Brass Pipes and Neon Rain
I recently finished The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest, the fourth of five in her Clockwork Century series. I’ve always loved these books. The series is one of few works I really like in the Verne/Wells revival that came to be known as ‘steampunk’ after people decided ‘cyberpunk’ was such a cool name that every new style should follow its naming convention. (You can stop now, by the way.)
I should caveat my mixed steam feelings by saying I don’t really believe in a sharp border between substance and style. I don’t think most people do either, I just want to type it out loud. ‘The ideas I’m trying to convey’ and ‘The way I’m conveying ideas’ necessarily blend and twine up in each other, influencing and changing each other until it can be difficult to tease them apart.
That said, it’s no keen observation that a lot of steampunk is so magpie’d by its own aesthetic that it forgets it ever had an idea to begin with. Unless that idea was ‘A lot of objects don’t have tons of brass pipes on them, but, see if you follow me here, what if they did?’ The proliferation of gears and valves on everything does echo the desire to universalize a new technology that often follows its introduction. See the dreams of nuclear cars and homes and popcorn makers in the 50’s, reflected in that era’s sci fi in which fission is as ubiquitous a technology as plastic. But it tends to come off less as a commentary on that tendency than as another example of it, in fiction rather than reality.
Cherie Priest’s steampunk books are rooted in an alternate history of the American Civil War. Even though none of the main characters is directly involved, the ripples of the conflict shake their lives and shape the plot. The fascinating Verne-ish technology on display has the context of war looming behind it, always nodding to the fact that tech tends to advance fastest when people are racing to find new ways to kill each other. The books have a heavy grounding in the mire of history, and the characters are sharply written, with distinct and interesting paths. The complexity and depth of the series means it avoids the sometimes overwhelming whimsy that can permeate steampunk.
Second caveat, I can admit that when styles I’m more into get wrapped up in their own trappings I don’t mind as much. Taste plays a role as always. As much as I roll my eyes at steampunk stories that are yet another rendition of Professor Whirligig’s Flying Copper Cogwheel Splendatorium, I’ll indulge cyberpunk stories that fall back into Johnny Neon’s ‘It’s Always 2AM and Raining; Here’s 1,000 Sarcastic Quips About It.’
Anyway, read Cherie Priest. She’s great. Last year I read her unrelated book The Family Plot, which I think may be the only haunted house novel I have ever read. I’m excited to see what other genres she explores going forward. If she wrote a dyed in the wool space opera I’d be in a midnight line for that thing. Even if it turned out to be Wait, but What If The Napoleonic Wars Were In Spaaaaaaace?