Steampunk — Paul Roland

Cover of Steampunk

Paul Roland
191 pages including index
published in 2014

If I felt more nasty Reginald Pikedevant’s excellent cri de coeur against steampunk fakery would be my whole review. I spotted Steampunk: Back to the Future with the New Victorians in the library among the new books and thought “great, just the sort of field guide I need to come to grips with this newfangled steampunk nonsense”. Sadly though this turned out to be just a shallow cash in which told me little I didn’t know written in an irritating manner that had my hackles up halfway through the first chapter.

The danger in writing about steampunk is that one starts to write as if one was indeed a Victorian gentleman, with all the loquaciousness and florid prose that image conjurs up. I can’t do that convincingly and neither can Roland, but he gives in to the temptation occasionally, where his normal writing style is much more casual. These style clashes are jarring and annoying, but would’ve only been a minor annoyance had the rest of the book been better.

Modern steampunk is more than just a literary subgenre, but something of a lifestyle, with artists, writers, musicians and not in the least costume makers inspired by the idea of an alternate, up to date Victorian aesthetic. To give a comprehensive picture of this subculture in less than twohundred pages is a challenge. You need a firm grip on the essentials, a vision of what steampunk means throughout all its various incarnations in art, music, literature and costuming. If you can’t or won’t do it, you run the danger of drowning in details and names.

I think Roland makes two mistakes in Steampunk: he doesn’t provide real definition or vision of what steampunk means to him and compounds his error by dividing his chapters by artform, looking at each in isolation. With the limited space he has for each (literature, music, art, costuming/clothing, movies, conventions and the internet) it’s no wonder each chapter is mostly name checking and listing the requisite names. One feature of the book that could’ve helped in this regard, the short interviews with key figures Roland provides, actually end up hindering because they lack any real depth.

I didn’t catch Roland out in any gross mistakes in the part of steampunk culture I know most about, the part that started as a science fiction subgenre, but neither did I get to read much new. Roland touches briefly on the actual nineteenth century scientific romance writers like Wells and Verne but is right not to consider them part of steampunk — lacking that sense of nostalgia and retrofuturism that’s essential to the genre. He then moves on to proto-steampunk like Moorcock’s The Land Leviathan before talking about K. W. Jeter’s “invention” of the genre by analogue to cyberpunk in the late eighties, to refer to the books he and his friends James Blaylock and Tim Powers were writing. Roland is a bit snippy about those early steampunk books, finding them too wild to be real steampunk, not fitting neatly into what the genre would later become.

These were in my view the most coherent chapters in the book, Roland’s short overview of the history of steampunk as a genre and his survey of contemporary steampunk writers. The chapters after that, diving into music and such, are less interesting. When most of the artists interviewed say that they didn’t consider themselves steampunk, you have a problem. It might have helped if he had put the subculture and steampunk fandom front and center rather than trying to cram everything remotely steampunk related into the book.

This isn’t a completely hopeless book, but it’s shapeless and doesn’t rise much above enumeration of steampunk artifacts in its analysis. It needed a better vision to provide a proper narrative. You’re better off just reading the Wikipedia or TVtropes pages on steampunk and following the links…

Essential books for a school library

In a comment on the Otherbound review, Robert asked:

Suppose you could recommend 100 books for a high school library (ages 14-18). What books would you want the librarian to buy, and why? (Fiction, non-fiction… whatever you think it important for teenagers to read.)

I’m not sure I could answer this on my own, so let’s throw it out to everybody. What would you recommend as books that should be in any (American) school library? And why? What YA fiction would you want everybody to read, or which history or science books should a clever fourteen year old encounter? Anything slightly subversive that’s essential to becoming a well rounded adult?

LonCon3: books bought

Of course I bought books at LonCon3, almost forty of them in fact. Below I’ll discuss them briefly.

Books from the Womens Press

Ian Sales has been extolling the virtues of the Women’s Press science fiction line for a while and one dealer had a whole stack available. Apart from the Joanna Russ Adventures of Alix, there’s Doris Piserchia’s Star Rider, Carol Emshwiller’s Carmen Dog, Lorna Mitchell’s The Revolution of Saint Jone and Rosaleen Love’s Total Devotion Machine.

Doris Piserchia DAW books

This led me in turn to look for more Doris Piserchia books, she being one of those writers who had been regularly published by DAW in the seventies and early eighties and then just sort of disappeared. Another Ian Sales rediscovery, I found about half a dozen of her novels at the con. As the bloke standing next to me at the stall, who turned out to be Kev McVeight, Piserchia is a seriously weird but interesting writer.

Critical books

I also bought a couple of critical books, two of Paul Kincaid and Andrew M. Butler’s Solar Flares, the blog version of which is still listed on my blogroll.

Books from Gollancz

Browsing the Gollancz stand I found myself standing next to Paul McAuley, one of my favourite writers for several decades now and I got the chance to talk to him a bit. I told him about reading Fairyland on the same Den Haag tramline as was featured in the book. I got the Jaine Fenn novel to help me get to 25 pound and the free tote bag…

Small press books

Ticonderoga Publications is an Australian small press whose Steve Utley collections I noticed when they sparked a hazy memory of reading one of his short stories in one of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best collections. I ended up buying both of his collections as well as a Justina Robson collection. The Nina Allan novella I got from TTA.

other books bought

Actually, I could’ve bought a lot more books than just this.

Books from the LonCon3 library

But unfortunately there also was the free library so I got a half dozen more.

UPDATE: almost forgot, I also bought all of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman novels because she’d dropped the price on the first two for LonCon3.

What Makes this Book So Great — Jo Walton

Cover of What Makes this Book So Great

What Makes this Book So Great
Jo Walton
446 pages
published in 2014

What Makes this Book So Great is that it’s written by Jo Walton, who has a real talent for making you both reconsider books you know well or long for books you’ve never heard of before. I’ve known Jo for almost twenty years now, from when we both independently discovered internet, usenet and rec.arts.sf.written, where it didn’t take long for her to become one of the most interesting posters there. It was no great surprise that she became a professional writer, or that Tor would ask her to do the same thing she did on usenet on their website, the end result of which is this book. You could call it the non-fiction counterpart of Jo’s Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others

What this is than is a collection of some 130 columns written for in 2008-2010, mostly discussing a single book, sometimes going into more general topics about reading books. As Jo makes clear from the start, she isn’t a critic and she’s not reviewing these books, she’s just writing about the books she’s reading and why she likes them. Because she’s been reading for a long time, because she’s a writer herself, because she’s been thinking and talking about books, about science fiction in the ways only an intelligent lifelong reader can, these columns are interesting whether or not you’ve read the books in question.

Now Jo Walton is one of the persons who’ve done a lot in shaping my own reading over the past twenty years and a lot of the novels she’s talking about here we used to discuss on usenet way back when. Reading this felt a lot like going back to those days and at times I wanted this to be an usenet discussion rather than a book just to say “yes, but” or “have you thought of”.

To be honest, because she did so much to shape my reading, because so many of the books she likes are also favourites of mine, it’s hard to be very objective about this book. Whether or not you’ll like it depends on how much you like Jo’s voice and enthusiasms. If you’ve read Among Others you’ll already know that she grew up reading science fiction in the seventies and that while she does read outside of the science fiction and fantasy genres, those are her home turf.

Her tastes, as seen in the columns collected here, run to the more literary part of the genre, rather than the hardcore Heinlein/Campbellian tradition. Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke do appear, but writers like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Tanith Lee, Ursula LeGuin or Jack Womack get as much if not more attention. Jo also spends much time looking over less well known writers, both writing inside and outside the genre, to bring to the attention interesting books otherwise overlooked. It’s interesting to see which writers she pays the most attention to, which seem to be mostly those writers rec.arts.sf.written was in love with in the nineties: both Steve Brust’s Draegeran novels and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga get long series of reviews, as do the Alliance/Union novels of C. J. Cherryh. Other rasfw darlings like Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks and John Barnes also make multiple appearances.

The picture of Jo Walton you get is that of an intelligent, demanding reader who wants both intellectual stimulance as well as a good story. She doesn’t have much truck with experimental writing, or so it seems, as most of the book talked about are fairly mainstream in their construction, but doesn’t go for much pulp either, the occasional indulgence like Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries nonewithstanding.

I’d read a lot of these columns when they first appeared on a few years ago, but rereading them was no punishment. What Makes this Book So Great made me want to reread those books I already knew about and seek out those that were new to me, which I find is the ultimate sign of a book like this: to make you curious about the books discussed.

Type: The Secret History of Letters – Simon Loxley

Cover of Type: The Secret History of Letters

Type: The Secret History of Letters
Simon Loxley
248 pages, including index
published in 2004

Typography is one of those ultra-nerdy obsessions that sweep through geekdom every few years or so, with people getting het up about Comics Sans again. It can all seem incredibly tedious, but in the right hand typography and its history can become interesting. Fortunately, Simon Loxley is up to the challenge. Type: the Secret History of Letters treats the history of typesetting and fonts by showing the highlights, each chapter looking at a different development, without necessarily providing an exhaustive history. This keeps things interesting for people like me, vaguely but not hugely interested in the subject.

What got me to read the book was the first page, which had a concise explanation of the basic terminology of type, with examples. Which means that anytime you got confused when the text was talking about x-height and ascenders or descenders or the difference in serifed and sans serif typefaces, you could easily flip back and refresh your memory. In the same way I like how Loxley provides examples of the fonts he talks about, in the right or left side margins of the page they’re introduced, by showing the most distinctive letters of the font.

Loxley starts his history at the source, Gutenberg. You can’t have print fonts without printing after all. In passing he discusses all the other candidates for the invention of printing, including Holland’s own Laurenszoon Coster. He also uses this introductory chapter to explain the basic technology of the printing press and what typesetting exactly is. From there he moves on to the wonderful world of fonts, of how so many different looking fonts have been designed over the years and what the point of them is.

The original Gutenberg fonts were not so much designed as evolved, as Loxley tells it, from the example of handwritten manuscript. As printing took off and spread across Europe, new fonts were designed to fit local fashions and needs, as shown by the examples of William Caslon and John Baskerville. These fashions slowly changed over the next few centuries until the explosion of type in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with mass literacy and the rise of the advertisement industry. Loxley tells this story by hitting the hightlight, focusing on the main designers of an era like e.g Frederic Goudy or Eric Gill. Inbetween he has some detours to subjects only of secondary interest to the main topic, like the rise of micro foundries.

All this makes for a somewhat disjoined narrative, though to be honest if Loxley had attempted a more exhaustive history it would become boring anyway. That’s always the problem with writing a general introductory history on such a complicated subject, finding the right balance between depth and interest. Loxley for the most part managed to get this right, even if he sometimes lost himself in the details.