industrialism and rough the origin, make it weird, lay it bare. I want all steampunk novels to be this smart, but then I also want them to be fun, and it’s a tricky line to walk, I think. Steampunk’s readership is a divided readership, and not even half of it is to my taste. The navigation between the pleasures of spectacle and those of considered alt history are at odds; this is an old argument abut world-building versus character. I said there is some hand-waving here about exact origins of this world, but it’s nothing like the hand-waving in something like Soulless, where the alt-history takes a backseat to more pulpy concerns like killer umbrellas and werewolves. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy Soulless, I’m just noting its pleasures do not come from a richly realized alt history that will make you think. It’s the difference between costume for its own sake, and costume as disguise, and that’s what keeps me coming back to the genre, often stupid as it is.

 So. I don’t know. I thought this split the difference between spectacle and consideration in a freaking fantastic way, even if I pretty much don’t give a shit about whether our lovers ever come to their inevitable perfection, because you know they will. I’m a certain kind of reader, a picky, nerdish sort, the kind of reader who was happy I had to hit google a half a dozen times to write this review to make sure I was getting my dates right. I’m Team Frak Yeah the way the world here is laid out. I think this book is much less pulpy than the cover might imply. Or possibly pulpy in just the right ways: zombies! airships! pirates! without sacrificing coherence for romantic union. The ending is rushed, I admit, and sometimes the world is confusing simply because there is so much going on, but I will take those problems happily. Brook kicks some serious nerd ass in this book, and I’m waiting for the next.

The Coldest War & The Long Con

I’m a late Cold War baby. I didn’t have my parents’ experience of growing up in a world of weapons escalation, the Iron Curtain* descending, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis, etc etc. The Cold War was decidedly hotter for the generation preceding mine. When I came on the scene, it was more about Sting songs suggesting Russians might not eat babies – though still with the conditional: if the Russians love their children too. By the time we saw the Berlin Wall come down, various ex-pats from Pink Floyd were invited to come and give a concert of songs from the Wall. I actually watched parts of this in West Germany, in the living room of my German cousins. I still find this whole concert both absolutely appalling and brutally perfect, historically speaking – kinda like Elton John repurposing a song about Marilyn Monroe for Lady Di. Just, yuck.

Anyway, point being, I’m a late Cold War baby, and my experience of the Cold War is almost completely pop cultural. I remember quite vividly watching The Day After on my grandparents’ somewhat filmy television – imdb informs me it aired in 1983, which would put me at 9 years old, just the age of my son now – and growing increasingly freaked out. Not so much the attacks, which are pretty standard disaster porn fare from the era, but the dread of the long denouement, one that ends, as much as it ends, in despair. My parents sent me to bed – they saw the freak out – long before The Day After was over. I only know the ending because I sought it out a couple of years back, suspecting that that was the film that sparked my life-long bone-crunching fear of zombies. Which, yep, that’s the genesis.

I dreamed of nuclear annihilation for years: the mushroom clouds blooming in the distance, the hot wind, the feel of my body in a painful disintegration. I never died in these dreams – I’m not sure about the folklore that says that if you die in dreams, you die in real life, because I have certainly died in dreams, just not these ones. (Of course, maybe I’m in some weird Gibsonian afterlife, typing on into the void. Seems unlikely though.) In these nuclear dreams I lived in agony, the world on fire. Dead but not, crawling.

However, I was seriously freaked out by Gretel in Bitter Seeds, as Gretel is a prescient sociopath created by Nazis, and undoubtedly the Big Bad in both books. I mean, just, eeek. Her brother, Klaus, is a little luggage-y in the first book – he’s mostly there to be eyes on Gretel, because you can’t give Gretel, the big prescient bad, her own pov without completely destroying narrative tension. In this book, Klaus really comes to life, becoming a character I just absolutely adored. Marsh is still a little iffy to me – I felt like his personality had been mothballed for 15 or whatever number of years in some respects, though the stuff with his wife had the ugly, brutal reality of love’s long, slow death.

All this blither blather, I assure you, has something to do with The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis . I’m trying desperately to avoid spoilers, because this is one of those books that hinges so very, very much on its ending. The Coldest War is the continuation of Bitter Seeds, an alternate history of WWII wherein the Nazis have developed steampunkish Übermench, and as a counter, the British have harnessed the chthonic power of Eidolons, Lovecraftian horrors par excellence.** There’s some lumpinesses to the first book that are worked out a bit here. Tregillis’s characterization is a little weak in the first book, especially when dealing with characters like Marsh’s wife and kid, which seem to pop into being with big bullseyes on their heads, redshirts just waiting for an away mission to die to prove the situation is serious.

So here we are, in the Cold War that is and isn’t like our own Cold War, monsters and ubermench, Soviets and race wars, oil and the firebombing of civilian targets, and what struck me was the inevitability of nuclear disaster. Why haven’t we blown ourselves to shit yet? I’m not dreaming of it anymore, my cells burning as I scream in dreaming living death, but it’s not like we’ve somehow precluded this eventuality. The warlock children who have been raised to speak the Lovecraftian language of the Eidolons at one point tie a push-pin into Sante Fe, NM, and I shuddered, shuddered.

Alternate history is, sometimes, our imagining the worst of all possible worlds, the difficult cultural superego who passes judgment and offers dubious salvations. We imagine monsters who can see what we do, and they can see what we’ve done. Holy shit. I mean, I was only 9, but I wonder a little about my cute little childhood nuclear terror and the fact that my country dropped The Bomb on civilians, on cities. I don’t want to get into a big thing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the inevitability or the necessity of their destruction. When I saw a recreation of Big Boy in the Los Alamos museum, when I saw the recreation of the Enola Gay in the Imperial War museum in London, I burst into tears. History is an inevitability. I know it doesn’t do any good, but I’m so sorry.

What do you call survivor’s guilt, when your country, your people, perpetrated the attack? I’m sorry that history is shitty and sucks? I know, I’m at least a generation from the people who made these decisions, more like two, but I’m not exempt from my culture and my history. I’m an American, and proud of it in many, many ways. And in others I want to crawl into the basement and cry for a long, long time. I mean, I don’t want this to devolve into a bunch of typical liberal hand-wringing or whatnot, I just want to say that history is both personal and horribly impersonal, and our entrances and exits into that great narrative stream are punctuated by both easy upset and shocking convergences. So there.

I suspect I’m not making a ton of sense, because I’ve drinking since noon – vacation rules! Richard and I were talking about this book while I was reading, while the newest Captain America movie played in the background – which is super funny, because Ian totes looks like skinny Captain America, before the serum – and we posited that there are three ways a plot with a prescient sociopathic villain can go:

1.) Turns out, Gretel isn’t actually a psycho. (Or, lolsyke, nevermind everything I ever said about my characters.)
2.) Some random, unforeseeable event defeats Gretel. (Also called Making Shit Up so Things Can Turn Out Right.)
3.) Secret option 3, which means Ian is badass and awesome.

I’m happy to say this book is solidly in secret option 3 territory, and there was a moment there when several conceptual things came together that were so freaking awesome. I had the shit scared out of me by Gretel in book one, which was deepened here in many ways. There’s this thing really early on where Gretel needs a jar, and it turns out she engineered the death of Heike (which happens midway through the first book, and you kind of just think that sequence is there to how you what a badass Gretel is, like Darth Vader crushing some throats). But then it turns out she engineered this death so that Heike’s brain would be jarified and brought to the Soviet Union so that Gretel could dump the contents and use it for a very prosaic purpose. Just, holy shit. This whole series is a long con, the longest con. And as scared as I am of Gretel, I’m more terrified of what scares her. And what scares her is what scares me, and has scared me since I was 9. The inevitability of history is a godamn bitch.

*Just wiki’d the source of this term, because weirdly, we were just talking about Churchill at work, and my client piped up that Churchill was the origin of the term Iron Curtain. Which, turns out, not exactly. Fothermucking Goebbels used it during the War, and it has some roots in the bible or something. Holy god, reading that wiki page made my arms tingle, what with how this book deals with the War, the Cold War, and Everything. Sometimes life is freaky.

**Here, right before I’m about to be critical of Bitter Seeds is probably as good a time as any to announce that I’m friends with Mr. Tregillis, for full disclosure. I also know that Ian doesn’t read reviews, so I could probably be as big a bitch as I wanted here, not that I want to.