Reading

Why Isn't This Available In Canada?

I was browsing some free, public domain science fiction ebooks on Amazon. While I don't have a Kindle ereader, the Kindle app is available for the Mac, the iPad, and the BlackBerry. To my surprise, a number of these titles are not available for customers from Canada. Seriously? Get with it, Amazon. Books of interest that are unavailable in Canada include, but are certainly not limited to:

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth [Kindle Edition]. Jules Verne.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea [Kindle Edition]. Jules Verne.

The War of the Worlds [Kindle Edition]. H.G. Wells.

The Time Machine [Kindle Edition]. H.G. Wells.

A Princess of Mars [Kindle Edition]. Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions [Kindle Edition]. Edwin Abbott Abbott.

All of these are available free of charge to American readers, and are in the public domain in the USA and in Canada. While it's understandable (although extremely frustrating) for books still under the original copyright protection to be unavailable in Canada in electronic form, such as Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's Odyssey, it's simply baffling as to why these works are unavailable in Canada. I would suspect that the party responsible for formatting the text in the kindle file format has added an extra layer of red tape. Perhaps someone forgot to check a box. Either way, it's an inconvenience.

Perhaps there is far more involved in properly typesetting these works for the Kindle format than I realize. However, the text has already been completely digitized, and included in multiple formats already on the Gutenberg site, in multiple formats which also include kindle-ready files. I'm suspicious of any moral rights to these "official" kindle editions over and above any work done on the Gutenberg site. I recognize that Gutenberg does not assert any copyright over the text of the works, even going so far as to say that "If you strip the Project Gutenberg license and all references to Project Gutenberg from the ebook, you are left with a public domain ebook. You can do anything you want with that."

When republished with new material, such as a new introduction or forward, placing the work in context, the work can be protected again under copyright. Perhaps this is what is being done here. Interestingly, the publisher on record for at least some of these Kindle editions is "Public Domain Books".

Basically, it comes down to this: Why aren't these available in Canada, and in other parts of the world where they are public domain?

Federations: The Shoulders of Giants by Robert J. Sawyer

As I've already reviewed one of the other stories in the Federations anthology, I thought I would review "The Shoulders of Giants" written by Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer. This story was the lead story in Star Colonies, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, of DAW books, which was published in June 2000. It was a finalist for the Aurora Award, as the Best English-Language Short Story for 2000. It has since been reprinted in Federations (2009), edited by John Joseph Adams. The text for the story is also available on Sawyer's website, and has also been included in Robert J. Sawyer's short story collection Iterations, published by Red Deer Press in 2002.

The title of this story is an allusion to the words most famously written by Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants" in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676. The phrase can be attributed even earlier, as in 1159, John of Salisbury attributed this phrase to Bernard, a scholar in Chartes.

When one reads science fiction, it's often easy to see only the future, without considering the impact of the past. Science fiction actually has more of a claim on tradition, as it pays homage to many great scientific theories and figures.

Sawyer's story was not quite what I had first expected. There are no physical confrontations. When the people of earth aboard the Pioneer Spirit arrive at their destination in Tau Ceti after 1200 years in cyrogenic transport, they do not find alien beings, but instead other humans. As Sawyer notes, "while the colonists aboard the Pioneer Spirit had slept, some dreaming at an indolent pace, other ships had zipped past them, arriving at Tau Ceti decades, if not centuries, earlier -- Long enough ago that they'd already built human cities on Soror."

The theme that Sawyer presents is both ambitious and modest. The pioneers reached for the stars when they were first within grasp. They reached their objective, only to find their achievements eclipsed by the ones who follow. Sawyer pays homage to the greats authors of science fiction who came before, "Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Herbert, Niven, and all the others upon whose shoulders the SF writers of my generation are fortunate enough to stand."  More than just paying respects to the past, it's an acknowledgement of the importance of reaching for the stars. Without those few giants among us, there would be no stepping stones for future generations.

It's an appropriate story for this anthology, which John Joseph Adams notes in his introduction to the anthology that writers such as Sawyer "are keeping the tradition alive, building on what the generations before have laid out, innovating to keep the sub-genre fresh and vital".

The Gernsback Continuum

The lead story in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is The Gernsback Continuum, by William Gibson. This story is quite different from the Difference Engine, the novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In this story, some sort of temporal rift enables the narrator to see a future that never was. All the great impossible dreams of the 1930s exist, beyond the veil of reality. In some ways, I felt like I was reading a Philip K. Dick novel, except in Gibson's story, the character never fully enters this vision of the past.

The Gernsback Continuum is a great story for introducing the concept of retro-futurism, one of the recurring signifiers in steampunk, according to noted steampunk scholar Mike Perschon. According to Perschon, "If a writer wants to convey the future without any nods to the past, they don't fly in airships. Airships are a failed technology that require fictional motive power or construction materials to be made viable." It's the sense of unharnessed potential that slipped away. In steampunk works, retrofuturism tends to emphasize the aspects of a proposed technology which are most impossible, like "a twelve-engined thing like a bloated boomerang, all wing, thrumming its way east with an elephantine grace, so low that I could count the rivets in its dull silver skin, and hear--maybe--the echo of jazz" (Gibson).

Gibson's story gives a glimpse of these grand visions from the past, and evokes a sense of nostalgia for these monuments to what might have been. This story is quite interesting when compared to the main body of Gibson's work, which rarely looks to the past. With the Gernsback Continuum, Gibson unleashes the limitless potential of the 1930s, were it not for the pesky laws of physics. It's interesting how much of the story is dedicated to the aesthetics, an important aspect of steampunk. Ultimately, this story is a celebration of the imagination, about the dream that never came to fruition.

It's a good opening to Steampunk Reloaded, giving a feel to the retrofuturistic aesthetics. Instead of going for the neo-victorian feel, Gibson instead evokes the unbridled optimism of early 1930s American architecture and design.

Bookstores and Customer Service

The other day, I was surprised as I was going through the drive through at a local fast food restaurant. The person taking my order was happy and cheerful, and the service was prompt and accurate. It's a sad sign for the food service industry when I take note of cheerful service as something exceptional. After considering some of the terrible service I've gotten recently at some other local establishments, this lead me to consider other aspects of our consumer-oriented economy. When book shopping, there is often a large price difference between buying a book in a local chain store, such as Chapters, and online stores, such as Amazon or even chapters.ca.

Often, the selection of books I'm interested in purchasing is also extremely lacking in store. While the store employees assure me they can order the books in, or that I can even use the in-store computer kiosk to order them myself, the fact remains that the price is still significantly higher than what I can get online.

What the in-store experience does provide is personal recommendations from staff. This requires however, that the staff is knowledgeable about the genres of books (fiction or non-fiction) that you're interested in, and will give you suggestions within that genre, not just what they've read and liked. Sadly, I've not found this to be the case at my particular stores. While staff is perfectly capable of recommending the latest novel by a well-known author, they're less likely to be aware of the particular niche that I'm interested in, or in recommending newer, less known authors.

Another area in which the in-store experience excels is impulse buying. I can see something new, hold it in my hands, and walk out with it immediately. This is often a very good way of learning about new authors. Browsing the spines, evaluating cover artwork, reading cover blurbs, and skimming through several pages can be a great way to find someone new to read.

Something which I've started to do is to look up a book review using my smartphone. Has it been favourably reviewed? Has the author written anything else? However, these are searches that are much easier to accomplish from the comfort of my own home.

I realize that there are considerable costs which much be covered in the operation of a brick and mortar bookstore, which makes cost competitiveness with the online stores difficult, if not impossible. The area in which these stores can truly excel, compared to the online stores is in customer service, something that isn't easily achieved, except in smaller, independent bookstores. Stores like Bakka-Pheonix Books in Toronto, or Words Worth Books in Kitchener give great, personable customer service. Compared to big chain stores, they're better equipped to greet customers on their way into the store, and tend to be more involved with the success of the store as a whole. They want you to come back as a person, not just as a number with a wallet.

Ancient Writing and the Odyssey

How are texts passed down through history? In my English 301H class, we're studying a modern english translation of The Odyssey, by Homer. Interestingly, scholars believe that the Odyssey and the Iliad were both composed some five hundred years before the alphabet was developed and became used in ancient Greece. Five hundred years of oral recitation and recomposition passed before the poem was codified in writing. How are texts transmitted and recomposed through time? While I have mentioned the recent edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and how some of the language has changed, the question itself dates back much further, to the time of the Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Academic scholars today believe that the sack of Troy was a historical event, which took place around 1300BCE, roughly five hundred years before the Phoeneicians introduced the alphabet to ancient Greece.

There are several theories about how the version written down came to be. The Odyssey's complex structure was originally thought by scholars to have been formed during the recording of the poem into writing. Newer theories suggest instead that the complex structure would have aided the bards in the recitation of the poem, as a form of mnemonic. This theory suggests that the Odyssey was not recited word for word, but re-composed from a common template, every recitation a new work of art. As the recorded version contains over twelve thousand lines of poetry, I can easily see how the composition of the poem during recitation, based on a structured skeleton could be preferable to the rote memorization of a lengthy poem.

I don't know how many times it was edited after being first committed to written words, but there are signs that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus commissioned a revision of Homer's works, from 546-524 BCE. This is presumably the source of the "canonical" Greek text of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The further heritage of the text is interesting, when one looks at the number of texts which use Odysseus and his journeys as the source for further writings. The Romans called him Ulysses, and portrayed him as a villain. Odysseus appears in Dante's Inferno, and James Joyce's Ulysses has many things in common with the voyages of Odysseus.

Harperland: The Politics of Control

While my selection of non-fiction is usually restricted to science-fiction, or philosophical literary texts, Lawrence Martin's book Harperland: The Politics of Controlwas far too intriguing to pass up, especially since I took a media theory course last term.

One thing made clear in the text: as Stephen Harper doesn't like positive books, written by close colleagues, Martin's critical text would clearly have drawn the ire of the Prime Minister's Office. This text also doesn't pull any punches. While Martin is newspaper columnist, this is not an impartial book. The language is slightly coloured at times, in describing Harper's actions. That said, everything is well documented, and Martin relies heavily on interviews with former insiders.

Harperland does take a clear stance: a great deal of Harper's success in Parliament is due to the strict control of information put in place when the Conservative minority government was formed. Despite having campaigned in terms of government reform and transparency, Martin shows how Harper's Conservative government has gone to greater lengths than any previous Canadian government, or even American governments, in controlling and restricting the flow of information, and controlling the flow of government committees.

In particular, Martin shows how Harper's form of leadership is particularly divisive. Through a numerous string of specific examples, Martin shows how Stephen Harper's inner circle attacked not only those in the Liberal Party, but any member of their own party who showed dissent. While promising Canadians parliamentary reform, Martin instead presents us with a prime minister who threatens Canada's democratic traditions, dividing and conquering.

These wedge politics were crucial in the 2008 elections. As Martin notes, Harper used the election to directly attack the leadership of Stephane Dion. Throughout the campaign, the Conservatives spent more time and energy attacking the policies of the other parties, then announcing any significant new policies of their own. The manner in which cuts to arts and culture was announced was seen as a direct attack against Quebec's language and culture, leading to serious drops in the polls in Quebec.

Martin also explains how Harper used wedge politics during the coalition crisis, painting it as an alliance between the Liberals, the socialists (NDP) and the separatists (Bloc Québécois). While this succeeded in buying Harper the time needed to defeat the coalition, it also seems to have caused future setbacks in Quebec. Wedge politics are aptly named. Rather than bridging together the differences between Quebec and western Canada, Harper has driven a further wedge between them. Whether this will continue in the future remains to be seen.

Martin's book suggests that Stephen Harper has a "dark, vindictive side of his character--a side that at times he could not subdue, and that on several occasions, such as the government's budget update in November 2008, threatened to bring him down" (175). This book is frightening in it's implications. While many Canadians may be aware of some of the broader elements in the book, especially those who keep a wary eye on our politicians, the depth and breadth of the secrecy implemented by the Harper government, and the scope of the changes occurring in the government bureaucracy is surprising even to those who already suspected as much. That Harper has made this many changes in a mere four years, while in control of a fragile minority government is telling, and leads this reader to wonder what further changes will occur if Harper receives the majority government he so clearly desires.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in politics, from either side of the political spectrum. While Martin's book does not present Stephen Harper in the best light, it clearly shows how Harper has been so effective during a minority government situation.

Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy

This short story by Catherynne M. Valente is the final story of the Federations science fiction anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams. The anthology contains a diverse set of stories, but for me, Valente's story is the most memorable. While many of the other stories in the anthology focus on interstellar warfare, or diplomatic relations, Valente begins with "the difficulties of transporting wine over interstellar distances," which I found to be an intriguing hook. It took me off guard from the outset, especially as Valente reveals that the wines in question are "wholly, thoroughly, enthusiastically illegal".

The story unfolds as seven glasses of illicit wine are tasted, and their individual stories told, revealing a rich backdrop of corporate intrigue, and blockade running. The feeling is reminiscent of the rum runners from the prohibition era in North America, only instead of running up against the government, Valente presents a vicious corporate embargo. Valente's lyrical language matches the subject perfectly, like a fine wine of its own.

Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy is an excellent piece to finish off the Federations anthology, and has left me quite interested in tracking down more of Catherynne Valente's stories.

Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel first published by Mark Twain in 1884, is no stranger to controversy. It has been frequently challenged for it's place in school curriculums, and public libraries. This book appears in several of the top ten most frequently challenged books of the year, as tracked by the American Library Association. It also appears in the top lists for each of the past two decades. The most frequent reason given for challenging Twain's book is racism. Can we therefore be surprised that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being announced by NewSouth Books, where all instances of the word "nigger" are being replaced with "slave"? Does this proposed new edition really provide a solution to these charges of racism, or is this merely whitewashing the issue?

Does replacing this racist term with "slave" address the charges of racism, or does it merely hide them? Is not one of the important aspects of this book, the reminder that for much of early American history, those of African descent were treated as subhuman, owned as livestock?

While this new edition will still depict slavery, will the reminder that being a slave was determined by the hue of one's skin be forgotten?

What impact can we foresee about this new edition of Huckleberry Finn? While the cofounders of NewSouth have stated that there is "a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial," they acknowledge that there are claims of censorship. To this, they argue that "there are plenty of other books out there -- all of them, in fact -- that faithfully replicate the text" (Publisher Weekly).

How difficult is it now going to be, however, for a school to choose one of these more traditional texts, when those who challenge the original text can point to this edition as being less controversial? How many opportunities to address the issue of Huck's racist statements in a classroom setting will be lost, in order that others may read this watered down edition?

While I do appreciate the editor's introduction, which attempts to explain these editorial changes to the reader, Alan Gribbens fails to show in this new edition how the casual usage of this term by an otherwise innocent boy shows how entrenched the racial slavery was in the lower States in the 1850s. Gribbens even notes how the change to "slave" loses the "caustic sting" of the original word.

When reading the novel in it's full context, one can see how Twain is challenging the traditional values towards the enslavement and ownership of African Americans, as Huckleberry Finn's views towards "his" Jim change from an owned slave, to a friend whom he must break free. While the ending of the novel does tend to go over the top with Tom Sawyer's ludicrous attempts at freeing Jim, it is Huck's earnest desire to free his friend that shows how Twain sought to bring social justice to those enslaved.

Holiday Books

Books I received over the holidays include include:

  • Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader. Edited by Mike Ashley
  • The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
  • Media Writing: A Practical Introduction by Craig Batty and Sandra Cain
  • After Theory by Terry Eagleton
  • Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins
  • Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I'm really looking forward to the Steampunk books, especially the anthology put together by the VanderMeers. My copy of their previous steampunk anthology is well worn, and has a lovely hand-drawn zeppelin drawn by Ann at the 2010 Montreal WorldCon.

The Media writing and Convergence Culture texts are for a course I'll be taking in January on writing for the media. The course sounds interesting, and the regular written exercises should be good practice, thinking about writing in a different fashion.

Previous to Christmas, I picked up a few other books:

  • Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Stephen Jones
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Zizek
  • Mythologies by Barthes
  • Empire of Signs by Barthes
  • How We Became Posthuman, by N. Katherine Hayles
  • Terminal Identity: the Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction by Scott Bukatman
  • Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster
  • Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
  • Nothing Rhymes With Orange: Perfect Words for Poets, Songwriters, and Rhymers, by Bessie G. Redfield and Hope Vestergaard
  • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Retribution Falls, by Chris Wooding

I've finished Dreadnought already, which is a brilliant sequel to Boneshaker. It's a stronger novel than the first, and has a much cleaner narration. To be reviewed shortly.

The Necronomicon is a wonderful black faux-leather trade paperback. I've not previously read much of Lovecraft. From the few short stories I've managed out if this text so far, his writing drips atmosphere, although the serial nature of many of his longer stories adds a great deal of repetition.

Another Year, Another Blog Post

Happy new year! Or something like that. It appears that I haven't managed to post any items to my blog. I guess I've been testing another new steam-powered elephant gun or something.

I wonder how many blog postings on otherwise dormant blogs occur on the first of the year? I've been thinking about new years resolutions, evaluating them using the SMART methodology. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Things that can be achieved in a reasonable amount of time.

I haven't managed to work out specifics yet, but one thing is to write more blog entries. In particular, writing about what I've been reading, both fiction and non-fiction. Last week I finished reading R. Scott Bakker's "The Judging Eye," the first book in his Aspect-Emperor trilogy, a continuation of his Prince of Nothing series. Parts of this story are clearly an attempt to revisit Tolkien, and the trip through the mines of Moria. While clearly evocative of Moria, Bakker brings a much darker perspective to things. I enjoyed Bakker's previous books, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this new series. There are clearly story lines in this newest work which haven't fully developed in this first volume, but which I expect to see fleshed out in the next book.

Under Heaven

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from Penguin Canada My first experience reading the work of Guy Gavriel Kay was a borrowed copy of the Fionavar Tapestry. My copy of the book has since wandered off into other hands. Later, I discovered that this author was the Guy Kay whom Christopher Tolkien acknowledged for his aid in the editing of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. While the Fionavar Tapestry, and his 2007 novel Ysabel meld fantasy with modern day characters, most of Kay's novels merge fantasy with historical fiction, and remain entirely in a fictional world.

As is often the case in his novels, Under Heaven takes place at a turning point in history. We are presented with a land that can go in different ways. The sense of nostalgia of the end of a golden age is here, and so is the sense that the future cannot be foreseen.

Kay presents the concept of balance in all things to be a central focus of Under Heaven, and this can be seen throughout the text. Many characters in the novel are paired, as if to balance the forces. When the balance is broken, things begin to fall apart. Tai's initial act of piety, burying the bones of both sides of past battles, is emblematic of this theme of balance.

Someone with more knowledge of Chinese history than I likely has knowledge of the period of history Kay uses as the starting point for the novel. The parallels are there, I'm sure, in the broad strokes.

I enjoyed this story more than I did Ysabel. While I did not find it quite as poignant a story as Tigana, once again Kay has written another historically based fantasy. If you've read and liked some of Guy Gavriel Kay's other novels, you will want to pick this one up.

Current Reading

A quick overview of my current reading projects. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, by William St Clair

As can likely be guessed by the title, this is an academic study of reading habits throughout the Romantic period. It actually goes further than this, with a thorough examination of how intellectual property laws were developed to support the printing industry, and how this affected book prices, print runs, and general availability of books through the Romantic and Victorian ages. There are roughly three hundred pages of appendices containing tables of print runs and unit price of various works of interest throughout the period. It's a very complex study, and I've only read a few chapters so far, but I've been quite impressed so far. The impact of intellectual property is especially relevant today, especially when one considers the Google Books settlement. I'm certainly oversimplifying the importance of this book, I just haven't read enough of it yet to fully grasp whats going on.

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

I'm reading the Bison Books edition from 2006, which aside from a few minor alterations, exactly follows the text of the first (1826) edition. I've only read two chapters so far, and I intend on taking notes while reading this. I can see some similarities already with Frankenstein, as Lionel starts out a rough savage, to be later educated in the classics. The opening chapters focus on the wilderness and freedom of youth, which I expect to recur as the novel progresses. It should be a most interesting novel.

Campus Chills, edited by Mark Leslie

I read several of the stories in this anthology when it launched, and I'm finally getting around to finishing it off. The best stories so far have been ones deeply rooted in a particular location. Three of the stories were written by Waterloo graduates. Julie E. Czerneda's "The Forever Brotherhood", James Alan Gardner's "Truth-Poison", and Douglas Smith's "Radio Nowhere" all take place on the Waterloo campus. I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch in October, and all three read excerpts from their stories. Kimberly Foottit and Mark Leslie wrote "Prospero's Ghost" which takes place at McMaster. "Different Skins" by Michael Kelly takes place on Philosopher's Walk at the University of Toronto.

The story I liked best from this anthology is Douglas Smith's "Radio Nowhere", which has recently been posted on his website. While all the stories give some view of the supernatural, hauntings and horror, "Radio Nowhere" also carried a great melancholic sense of guilt and  loss. It's a great story.

I'm reading some other books at the moment as well, but they're currently on hold while I focus on these.

Book Review: Steel Whispers

I would like to recommend Steel Whispers, by Hayden Trenholm for the Aurora Award this year. This is an exciting sequel to Defining Diana, which was nominated last year. This novel once again follows Frank Steele in a brilliantly imagined future Calgary. The pacing of this novel started off strong, and kept me reading at a frenetic pace. In particular, the opening hook has a great deal of emotional impact, and as the mystery draws itself out, layers of character development are revealed. Within the first pages, Frank Steele begins investigating the murder of his estranged son, as part of an ongoing case of Borg (cyborg) murders. Frank protests his emotional investment in the case, and the novel focuses on how Frank comes to understand his son. Hayden builds on this initial level of emotional tension throughout the novel, in a remarkable novel.

The revelation that his son had Borg implants is particularly interesting, and handled in a manner consistent with gender identity studies. When Frank asks his ex-wife about their son's implants, she replies that he was "like all kids - enamoured with what was new and different. He hung with that dress-up crowd at college" but she also admits that she didn't "pay much attention. I thought it was a fad" (14). She seems genuinely confused as to what actually defines a Borg.

This point is highlighted by one of the viewpoint characters, Buzz Wannamaker, who in addition to being a Borg, is also Native American. Frank notes that "his parents had enough trouble accepting he was Borg without him talking to voices in his head" (26). This dual concept of identity explores the problem of how we see ourselves, and how others see us. When Frank later asks him to define what defines a Borg, Wannamaker suggests that it is not the implants, or at least not just the implants but that "something inside us makes us Borg" (98). This way in which this argument is handled is well done, and quite evocative of some of the LGBT issues in contemporary society.

As a culture inherently different from the social norm, there are other comparisons to gender studies. While "some of the Borg didn't look much different than regular humans with all of the modifications and augmentation hidden under their skin", others "liked to flaunt their changes" (10). Due in part to their refusal to submit to the social norms, the Borg are social outcasts. With regards to the Borg murder case, Frank notes that the "press was having a field day with the idea of a Borg serial killer, alternating between a sick fascination with the grisly details and vicious speculation on whether the culprit should be hunted down or given a medal" (16). As seen throughout history, those who are different suffer persecution from cultural orthodoxy.

The investigation into his son's death is linked together with this sense of identity, and Frank comes to finally learn about his son, and to accept who he became. The action and tension in the story is well maintained, building up towards an exciting confrontation near the end. Hayden's characters are much more fully developed in this story, as they evolve from detective-noir style caricatures and confront their inner demons. This is a great strength of the novel, as Hayden can effectively characterize with a few sentences, later to build very complex characters whose struggles, failures and successes are meaningful.

This focus on identity has brought an interesting Canadian perspective into the novel.

Fast Ships, Black Sails

I picked up Fast Ships, Black Sails at Worldcon this year, and have finally gotten around to finishing it. This is a pirate themed, science-fiction/fantasy anthology of short stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and published by Night Shade Books.

  • "Boojum" by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
  • "Castor on Troubled Waters" by Rhys Hughes
  • "I begyn as I Mean To Go On" by Kage Baker
  • "Avast, Abaft!" by Howard Waldrop
  • "Elegy to Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores, and Righteous Thieves" by Kelly Barnhill
  • "Skillet and Saber" by Justin Howe
  • "The Nymph's Child" by Carrie Vaughn
  • "68° 07′ 15″N, 31° 36′ 44″W" by Conrad Williams
  • "Ironface" by Michael Moorcock
  • "Pirate Solutions" by Katherine Sparrow
  • "We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars" by Brendan Connell
  • "Voyage of the Iguana" by Steve Aylett
  • "Pirates of the Suara Sea" by David Freer and Eric Flint
  • "A Cold Day in Hell" by Paul Batteiger
  • "The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth" by Rachel Swirsky
  • "Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake" by Naomi Novik
  • "The Whale Below" by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
  • "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe" by Garth Nix

The VanderMeers start this anthology off with a bang with "Boojum", where we are introduced to a living entity being used as a spaceship, and being attacked by pirates. This immediately brings the fantastic elements of this anthology.

Sparrow's "Pirate Solutions" was perhaps the most unexpected of the stories, as it deals more with data pirates than high seas pirates. It didn't quite match the same feel as the other stories, but was still enjoyable.

Another favourite was "Pirates of the Suara Sea". Freer and Flint do an excellent job of characterizing the alien Altekar: "There are lots more deck-planks. Maybe even... five."

"The Voyage of the Iguana" is an absurdist piece, and quite amusing. It's a series of short journal entries documenting the voyage of an incompetent captain and his crew.

Paul Batteiger's "A Cold Day in Hell" was an interesting concept of piracy on the high ice sheets, in a world undergoing a new ice age. The ships, instead of floating on water, skate over the ice.

Perhaps the most memorable story in the collection is Rachel Swirsky's "The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail". In this tale, the pirates are black hearted rats. It's a wonderful little story, although I was disappointed to see that in this story, ships guns were called canons instead of cannons. It's not a musical piece,  nor is it a selection of works of literature or art.

Novik's tale was another enjoyable fantasy tale, with elements of magic.

Garth Nix's story "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe" is an excellent one to end the anthology. I wished it was a much longer piece, as the characters and setting were quite intriguing.

Overall, a good anthology. There was a great depth of literary references throughout the stories, such as to Lavinia Whateley in "Boojum", and Edward Teach in "Pirates of the Saura Sea". Some stories re-imagine pirates entirely, while other stories are a more traditional retelling, with some added fantasy elements.

Defining Steampunk

Attempts to formally define steampunk are exercises in futility, similar to similar attempts at defining science fiction. Even Damon Knight's definition of SF as "what we mean when we point to it" is problematic, as the "we" no longer refers to a single cohesive group. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines steampunk as a "writer of science fiction which has a historical setting (esp. based on industrialized, nineteenth-century society) and characteristically features steam-powered, mechanized machinery rather than electronic technology; (also) such writing as a subgenre of science fiction," I believe that this definition fails to capture the extent to which it is commonly used. Steampunk is no longer merely a literary genre, as adaptations to film have been embraced as a retrofuturistic style, which has formed an almost entirely unrelated aesthetics movement. Some fellow students in my creative writing class were actually surprised when I mentioned that I was reading steampunk novels. "They have steampunk books now, too?"

When K.W. Jeter coined the term in a letter printed in the April 1987 issue of Locus, it referred to the "gonzo-historical manner" in the Victorian fantasies written by James P. Blaylock, Tim Powers, and K.W. Jeter himself. Since then, the term has been embraced and extended by numerous groups. Any particular definition will depend on which books they have read.

What is required in a steampunk novel? What characterizes steampunk? As Mike Perschon notes, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is in an interesting position. It is much more fantasy than science fiction. It does not really deal with technology in any significant way. It was however, included in Jeter's original term. Does this make it steampunk canon? Setting aside the technological requirements of steampunk, there are certain aspects of The Anubis Gates which are commonly reflected in other steampunk works. Power's novel is an adventure story, based primarily in Victorian London. It includes a number of contemporary literary figures, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Including historical figures is a technique shared with other steampunk novels such as The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, where characters such as John Keats play a role, as well as Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker, which includes the Duwamish indian Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle as a character. One of the key aspects of a steampunk novel appears to be some unbalancing of power, whether it be social or political. This is commonly seen as the "punk" aspect, and Powers certainly includes it in his novel. While Powers is careful not to change historically recorded facts (his works generally fit within a subgenre known as "secret history", which include fantastic elements framed within the recorded framework of history), there are certain revolutionary aspects of his work.

What is needed to declare a work steampunk? Is steam-powered technology necessary? Jay Lake's Mainspring and Escapement novels successfully substitute clockwork machinery. Is technology itself needed? Tim Powers shows us a rule-based magic in the Anubis Gates.  Is the neo-victorian era necessary? While many early steampunk books were based in Victorian London, many are now based in America, while others are based in other imaginary worlds, such as China Mieville's Bas-Lag series. What seems to be important is that the novel is set in a time of political, industrial or social change.

Steampunk may not even necessarily fall under some definitions of science fiction. Often, steampunk uses scientific theories which are no longer plausible. The use of magic in The Anubis Gates would exclude it from some people's definition of SF. The aetheric technologies of K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices would also cause some definitions problematic. The zombie-producing Blight gas in Boneshaker is another more fantastic element.

Steampunk is generally not hard science fiction. However, Gibson and Sterling's Difference Engine eschews most fantastic elements. Their main departure from our timeline is that Babbage's Difference and Analytical Engines worked, were efficient, and formed the backbone of an early information age, leading to large social change. While it was the first steampunk novel I read, and it originally formed the core components of my personal definition of steampunk, The Difference Engine lacks the more fantastic elements which most steampunk novels now include.

Steampunk is a re-imagining of the past. This retaking of the past is inclusive, both of literary forms, and of definitions. When one moves from literature to other forms of media, the boundaries of steampunk become more nebulous. I'm a fan of the anime movie "Steamboy", and it certainly hits most of the characteristics of steampunk. Other movies, such as Will Smith's Wild Wild West, or the film adaptation of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly contain aspects of the steampunk aesthetic, but are less successful at being anything other than a dumb action movie. I think an excellent argument could be made for including Joss Wheedon's Firefly as part of steampunk.

For another look at how someone defines steampunk, see the steampunk FAQ from Cherie Priest.

Defining Diana

While attending Ad Astra in Toronto this year, I had the fortune of attending a number of panel sessions moderated by Hayden Trenholm. He was well-spoken, organized and kept the conversations interesting. His novel, Defining Diana has been nominated for the Prix Aurora Awards for the Best work of SF or Fantasy in a novel or fiction collection by an English Canadian writer, published in 2008. Defining Diana is published by Bundoran Press, based in British Columbia. Strangely, when searching for Defining Diana by the ISBN number (978-0-9782052-0-1), another book by Bundoran Press is returned, The Best of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine. I'm not sure where this problem originated from, however I would have expected a small press to be more aware of small errors such as this. Defining Diana essentially doesn't exist on Amazon, which considering that the book has been nominated for an award, seems to be rather strange.

Defining Diana has a distinctive style, that of the detective noir pulps of the past. The main characters are deeply flawed, to the point where they first appear as caricatures. As the story progresses, the characters are fleshed out. Hayden also plays with character point of view in his novel. While most of the story is narrated in third person, the main chracter of Frank Steele is narrated in first person. This was an interesting choice to make. This deepened my sense of the whole detective noir feel, with the lone detective talking to his bottle of Jack Daniels. In conjuction with the noir style, the switch in POV was quite distracting early on.  The first part of the novel was an introduction to the characters, and while I could appreciate some of the stylistic elements, they weren't familiar ones to me.

Once I overcame my problems with the style, and the main plot had developed more, the story did indeed become gripping. I found Hayden's vision of a future Calgary fascinating. The merging of the noir theme with cyberpunk and posthumanist motifs was quite interesting.

I admit fear at one point, where something similar to the phrase "he had suffered for his research, and now so would I" was written, but thankfully that was once again a conscious decision by Hayden where he then painted  a vague outline of the necessary science, rather than forcing an infodump on the reader.

Instead of focusing on the technobabble, Trenholm digs down to some more interesting philosophical questions regarding bio engineering, and the definition of what it means to be human.

Despite the slow hook, Defining Diana finished quite strongly, leaving several interesting possibilities for the planned sequel, Steel Whispers.  I wish Hayden Trenholm well in the Aurora Awards this year (attending members of Anticipation 2009 can vote here) and look forward to reading Steel Whispers.