Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: Marching to Shibboleth by the Firesign Theatre


MarchingToShibboleth
Review: Marching to Shibboleth:
The Big Book of Plays
by the Firesign Theatre
(BearManor Media, $35)

   This takes a little set-up.

    I was a Sherlock Holmes fan from a young age. Before high school, I had read throughout he complete stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a book-length set of homages by his son Adrian Conan Doyle, the novelization of Billy Wilder's film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and viewed several of the film adaptations starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. 

     So one birthday my father gave me a recording titled The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra (1974). That was a reference to one of the unrecorded cases with which Doyle peppered his adventures of the Great Detective. As I've  previously mentioned, several writers have attempted to flesh out the tale, none successfully IMHO, but this was my first exposure to an attempt. 

     Except it wasn't really an attempt, for this was a comedy LP (remember vinyl?) by the Firesign Theatre troupe, and as such was a parody of Holmes (herein called Hemlock Stones, the Great Defective), who at one point starts to tell the story but is interrupted. It remains a running gag throughout the album, with all sorts of references to Sumatra, rats and the then-current horror film Willard

     Ironically, as I've also mentioned previously, the few references to the story cop me closer to the brief précis Doyle wrote than most of the serious attempts to write the story.

     I enjoyed the album, though because of the rapid-fire delivery and overlapping jokes, I didn't understand all of it. (Other things I didn't understand because of context or references above my young head.) 

     So for years it has frustrated me that I didn't buy a book of the script when I had the opportunity.

     Perhaps because other listeners also had these difficulties, or possibly to milk a dying cow (as their record sales and intergroup relationships were fraying),  the troupe released two books: The Firesign Theatre's Big Mystery Joke Book (containing Giant Rat among others) and The Firesign Theatre's Big Book of Plays. I saw the former at a bookstore and almost bought it. When next I looked for it, it was gone and I'd never considered special ordering a book at that time. By the time I had, the book was out of print. 

     Amazon listed some second hand copies at exorbitant prices (at least I considered them so, especially since the books were more than 30 years old and might crumble or fall apart as I read them). 

     Firesign Theatre regrouped in recent years, releasing new CDs and re-releasing most of their original albums on CD, too, but the books remained stubbornly out of print.

     No more. In January 2014 the troupe issued Marching to Shibboleth: The Big Book of Plays by the Firesign Theatre, combining the contents of the original two books plus more. 

     Most of the reissued and some of the new CDs are now out of print, so perhaps it is an attempt to rake in a few more bucks, but I don't care. I'm glad to have it. 

     If you're fans of the troupe, it contains the text of the entire albums How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, I Think We're All Bozos on This BusThe Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra and Everything You Know is Wrong, most of Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, and miscellaneous bits of other records and unrecorded material.

     If you're not already fans, first look for the two-disc compilation Shoes for Industry! The Best of the Firesign Theatre. It contains most of How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All, portions of the other records from the book and In the Next World You're on Your Own and various snippets. Then, if you're a fan, get the book and as many of the CDs as you can find. 

    BTW, it's not available through Amazon.com, so go to the troupe's website and order it direct.

     

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The First Female Thor

     The web is agog with the news that there will be a female Thor.

     Thor, the Norse god of thunder is also a Marvel Super hero. When first introduced, the lame Dr. Donald Blake found a walking stick in  Norway that, when struck against the ground or a rock, became the hammer of Thor, and "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.
   
     Soon it was revealed that Don Blake wasn't merely "worthy," but was the actual thunder god, transformed into a lame human to teach him humility by his father, Odin.

     In Marvel continuity it has already been established that another human -- or even an alien; see Walt Simonson's Beta Ray Bill story arc -- may also pick up the hammer, if they be worthy, and possess the power of Thor. So now they have apparently decided to have a woman pick it up. This is the first time that a woman has become Thor ... in this continuity, that is.

     But Marvel has an infinite number of continuities, a multiverse of "what if" worlds where one tiny thing changed, and in turn changes everything (see Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" or the film  The Butterfly Effect). Sometimes these worlds are explored in Marvel's regular titles, but at one time (or maybe twice) they had a comic devoted to these alternative realities, What If, and in at least one of these, a woman picked up the hammer and became Thor ... or rather, Thordis, being a Scandinavian female equivalent that she had heard.

     (The female in question was Blake's nurse, Jane Foster, who was in love with him. Eventually Odin makes her give the hammer to Blake.)

     So, while it's accurate to say this is the first female Thor, it isn't completely true.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What is 'Science Fiction,' and who gets to decide?

Cover of Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014
ESSAY: "Was Jules Verne a Science Fiction Writer"
by Robert Silverberg
(Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014)

ESSAY: "Retro Versus Visionary"
by Norman Spinrad
(Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014)

     What is science fiction? Astounding/Analog editor John W. Campbell once defined it as what a science fiction editor buys. My wife likes to kid that it's about spaceships and ray guns.

     In the latest issue of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, science fiction writer Robert Silverberg is prompted to ask "Was Jules Verne a science fiction writer?" after "William Butcher, one of today’s pre-eminent Verne scholars," insisted that Verne wasn't.
     
     Butcher, Silverberg reports, claims that "Verne is not a science fiction writer: most of his books contain no innovative science. ... He even claimed he was ‘never specifically interested in science,’ only in using it to create dramatic stories in exotic parts; and indeed his reputation as a founding father of science fiction has led to a major obfuscation of his literary merits.” 

     That last point, the "obfuscation of his literary merits," is the key point. To certain academics (and the general public), if it's good, it's not science fiction. The real culprit for Verne's rep is the poor quality of most U.S. translations of Verne (Silverberg cites one example -- “The badlands of Nebraska” mistranslated as “the disagreeable territories of Nebraska” --  but there are worse mistakes which make it seem that Verne didn't know his science), as well as careless editing to make the books shorter.


Cover of a William Butcher translation of Jules Verne
     Silverberg makes an argument in part similar to Campbell's: If science fiction is what future science fiction writers read, if science fiction writers can identify science fiction when they read it, and if the editor of the first science fiction magazine reprinted Jules Verne novels and considered them science fiction, then Verne was a science fiction writer.  

     But Silverberg also cites many things in Verne's books that involved extrapolation from available science, some of which seems prescient:  


     Verne called what he wrote le roman scientifique, “the scientific novel”—to my mind, carrying much the same meaning as “science fiction.” His first novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1863 but rejected by his publisher and not brought to light until 1991, anticipates the fax machine, the photocopier, elevated railways, and boulevards lit by electric light. ... I’m hardly alone here. Ray Bradbury called Verne his favorite science fiction writer, saying that he “makes one proud to be a human being.” Arthur C. Clarke said of From the Earth to the Moon that “it was the first to be based on sound scientific principles.” It predicted not only that the first flight to the Moon would be an orbital one but also that when it returned the space capsule would make an ocean landing. Robert A. Heinlein praised Verne also, though he noted that “the ‘wild fantasies’ of Jules Verne turned out to be much too conservative.” And Kim Stanley Robinson, in an introduction to Voyage to the Center of the Earth, wrote, “In it, contemporary changes in science are explored in ways that enable or drive the plot, and everything is described with the help of a scientific rhetoric that makes the events feel like things that could really happen: that’s science fiction, no doubt about it.”

      So one definition of science fiction, courtesy of Silverberg, is at least some of what Jules Verne wrote.

     Coincidentally, in the same issue, in an essay titled "Retro Versus Visionary," writer/critic Norman Spinrad attempts a more limited definition of science fiction or (as he prefers to call it) speculative fiction. 

      Much of what is marketed as SF, Spinrad argues, is really fantasy, and he's not just referring to stories about quests and magic and dragons, but anything that doesn't involve "a speculative element that does not knowingly violate the current scientific concept of the laws of mass and energy ... . The speculative element doesn’t have to be scientific or technological," Spinrad argues, "but speculative fiction does have to be something set in the future, at least in the immediate future, not the past, and not in a knowingly impossible realm of fantasy." This includes a recent anthology, Old Mars, edited  by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (the latter one of his former editors at Asimov's Science Fiction and a noted anthologist) which takes place on Mars as imagined by past writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Roger Zelazny and Ray Bradbury.


Cover courtesy of Bantam
     So, in Spinrad's argument, anything that doesn't take place at least 20 minutes into the future (as Max Headroom claimed to be) cannot be science fiction, and that includes steampunk and other retro science fiction, as well as alternate history in general ("Fiction set in alternate past histories cannot be speculative fiction, and ipso facto is fantasy"). The problem is that "such burgeoning retro sub-genres ... are nevertheless coming to dominate the 'science fiction' of 'SF' at the expense of the real visionary speculative deal."

     (One note: Spinrad attempts to defang an accusation of hypocrisy by acknowledging that he has written at least one work of alternate history, The Iron Dream. What he fails to mention is that the book has only ever been marketed as "science-fiction," not "fantasy," even in its current edition.)

      The key thing here may be that Spinrad feels steampunk and such is dominating the market, and he claims he has been unable to get several of his most recent novels published in the U.S. (one, Osama the Gun, is available now, but only as an e-book). 

      I'm not sure that's accurate though. Of the novels he has managed to get published in the past decade or so, at least two of the three are not SF but historical novels (fantasy?). So Spinrad is not even arguing (as Tom Wolfe did after the success of Bonfire of the Vanities) that other people should be writing the type of books he writes but that they should be writing the type of book he doesn't write. I wonder if he considers his earlier books (Bug Jack Barron, A World Between, Songs from the Stars) to be the type of SF he feels writers should be writing.

      I also have problems with a lot of what is being marketed as science fiction, and even steampunk. I'm annoyed at the introduction of supernatural elements and some invented power source or medium called aether in so-called steampunk, which I'd prefer to follow the example of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in imagining what might have happened with technology if Babbage's difference and analytical engines had been produced and used. It avoids the fantastic leaps of most steampunk, playing fair with the available science and its possibilities, I think, but I guess Spinrad doesn't consider that to be science fiction either.

     That's a limitation that wasn't imposed on steampunk by its creators -- K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock and Tim Powers -- who included fantasy elements in their Victorian science fiction. But that's the point: just because you invented the term and/or the genre, you don't get to define it. Other people come along, writers and editors and readers. 

      Hugo Gernsback, who produced Amazing Stories, the first SF magazine, used the term scientifiction, a contraction of scientific fiction. Science fiction came later.

     Spinrad didn't invent the term science fiction, probably not the counter-tern speculative fiction either, but even if he had, he doesn't get to tell us what is and isn't science fiction. His attempts at an authoritative definition are semantics that betray his prejudice but add no light, poses no special authority. Some critics have defined science fiction as a sub-genre of fantasy. It sounds like sour grapes.

     Certainly a historical novelist should appreciate that speculation isn't only about the future, and a SF writer should know that a large part of the appeal of the genre has always been "what if." Some of Spinrad's best work has functioned best s thought experiments rather than rigorous scientific extrapolation.

     I don't think retro SF or steampunk is even that large a part of the market really, certainly not as large as actual fantasy set in a never-never land or alien planet/alternate dimension with medieval trappings. I find that much more irritating than retro science fiction, and it's much more of a threat to shelf space than steampunk.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lost in translation

The Jumping Frog: 
In English, then in French, 
then Clawed Back 
into a Civilized Language Once More 
By Patient, Unremunerated Toil
By Mark Twain
(Dover) 

     In my last post on Jorge Luis Borges, I referred to an earlier post on the difficulties of translation. Upon checking, I never published or completed that post. No time like the present ...

      What spurred the post was a review of a new book, or at least a newly translated book, by Argentinian author Cesar Aira.  It sounded interesting, so I went to Amazon to see what he had in print in translation. I was surprised to see every one of his listed titles had a second author appended: Cesar Aira and ... . The second author was the translator. I don't recall most books in translation having a similar translator co-author credit, and it seems that the books themselves list the credit more traditionally, but maybe it should be a shared credit. 
    As anyone who has compared different translations of the same book can attest, translation is as much an art as an exact science. Mark Twain so disapproved of one translation of his "Jumping Frog" story that he re-translated it back to English, and published it, along with the original and the translation, as humor and/or an object lesson. (A recent similar experiment, with no satiric intent, is The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith.)
     There was some controversy a few years ago about whether Jerzy Kosinski and Vladimir Nabokov had actually written some of their early books in English or whether they had written them in their native tongues and then had someone else translate them. Both denied it, knowing that to admit it would be to diminish their accomplishments. (If true, it's hard to believe the translators kept quiet all this time.)
     I believe I have already commented on how Jules Verne was ill-served by his English translators -- they not only picked the wrong translation of a word but they also cut passages -- but even a conscientious translator can have difficulties. Even the author would have a hard time. Then, too, there would be the temptation to revise or rethink passages (as Jorge Luis Borges may have done with Norman Thomas di Giovanni).  
     It might almost be true to say that it is pointless to read translations except to learn factual information. 
     I long ago decided that it was absurd to read poetry -- which depends on rhyme and meter -- in translation, unless the original text is reproduced on the facing page. (I came to this conclusion after reading a short French poem in a translated novel. The original French was included, and even my then spotty French was sufficient to see that the second and third lines were rearranged in order for the translator to wring a rhyme out of his adaptation of the poem. I discovered similar problems with the translations of Jaques Brel songs in the show Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The original, "Les Timides," or "The Timid Ones" -- as "Les Miserables" means "The Miserable Ones" -- was changed to "Timid Frieda" to maintain the syllable count, which changed the song from one about a group or type of person to the story of one timid girl.) I also prefer if it is a language I can at least pronounce approximately.
     Another difficulty is whether you can trust the translator. For The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, director Wes Anderson hired Brazilian singer Seu George to perform Portuguese versions of several David Bowie songs. It was later alleged that rather than provide accurate translations, George just kept the chorus and the music, writing completely different lyrics. The songs still sounded good, and I enjoy them on the soundtrack album, but if true that's not what Anderson paid for. I wonder what lyrics Portuguese listeners hear.
     I'm not sure how much a specific language matters in terms of thought and meaning, but it must have an influence. In the French film Ridicule, a deaf student makes a pun that can only be appreciated by someone who knows sign language. Some jokes likewise evade translation among languages and cultures. So that's why I'm leery when reading works in translation.



Sunday, April 27, 2014

Borges and Me: Lost in Translation

Borges, 1951, from Wikimedia Commons
A Personal Anthology
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alastair Reid)
(Grove Press, 1967)

The Aleph and Other Stories
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated in collaboration with Norman Thomas di Giovanni)
(E.P. Dutton, 1970) 

Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley)
(Viking Press, 1998)

     I have previously written about the difficulties of reading literature as opposed to nonfiction in translation. I think I have also written about the difficulties caused to lovers of literature by the estates of late authors. Now here's an example of what happens when the two collude.

     Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was one of the finest short story and essay writers of all time in the estimation of some. Since he was an Argentinian, he wrote in Spanish and had to be translated for most Americans to appreciate. But which translation?
     I first learned of Borges through the film Performance (1970), directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, which featured Mick Jagger reading from Borges' A Personal Anthology, a sort of best-of collection. I tracked down the book and purchased it. I didn't know it at the time, but Borges had started collaborating on new translations of his work with Norman Thomas di Giovanni, thus assuring the most accurate translations in meaning and literary feeling. I bought a volume of these stories, too, The Aleph and Other Stories, which shared some of the same contents, when the paperback came out in the late 1970s. I compared some of the translations, and there were definitely differences.
     Recently the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez reminded me of Borges (some thought the Nobel Prize for Literature which Marquez received pre-empted the same honor for Borges), and wanted to re-read some of his stories. Alas, I discovered that I no longer had The Aleph and Other Stories, though I had the volume Borges, A Reader, which includes some of the same stories and translations. I must have sold or donated the volume in an effort to reduce the size of my library before a move. No problem, I thought, I'll buy it again.
     Then I discovered that the di Giovanni translation was no longer in print by decree of Borges' widow, who felt that the higher royalties di Giovanni received (it was after all a collaboration) mattered more than her late husband's wishes in the matter. Instead new translations she commissioned from Andrew Hurley (in Collected Fictions and other volumes) would be the only ones allowed.
     What difference does it make? To literary scholars at least it should matter a great deal. The di Giovanni translations represent Borges' last thoughts on the stories. If we prefer the last revised texts American and English authors present for posterity, then we should care about these translations of Borges as well. I haven't read Hurley's versions in detail yet, but note the differences between di Giovanni and the other translations.
     Take the piece "Borges and I" (which I believe di Giovanni and Borges originally translated as "Borges and Me," though it has the former title in Borges, A Reader), a meditation on Borges the man versus Borges the writer.

     In Anthony Kerrigan's translation, the last line is rendered:
          I don't know which one of the two of us is writing this page. 

     As by Borges and di Giovanni, it goes:
          Which of us is writing this page I don't know.

     In Hurley:
          I am not sure which of us it is that's writing this page.

     Maybe you won't agree, but the middle version is to me by far the best. It's shorter, less clunky and flows better. It ends with the revelation that Borges himself doesn't know which of his two selves is writing what we're reading, while the other versions put the emphasis on this page. Kerrigan and Hurley disagree only slightly, and their versions may be more accurate literal translations, but with fiction we don't want merely accurate. (Isaac Asimov once pointed out that in Hamlet's soliloquy, he refers to a sea of troubles when a host of troubles would be more correct, but which is more evocative, stronger, memorable?)
     It may be a small thing, but I wish the Borges/di Giovanni's version was out there to compete in the marketplace.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Vonnegut Lost and Regained

Library of America, Facebook photos stream
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950-1962
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963-1973
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels 1976-1985
(Library of America)

Happy Birthday, Wanda June
By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
(Dell, 1970; out of print)

Between Time and Timbuktu
Based on the works of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
(Dell, 1972; out of print)

     Few writers who could be claimed by the science fiction genre were as feted in their lives as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. During his lifetime his titles were sometimes put in the Literature section of bookstores. Not just fiction, but actual high-fallutin' lit'rature.
     He died just seven years ago last Friday (April 7), but already the prestigious Library of America has put out two volumes of his collected works, with a third scheduled for later this year. This is more impressive when you consider that most of his books haven't been in danger of being unavailable, although many are no longer in hardcover editions.
      The novels included are Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night in volume one; Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions in volume two; and Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick and Galápagos  in the forthcoming volume three. That's a pretty good assortment of his novels, including all but his final three. 
     I wish there were more short stories included (there are six in volume one -- “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” “EPICAC,” Unready to Wear, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” 2BR02B, and “Harrison Bergeron” -- and three in volume two -- Welcome to the Monkey House, Fortitude (though this might be a play) and The Big Space F***), but perhaps the editors didn't consider enough of his short fiction worthy of preservation, or at least not enough for a separate volume.
     They also didn't make room for his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which is out of print and I think deserves preservation. 
     Based (as Vonnegut explained in an introduction) on the story of Odysseus returning home and slaying the suitors of his wife, Penelope, the play concerns another Penelope, the presumed widow of Harold Ryan, a Hemingwayesque adventurer, missing for more than eight years and now declared dead. She has a son and two suitors: Herb Shuttle, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Norbert Woodley, a physician (with whom she is secretly affianced). Harold returns home, along with a friend who was also missing, Col. Looseleaf Harper (who is said to be the pilot who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki). 
     (By the way, although Penelope declares this play is a tragedy, it's a comedy.) 
     Who is Wanda June of the title? She's a little girl who died when an ice cream truck hit her, so consequently her parents never picked up her birthday cake. Coincidentally it is Harold's birthday also, and Herb buys the cake to mark Harold's birthday for the son. Wanda June appears as a ghost, speaking to the audience almost like a Greek chorus, as do other spirits, including Harold's dead first wife and a Nazi soldier whom Harold killed during WWII. 
     In the original cast (photos of which appeared in the book), Kevin McCarthy (from the 1957 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) played Harold, Marsha Mason (many Neil Simon plays and films) played Penelope and William Hickey (an elderly mob boss in Prizzi's Honor and a semi-frequent guest star on TV's Wings) played Col. Looseleaf. 
     It's a very stagy play, with the characters frequently speaking directly to the audience. In his introduction, Vonnegut says there isn't a villain, and that may be a problem for some readers. Worse, there isn't really a hero either. Harold is the obvious villain, but he's also pitiable. His main antagonist in the play, his wife's physician suitor, doesn't get out unscathed either. Penelope isn't quite active enough to be a hero. 
     The villain may be the whole idea of heroism. Harold is a hunter, proud of his he-man ways, but Woodley points out that he didn't kill them defending his home. Harold's dramatic and maybe heroic killing of the Nazi soldier didn't affect the outcome of the war and resulted in an entire town being destroyed in retaliation. Col. Looseleaf killed more people than Harold, thousands, with one bomb, but doesn't feel it was a heroic or significant act; he was just following orders. 
     There was a film version, which I haven't seen, with Rod Steiger, Susannah York and Hickey reprising his role. It's not currently available on DVD or Blu-ray.

     Hickey also starred in a teleplay based on Vonnegut's works. Vonnegut didn't write it (though he did have input), so it's understandable that it isn't included. It's also out of print but I think it worth preserving.
     Between Time and Timbuktu mashed together elements of almost all of Vonnegut's novels to date (plus Wanda June). Poet Stony Stevenson wins a cereal box top contest to become an astronaut and travel through space to the chrono-synclastic infundibulum (if memory serves), a spot where you can exist in different times and places simultaneously. Once he arrives, he becomes unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, and appears in scenes from other Vonnegut works, including Cat's Cradle (a meeting with Bokononon, played by Kevin McCarthy, and a discussion of Ice-Nine between a scientist and a general), the everyone-is-equal dystopia of "Harrison Bergeron" and an encounter with Wanda June in the afterlife, ending at Stony's tombstone that bears the epitaph: "Everything was beautiful, nothing hurt."
     It's at times very funny -- some of it was ad-libbed by comedy duo Bob and Ray, who play TV announcers covering the rocket launch -- but it's also a good, entertaining introduction to some of Vonnegut's concepts. 
     To  my knowledge, the telefilm has never been available on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. Pity.

     The scripts of both works are available for borrowing through the Suburban Library Cooperative, including the St. Clair Shores Library. 

Postscript:
     While researching a post on Edward Gorey (who died 14 years ago April 15), I ran across a forthcoming Kurt Vonnegut title I had to mention.

     Kurt Vonnegut DrawingsIntroduction by Nanette Vonnegut (The Monacelli Press) features drawings (duh!) by the late author, I believe his illustratrations graced a few of his book jackets ion recent years, and he extensively illustrated his novel Breakfast of Champions (the original hardcover edition at least).  He wasn't Aubrey Beardsley or N.C Wyeth, and I don't think you could argue he should have given up his day job and become a graphic artist, but it's another interesting aspect of his creative muse to explore.




Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: The Constantine Affliction

Night Shade Books
The Constantine Affliction 
by T. Aaron Payton 
(Night Shade Books)

     I hesitated to purchase The Constantine Affliction in hardcover because I have been burned too many times recently by a book that sounded promising then goes off the rails. So I waited for the paperback. My life was not impoverished by the delay, but I wouldn't have been upset to pay hardcover price for this book. It is recursive, steampunk, intriguing and fun. It has some of the feel of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate novels without the vampires, werewolves and ghosts, though there is occasionally a whiff of the supernatural (Cthulhu -- which you can argue -- Lovecraft did -- is science fiction, not supernatural, and even my particular bane, reanimated corpses).
    Constantine takes place in an England where science has advanced ahead of schedule, thanks at least in part to Sir Bertram Oswald. There have been consequences to this premature development of advanced technology, including a sexually transmitted disease that -- in its most benign form -- transforms men into women and vice-versa. Sometimes it stops halfway, and people die.
     Our protagonists include Adam, whose identity will be almost immediately apparent to anyone who picks up the book, Ben Drummond, a sometimes criminally inclined tough, Abel Value, a pimp whose stable includes clockwork women, Winnifred Pembroke, formerly a mechanically inclined man named Freddy before encountering the sex-changing VD of the title, Sir Pembroke "Pimm" Halliday, an amateur detective, and Eleanor "Ellie" Skyler, also known as journalist E. Skye. The fact that this first book by T. Aaron Payton (which is itself a nom de plume for Tim Pratt, an author whom I haven't read before but am now inclined to check out) is identified as a "Pimm and Skye" book should tell you who the main protagonists are. As this is the first book in the "series," knowing that they are the stars eliminates all worry that one or both of them will come to a bad end, rather decreasing the suspense in a few spots. But that's nit-picking.
     The book is competently plotted and well-enough written, but I confess that the main characters do not in and of themselves terribly interest me. Nor do I feel that the romance that is being cultivated around them is compelling. What I do love about the book is that, like my favorite steampunk, it plays with the tropes and characters of the period. In meeting a man who Pimm says is the greatest mathematician alive, the man protests that there might be a brighter one, a student whose analysis of the Binomial Theorem was setting Europe abuzz. It's a throwaway line, but it should bring to mind a certain arch villain of Victorian literature.
     Not all the allusions are to literature of the time; one character opines, "don't you love the smell of electricity in the morning?"