Thursday, June 21, 2012

Steampunk Flashback: K.W. Jeter's 'Morlock Night' and 'Infernal Devices'

 Morlock Night 
by K.W. Jeter
Angry Robot Books
 Image from Angry

Image from Chibacity

 I have a very good memory for books and films and television shows. It's not photographic, and it's not always correct, but it's very good.
    So I was surprised when I couldn't remember the plot of "Morlock Night" by K.W. Jeter. I remembered the original paperback cover -- a Morlock, very like the ones in the 1960 film "The Time Machine"-- riding H.G. Wells time machine into a Victorian London street, and I remembered it was some sort of sequel to Wells' tale, as well as one of the first self-styled "steampunk" novels. The plot was completely gone from my memory, though I remembered being disappointed by it.
      That was before my rediscovery of steampunk, so when Borders was going out of business and paperbacks were marked down quite a bit, I bought a shiny new copy of the novel with a new, evocative cover.
     Now that I've re-read it, I confess I'm still disappointed with it.
     Jeter was one of the founders of steampunk, and the one who gave it its name, but his definition of steampunk and mine are different.
     First, I think of steampunk as science fiction, not fantasy. Aside from Wells' time machine and  a few futuristic weapons (and a couple ancient Atlantean ones), there is no alternative technology, steam-based or otherwise, in "Morlock Night." Instead it has fantasy elements, most notably Merlin, King Arthur as the once and future king who will come to England's aid in times of trouble, and the sword Excalibur. Now I like Arthurian fantasy, and the idea of Arthur appearing outside of his own time is not without interest. I don't particularly like it mixed in with Morlocks, and I definitely don't like it in a purported science fiction novel.
     Second, the novel begins immediately after the Time Traveler has told his story, picking up on a mysterious and unnamed individual who Wells describes at the telling. This suggests the book is a direct sequel to "The Time Machine," but it soon goes its own merry way. Within pages, the protagonist has been accosted on the street, given some "tobacco" that seems to transport him some years into the future, after the Morlocks have used Wells' time machine to invade our time.
     Third, why would the Morlocks wish to invade our own time? I was never given a satisfactory answer in the book.
     Fourth, and most importantly, I found the novel and its lead character mostly boring. The protagonist soon gets a feisty sidekick and possible love interest in the form of a young lady from the near-future time after the Morlocks have taken over the world. I didn't find her terribly interesting either.

Infernal Devices
by K.W. Jeter
Angry Robot Books
     If that had been my first exposure to Jeter, it might well have been my last, but  I had read a later book first and loved it. "Infernal Devices" was also reissued by Angry Robots (a two-book steampunk reprint series?), and it's both more true steampunk (in my opinion) and a better book besides.
     I say the book is steampunk, but my copy of the book calls it a "mad Victorian fantasy," and that fits as well.
      The plot involves a Victorian gentleman, the son of a mad, years-ahead-of-his-time inventor, and an intrigue (or many) concerning some of his leftover machines. The son has no similar talent for invention, and can't even maintain or repair the existing ones, but is contacted by several individuals who want him to try. The characters are intriguing (someone referred to as the Brown Leather Man, because his "skin" seems literally to be something akin to old, worn leather), entertaining (a man and woman who speak in slang of our era due to too much time observing the future on one of the father's devices),  the situations novel (a unique plan to contact extraterrestrials), and the book is just plain fun. As I said in earlier post, for me, steampunk has to be fun. "Morlock Night" isn't fun; "Infernal Devices" is.

Image from Angry 
Image from Paperback


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bethalynne Bajema: Artist of the Dark and Beautiful

     Just a quick post about Michigan artist/author Bethalynne Bajema who has been having health problems and could use some support.
   I first encountered Bajema's art through a post about her "Black Ibis" series of graphic novels and tarot deck on the Coilhouse magazine & blog website. The striking artwork was all black lines, white and sepia, featuring Victorian-influenced clothing and design with fantasy elements, and looked either photo-realist or created by retouching photographs. I thought it might be steampunk, or at least steampunk adjacent.
     Later research uncovered that she is a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, an early 20th-century fantasy writer now probably best known now for his story "Herbert West, Reanimator," upon which the film "Re-Animator" was based, and his tales of the extradimensional being Cthulhu and his kith and kin (some of which have also been filmed).
     I also discovered she was a Michigan native, and was writing the text that accompanied her illustrations (sometimes under the nom du plume Etta Diem). A quick check on Amazon found several titles available, both print and Kindle.
     Reasoning that a Michigan author and artist was a suitable subject for my blog (and possibly a print article), I found a contact email and sent her an interview query. Unfortunately, it took her a while to get back to me, and when she did my schedule was crazy. After several attempts, the interview seems unlikely to happen.
     As Bajema explains on her website, she hasn't had the time to go through her inbox because she has had some back and autoimmune problems, "and there are times when they flare up and lay me out."
     I'd show one of her illustrations here except that she hasn't given me explicit permission, and her website warns that "I shall send feisty squirrels after you to enact my revenge" if I do, so instead I'll have to direct you to her fine website Bajema's Web.
     Bajema solely supports herself through her artwork, she is uninsured, and she has lots of bills piling up. So take a look at her work on her website and DeviantArt, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and consider buying something (you can get one of her e-books for $3 on Amazon) at Red Bubble or Izozzi.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Judging books and publishers by their covers (revisited)

     In one of my early posts, I mentioned how much I liked a book titled "Midnight Riot" by

When Aaronovitch posted this sneak preview of the U.S. and U.K. covers for his third Peter Grant novel on his blog, he added the caption: "For bonus points you can guess which one is British and which one American..."

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Playing games with classic literature

The Bookman
By Lavie Tidhar
(Angry Robot Books)

Professor Moriarty: 
The Hound of the D’Urbervilles
By Kim Newman
(Titan Books)

     As I may have mentioned before, critics don’t always know WHY they like or dislike a work. Since it’s their job, they will backtrack and try to figure it out, and latch on to one thing or another. That this may contradict an opinion in an earlier or later review is no obstacle.
     I’ve just read two books that do similar metafictional things, but I only liked one of them, and I'm not sure why.
     Writers have been mixing and matching fictional and historical characters, and sticking  characters from one genre into another, long before Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That's part of the appeal of steampunk. 
     On paper, I ought to like The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (a male Israeli author, if you’re curious). It is steampunk, with no obvious fantasy elements (ghosts, vampires, magic), and it explains how its steampunk technology came to be. It includes a mix of real and fictional characters, several derived from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. It involves a poet and bookseller, and pays homage to several fictional authors (some out of their actual time, but never mind). Yet it left me cold. I will try to explain why, but, remember, I’m only guessing.
     The Bookman tells its story through the eyes of Orphan, a young poet in an altered Victorian England. One alteration: Queen Victoria is a human-sized intelligent lizard, as are many of the upper class. The prime minister is Moriarty, who is constructing a space cannon out of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells  to launch a probe (so he says) to Mars. History changed in the 16th century or so when Amerigo Vespucci voyaged to Caliban’s Island (out of Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and the lizards (Les Lizards, from the French for some reason) emerged. America is called Vespuccia. Among the technological changes are sophisticated automatons.
     The antagonist of the book is the title character, a sort of terrorist who disrupts large public gatherings and events with exploding books. One event is a one-man show by Bram Stoker’s actor friend and employer Henry Irving of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which is now about Les Lizards); another is the attempted launching of the Mars probe, at which Orphan’s beloved is killed.
     The Bookman then dragoons Orphan to his cause, in exchange for which he will return Orphan’s beloved to life. Orphan doesn’t exactly believe him or trust him, but he has little choice. Aiding him in this task is Jules Verne, along with a couple of his fictional characters: Capt. Nemo/Prince Dakkar and Robur the Conqueror.
     Eventually Orphan discovers a connection between Les Lizards and the Bookman, and must choose sides. The book ends in a satisfactory way, leaving room for sequels or not (there is already a second book in the series, though with a different setting and cast).
     So, what didn’t I like? One thing is that Tidhar or his editors had a distracting habit of beginning a paragraph with one character speaking, and ending it with another. Then, too, Orphan is a bit of a disappointment as a protagonist. His secret notwithstanding, he’s a bit of a bore, acted upon more than acting. Then, while Les Lizards explains the advanced technology out of time, I didn’t find them too believable. And why, if they’ve been ruling England for 300 years does their queen happen to have the same name as the human queen of the era? Is the name pre-destined?
     But I acknowledge that this is not sufficient reason to explain my dislike of the book. Maybe it was the wrong time for me to read it.
     (The next book in the series, Camera Obscura, features a swashbuckling Milady deWinter from Dumas’ “Three Musketeers.” I may give it a try. )

     On the other hand, I loved The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman, featuring the Watson-like memoirs of Professor Moriarty, as recorded by his lieutenant Col. Sebastian Moran. It is in some ways a parody of Holmes, with titles and cases that superficially resemble the Great Detective’s but involve characters from other, contemporary fiction, or who are destined to appear in future fiction. 
     “The Hound of the D’Urbervilles” section is a parody/imitation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (and superior, to my mind, to the serious-minded but similar "Hound" imitation "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" which I read and reviewed last year), but it is also a sequel of sorts to Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”
     Other tales involve Irene Adler (while to Holmes she was always “the woman,” to Moriarty she was “that bitch!”), the murder victims from Holmes and Watson’s first case, A Study in Scarlet (along with the hero of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage), and the Royal Astronomer from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (whom Moriarty only dupes into thinking there is an imminent Martian invasion).
     Another tale has Moriarty and Moran gathering up various cursed objects from other fictions and their cinematic versions, including Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars (film version: Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb), Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons” (film version: The Pearl of Death), Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse" and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (featuring a teenage Kaspar Guttman).
     As with The Bookman, there is no real supernatural element. Unlike it, there is little (perhaps none) super advanced technology either, so it’s not steampunk per se, but it takes the kind of fun with history and literature that steampunk does.
     Maybe that’s the difference: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles is fun, and The Bookman isn’t. Or, rather, I found the one fun, and the other not.
     It also helps that Newman and I are on the same wavelength as to the films, television  and literature we love (another character in one of the stories is an obscure Victorian crook/detective whom I first encountered – and perhaps Newman did as well – on the TV anthology series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes). Even the framing device – the discovery of Moran’s manuscript in the present day in a famed criminal’s bank – parallels a scene from the original cut of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The footage was cut and is lost, but I read it in a contemporaneous novelization of the film. Perhaps Newman did, too.
     I’m not sure if Newman plans any sequels to his Moriarty book (I guess it depends upon whether he decides to have Moriarty escape his death at Reichenbach Falls), but if you’re looking for more of the same, Newman’s Anno Dracula series is being reprinted, in which he postulates that Dracula defeats van Helsing and company, puts the bite on Queen Victoria and becomes the Royal Consort and de facto ruler of England, making vampirism chic and the way to get ahead. Newman adds just about every fictional and film vampire to the mix, and a Jack the Ripper-like vampire serial killer with a silver knife. The first book is one of my favorites. Latter volumes weren’t as appealing to me, but there’s a new one forthcoming that I’ll have to check out: Johnny Alucard (a spelled-backwards pseudonym for Dracula, the last name of which only was first utilized in Universal's 1943 Son of Dracula, while the full name was a disciple of Dracula in Hammer's Dracula A.D. 1972).