Tuesday, May 29, 2012

'Map of Time' loses direction

The Map of Time
By Felix J. Palma
     This review will contain some spoilers because I can't really discuss what I didn't like without revealing some of them, and because you might enjoy the book if you go into it with your eyes wide open. The first is that although The Map of Time -- the first novel by the (apparently) acclaimed Spanish novelist Felix J. Palma to be translated into English -- is being marketed as science fiction (I bought my copy through the Science Fiction Book Club), it isn't really. If you go into it taking most of the science fictional elements at face value, you'll be disappointed. 
     It also purports to be a metafiction involving Jack the Ripper, H.G. Wells and time travel, told in three interconnecting stories, and I suppose that is true. It could as easily have been marketed as fantasy, but other than in the sense that any work of fiction is a fantasy, it's not really that either. And despite its Victorian setting and rave review quotes from two popular steampunk authors (though not favorites of mine), it isn't steampunk or even steampunk adjacent.
     The reason I was so severely disappointed is that one seemingly science fictional element is introduced early on: Jack the Ripper is apprehended after killing one of his victims, and so his identity does not remain a mystery for more than a century. Since in our world Jack the Ripper was never caught, that puts The Map of Time in the category of alternate history. The introduction of time travel suggests history has been changed by someone traveling in time.
     There is another possibly science fictional element in the third and final section, but it is so nonsensical that it could be a hoax.
    One reason I suspect -- hope, really -- it could be a hoax is that  !!!SPOILER ALERT !!!!  every other science fictional element in the book turns out to be a hoax.
     Regardless of whether it should be considered science fiction or fantasy, The Map of Time has a more serious problem: it is deathly dull and long-winded.
      First, there is an omniscient narrator who doesn't have the good grace to fade into the background. He doesn't just know everything; he wants you to know that he knows everything. He frequently intrudes in such a way as to remind you that you're reading a book, and not a very subtle one.
     Second, the book takes a long time to get to the pseudo-science fictional elements. The first and second stories are really romances with a tiny amount of SF mixed in. 
     Third, it's not over yet. The dust jacket announces that this is the first book of a trilogy (noooooo!!!), and the second volume is scheduled for English publication later this year: The Map of the Sky. Two of Palma's invented characters will re-appear, and possibly H.G. Wells again, too, as this book has something to do with The War of the Worlds
     What will the third book concern? There are many H.G. Wells books from which to choose -- The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Food of the Gods, The Invisible Man (though that's already been referenced in Map of Time), The First Men in the Moon, When the Sleeper Wakes -- and even more short stories -- "The Country of the Blind," "The Truth about Pyecraft," etc.  I don't plan to read either sequel.
     Let me say one thing in defense of Map of Time: It is an attractive looking book. It has a nice cover illustration, with distinctive endpapers (in the hardcover, that is; I don't know if they will appear on the paperback, due this summer). You can download wallpapers of them here.

If it were  written at 250 pages instead of more than 650, I might cut it some slack. As is, I can't recommend it.
      If you want a more fun tale of H.G Wells, Jack the Ripper and a real time machine, look for the reissue of Karl Alexander's novel Time After Time, the basis for the 1979 film starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

'The Mirage' offers an alt. hist. take on Sept. 11 terrorism

The Mirage
By Matt Ruff

Cover photos (except where noted) from www.ByMattRuff.com

     There's a subsection of science fiction known as alternate history or what-if stories, in which things happened differently than in our world: the Axis wins World War II, or the South wins the American Civil War, or Europe never colonizes the Americas, etc. One of the most famous is Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle," a novel set within a post-WWII partitioned America, where the Japanese and the Germans have divided the continent between them. To complicate matters, in Japanese-controlled California, everyone is reading a samizdat novel which postulates that America's forces and allies won World War II (but not exactly the way it happened in our world), and the German government wants this danger propagandist killed.
     Earlier this year "The Mirage" by Matt Ruff " was published, and it takes a similar skewed look not at WWII but at 9/11: In a world where the Arab states long ago formed a greater Arabian nation and became the dominant power on the planet, where the U.S. never won its independence from Britain and remained a backwater, there are coordinated attacks by hijacked planes on  Nov. 9 (11/9, not 9/11), with U.S. radicals blamed. Nevertheless, several characters experience slippages that reveal our version of the world, with occasional artifacts of that world found for sale on eBay. Is their world the mirage? Is our world? Are both?
     Some of the background on this alternate world is revealed in the form of Wikipedia-like entries from the imaginary Library of Alexandria Web site.
     Aside from the intriguing premise, the characters are well-developed. Several are from the police or military, charged with investigating Christian fundamentalist terrorists. Ruff could have depicted this alternate history as a dystopia, a nightmarish mirror image of our world -- and for many Americans it will be -- but most of the Muslim characters are sympathetic, and the world as a whole is about as nightmarish as our own. Some changes -- the state of Israel is established in a part of Germany as reparations for the Holocaust -- sound like not such a bad idea.
     The solution to why this world is the way it is, and who is responsible, could provoke a groan, but I chuckled and went along with it. I won't spoil it for you.

     Although Matt Ruff's bibliography is small -- this is only his fifth published novel -- he is one of the handful of authors for whom I check Amazon.com to see if anything new is forthcoming. I don't like everything he writes, but he's always interesting.

Cover image from Amazon.com


      His first novel, and my favorite, is "The Fool on the Hill," a fantasy set in and around the campus of Cornell University. It's one of those books with such a large and varied cast that it requires a list of characters at the beginning to help you keep track of them. They include Stephen Titus George, a writer; Aurora Borealis Smith, a nonconformist's daughter; Mr. Sunshine, an old Greek god, who creates and manipulates the plot; and the Bohemians, a group of chivalrous modern-day knights. The plot also involves a war between elves and rats, and a college for dogs. Ruff has more information, excerpts and even a FAQ page on his blog here.    

     I also liked his third, "Set This House in Order," a novel of multiple personality disorder. Read more about it here

     I'd rank "The Mirage" as my third favorite Ruff novel. "Bad Monkeys" (a thriller about a covert law enforcement group that assassinates evildoers) and "Sewer, Gas, Electric: The Public Works Trilogy" (a science fiction novel which includes a computer simulation of Ayn Rand) have their moments, but didn't really do anything for me (but Ruff said "Bad Monkeys" is his best seller, so what do I know?).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Forward into the past at the 2012 World Steam Expo, May 25-28, at Hyatt Regency Dearborn

     Anyone who's heard about something called “steampunk” and is curious about it can have a full-immersion experience next week.
     Jules Verne might smile knowingly at the world of the future glimpsed at the 2012 World Steam Expo. It’s not literally an expo of steam but rather of steampunk, and will be held May 25 through 28, at the Hyatt Regency Dearborn at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn.
     Steampunk is many things. According to the FAQ section of the World Steam Expo website, it “is the science fiction of the steam age, re-imagined with the advantage of modern hindsight. Drawing upon the wealth of historical technology and the scientific fantasies of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, steampunk seeks to reinvent modern wonders such as the computer as the people of the age might have envisioned them. Following in the footsteps of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, steampunk authors blend history, science and imagination into a world of wonder that might have been.”
     So, in part it is science fiction and fantasy stories, and several steampunk authors will be on hand, including:
  •  G.D. Falksen, author of “The Hellfire Chronicles: Blood in the Skies” and “A Cats Steampunk Alphabet.”
  •  Gail Carriger, the author of the “Parasol Protectorate” series, including “Soulless” and “Timeless.”
  •  Jay Lake, author of the “Clockwork Earth” trilogy: “Mainspring,” “Escapement” and “Pinion.”
  •  John White, author of the forthcoming "Tales of the Airship Neverland” trilogy, a steampunk “meta-fiction” rewrite of J.M. Barrie’s "Peter Pan." Find out more about this work in progress -- including excerpts, background and illustrations -- on White's website, where he allows you to follow the process “from writing to editing to publishing.”
  •  Evelyn Kriete, an editor/artist/party and event planner/fashion designer, also has illustrations in fellow guest G.D. Falksen’s books of “The Hellfire Chronicles: Blood in the Skies” and “A Cats Steampunk Alphabet.”
     But there will also be musical acts, theatrical troupes and performance artists of one kind or another, including:
  • Abney Park, led by "Captain" Robert Brown, who has written a steampunk novel “The Wrath of Fate” which explains the band’s backstory and transformation from a goth industrial band to “steampunk.” An audio version of chapter one is available here, as well as books for their official RPG (role playing game).
  • Steam Powered Giraffe also has a fictional back story, explaining its origin as a “Clockwork Vaudeville Circus Cabaret Show.”
  • Euro-American duo Frenchy and the Punk (formerly The Gypsy Nomads) mix cabaret, vaudeville, folk and punk, with "a dash of steampunk flavoring."
  • Detroit's own Bawdy Boys draw on the "rich heritage and culture of Irish Americans through bawdy versions of traditional favorites, toasts and bits of history and every sea shanty, rebel tune and drinking song they can put their instruments and voices to."
  • Hayley Jane, another Detroit-based entertainer, is "a true believer in the neo-vaudeville movement," and is, among other things, "a burlesque dancer, a faerie performance artist, a cabaret folk musician, a costumer, a make-up guru."
  • Dr. Toon, aka Dr. Tomas Maxwell Toon aka Thomas Downey is a "scientist of Ethnomusicology, Sociomusicology, and Cognitive Musicology, a specialized Weapons-Grade Gramaphonist," a professional DJ from the Detroit area and the host of the monthly Detroit Up in the Aether steampunk gathering at the Phoenix Café (24918 John R, Hazel Park, 248-667-8817).
  • Harpnotic has "a song list that spans the centuries and a wardrobe to match," including Celtic, classical, Renaissance, gypsy, folk, rock and original music fusing intoxicating middle eastern rhythms and harmonies with songs both Ancient and Modern."
  • Illuminatus 2.2, a Michigan-based laser-light show that performs "feats of laser lighting, video visual mayhem, and assorted other photon-related activities."
  • The Absinthe Minded Professors -- Joshua Safford, storyteller, Michi Regier, violinist, and Misti Bernard, esoteric instrumentalist -- combine Victorian science fiction storytelling with classical music, but are described as “not a band but a scientific dramatic attraction.” The “hallucinatory” show promises that “in addition to being gutted for their spare parts (the audience members) are treated to automated Jane Austen, bloody prequels to “The Nutcracker, and bizarre big game hunters.”
  • Singer-songwriter Eli August, has just released a new CD, "The Victorian Dead," which features "A glimpse into the lives of eight famous Victorian figures," including tracks titled "Jules" (Verne), Nikkola (Tesla),"Samuel" (Clemens, aka Mark Twain) and "Edgar" (Poe). He also has a selection of handmade Victorian-named soaps available on his website, including "Edgar Allan potpourri."
  • Jon Magnificent is a Los Angeles-based composer-musician whose works include orchestral soundtracks for John White’s “Airship Neverland” and Christina Moss’ young-adult science fiction novel “Intwine.” WSE describes him as “an airship captain, a time-traveler and a composer of a broad range of sonic works that stylistically span several millennia.”
  • The League of S.T.E.A.M. is a group of interactive performance artists and inventors who find “a common ground between the paranormal and the Pythagorean,” “monster hunters from the Victorian era,” with gadgets that are “meticulously designed, detailed, and fully functional,” including a  steam cannon, plus “exotic specimens and chilling relics” from their “past adventures.”
  • Pop Haydn and "Tesla Girl" Sophie Evans is a magic act. Haydn’s website reveals that he is “a Victorian gentleman of the Gold Rush era, who in the early part of the 20th Century was suddenly stranded here in the 21st Century by accident” -- not really his fault -- along with a bunch of other fellow citizens from that time,” and now performs “mind-bending magic, comedy and music,” and sells dubious “patent medicine whenever he can.” His “radio-magnetism inventions” include “the Teleportation Device and the Matter Transmographier.”  “Tesla Girl” Sophie Evans is an “Electronaut” who can “channel thousands of volts of electricity through her body”  to produce startling effects.
  • Psycubus is a Ypsilanti-based “DJ and music maker focusing in the realm of darkwave, industrial, trance, and ambient.”  WSE adds that she also incorporates “Victorian Sensibilities.”
  • The Consortium of Genius is so-listed on both the official WSE website and the group’s own website name, the bio (and a poster on the site for the WSE event) on the latter identify it as  “Professor Milo R. Pinkerton’s fabulous Confabulation of Gentry” and promises  “an unparalleled exhibition of syncopated wizardry, featuring an evening of hypno jazz music.” The group’s fictional back story has the Confabulation of Gentry disappearing mysteriously from a crowded New Orleans theater in 1912, and an identical band equally mysteriously appearing on a Dearborn stage in 2012. The WSE describes the act as “part musical showcase, part sketch comedy.” Among the group’s musical instruments is the theremin, familiar from such science fiction films as “Forbidden Planet” and in the Beach Boys’ song “Good Vibrations.”
     Steampunk is also a fashion and lifestyle, typified by Victorian-era clothing with futuristic yet retro technology. Brass and leather are big, as are top hats, goggles and corsets.
     In addition to what will be on display and adorning your fellow expo attendees, merchants pitching their wares at the expo include Blonde Swan Hat Boutique, Pendragon Costumes, Watson's Emporium of the Arcane, Idiorhythmic DesignsHighwind Steamworks, War Pony Candy Forge, Shoptroll, Crimson Chain Leatherworks, Off the Beaten Path Bookstore & Café, Maple Valley Fibers, Ties That ByndeCogbots, Guild House Classic, Nautilus Salvage Company, Brute Force Leather, Ms. Martha’s Corset Shoppe, Raygun Robyn, Steampunk LeatherSteampunk Sweethearts, Altered History, RWR Emporium, Spencer’s Mercantile, Spectral Glass, Mystik Waboose Clothier, Artsmith Craftwork, Spectral Nova, Sweet Steam, Gun and Roses, Amber Fox, Realtime Studios, Part time Jewelers, Beadful Things, Carl M. Schwartz, Brad, the Pen Guy, Kelly Kotulak and Allegrato Trinkets.

     There will be more special events and activities. Scheduled so far are:
  • A "Fairy Tales, Myths, and Tall Tales" costume contest. That means no costumes based on a specific author's work ("Alice in Wonderland" or "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," for example), no graphic novel/comic book characters (Thor is OK, but not Marvel's Thor), no characters of your own creation, and no theological figures (unless re-conceived in steampunk terms).
  • A "high tea," sponsored by Off the Beaten Path Books & Cafe, the steampunk bookstore, in Farmington. Tickets are $20, and seating is limited. "Alongside a discussion of the history of tea and tea etiquette, diners will enjoy this scrumptious menu: assorted tea sandwiches, petit roast chicken salad sandwiches on fresh local bakery bread, assorted scones – cranberry, white chocolate raspberry, blueberry, and lemon poppyseed – chocolate or vanilla petit fours/cakelets, a selection of tea cookies, European strawberry jam and fresh whipped butter, Assam Tea, Earl Grey, and Darjeeling Tea, plus various tea accoutrements."
  • A beauty pageant, presented by the online Blonde Swan Hat Boutique, with women 18 and older competing for the brass-and-leather crown of Miss World Steam. Contestants responded to a questionnaire that includes the usual suspects – persona name, phone number, birthday and email – plus several steampunk-specific questions, of which my favorite is: “In a fight between Abe Lincoln and Capt. Nemo, who would win and how?”  
     Other events include panels on various aspects of steampunk, from fashion and swordplay to steampunk's literary and cinematic roots, plus creating steampunk gadgets and characters. And no convention of this sort is complete without an art show.
     Admission to the World Steam Expo is $75 for a 4-day pass, or you can buy a daily pass: $35 May 25, $40 May 26 or 27 and $30 May 28. Separate admission for the Charity Ball is $30, and $20 for the "Midnight Carnival" of burlesque and circus acts.
     More details on the World Steam Expo will be forthcoming. Check out the World Steam Expo link for details, and any of the above links for more about a writer, musician, artist or vendor.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Steampunk Expo ooops!

     For anyone who's seen my post on the upcoming World Steam Expo, I apologize, but I somehow got the dates wrong. It's May 25-28. There's a bit more info on the official website now, too. We now return to your regular programming.

Friday, May 4, 2012

World Steam Expo update

     The upcoming World Steam Expo, May 27-30, has added a couple of new acts. 

     First, the Absinthe Minded Professors -- Joshua Safford, storyteller, Michi Regier, violinist, and Misti Bernard, esoteric instrumentalist -- combine Victorian science fiction storytelling with classical music, but are described as “not a band but a scientific dramatic attraction.” The “hallucinatory” show promises that “in addition to being gutted for their spare parts (the audience members) are treated to automated Jane Austen, bloody prequels to “The Nutcracker, and bizarre big game hunters.”

     Another new addition, singer-songwriter Eli August, has just released a new CD, "The Victorian Dead," which features "A glimpse into the lives of eight famous Victorian figures," including tracks titled "Jules" (Verne), Nikkola (Tesla),"Samuel" (Clemens, aka Mark Twain) and "Edgar" (Poe). He also has a selection of handmade Victorian-named soaps available on his website, including "Edgar Allan potpourri."

     And there are some more merchants listed on the World Steam Expo website for whom I couldn't find links. They are:
  • Spectral Nova
  • Sweet Steam
  • Gun and Roses
  • Amber Fox
  • Realtime Studios
  • Part time Jewelers
  • Beadful things
  • Carl M. Schwartz
  • Brad, the pen guy
  • Kelly Kotulak
  • Allegrato Trinkets   
       No updates on the cost of attendance (although its Facebook page said the $60 for all four days offer had expired). No details on the art show either. (It's not the best-run website, actually)