Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: 'Fiendish Schemes'

Tor Books
Fiendish Schemes
by K. W. Jeter
(Tor Books, 2013)

Infernal Devices
by K.W. Jeter
(Angry Robots, 2011)

     Recently asked me to review my recent purchase, Fiendish Schemes by K. W. Jeter. I was planning to review here on my blog, but the book was fresh in my mind so I took a few minutes to cobble together some quotes. I was later alerted that my  review had gone live, but checking the website today, I saw no trace of it. So here's a longer review.

     K.W. Jeter, as the book copy endlessly and repetitively tells us, coined the term steampunk to describe some books of Victorian science fiction/fantasy that he and some friends were writing. His contributions to the genre were 1979's Morlock Night, a semi-sequel to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine by way of the legend of King Arthur, 1987's Infernal Devices (which despite being the first steampunk book he wrote after coining the term and seeing it taken seriously, is instead called a "mad Victorian fantasy") and now the belated sequel Fiendish Schemes.
Angry Robot Books
     I didn't like Morlock Night because it had more to do with Arthur than The Time Machine. I might have liked it better if it had been more appropriately titled so I wasn't expecting one thing and getting another. I loved Infernal Devices however and wished he had written more along the same vein.

     So when I heard that Jeter was writing a sequel to Infernal Devices, I was pleased and expected great things. As I said above however, expectations can be a problem.  I don't think I would have liked Fiendish Schemes better if I hadn't read Infernal Devices first -- it has many other problems -- but I might not be as disappointed.

     In Infernal Devices, George Dower is the not-very-talented son of a clockwork inventor who made, among other things, clockwork automatons that could pass for human. Dower makes a precarious living selling and servicing the leftover devices his father made until he is approached by several people with an interest in these leftover devices. First, an individual he dubs the Brown Leather Man brings one such device to repair, then other people come looking for the same device. Dower also uncovers a race of half-fish people who worship a Saint Monkfish, an automaton with the personality and talent of Paganini and Dower's face, a couple of con artists who have distorted their minds by injudicious study of the future using another of Dower's father's devices, and a nobleman who wants to contact extraterrestrials by blowing up the Earth.

     While Morlock Night had lots of fantasy, Infernal Devices was straight-forward science fiction. While the fish people could have come out of Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories, they were explained science fictionally as opposed to mystically. Besides, Lovecraft considered his Cthulhu stories to be science fiction about inimitable other dimensional beings who humans worshipped as gods, but not actual gods or demons. Thus far, Fiendish Schemes is the equal of Infernal Devices. Despite a suggestion early on that a wholly fantasy-based phenomenon is occurring, this is later revealed to be a hoax. 

     But back up to the titles. While Fiendish Schemes sounds like a similar title to Infernal Devices. it's actually far inferior. There is wordplay in Infernal Devices, but none to Fiendish Schemes. It just means what it says.

     Missing also is the sense of fun. While George Dower is the narrator/protagonist of each book, information necessary to understanding his actions and motives is deliberately withheld in the sequel. Also, the plot is bassackward. In Infernal Devices, we start with a mystery regarding one of Dower's father's devices. The byzantine plot strays from the topic but eventually gets there, throwing in other obstacles/distractions, antagonists and devices along the way. Above all, the action keeps moving and is amusing. In Fiendish Schemes, we never really fins out what is going on, what is the central mystery, until m,ore than halfway through the book, and it is far less interesting and amusing.

     Alas, the new book has nothing as interesting as the first book's Brown Leather Man or the cult of St. Monkfish, or the device that can destroy the world with vibrations. Instead we have steam mines, walking lighthouses and android prime ministers and prostitutes. Big deal.

     Even the return of two amusing characters from, the first book, a couple of con artists who have had their minds warped by viewing the future on another of Dower's father's devices, is wasted because they have now become altruists. The device which is the central maguffin this time comes to naught. Its purpose is never very clear, and it is destroyed before it can be put to use.

     The only virtue the book possesses is that it looks at the increased use of steam power as a negative, with consequences for pollution and complication that makes it inferior to the forms of energy that were actually used. That's more realistic, but at the same time it's a buzzkill for a steampunk novel. It would have been better developed in a book that wasn't connected to an earlier, lighter book.

     I haven't read any new Jeter since Infernal Devices until now, though I have noticed that a great many of his books have been authorized sequels to other writers' works, including a couple of Star Trek Novels and three sequels to the film Blade Runner. I know it's difficult for a mid-list writer to make a living,  but I wonder if he's suffered a loss of creativity that has resulted in his being unable to write anything but sequels. Or maybe after writing so many sequels to other people's work, he decided he ought to be able to write a sequel to his own. Whatever, the reason, while I hope the new book directs new readers to the earlier book, I can't recommend Fiendish Schemes as a standalone novel or a sequel.

     I don't know if this is a misfire by K.W. Jeter or if he's lost his writing ability, but this is a major disappointment.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On the lack of diversity in science fiction and fantasy

     On the invaluable Locus magazine website, I saw a link to an article about the lack of diversity in most science fiction. Unfortunately the way the article was titled was confusing. It started "Why are most SF authors straight, white western men?" and continued with "Science fiction writers can't ignore the diversity that exists on planet Earth." Those are two separate questions, though they may be related.
     Perhaps David Barnett, the author of the post, didn't write the headline. He expresses himself better in the opening paragraph:

     Science fiction loves a good paradox. Here's one for you: how can a genre that dreams up alien cultures and mythic races in such minute detail seemingly ignore the ethnic, religious, gender and sexual diversity right here on the home planet, here in the real world?
     In other words, for a school of writing that swims so deeply in the unconventional, why is science fiction and fantasy so darned conventional?

     The answer to that question may well be because most SF authors are straight, white western men. Isaac Asimov was a perfect example. A straight white western male, he was most comfortable writing about others like him. He was initially shy and inexperienced about women, so he rarely even included prominent female characters. (There are exceptions, most notably his continuing character Dr. Susan Calvin, the robo-pyschologist.)
      I suppose straight white western males could attempt to write about other genders, sexual orientations, races and cultures, but I don't think the critics really want that. When one does, they are accused of colonialism, insensitivity or just misappropriating other cultures, as was the case with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl
     Acclaimed by both the science fiction community and non-SF communities alike, and winning just about every award for which it was eligible, Bacigalupi was excoriated by some because he dared to set The Windup Girl in a future Thailand, dared to have Mayasian characters, dared to include a Japanese-made female android who was turned into a sex slave, and dared to have the first character to appear in the book be a Western white male. This apparently was offensive and unacceptable. That his extrapolated future Thailand was not exactly like the present day Thailand, that it was not a perfect society, that he did not get every detail of the geography or language perfectly correct was further proof of the author's cultural insensitivity.
     I've written about why I find this criticism wrong-headed before, but in brief: Bacigalupi paints a pretty flattering portrait of Thailand following a genetically modified crop plague that has contaminated much of the world's food. It has also fared better than most parts of the world in the face of global warming and fuel scarcity. There's also a flawed but sympathetic Malaysian character. The straight white western male character is essentially the bad guy, though even he has some good qualities. 
     If you feel that the Japanese sex android is sexist and cliche, you may be right, but since the Japanese allegedly still sell schoolgirls' used underpants in vending machines (see, I don't think the Japanese have the right to be offended or to claim that they would never make android sex slaves. Monsanto has more right to be offended by the suggestions made about GM crops. 
     Windup Girl was such a successful book with such a complex and interesting setting that it's surprising Bacigalupi hasn't followed it up with a sequel, direct or otherwise (before the novel, he did a couple of shorter stories set in the same world). I suspect part of the reason is that he feels gun-shy after all the criticism the first book engendered. I wouldn't be surprised if he never writes another book that doesn't feature straight, white western characters in a U.S. (or maybe European) setting. 
     No one is required to like the book of course, but if non-straight, non-white, non-western and/or non-male readers can't tolerate The Windup Girl, then they don't really want diversity from straight, white western male writers. What they want is more science fiction by writers who aren't straight, white, western or male. 
     That's fine. Go write them. I'd like that, too -- especially if they aren't multivolume fantasies set in an ersatz Tolkien ripoff world or endless urban fantasies about detectives, vampires, werewolves or other shape shifters, witches, zombies and the women who love them. But if you complain about a lack of diversity and then vilify someone who makes a noble attempt (even if not completely successful) to comply, you really just want to complain.