Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Steampunk Everywhere

The steampunk influence is everywhere in science fiction and fantasy these days, and why shouldn't it be? The whole aesthetic is pretty cool--leather and copper and brass and exposed gears, tough yet elegant, retro yet edgy. I'm all for it.

But if you actually read the steampunk influenced literature, there's something more going on than just fashion. For one thing, writers of steampunk really get into language. The language of nineteenth century technology--"cog," "coil," "spring," "clockwork"--is so much more interesting, physical, guttural than the antiseptic language of twenty-first century technology--"quantum," "byte," "field," "tachyon." Steampunk allows writers to get poetic when writing about technology. Steampunk is about the origins of technology, the mythology of how our relationship with machines originally formed.

That mythology is often imbued with sadness, as it is in Genevieve Valentie's Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti. The circus in this meditative steampunk novel is populated mostly with half-human, half-machine performers: a musician who has been turned into his instrument, a strong man trussed up with brass and steal, aerialists whose bones have been replaced with lightweight copper tubing, a man with functional mechanical wings. All of these people have been "fixed" by the circus leader, a woman named only "Boss," who performs her operations in a travelling workshop outfitted with scalpels, saws, pliers and welding torches. Each "fix" comes at a cost, some portion of humanity is lost, but the performers go on trying to be human, trying to love, trying to grow, while becoming ever more dependent on each other, on the circus and on Boss. They travel through a war-torn world and what they bring to the cities they visit is a strange dream as dangerous as it is inspiring.

There is not a lot of plot to Mechanique--a couple of performers vie to be the next fitted with wings and a "government man" begins following the troupe while issuing vague threats--but there is plenty of poetry, sad poetry about people who desperately need their machines. Like much sad poetry, it's both poignant and beautiful.

1 comment :

Sarah Stevenson said...

It sounds disturbing yet cool, although I'm a little worried about your comment that it's light on plot...I like plot. :) But I do like language, too, and I agree with you that steampunk provides opportunities to get really atmospheric and even experimental with words.