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What the hell is a hardboiled steampunk cthulhu thriller?

August 11, 2011 – 11:55 am

THE FANTASTIC MACHINE, a hardboiled steampunk cthulhu thriller about a hotel detective struggling to keep his family & friends safe when an ancient evil is unleashed upon the 1905 World Exposition.

In the tagline above I use a few buzzwords that might not be well known to all comers: hardboiled, steampunk, cthulhu, and thriller. Since these buzzwords figure prominently in the description, I thought I’d take a moment to define my terms.

And by define my terms, what I really mean is: I’ll say a bit about genre and then collage the rest from the internet. What follows is the briefest of introductions.

GENRE — When you ask someone, “What kind of story is it?” You are asking them to categorize the story with a rhetorical label. You’re asking for a genre.

Genre is a hotly debated concept among all artists, especially when they want to be considered unique, or conversely, labeled and god-damn-it labeled correctly.

For our purposes the rubber meets the road when we talk about genre and literature. If a novel has a vampire in it then you might describe it as being a vampire story, right? That’s a genre. But what if it’s a comedy? A tragedy? Has an Indian man living in a flat near Trafalgar square during his first romance in 1867?

Every aspect of the story is fair game for categorization. “It’s a love story.” Bam. Gives you an idea what the story’s about, don’t it. So when I say THE FANTASTIC MACHINE is a hardboiled steampunk cthulhu thriller, what the hell does that mean?

HARDBOILED — The hardboiled detective […] not only solves mysteries [he] confronts danger and engages in violence on a regular basis. The hardboiled detective also has a characteristically tough attitude. (wiki)
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett
The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler
Trouble is my Business by Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Hunter (Parker Novels) by Richard Stark
Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker
A Stained White Radiance by James Lee Burke
The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
Stumptown by Greg Rucka

STEAMPUNK — I’ll bypass the wiki definition in favor of Airship Ambassador’s below. This genre is quite contested and very much still seeking definition. Some blogs involved in this are listed here:
http://www.doctorfantastiques.com/
http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com/
http://www.airshipambassador.com/ – Essentially, steampunk is a fictional story set in, or evocative of, the 19th century, often in but not limited to Victorian England, and including real world devices created ahead of their time and/or imaginary devices based on prevailing theories of the era and/or prevalent ideas of the supernatural.
Over at Cherie Priest‘s steampunk-specific The Clockwork Century page her essay Steampunk: What it is, why I came to like it, and why I think it’ll stick around is interesting and informative.
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
The Difference Engine by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Leviathan by Scott Westerfield
Boilerplate by Paul Guinan, Anina Bennett
Steampunk’d by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg
Steampunk by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
Mainspring by Jay Lake

CTHULHU — Cthulhu is a fictional character that first appeared in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu”, published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928. The character was created by writer H. P. Lovecraft. (wiki)
Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by August Derleth and published by Arkham House in 1969, is considered the first Cthulhu Mythos anthology. It contained two stories by Lovecraft […] and several new tales written for the collection by a new generation of Cthulhu Mythos writers. (wiki)
The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft
The Whisperer in the Darkness by H. P. Lovecraft
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
Hellboy by Mike Mignola
The Book of Cthulhu ed by Ross Lockhart
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird by Gaiman, Mieville, Priest, more
Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

THRILLER — A thriller is villain-driven plot, whereby he presents obstacles that the hero must overcome. – Steve Bennett (as cited from References #6 at wiki)
The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follet

Fine. That settles that, right? Okay, maybe not.

A hardboiled steampunk cthulhu thriller is a story set in an alternate history where punches get thrown and zeppelins fly fast, where ancient artifacts herald our destruction and where a woman is sometimes the best man for the job. That’s what you can expect from THE FANTASTIC MACHINE.

CLOCKWORK FAGIN – steampunk review

September 26, 2011 – 4:01 pm

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant have a promising new steampunk anthology hitting shelves on 11-October-2011 called STEAMPUNK! – AN ANTHOLOGY OF FANTASTICALLY RICH AND STRANGE STORIES.

Steampunk stories are everywhere right now and that’s a good thing. That means (a) it’s an adaptable genre and (b) writers are playing with it, and the more writers you get writing in this style, the more we all learn what this style is capable of. Anthologies provide great perspective and if Cory Doctorow’s CLOCKWORK FAGIN is any indication, then STEAMPUNK! is a must-read.

Noticeable elements of steampunk include cunning mechanisms, coal-fired boilers, gaslight parlors, and the like, evidence of the “steam” portion of the genre. But what about the “punk?”

Doctorow’s CLOCKWORK FAGIN ups the punk in steampunk with an able cast of think-outside-the-box characters. (Note: for a limited time Amazon is offering a free download of CLOCKWORK FAGIN.)

CLOCKWORK FAGIN is an alt.Dickensian story told by Sian O’Leary, a one-armed boy at Saint Agatha’s Home for the Rehabilitation of Crippled Children. The story is laid out in the first paragraph–an opening ¶ that perfectly resonates w/ the whole story, btw. It’s a stranger-comes-to-town story about the arrival of Monty Goldfarb and how he cleans up the place.

The story’s got clear goals which make for a fun read. The first goal (opening ¶, not a spoiler) is for the kids to gain their freedom. The next goal is for them to keep it. And then finally when it looks like their goose is cooked, their last goal is for all the marbles. There’s a cute denouement here, too, that bookends the story nicely.

Doctorow builds a convincing “steam” world that gives causality and purpose to the genre elements rather than just using them as decoration. The kids are in here, in trouble, as a natural result of the steampunk world they live in, and the solution to their problems also comes out of the elements of that world.

I especially like the presentation of the Public Computing Works, which for some readers will bring fond memories of Gibson’s & Sterling’s THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE. But it’s the well formed characters that make this grimly optimistic tale so much fun. Monty, Sian, little Girtie Shine-Pate, and the right bastard Grinder, each of them is solidly introduced and employed.

Doctorow makes it look easy with this richly detailed story. He has proven time and again that he can write intelligent believable kids in interesting Maker/DIY tech environments and leave you feeling like you might be able to cobble some of this stuff together yourself.

I enjoyed reading about these gimpy little brass jackers and I look forward to reading what else STEAMPUNK! has to offer.

Goliath – review

January 14, 2012 – 9:53 am

Goliath is the third book in Scott Westerfeld‘s steampunk young-adult science-fiction adventure trilogy that began with Leviathan and Behemoth and concludes the adventures of Deryn and Aleksandar, two European youths caught up in the madness of the first world war, in a world slightly different than the one we remember.

Their world is dominated by two main philosophies: the Clankers are mechanical-minded and build steam-powered machines for all purposes; the Darwinists have a geneticist’s bent and create animals like the first book’s titular hydrogen sky-whale. Aleks is the son of the assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and must flee his Clanker homeland else die by traitorous Clankers. He finds refuge with the Darwinists aboard the Leviathan and there meets Deryn, or Dylan as everyone there knows her. Deryn is a quick-thinking brave girl who masquerades as a boy to join the Darwinist air service and ends up on Leviathan after a bit of accidental heroics on her first day. Leviathan and Behemoth tell these tales and more–what it’s like to be a useless prince learning to fend for himself, being a girl hiding as a boy and hearing all the biases of a slanted world, plus there’s politics, globe-trotting, swashbuckling, great battles and secret heart’s desires–and where they leave off Goliath picks right up.

Westerfeld keeps the hits coming at a quick pace. Goliath covers a lot of ground both geographically and socially and manages to create a tantalizing read with characters I’m genuinely interested in. The conclusion is a lot of fun and a rewarding journey. In particular, as Deryn and Aleks are topside Leviathan during a particularly bad storm my heart was racing and I had to stop reading for a minute just to prance (yeah, sometimes I prance) around the room and blow off a little steam. It’s not because the action itself was intense–though it was–but because I was feeling it for the characters and what was at stake in their lives, for them, personally. That’s a mark of quality craftsmanship.

Westerfeld is proving himself prolific with something like 17 books published in the last 15 years (approx.) This Leviathan series is my introduction to his work, though I’ve been wanting to read his Midnighters series for a long time. If all his stories benefit from this mixture of fast fun plot and genuine characters then I foresee spending a lot more time in West-world (ouch, okay, sorry about that.)

Ganymede – review

January 16, 2012 – 2:18 am

Ganymede is Cherie Priest‘s latest installment to her Clockwork Century chronicle, a series that began with the novel Boneshaker, then wound through Tanglefoot, Clementine, Dreadnought, and, I think, an anthologized story I haven’t read yet called Reluctance.

This is a series–which you don’t need to read sequentially–with some recurring characters but each story really focuses on a new character’s adventure. This works especially well as it’s a great way to tell the bigger story: an alternate history America in which the Civil War lasted longer and technological developments advanced differently. An accident in the frontier city of Seattle–a strange gas seeping up from below–has turned a few people into “rotters” (zombies.) The gas has been processed into a drug which is slowly, but steadily, turning more folks into rotters. Basically, the problem is spreading. This is a terrific conceit and Priest is doing some fine world-building with these stories. The slow advancement of such a problem over a vast American landscape allows for a lot of interesting adventures, but where these stories excel is in their focus on the characters, what they need to accomplish, and how their journey is complicated primarily by other characters and tertiarily–yeah, that’s the word I want to use–by these rotters gumming up the works. See, the focus is on the characters.

<Spoiler>
Josephine Early and Andan Cly are our two main point-of-view characters in Ganymede. Alternating chapters they get us through this adventure, which, in a nutshell, involves her hiring him to pilot a submarine down the last couple bends in the Mississippi River to a Union frigate that may or may not be waiting for them if they survive. The primary complication comes when the “Texian” occupiers put the beat down on the area’s rouge sky pirates, a clash which comes about after two Texian officers go missing under mysterious circumstances.
</Spoiler>

What happens is well described and the characters are interesting and I especially like the conceit and where this all might be going, but in several places Ganymede uses dialogue to tell us what’s going on instead of using narrative to show us, to the point where it pulls me out of sync with the novel. It felt rushed, but it won’t put me off reading her next installment–the story is simply too much fun.

Priest is a hard working writer with a steady output that includes another series of books and short stories popping up all over the place. She not only writes well, but she’s writing strong female leads in interesting stories, which is something we could use more of.