The Nebula readathon continues! Though now we’ve entered the murky territory of “things I didn’t really want to read”. Which… I might have to recant on this one a little bit. It’s complicated.
I will admit though, I didn’t like it. As a story, it stays too distant, drags things out too chronologically wide, so it pulls apart the narrative until it’s no narrative at all. It’s too detached, and worse, has the feeling of a history, a list of events happening one after another with no real pacing, no sense of drive, of an end point to which all things are leading. It just… stops. And that’s deeply unsatisfying. Guy Gavriel Kay does something similar, but he walks a very careful line when doing so and manages to pull it off by holding off sometimes. Yes, his works do have the hint of being more a history than of an actual story, but it’s less strong than in Everfair. It’s a balanced mixture of story and history, whereas this is firmly in the latter camp.
Which leads me neatly into my other problem of how to categorise it.
Because, well… it says it’s steampunk. Right in the foreword, the author says that, so it must be true. But steampunk as a genre is firmly in the story category. It’s not, for all that it wants to be, any sort of alternate history. Shawl lists her story as being steampunk, and also as being a “what if” of a little change in history. But she makes too many changes for the reader to see this purely as an alt-history book. It doesn’t have that level of realism. But nor is it steampunk – steampunk is, to my experience, besotted with aesthetic over substance, and this isn’t that either. It’s something torn half way between the two. I almost feel like it’s what steampunk ought to be, were it to be the best of itself, the ideal to which it aspires but never reaches. But it doesn’t feel like steampunk is. For me, it engages much more closely and thoughtfully with what the -punk genres once were, how there was always a thread of social and political commentary, an ideal and a criticism of what is or has been. And this definitely has that. Frankly, steampunk mostly really doesn’t. Not only because it’s aesthetic without substance, but because it deliberately glosses over dodgy aspects of the Victorian era (racism, sexism, class divide) in favour of painting a beautiful equalitarian utopia, denying the struggles that would give meaning, substance and realism to the narrative. You can’t fix the awfulness of the past with a pretty aesthetic*. So it’s very weird – but very gratifying – to see someone engaging with it and doing it properly. Race is very much front and centre, along with colonialism and all the arrogance that goes with that, but the book also touches on sexuality and love and religion and gender and class. It properly knows what being alive at that time meant for a lot of people – including the bad, of which there was so much – and it doesn’t shy away from it. And that is fantastic.
If I take nothing else away from reading this book, it stands as a testament to how someone willing to put the work in can take something shallow and make it deep, can really drag out all the angles that exist underneath anything. It is a lesson to its genre, and Shawl is to be commended for that.
For all that I love, commend and admire Shawl for her commitment to building and working within a historical setting that is properly historical, this does not and cannot make up for the fact that the story is lacking, and lacking on multiple fronts. Like I’ve said before with so many books, you can have wonderful world building and great ideas, but it has to be a good book. There has to be a powerful story, characters you can really feel as human beings, something that grabs you and keeps you reading and wanting more.
And it doesn’t do that. To some extent, I’m not sure Shawl wanted to do that or was trying. It’s not what she’s writing. And that’s fine, but it’s a novel and I’m going to judge it as a novel… and in that, for me, it is failing.
I’ve already mentioned the lack of driving narrative, and that is pretty bad, and more so the further into the book you get. The longer you read, the more you feel like the pace ought to have picked up, ought to have varied, that things ought to be pulling together to form a coherent… something. But they don’t. And maybe, with the great work Shawl has done with the setting, this could be forgiven (as others are for the same problems, if to a lesser extent), but it would need solid characters to rest upon too, and it just doesn’t have that either.
I could talk about the characters forever. In some ways, they’re beautiful studies in how everyone is flawed in some way, how no one is fully good or bad or sympathetic all of the time, and how reality is in the grey areas in between. Which surely is brilliant and absolutely to be applauded? Sure. But her characters, for all that, lack any sort of feeling. They’re not people. They feel so distant and cold and unreal that you can never grow to like or hate them. They never become more than the words on the page, and it’s disappointing… and probably at least partly tied to the pacing. If every chapter we jump forward several years, we never get a proper chance to get to grips with them as people and understand why they do anything. We never get into their heads. They’re just some people, doing some things, being reported coldly and distantly. It has no emotion alongside it to make it matter.
And so ultimately, it’s quite unsatisfying as a story. And, as a story, I can’t do aught but judge it for that. I don’t regret reading it, and I don’t regret that it exists because it does and should stand as a fantastic example of what can be done with the steampunk setting to make it escape its simplistic current form. It should so very much be the textbook version of the genre world-building done well. But good worldbuilding will never, for me, a good book make, not alone. It completes the other half that steampunk is so often lacking, while failing at the thing it sometimes manages to do well – a solid, gripping story and people that feel like really people. Fit them together, and maybe you’ll have me.
But for all that I don’t like it and indeed didn’t enjoy it, it is exactly the reason why I’m reading along with the Hugos and Nebulas. I’m seeing what is being done right now, what’s interesting, and that is incredibly worthwhile. It’s a book that, in many ways needed to be written, and Shawl has handled the setting with a delicate grace and firm certainty that she’s addressing issues who existence is distressingly absent where it ought to be front and centre. I’m glad she wrote it, glad it exists and glad I read it. I just don’t like it.
*Potentially relevant here is one of the better episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space 9. The crew of DS9 frequently visit the holodeck to enjoy a bar/casino/music venue thing set in the US at a time when racial issues were particularly ungood (I honestly couldn’t tell you the period because I am really bad at modern history, but we’re talking crooning male singer in a suit, big band, men in trilbies… that kind of thing). Commander Sisko refuses to join them on multiple occasions and, when asked why, raises an objection to participating in something that ignores the endemic racism of the time in favour of a cheery, happy but ultimately dishonest fake. It’s a valid criticism, and one I think steampunk as a genre could do with examining (and not just with race). Every time I read a steampunk novel, especially when they focus on all the manners stuff and women in their big dresses… but still going out being adventuresses and so on like none of the oppressive social mores existed… I feel a twinge of discomfort, because it’s… well, it’s a lie. And it is a lie that values the aesthetic over the issues underneath. It belies steampunk to be the shallow veneer it is, for the most part, uninterested in engaging deeply with very true, very valid and potentially very interesting issues that sit at the heart of the period it professes to love.