Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Steampunk science fiction

    Although no one’s left any comments yet, it seems some people are at least looking at this blog, so it’s probably time I fulfilled my promise to write about “steampunk.”
     Steampunk is fashion, role-playing and a literary sub-genre. In a sense it goes back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, although in modern times it was named and developed by a few science fiction and fantasy writers (James Blaylock, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter) who enjoyed setting their fiction in the past, specifically Victorian-era England rather than the future.
     The name was coined as a backward construction from “cyberpunk,” another sub-genre of science fiction set in a mostly dystopian, urban and high-tech future, epitomized by William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and the Shaper/Mechanist stories of Bruce Sterling.
     Steampunk stories were set in the past, but with modern or even futuristic inventions and technology, with the difference that they were (often) steam-powered.
     Curiously, the steampunk novel that made the biggest splash at the time was “The Difference Engine,” co-written by Gibson and Sterling, with a more rigorous sense of scientific extrapolation than was to be found in the founding fathers’ work. Specifically it speculated on what would happen if Babbage’s steam-powered proto-computer “difference engine” had been built.
     Despite its impact (or maybe because of it), “The Difference Engine” seemed to kill steampunk. Maybe it was so serious it took the fun out of the game.
     I hadn’t heard much about steampunk for years until April 2009 when I stumbled across “Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology,” edited by Nick Gevers (Solaris). Although I wondered in what sense it was “definitive” – to my mind, that would mean it covered genre from beginning to end, and this was an original anthology I was curious, bought it and fell in love with steampunk again. Shortly thereafter, I saw another anthology called simply “Steampunk,” edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Tachyon), that I felt more fully justified the description “definitive,” and bought that one too.
     Now that I was looking for steampunk, I saw new titles everywhere, and not just the science fiction aisle. There are books on making your own steampunk jewelry and costumes. Magazine fashion spreads use the tropes and imagery of steampunk. 
     Last fall, Off the Beaten Path, a bookstore/café specializing in steampunk, opened at 23023 Orchard Lake Road in Farmington  (www.otbp-bookstore.com or 248-987-2934). 
     Among my favorite recent steampunk books are “Steampunk’d” by Jean Rabe (another original anthology), “The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack” by Mark Hodder (an alternate history featuring explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the poet Algernon Swinburne) and “Soulless” by Gail Carriger (the first volume of her "Parasol Protectorate" series). The latter title, like too many recent steampunk, features fantasy and the supernatural as well as technology – here vampires, werewolves and ghosts but Carriger does it better and with great fun.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Motion Picture

Last Thursday I was surprised to learn that a film version of "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand was about to open in theaters the following day. It seemed to be almost a stealth release, with little or no advance publicity. There were no reviews available through The Associated Press, although there was both a review and an op-ed piece by The Washington Post. A further search turned up a Roger Ebert review as well.
If you're not familiar with "Atlas Shrugged," it's a massive door-stopper of a novel, written in the early 1950s by Ayn Rand, designed to showcase her philosophy of Objectivism. It's capitalist science fiction in that it extrapolates a future in which individualist industrialists are threatened by socialist thugs who take over the government and culture. Hence it has long been embraced by Libertarians and the Tea Party, as well as (with reservations, in part because of her vocal atheism) the Republican party.
It also extrapolates science and technology that did not then (or now) exist: a remarkable metal alloy, a machine that produces free energy, a sonic disintegration ray.
Prior to this, Rand was best known for her novel "The Fountainhead," which explored many of the same themes through the prism of architecture, art and journalism. It was famously filmed, from Rand's script, with Gary Cooper as her architect hero and Patricia Neal as his love interest/antagonist.
I believe "The Fountainhead" was financially successful as a movie, which begs the question: Why wasn't "Atlas Shrugged" filmed until now? It would have made more sense earlier, as the novel features trains as one of the main and most important means of transportation.
One reason was its length. "The Fountainhead" needed to be streamlined considerably to fit into a two-hour film. "Atlas Shrugged" is even longer and more complex. The current film is only part one of a proposed three. Also, "Atlas Shrugged" was Rand's last published novel, the culmination of her philosophy, and she was reluctant to see it butchered by Hollywood (as she felt "The Fountainhead" had been). In the 1980s, television was interested, but the project died, in part at least because Rand wouldn't compromise on the script. For example there is a very long speech near the end of the novel, delivered on the radio, that Rand would not permit to be shortened.
Now, long after Rand's death, a film has been made, or rather one-third of it. It's been made by a true believer in Rand's philosophy. I think he hopes it will be another "Passion of the Christ." While I haven't seen it yet, I suspect it will be another "Battlefield Earth," the notorious film version, part one of two (part two never made), of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction novel. It shares with Hubbard's novel a certain melodramatic purple prose similar to the magazines of the 1930s and '40s.
For example, Rand's bad guys practically twirl their mustaches and say "I'm an evil bad guy" so the reader isn't confused. While "The Fountainhead" suffers from this, too, in "Atlas Shrugged" the problem is more pronounced. At one point, a bad guy has an apoplectic breakdown when faced with the hero's goodness.
I like "The Fountainhead," for all its stylistic flaws, but find "Atlas Shrugged" to be almost laughably bad.
So I wouldn't recommend you start your acquaintance with Rand with "Atlas Shrugged." First read or watch "The Fountainhead." If you like what you've read/seen, try "Atlas Shrugged." Then let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: 'The Wordy Shipmates' by Sarah Vowell

     If given a choice between a novel and nonfiction, I’ll usually pick the former. While I like history, science, biography and cultural studies,  I prefer stories, and surprisingly few nonfiction authors seem to know how to tell a story. They're so proud of the facts they uncovered that they list them at tedious length, or, discovering the topic isn't large enough to fill a whole book, pad the facts with  irrelevant and/or unfounded speculations.
     But last week  I read Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates,” a look at what the Puritan founding fathers (and some mothers) were really like (as opposed to the grade school-TV sitcom caricatures with which we all grew up) and was delighted to discover Sarah Vowell knows how to tell a story.
     The title comes from the fact that the Puritans were both avid readers and writers, including diaries, letters, pamphlets, books and laws. She focuses not on the Plymouth Puritan pilgrims but on the later Boston Puritans. In many ways they were admirable and principled, but like Libertarians or the Tea Party, they didn’t suffer dissension well. Remember, most of them didn’t come here championing the idea of religious freedom for all but rather the right to worship in their own  particular way; heretics were often banished, sometimes minus their ears.
     Vowel’s book isn’t all that wordy, at only 150 pages or so. In addition to the historical fact, she adds personal reminisces of visiting Puritan sites and tourist attractions from her perspective as a descendant of Native Americans who had their own interactions with the Puritans.
I intend to look for more books by Sarah Vowell.