Steampunk Book Review: The Lost World (1912)
Sherlock Holmes is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character, but definitely not his only one. I have noticed that some of the newer renditions of Mr. Holmes show him as, at best, suffering from Asberger’s syndrome, and at worst, a monumental jerk. If you have read Conan Doyle’s books, you would know that this is not actually consistent with Sherlock’s character, but it is spot on for the (sometimes) hero of The Lost World, Professor Challenger.
Challenger, like Holmes, is a genius, but he doesn’t spend his time hanging out in London. He is an adventurer, a trail-blazer and a scientist extraordinaire (and doesn’t he know it!) who will use his intellect to thwart his academic enemies, and his fists to back up his intellect. I thoroughly enjoyed his turns of phrase and clever barbs throughout The Lost World even more than the premise of the story itself, and he was a great foil for the young and inexperienced narrator.
Like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Conan Doyle explores the prospect of a place that time has left behind. When Challenger’s assertions of its existence are called into question, the National Geographical Society mounts an expedition to investigate his claims that there is a plateau in South America where dinosaurs still roam the earth. And not just dinosaurs! There are all kinds of blasts from the past that have wandered to the secluded spot over the years, some of them remaining unchanged and some of them evolving along a whole new line.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This is another one that the Mister and I read out loud together and that was a great way to experience it. The dialog between Challenger and his rival scientist, Summerlee, is fantastic, and there were many times I laughed out loud. I also know just enough biology to appreciate the rival points of view and interaction of species. I can’t wait to read the next Professor Challenger title, The Poison Belt.
Have you ever read any Professor Challenger stories? What did you think?
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) May be Full of the Fangs, But it Sure Doesn’t “Suck”
Maybe witches aren’t your thing, so you won’t be seeing Hansel and Gretel as part of your Steampunk Halloween. But everyone likes vampires, right? In 2010, author Seth Grahame-Smith penned an alternate history featuring America’s favorite president and pitted him against the forces of darkness running rampant in the South. It was made into an insanely good action movie in 2012 and it is another awesome choice for any steam-inspired monster movie marathon.
Abe’s (Benjamin Walker) sojourn into the vampiric underworld starts when he is a child, though he doesn’t know it. His mother falls victim to a mysterious disease as a result of his father standing up to the unfair treatment of free black people under his boss, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Even as a child he knows that Barts is somehow behind his mother’s death, and once he is grown he tries to take his revenge. To his shock, his bullets have no affect on Barts and Abe has to be rescued by a stranger whom he just met in the bar. The man calls himself Henry (Dominic Cooper) and tells Lincoln about how vampires escaped persecution in Europe to the American South, where they are deeply involved in the slave trade as their source of food.
Abe is only interested in his own vendetta, but agrees to be a vampire hunter under Henry’s guidance in order to gain the skills he needs to finally take down Barts. After hunting a series of vampires one by one, Lincoln decides he can make a much bigger difference in the world as a politician than by wielding his special silver-bladed axe, and his life takes the shape of the history we know for a while, including his marriage to Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), presidential election and the outbreak of the Civil War. But when the Southern politicians ally themselves with the vampires, the unkillable soldiers start to tip the scales towards a Southern victory, and Abe must confront them and the mastermind of their ascent to power (Rufus Sewell).
Whether or not you know anything about the real Abraham Lincoln, this is a really fun and entertaining film. The effects are very special, the lighting and camera work are Gothic and moody and the action scenes are dynamic and sometimes even breath-taking. This was a much better film than I expected just based on the premise, and as it turns out the author did a great job of integrating vampire lore into the politics of the mid-19th century and documented historical events. Plus, it is a great action film. There is a fight scene that takes place during a stampede of horses, and a struggle on a speeding train that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It does not have the same ratio of dark comedy to action as Van Helsing or Brothers Grimm, but there are still some good lines and ironic twists that will make you smile. I haven’t read the book, but I really enjoyed this movie and I will definitely be re-watching it to bring some “spook” to my “steam” again this year.
Steampunk Book Review: The Difference Engine
A big part of my Steam Tour is finding out about the historical events and people who influenced the time period reflected in Steampunk books. I love the idea of alternate histories, and many times that is at the core of Steampunk novels, such as The Difference Engine by sci-fi greats William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
If you are like me and you don’t have a good handle on the real history, I would recommend a quick glance at the wikipedia article about this book before you begin it. There is a great summary there of where and how the alternate history of the novel diverge from real events. I didn’t do this before I started reading and I spent a lot of the book wondering about fact and fiction.
In short, it tells the tale of the trajectory of the world if the computer age came in the 1800’s. The political structures all over the world are deeply effected by Charles Babbage’s completion of his mechanical computers (called Analytical Engines) in 1824, and there are numerous references to a fragmented United States (including a communist Manhattan) as well as historical figures such as Lord Byron, Ada Byron (the “queen of engines”), and Laurence Oliphant in different roles. The English politicial system has been completely dismantled and a meritocracy put up in place of hereditary lordships. The story is mostly told through the eyes of Edward Mallory, a “savant” who discovers the first huge dinosaur bones, giving him the nickname “Leviathan Mallory.”
There were a lot of things I really liked about this book. The descriptive language was excellent and Ned is a great character on whose coattails to ride through the adventure. I loved the shift in politics in response to technology and the parallels between then and now when it comes to the power of information. The authors clearly put a lot of thought into both logically and imaginatively extending the repercussions of the rise of computer technology long before we experienced it in our timeline.
On the whole, the story felt a bit fragmented because there are three distinct characters that get followed and the treatment is uneven. The first person you explore this world with is Sybil, and her story comes to an abrupt halt right as it gets really interesting. Then Mallory comes onto the scene and his story is great, but I couldn’t help but wonder where Sybil had gone to. Mallory’s tale comes to a head and he gets what he wants, but he is not actually the agent of change so even though there is a stand-off and big ‘splosions (whoo-hoo!) it felt sort of anticlimactic. Lastly, we trail Mallory’s one-time ally Laurence Oliphant for a little while on his political espionage. Each section was full of wonderful prose, but as a full story it ended up feeling kind of jerky and a bit too long.
That being said, I think it is definitely worth a read for the wonderful writing and imagination of the authors.
Have you read this book? What did you think?