Thursday, May 26, 2011

'Steampunk Bible'

"The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, 
Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature"
By Jeff VanderMeer with S.J. Chambers
(Abrams Image, $24.95) 

Yes, I'm afraid it's more Steampunk madness this week. And, if after reading my columns on steampunk, you're intrigued by  the genre or culture, this book is a good place to start. It's also one of the more beautiful books I've seen in quite a while, especially at so reasonable a price. It's hardcover, on glossy high quality paper, with many illustrations and photographs in rich color. Abrams Image does nice work.
What of the contents? Well, it's a history of steampunk in all its variations, from the literature of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and the Edisonades, to the tinkerers and jewelry designers who make steampunkesque artifacts, to the costume and fashion-obsessed fans who are the most obvious and visible aspect of the phenomenon. There's also an extensive chapter on steampunk film, anime and television. 
I already knew a lot of this, but much was new to me, and even the familiar was entertainingly presented. 
One complaint: the covers of the seminal steampunk books used are usually new versions, not the originals, suggesting that either they are including them as a promotion for the reissues, or that they were not previously aware of these books and had no older copies handy. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My personal library

     "I had a library of books, oh, thousands of books ‑ never could bear to toss one out, not even the bad ones ‑ and when folks would come to the house to visit they'd look around at all the nooks and crannies stuffed with books; and if they were the sort of folks who don't snuggle with books, they'd always ask the same dumb question. ... They'd ask me, 'Have you read all these books?' ...
     "And it came to annoy me more than a little bit. Till I finally figured out the right answer. ... 'Hell, no. Who wants a library full of books you've already read?'"
‑ Harlan Ellison, "Paladin of the Lost Hour"

     You're more likely to have heard that as dialogue from an episode of The New Twilight Zone, spoken by Danny Kaye, than to have read it in print, but that's one of my favorite quotes about books.
I do have hundreds, maybe thousands, of books in my home, most of which I haven't read yet. And quite a lot of them are now out of print and some of them may not be available in a nearby library.
     And that's one reason I don't apologize for having so many books. Some were impulse buys, but others are books that I want to read and plan to some day. When I decide to read them, I want them to be available.
     Maybe that's old-fashioned thinking. With eBooks, it's possible books will no longer go out of print, and they will always be available to download. Maybe, but I doubt it. At the very least, older books will probably be allowed to disappear, just as some old records and movies were never transferred to CD, VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. Of the ones that did, not all are currently available in that format either. And if they are electronically stored, who's to say that a massive electromagnetic pulse won't erase the whole lot of them by accident some day?  Remember the library at Alexandria?
     Besides, I like the feel and heft of books and doubt I will ever warm to a plastic, metal and glass eBook reader.
     In any case, I regret the books I didn't buy (that are now long gone or available only at exorbitant prices from second hand sellers) much more than I regret the books I did buy, no matter how awful I found them.
     I also regret books that I wasn't aware of until they were out of print. So many books are never found in a big box store or a small independent book shop. You can’t even find them online unless you know to look for them.
     I regularly look at book reviews in magazines such as Entertainment Weekly or – for science fiction titles – Locus, and the Amazon and Borders websites have recommendations for me, based on my previous purchases, but I still miss titles. I might not have rediscovered steampunk if I hadn’t happened upon “Extraordinary Engines” at the New Horizon Book Shop.
     I have sold or given away many books. Recently I have been looking through my still enormous collection, only to find some titles missing that I had meant to keep. Did I get rid of them by mistake? Did I decide on the spur of the moment that I no longer needed or wanted them? Are they just misplaced?
       Maybe you had a cherished book in childhood and have tried to locate a copy for your child or a friend, only to find it is no longer in print and the library doesn't have a copy. Wouldn't it be nice if you had kept the book all these years  so they could experience it too?
      How many books do you own? A book shelf’s worth? A bookcase? More? Any hardcovers? Tell me about it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: 'The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack' by Mark Hodder

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about steampunk. If you're still confused, here's a review  of the most recent steampunk novel I've enjoyed: "The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack" by Mark Hodder (Prometheus Books). It's a mystery, a time travel tale, an alternate history tale and, yes, steampunk. 
The plot concerns the author and explorer (not the actor) Sir Richard Francis Burton  at a pivotal moment in his life and career, the real-life urban legend of Spring-Heeled Jack (sometimes a hero, sometimes an alias of Jack the Ripper), and the Decadent poet Algernon Swinburne. 
I've been interested in Burton since watching a miniseries on the search for the source of the Nile. He was also a major character in Philip Jose Farmer's "Riverworld" novels, including "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" (and the awful films based on them on the "SyFy" channel). He had many of the skills of a fictional hero including vast knowledge, fighting ability and a talent for disguise (he was allegedly the first non-Muslim to set foot in Mecca, after which he translated the "1001 Nights" and "The Kama Sutra").
The history of Burton's world has diverged from our history before the book opens due to a time-traveler's accidental interference. His presence at an (historical) assassination attempt on Queen Victoria leads to her actually being assassinated. The demonstration of  his future science inspires technical advances, leading to steampunk inventions (futuristic inventions that occurred, if at all, much later in our history, sometimes using contemporary power such as steam). His efforts to reverse these changes leads to the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack. 
Burton's life  is also redirected, because of the "butterfly effect" (one small change causing a chain reaction that alters everything). Instead of accepting a post to a distant embassy, he remains in London as a special agent for the government, investigating the consequences of the time traveler's changes. Swinburne, who was destined to die at a young age, instead assists Burton's investigations, gaining focus under Burton's tutelage and consequently may live a longer, happier life.  Burton, informed of what his destiny would have been, also seems happier with the changes.
In what I imagine is a poke at other "steampunk" books which add supernatural elements, such as zombies and vampires, Hodder makes use of "werewolves," although these are science fictional werewolves created by steampunk genetic engineering. 
For those of us who aren't history majors, Hodder includes an appendix describing how history transpired in our world. (Such an appendix might have improved my enjoyment of "The Difference Engine.") 
Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

History can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards

This post's title is a misquote of Kierkegaard, substituting "history" for "life," but I'd argue it's even more appropriate. It's why history is so often repeated, or governments end up doing the opposite of what they swore they would do, or why a good history book can only be written long after the fact when  historians gain some perspective.
Unfortunately, many history books are written too soon, and the authors seldom if ever recant their "facts" when the truth comes out. 
History books are also swayed by politics and community pressure. Texans don't like the idea that one of the main reasons they separated from Mexico was that they wanted to remain a slave state. Or that the Confederacy was formed to preserve slavery instead of to promote "state's rights." The North also doesn't like that one of the reasons they wanted to eliminate slavery WAS to keep the South down. And the so-called Boston tea party, from which today's Tea Party Patriots take their name, had more to do with keeping cheap tea from smugglers profitable as taxation without representation. (How was dressing up as Indians and destroying property ever considered a heroic or patriotic act? At the very least, it seems a bit cowardly to try to pin the blame on Indians).
There are many cherished myths of American history, many of which are exposed in “The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America” by Erik Sass with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur (Harper, 2010). It’s objective, amusing and guaranteed to irritate liberals at least as much as conservatives.
The title refers to Mental Floss magazine, a periodical billed as "where knowledge junkies get their fix" that finds humor in odd facts. In some ways it's a snarkier version of “Jeopardy” (whose famous champion Ken Jennings had a regular feature in the mag for a year or so). The history of our nation is ripe for this treatment, whether you believe the Puritans were fans of religious freedom (they weren’t) or that FDR saved the economy with the New Deal (sorry, but he didn’t). If you, like Glen Beck, believe Woodrow Wilson is the evilest man in history, you’ll even find evidence that might bolster your claim.
It’s not a perfect book. It peters out for me as it approaches the present day (Obama is president before it ends), and sometimes skimps on details I would have liked. But it follows no agenda except fact amusingly reported, and is user friendly with year-by-year overviews and "Lies your history teacher told you" sections. It even resembles a high school textbook in appearance.
Mental Floss also has a history of the world. I may have to hunt that one down too. 

There was a great flurry of hits  following my post on Ayn Rand and the film of “Atlas Shrugged.” Unfortunately, as I still haven’t seen the film, nor have I read or re-read any of her books lately -- and no one posted a comment on what I wrote -- I have nothing else to add on the topic … except that there was a lot of vicious comments about the film and Ayn Rand on Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere that I didn’t think entirely fair. I wonder if most people formed an opinion of Ayn Rand and Objectivism from second-hand accounts -- such as the character in “Dirty Dancing” who justifies his disinterest in the young woman whom he has impregnated as “some people don’t matter,” based on his reading of Ayn Rand. No character, even the baddies, in her books does that, and I've never heard it said that Rand endorsed such behavior.
On the other hand, I do think there are good reasons to criticize Rand, including her writing's lack of subtlety and her shocking personal behavior towards her husband and the Brandens (both of whom wrote memoirs that -- if half of what they claim is 50 percent true -- were too kind). But if you plan to criticize, get your facts firsthand.