Posts Tagged ‘steampunk’

Spec Fic 102: Introduction to Speculative Fiction Subgenres

Science fiction is such a broad based term, many different flavors of it exist. Kind of a duh statement. This is another one of my “If I was teaching this class” formats. I did an Intro to Sci Fi a while back. Today, we’re going to dive into a sampling of specific subgenres.

A recap of the structure for my mythical classes: Once a week for twelve weeks, a book every other week. That gives us six books, and in this instance, six subgenres. It’s going to skew modern. Somewhat. A lot of the genre’s more colorful subgenres are more recent. I blame the internet. People aren’t restricted to just what they can find on the brick and mortar shelf anymore. It allows people to seek out a wider variety of interests and then lets more writers help codify them into solid tropes.

vN-144dpiArtificial Intelligence vN by Madeline Ashby

Asimov may have given the world the Laws of Robotics, but vN has been a watershed moment in human-AI storytelling. I wrote about it when I was heavy into book review posts. The protag of this novel is a von Neumann, a self replicating AI, that is missing the failsafe preventing her from harming humans. This tackles the tropes of AI/robotic servitude to humanity head first. As a near future novel this makes the book a lot more accessible than the older, philosophy with off camera action type books from the early days of robotic fiction. There are a lot of extremely plausible scenarios in this book, making it hit home a lot stronger.

snowcrashCyberpunkSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Gibson may have done it first, but I’m much more partial to Snow Crash. Cyberpunk as a genre is film noir full of hackers in a post-industrial world. This book takes place both in and out of cyberspace. The protag is a freelance hacker of renown, out on his own after cutting ties to the mafia. The interplay between the real world and the virtual comes from the titular ‘snow crash,’ a drug that affects people in both worlds. Information as a commodity adds a healthy dose of dystopia the subgenre is known for.


americangodsGodpunkAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is the 900 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to godpunk. There have been some that came before, but this really set the tropes into a proper, albeit a smaller subgenre. The ancient gods are alive but not so well in America. The old gods are trying to navigate a world that doesn’t believe in them anymore, drawing what little power they can from modern habits drawn from ancient traditions. Norse, Slavic and African deities feature predominantly in this book along with leprechauns and mythic American figures like Johnny Appleseed. They are in direct conflict with the new gods born from American obsessions with things such as media, the internet and black ops work. This book features a more worldly cast of deities than many which stick to the Big Three of godpunk, Norse, Greco-Roman and Egyptian, and few display the old vs new conflict as well.

boneshaker-coverSteampunkBoneshaker by Cherie Priest

This book is widely considered the magnum opus of the subgenre. Steampunk is a vision of the future derived from an early industrial revolution point in history and much of the societal norms from that time. Boneshaker embraces the aesthetic right down to the cover art and sepia colored printing of the text. The zombies of the ruined city of Seattle are outside the box for the subgenre but a frontier city on hard times is the perfect place to feature the technological innovations like airships and gas masks.


discountarmageddonUrban FantasyDiscount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

It would be easy to pick any of McGuire’s work as a platonic example of what the urban fantasy subgenre has grown up into. The subgenre is a lot more than “Buffy clone beats up [insert monster] with [insert weapon/talent/schtick]” that it started out as. Between her two main UF series, I ended up going with the InCryptid series over the Toby Daye books because it features a larger variety of mythical creatures than just the faerie. Verity, the protag on the cover over there, is part of a family that studies, protects and polices the cryptid community to enable coexistence. That’s not terribly easy to do with a secret society of monster hunters looking to destroy them all. The society hidden within society is one of the things that makes this such a layered world.

thieftakerHistorical Urban Fantasy – Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

This is a new trend I’m noticing and it’s something I want to see more of. This takes a very historically accurate setting and adds in magic/horror/scifi and such. I started seeing it with military themes like Joe Nassise’s WWI zombies and Harry Turtledove’s Civil War with AK47s, but it’s moving to a true urban fantasy set in the real world past. The protag here is a conjurer living on the fringes of society in 1760s Boston. You don’t need to know much of American history to know this is a very interesting time and place to be hanging out solving murders with magic. This books creates magical causes to actual events in Boston’s history and has the protag rub elbows with guys like Samuel Adams. Bonus points, the author has a PhD in US history.

wickedastheycomeSubtitle of this post: Don’t fear the smooching!

Second subtitle of this post: Or the shirtless dude. Really. Just get over it. Dudes can be shirtless in the presence of other dudes.

I am going to be completely honest right now. I would never, ever have found this book in a real live meatspace bookstore. Never. And it’s a damn shame.

The power of twitter compels me! Wicked as They Come by Delilah S Dawson came across my Nook because of twitter. Dawson is hilarious on twitter. She’s twitter buddies with a bunch of other authors I like a lot. A Chuck Wendig – Delilah Dawson – Sam Sykes trifecta is one of the best parts of my twitter feed. Chuck Wendig in particular talked up WickedThat was enough to get my attention. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how I get a lot of my reading material from other authors I like. “Steampunk traveling sideshow, parallel dimentions, bunnies that drink blood!” Sounded pretty damn awesome.

I was surprised to find that the book was marketed as romance, not SF. Huh. There’s that reason I’d never find it in a bookstore. That’s kind of odd, though. Sounded pretty SF to me. Well whatev. My Nook doesn’t segregate books by marketing terms.

Back of the book… er… blurb from my Nook time!

When nurse Tish Everett forced open the pesky but lovely locket she found at an estate sale, she had no idea she was answering the call of Criminy Stain, from the far off land of Sang. He’d cast a spell for her, but when she’s transported right to him, she’s not so sure she’s ready to be under the spell of another man. (It didn’t go so well last time with controlling, abusive, domineering Jeff.) If only Criminy wasn’t so deliciously rakish….

Half the inhabitants of Sang are Pinkies—human—and the other half are Bludmen, who in Tish’s world would be called vampires. But they don’t mess with any of the bat/coffin/no sunlight nonsense. They’re rather like you and me, just more fabulous, long living, and mostly indestructible. (They’re also very good kissers.) But when the evil Mayor of Manchester (formerly Bludchester) redoubles his efforts to rid Sang of the Bludmen once and for all, stealing Tish’s locket in hopes of traveling back to her world himself for reinforcements, Criminy and Tish must battle ghosts, sea monsters, wayward submarines, a secret cabal, and thundering Bludmares to get the locket back and allow Tish to return home…but has she found love with Criminy? Could she stay in Sang forever?

Copying that back cover summary is actually the first time I read it. Aside from that parenthetical remark about kissing, still sounds more SF than romance. I feel like I could spend the whole post just talking about how Wicked should be shelved with SF. There’s a Jules Verne-ish submarine. airships, and clockwork carriages straight out of steampunk. Hauntings and the bludmen (much classier versions of modern vampires) bring in the horror. Blinking between worlds evokes a classic sci-fi feel. Mixing and blending genres, I love that stuff. Dawson takes all these different parts and purees it into a seamless world full of color.

My favorite part of the world building is the ecosystem of Sang. It starts with bludbunnies. They’re hilarious. All the prey creatures of Sang evolved to become predators. Bludbunnies will gang up on you and eat the flesh right off your bones while being fuzzy and adorable. They’re so ubiquitous, Tish will just punt them absentmindedly as she’s walking around. Bigger blud animals get a lot meaner. Bludstags are bad ass and will kill you eight ways from Sunday. Kind of sucks to be a straight up human in Sang so they oppress the b’jebus out of the bludmen.

So what about the romance things that scare people so much? Seriously just deal with it. Get over it. A relationship between two characters is conflict. Conflict is the basis of all good stories. Relationship conflicts are filled with emotions and the things that really let you know who a character is. In the journey of their relationship, you really get to see Tish and Criminy bared raw. As the POV character, you follow Tish’s evolution and see the determination to her mindset. She’s not in a good place really at the start of the book. I never felt her character arc was forced or ever dependent on Criminy. They were intertwined, as they should be what with the relationship between them central to the story, but they each had their own separate arc to build upon.

“Oh but vampires and smooching and blah blah blah.” People hear romance and vampires and automatically gag on Twilight. Sparkly little toolbags, this is not. Move on. Criminy is more of a dapper sideshow barker than an emo sparkle fest. Because that’s what he is. He’s the lead guy in an otherworldly sideshow. Who does magic. Fucking magic man! That’s awesome. He just happens to drink blood too. Criminy is the kind of character that would be awesome to hang out with and have a beer.

The potatoes of the story that goes with the meat of the relationship side of the tale is all about that dastardly Mayor of Manchester. (I really like any excuse to use the word dastardly) He’s got some grandiose destroy the world as we know it kind of plans. Blinking back and forth between worlds to take over is pretty damn awesome. There’s some weight and heft to these evil plans. There’s nothing worse when the antagonist’s raison d’etre falls with a dud. Along with the gravitas (also another world I like any excuse to use) of the antagonist’s plot, there is an immediency. Things have to move now. Tish and Criminy are rushing at a breakneck speed because they have to. They’re not running for the sake of running. Everything in Wicked has a purpose and a meaning pressing the story forward. It’s one of those rare kinds of novel where I never felt there was a wasted word.

I enjoyed the hell out of Wicked as They Come because I listened to people who talked up a great book and not some marketing department and what shelf they decide books should be on.

Steampunk day. Again. Because reasons. And those reasons are largely because I like it. Steampunk is everywhere lately, it’s the hot thing. I’ve seen steampunk aesthetics on TV shows like Warehouse 13 (which I really need to catch up on) and merch at the “Random Crap from Asia” Store in the mall. You know that store, every mall has one. It’s got the display quality (at best) swords and Buddhas and little pots of bamboo. Well, they’ve got a steampunk wall now too. $80 for some goggles? Hell no. I have goggles. They cost me $7 on ebay and they’re Swiss military surplus.

So what do you do for a real goggle fix if you don’t want chintzy mall crap and can’t muster the credit card control to play on ebay? Read. Duh. Should be doing that anyways. And if you’re going to read steampunk, go for the end all be all, go to steampunk series, The Clockwork Century by Cherie Priest. I’ve got the latest in the series, The Inexplicables.

Back of the book time!

Rector “Wreck-em” Sherman was one of many kids orphaned by the Blight of 1863, but one of very few who made it to his eighteenth birthday. As a reward, he’s being cast out of the orphanage he grew up in. But Wreck’s problems don’t stop there. He’s been breaking the cardinal rule of any good drug dealer and dipping into his own sap supply. He also things he’s being hunted by the ghost of a kid he used to know – Zeke Wilkes, who died six months ago, after Wreck helped him get into the walled city of Seattle.

Maybe the haunting is only his guitly conscience, but Wreck can’t take it anymore, so he sneaks over the wall. Once there, he finds that Zeke isn’t as dead as he thought… but the wasteland of Seattle is as bad as he’d heard; chock full of hungry undead and smothered by the poisonous, inescapable yellow gas. And then there are the newcomers: not at all human, but not rotters, either. Arms too long, eyes all wild, murderously violent, and know to the locals simply as “The Inexplicables.”

Seattle’s de facto leader, Yaozu, gives Rector his first real job: to track down these creatures before they do any more harm. In the process, Rector finds another set of dangerous intruders, lured there by greed. Something valuable lurks within the city wall, and the newcomers will kill to take it… which means that Rector needs to figure out where his loyalties lie. Fast.

All of The Clockwork Century books tie in with each other, but are essentially stand alone books. I approve of this, especially since I’m missing one for some reason. Minor characters in one book are the stars of another. Rector actually shows up early on in the first of the series, Boneshaker, although what with the fact that I’m bad at names and I read that other book two years ago, I completely forgot about it until the book prodded me with what he did. It’s that “helped him get into the walled city of Seattle” bit from above. Rector went from two scenes to push the plot forward to the star of the show.

He’s kind of an ass though. If you’re familiar with the series, the Blight gas that shut down Seattle can be turned into sap. Sap gets people high as a kite and is sold as such. Too much sap and you turn yourself into a rotter, i.e. zombie. Remember, back of the book told use that Rector is a user as well as a dealer. On page one, he’s one bad trip away from becoming a rotter himself. Which kind of makes him a tool. Oh he’s not so miserable that I ever wanted to put down the book, but definitely a tool.

Eventually the character warmed up to me. Took just as long to warm up to the other characters in Seattle. Back of the book already said Zeke isn’t dead so we know he shows up again and so does Huey. Seeing as they’re practically the only teenagers in Seattle, they end up paling around. Huey in particular didn’t seem to like Rector much though their relationship progressed for the positive once Rector got clean as the book went on. Rector’s mind clears as he gets off the sap and the clarity of his thinking is something you can track through the book. The plot actually takes a bit of time to get working and it moves pretty evenly with the amount of time that Rector takes to get his head clear.

Rector’s missions are The Inexplicable and the Other Intruders. I picked up on what was going on with both forks of the story pretty early on. I liked them both although the Other Intruders had more impact on the well being of Seattle whereas The Inexplicable was almost a personal quest for Rector (even though he did have a crew with him for the quest). The two plot tangents never quite came together like I thought they would but meh, they were both satisfying in their own way and neither left dangling threads. I can call those victories.

I like being back in Seattle again. Dreadnaught was about Mercy Lynch getting from the deep south to Seattle. Ganymede is about airship captain Anton Cly doing a job in New Orleans. Seeing the rest of the world of this series is great, you know I love world building, but Seattle is the anchor for this series. This time around our view of the city is expanded somewhat which I am all for.

So I liked world and the writing and all sorts of stuff right down the sepia tone ink they use for the printing, not to mention the series has some of the best covers in SF. I eventually liked Rector… well enough. But characters don’t have to be likeable for a book to be good or even great. (See Desert Spear for that) While I still think it’s a toss up between Boneshaker and Ganymede for best in the series, The Inexplicables is a hell of a read. I’d really like to see where Rector ends up.

The Doomsday Vault

Posted: April 20, 2013 in Reading

It’s steampunk day on the blog today! Steampunk seems like it’s everywhere despite being one of the newer subgenre/culture/aesthetic of the SF world. I’m still ok with that. It’s nifty in of itself and it hasn’t gotten so big it becomes annoying. But because steampunk is the new trendy kind of thing, I feel the need to be extra careful picking and choosing what I read in the subgenre. I don’t want to get saddled with some bandwagon shovelware that has some gears taped onto it. I am cautious with my steampunk.

So imagine my surprise when I hit a home run off a random, off the shelf find.

The Doomsday Vault by Steven Harper. Bam! Back of the book action!

The Honorable Alice B. Michaels is in a life-or-death struggle for survival – socially speaking, that is. At age twenty-one, her unladylike interest in automatons, and the unfortunate deaths of most of her family from the clockwork plague, have sealed her fat as a less than desirable marriage prospect. But a series of strange occurrences is about to lead Alice in a direction quite beyond the pale.

High above the earth on the American airship USS Juniper, Gavin Ennock lives for the wind and the sky and his fiddle. After privateers attack the Juniper, he is stranded on the dank, dirty, merciless streets of London. When Alice’s estranged aunt leaves her a peculiar inheritance, she encounters Gavin under most unusual – even shocking – circumstances.

Then Alice’s inheritance attracts the attention of the Third Ward, a clandestine organization that seizes the inventions of mad geniuses the plague leaves behind – all for the good of the Empire. But even the Third Ward has secrets. And when Alice and Gavin discover them, a choice must be made between the world and the Empire, no matter the risk to all they hold dear.

Whew. That was a long one. And actually one of the more accurate Back of the Book blurbs I’ve read. If you check out the exert on the inside of the front cover, you even get to know there are zombies living in the alleys of London. Zombies are starting to get so much hype, they may reach public consciousness saturation and implode soon. It’s becoming one of those things I’m wary of now, but fortunately, the zombies aren’t just pasted in for the hell of it with this book. They’re worldbuilding, background and a few plot points. They’re not the focus of the book, but are a nice aesthetic touch

Speaking of aesthetics, Vault is dripping in steampunk tropes. Automatons, being the old timey English word for robots before the Czech coined the word robots, are all over the place. Clockwork gadgets and tech are all over the place. That clockwork cat on the front is actually Alice’s cat. There are airships and pirates. The British women are all prim and proper. The Americans are dashing rogues. Even if you just barely touch steampunk, these are all tropes you’ve seen before.

So what’s made me blast through this book in just a couple days? A slow day at work helped, but remember, tropes are just tools for the writer. The same hammer that tacks a picture nail can build a whole house. Steampunk tropes infuse every aspect of the book, but they never felt stale once. Vault ran at an invigorating pace. It is spot on and absolutely flies. Remember the Third Ward? Vault is a steampunk secret agent book. The world is going to get saved here and that’s something that involves a lot of running, shooting, explosions and occasional punching.

Harper gives us two POV characters in Vault, Alice and Gavin. I liked them both but I felt Alice was a much cooler character. She feels she’s obligated to conform to a very stuffy British society because she’s the daughter of a baron. She doesn’t really want to, as much as she keeps telling herself. Her talents are way more inline with building and fixing automatons. Alice is a woman who wants to change and struggles to accept it within herself so she can act upon it. It’s a slow play, change doesn’t come to her in any sort of sudden realization. That kind of stuff is very compelling to me even if you can see point Z from the start at point A. The journey is well written which is what matters.

And that’s the pattern throughout this book. The secret agent aspects of Vault are certainly unique, but overall I had a feeling of “the familiar done very well.” Even steampunk dabblers would probably feel this way. Vault is a kindred spirit of Boneshaker. That’s a good thing though. Boneshaker is to steampunk as Neuromancer is to cyberpunk. Nothing wrong with being influenced by the best. Even as first in a series, Vault took the time to tie up most of the loose ends. There’s just enough to throw you into the next book but no rage inducing cliffhanger. There’s a lot of potential in the lead up to Book Two. I seriously want to see this world’s China. I’ve certainly been left wanting to read more. That’s a theme for me this week.