Steampunk Trains and Whatnot

I actually had to look up steampunk before writing this post because while I know what it is aesthetically, I’ve never really been sure what it was about other than cogs and goggles and dressing like Victorian nobility who have fallen on hard times. So I can now say with certainty (thanks, Wikipedia) that steampunk is alternate history – usually of the 19th century – with anachronistic technologies but still with Victorian sensibilities.

That said, I just finished reading A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison today. I originally bought it because I read somewhere that it was the origin of steampunk. I am pretty sure that is not accurate now – because it came out in 1972 and is occurs in (an alternate) 1973 and is way more alternate history than steam-anything although there is some interesting technology involved.

The alternate timeline that the book occurs in is super interesting. It’s a world in which America lost its war for independence from the British, and George Washington was put to death as a traitor, and so in 1973 America is still a colony of the British Empire and they decide to build a super fast train line between America and England that goes along the ocean floor. The science of which is discussed at length, although I can’t attest to its accuracy it definitely seemed legit.

The alternate timeline even gets a little self referential with the inclusion of a hypnotist and a medium who think that there are various time streams that exist and who are trying to get in contact with the alternate time stream that is our reality outside of this book. Definitely my favorite part was this even though it’s kind of a bummer and I edited out a bunch of “urghh”s and “arrrgggh”s:

“She spoke, first rambling words, out of context perhaps, nonsense syllables, then clearly she described what never had been.[…]
‘penicillin, petrochemicals, purchase tax…income tax, sales tax, anthrax…Woolworth’s, Marks & Sparks…great ships in the air, great cities on the ground, people everywhere. […] I see strange things. I see armies, warfare, killing, tons, tons, tons of bombs from the air on cities and people below, hate him, kill him, poison gas, germ warfare, napalm […]'”
“We can hear no more, Madame will not approach this area, she cannot stand it, as we can see why instantly. Such terrible nightmare forces. Hearing of it, we are forced to some reluctant conclusions. Perhaps this world does not exist after all, for it sounds terrible and we cannot possibly imagine how it could have become like that, so perhaps it is just the weird imaginings of a medium’s subconscious mind.”

As is almost always the case with sci-fi and especially old sci-fi, I must add UHG THE LADIES. There are technically two named female characters, only one of whom actually says things. And she’s the daughter/stay at home care taker of the story’s patriarch, she is on-again-off-again engaged to the main character based entirely on her father’s wishes. It’s infuriating. But not even a little surprising.

The ending of this book is not my favorite. In an effort to tie up every possible loose end the last 30 pages are so are just really rushed and pretty forced. The patriarch, on his deathbed, changes his personality entirely to resolve unobsolvable obstacles, etc.

That said, I’ll probably read more Harry Harrison soon. Both because he seems to have written some steampunk novels (there’s a whole series about a stainless steel rat?) and I’m still curious about that and also because his name is hilarious.

Giving Up on Jim Butcher

I just cannot read anymore Jim Butcher. Seriously, that guy.

I suppose I should preface this rant by saying that I like the show. So now die hard Dresden Files fans can stop reading because they already ardently disagree with anything I’ll have to say. I understand that the show and the books have little in common and, as a general fan of books, I do understand why that’s annoying. But, aside from being a very loose adaptation, the show was well cast and entertaining. The special effects were even okay-ish.

Now, back to the books.

What’s the male version of the impossible Mary Sue? Harry Sam? Henceforth, that is what I’ll be referring to it as.

Harry Dresden is an EPIC Harry Sam. He’s young in the world of wizarding but so naturally gifted that people are constantly giving him begrudging respect. He’s such a self-proclaimed and widely acknowledged smart-mouthed-d-bag (a trope I enjoy within reason) that people should hate him but, again begrudgingly, instead they fall in behind him even though he keeps endless – and often dangerous – secrets and treats absolutely everyone he knows like a child. Example, you say? Why sure. The werewolves who he only comes to respect after he gets one of them killed by keeping important information a secret and then they are never mad at him. Somehow he’s a horror to look at (again self-proclaimed, although his melted hand does sound unpleasant) but his machismo makes all the ladies swoon. All of them. Murphy? Yep. Luccio, who is hundreds of years his senior and very un-romantically inclined? Yep. Random passerby in the street and characters who never return again? Yep. JUST UHG. I’d also like to make a quick complaint about how these books treat their female characters in general. I’ve never read the male gaze* written so obviously. He describes women entering a room by their boobs, then hair color and then name. Like “A pair of perky C cups walked into the bar with lovely blonde hair. Oh, hey, it’s my apprentice Molly.” (Full disclosure: that is not a real quote.)

Dresden is just not that good. He messes up all the time. He makes bad choices. He suspects the wrong people (often his friends who instantly forgive him). His plans aren’t actually plans he just thinks Well, if we are all in the same place it’ll be obvious who’s guilty, I guess. But he’s always the hero. Always. He always does a lion’s share of the fighting, even though he’s mortally wounded (always) and there are other, stronger people around (who are randomly unconscious or inexplicably absent). He goes into every fight thinking Well, I’m gonna die. I don’t have a chance. Then he gets really tired tired and hurt (somehow these both occur every single time) and then wins.

He also looks exactly like Jim Butcher. Seriously, check out that author photo. It’s lazy and obvious Harry Sam-ing.

While the world building is interesting, it’s just not worth it to fight logic and reason on behalf of Dresden’s miraculous heroics anymore.

*By which I mean the term used to describe movie and TV shots that attempt to put the audience in place of a male character by only showing one, sexualized aspect of a woman. I think actual human males are better than that.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane CoverI want to call this post Neil Gaiman but, let’s be honest, there are going to be more Neil Gaiman posts and that’d just get confusing.

I am on vacation right now. The weather is amazing. There are mountains, that whole thing. And probably, somewhere out there, a bunch of fun-sounding stuff you can do on or near mountains – biking is different on them, they often have slides, rafting, there’s that insane thing where you get inside a giant inflatable ball and roll down them (hopefully that’s safer here than Russia but I probably wouldn’t do that even if I knew where to go).

But I brought books with me. So I’m indoors. I’ve got the window open so…that’s outdoorsy, right?

And one of the books I brought was The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Which I started reading this morning and am now done with. Which tells you several things: it’s very short (less than 200 pages), it’s also very good, and I am not really all that great at being outdoorsy. (I’m working on that last thing. We’ll see.) Oh and you can deduce that I am now hungry because reading and snacking are hard to do simultaneously.

This book, like everything else Neil Gaiman has ever done including his Christmas cards, is great. The characters are well developed, the plot is enthralling and believable and it is something about which I/you/the reader care and will need to read the conclusion. I even read the acknowledgements even though they start “This book is the book you have just read. It’s done. Now we’re in the acknowledgements. This is not really part of the book. You do not have to read it. It’s mostly just names.”

Literally the only complaint I have about this book is that it’s YA and I thought it was going to be not-YA. And that it’s too short. Okay, that’s two complaints. And now they’re done.

The protagonists are 7 and immortal-11 which made the book no less enthralling. And though there are plenty of adult characters, it’s very clearly the story of children. But it’s not written above them or down to them so it’s a perfectly fine book for all ages.

I’m going to go ahead and call it Science Fiction although that doesn’t feel exactly right. Because that means I get to rejoice about a thing that I so rarely get to in Science Fiction – the ladies! Are well represented! As fully rounded characters who are both good and evil, smart and dumb, you know like humans (although very few of them are humans). I’m just saying, there’s a lady monster who does terrible things but means well. So you should probably read it.

Oh, and my edition is a signed first edition. *Dances around*

Signed!

The Dark Tower Series aka What is Wrong with You, Stephen King (Pt. 2)

My biggest problem(s) with the book can be summed up simply enough with the statement that I think Stephen King needs an editor. I understand that he is a famous, award winning author and I am an English major with a blog. But I think even die hard King fans agree with me (especially after the release of 11/22/63).

My second biggest problem – my problem with so many books – is basically “Uhg, why do you hate the ladies?!?!” There are SO FEW OF THEM. And they are all tropes. Susannah has all the tropes. Smurfette? Yep.  Mystical pregnancy? Yep. Evil demon seductress? Yep, only slightly qualified by the fact that this is technically her sharing her body and brain with a demon. But seriously, that demon’s only purpose in life up to mystical pregnancy was to seduce roadside dunces to death. (Side note: those are all links to YouTube videos of Anita Sarkeesian being a smart, well-spoken feminist. At which she is amazing.) Susannah is also the token POC and on several occasions mistaken for their servant/wench. It is rough to be Susannah in these books.

I also hate Eddie Dean. Hate is a strong word to use about a fictional character but in this case it is appropriate. He starts off an annoying junkie and through thousands of pages of character growth turns into an annoying human. Yes, he does stop doing cocaine and heroine which is, perhaps, worthy of a back pat. But certainly he doesn’t stop talking about them. Also, it’s hard to do drugs in a world where you don’t know anyone and there don’t seem to be any drugs lying around. So he probably didn’t even really earn that back pat. And he’s constantly quoting his even more annoying, drug addled, dead brother – who, incidentally, is the giver of some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard (here’s a hint: the solution to everything is to get high, even if the problem is being too high and owing drug dealers more money than you have) – and telling terrible jokes and then laughing at them. Alone. But somehow he is chosen to be in charge of their group in the event Roland’s absence. Susannah is both older and the most responsible one of them. Even Jake, a preteen, would do a better job.

WHY COULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN POST APOCALYPTIC?! It would have been so much better that way!

Something that bothered me throughout the last few books but is perhaps not a legitimate criticism of their content -19 and 99 are not, in fact, the same number which everyone seems to be utterly confused about.