Friday, May 06, 2005

Steam, Not Steampunk

A colleague recently read Arabian Wine and wrote to tell me how much he liked it. He got several of the sneaky allusions I worked into it (including the Kipling ones), but also called it "an example of steampunk -- in its most literal sense."

Well, yes and no. One of the odd things about Steampunk (to the degree that it was a coherent phenomenon in the first place) is that it had next to nothing to do with steam power. The term was coined after the appearance of James P. Blaylock's Homunculus in 1986, although the sub-genre's salient characteristics -- its crackpot rationalism, demonstrated by the lunatic inventions that actually work; its British, usually London setting; its focus on the individual (usually a lone inventor or investigator, typically of independent means) against a backdrop of ironically-regarded Imperialism -- had been evident in the work of Blaylock and his friends Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter for nearly a decade. Something about the conceit fell into perfect step with the zeitgeist, and the next dozen years saw any number of variously cyberpunk novels, most famously Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine, but also Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice, and (one that deserves to be better-known) Colin Greenland's Harm's Way.

One interesting thing about these novels, however, is that they tend to have very little to do with steam power. Nineteenth-century engines, yes, and a blast of steam can sometimes be discerned in the gaslight, but what Sadi Carnot called "the motive force of fire" in 1824: no, not much. "Steam" is here a metaphor for nineteenth century energies: industrial, imperial, often sexual. But it is rarely itself dramatized.

I can think of only a very few contemporary novels about steam. One of them is the little-known Steam Bird by Hilbert Schenck. It was serialized in F&SF in 1984, then appeared as a slim paperback four years later. The book concerns the deployment of a nuclear-powered bomber -- its steam turbines able to keep it in the air for days without refuelling -- such as the U.S. military actually planned to build in the 1950s but eventually abandoned. In Schenk's alternate history, a small number of such bombers were actually built, and in a brief military crisis, one of them is sent aloft. The enormous plane, the largest ever to fly, is both a military and ecological disaster -- it can't fly faster than three hundred miles and hour, spews radiactive steam, and is prohibitively dangerous to land -- but the crew of die-hard steam enthusiasts who man it convince the President to abandon military considerations and send it on a good will round-the-poles flight, and the novel ends in a giddy paean to the romance of steam power.

So, no, Arabian Wine isn't steampunk. It's about real steam power, something much more interesting.


Anonymous Matthew Davis said...

I made some verbose notes when I first read the novella version, which I have batted below for no-one’s delight into some quite appalling sentences:

Maybe it’s its particular experience of the passing of the seasons, maybe that it was settled by puritans whose new dreams concealed old hearts, or maybe its all those enclaves of belated hippies, but New England seems to be home to a specific brand of fantasist, much concerned with writing out strategies to birth new worlds. Foremost, of course, is John Crowley; followed closely behind by Elisabeth Hand. To this group of New England Scientific Romanceurs, those artists who filigree the proclamations of instauration against the inexorable dictates of temporality, we can now wholeheartedly welcome Gregory Feeley. After a long career as a critic, Feeley has returned, in recent years, to writing novellas that have been attracting their own critical plaudits, and his latest is “Arabian Wine”. Matteo is the youngest son of a Venetian family of the late 16th century, who tries to win his fortune by introducing coffee, “Arabian wine”, to Venice, and also by assisting in the development of a steam engine. Within the tale’s compact dress, Matteo and his ventures span the Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Padua, and he traverses much of Venice, including the Jewish Ghetto, the shipbuilding Arsenal, across the Bridge of Sighs and ending in a sequence of courts and dungeons. It is a detailed historical tale, but the question becomes “What SORT of historical tale?” As we follow Matteo we wonder if it could be a story of alternate history, whether through his native energy and wit Matteo will win himself a personal empire as he jumpstarts the industrial revolution and revives the decaying Venice. In the end though, all the possibilities that Matteo raises are quashed and history will be as it was. “Arabian Wine” never becomes sf, though Matteo might seem the archetypal youthful and entrepreneurally-minded SF protagonist, and one could argue that its themes and treatment are sfnal. If one wants steam punk on the Rialto one will have to turn to Paul Macauley’s “Pasquale’s Angel”. The spasm of transfiguration, an actual “Steam Engine Time”, is caught in the throat and suppressed. Venice will remain the sumptuous philistine police-state that fell because it refused to admit the middle-class, as is dramatised in the Council of Ten’s inquisition of Matteo, becoming with the whole scheme of Feeley’s story an exemplar of how we opt for deadening stasis out of fear of change. The story opens with a description of an experimental vessel under pressure, and in the end the story is one of containment. And yet, “Arabian Wine” is also a very contemporary tale, for one can read it as a story about an entrepreneur who in exploiting the public’s lust for novelty on several fronts, in the one instance is embroiled in matters of intellectual property with his government backers, and in the other becomes involved in the traffic of what might as well be soft drugs between the Muslim East and Capitalist West, and so inadvertently winds a Kafkaesque trail of crossed wires that results in his Guantanamo-style imprisonment. The sequence of nodes of information that sequentially make up the novel are reorganised by the archons of Venice (the rumours of whose threats our protagonist has outright repudiated) to trap Matteo, even as he tried to operate outside their traditions.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

I just reread my post, and see that the last paragraph may give the impression that I think my novel "more interesting than steampunk." What I meant is that the development of steam power -- a tremendous historical event, and one that seizes the imagination of many more people than just steam locomotive buffs -- is more interesting than the faux Victoriana of most steampunk.

Matthew, thanks much for the kind comments. I hope you can get your library to obtain a copy (or else wait for the trade paperback edition) of Arabian Wine, because the unabridged version -- about 25% longer -- is really the version I prefer people to read. (I am grateful to Gardner Dozois for publishing it in Asimov's, but in order for him to run it even in a double issue I had to cut virtually everything not crucial to hold the story together.)

I am particularly happy, by the way, that you noticed that the story is not alternate history -- all the anachronistic-looking details are quite historical, including those books on steam power in the early 1600s. Steam and capitalism came in together, and I find that an almost poetically neat detail.

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