Given that my birthday is just around the corner and I will soon be halfway to 70, I’ve decided that it’s finally time to face some of my more ingrained prejudices head on and with no mercy. Some involve foods; some involve music. I’m revisiting old dislikes and giving them another try. As it turns out, however, I haven’t changed all that much, despite the considerable upheaval of the last couple of decades.
I still intensely dislike prog rock. Shrimp and lobster in almost any form -- yes, even deep-fried -- still taste like feet. Turns out, most of my knee-jerk responses are based on a true hatred. I’m trying to turn this discovery into a positive, rather than as evidence of a massive character flaw. I will never be a Jeffrey Steingarten who can eat anything with gusto and snark. I will never be a great rock critic because I deny the existence of most of the late ‘70s. I’m learning to be okay with this. My new affirmation: it is fine to not like things and, gosh darn it, people will still like me.
I seem to be having more success getting over my involuntary recoils when it comes to books, however. Despite the fact that I still can’t get past page 50 in any book by China Mieville, I am beginning to not think all things steampunk are crap.
For the uninitiated, steampunk, a term that is prominently tossed around in the late '80s. is one of the many subgenres of cyberpunk (others -- some more tongue in cheek than others -- are sandalpunk, bronzepunk and stonepunk). Nikola Tesla and/or Charles Babbage frequently pop-up as characters, as do set pieces involving dirigibles, steam engines and, inexplicably, the Japanese. While the idea of meshing Victorian-esque machinery with future societies had been floating about long before the label was applied, it was William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine that was the watershed title that brought the term into widespread use. Well, widespread is a relative term -- but steampunk was suddenly the hot thing in discussions about speculative fiction.
Two writers I greatly admire (indeed, anything they write I will buy) have dipped into this subgenre. Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates is frequently cited as an early steampunk novel, as is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Both are great books -- in fact, I think Diamond Age should get a lot more attention than Stephenson’s breakthrough Snow Crash -- but I don’t know that I would honestly slot them into this subcategory. Largely, this is due to both of these titles avoiding the one thing about steampunk that really gets on my nerves -- that is, the celebration of the Victorian ideal of ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation.
One of the great things about my rapidly advancing age is that I’ve finally figured out that I am a closet modernist. I have spent the last decade getting rid of things that don’t add value -- either aesthetically or practically -- to my life in some way. Clean lines and geometric shapes make me happy. I like my stories to be lean, which isn’t to say that I like them sparse and sketchy, just that I want the fat trimmed to the bare minimum so that the meat is juicy but not greasy. Which is one of the reasons why I can’t get through Mieville, whose love of description for the sake of more follies and gee-gaws makes me want to send him a copy of Strunk and White with a post-it stuck on the page about omitting needless words.
(Your mileage may vary, of course. The award-winning Mr M has lots of rabid fans. I’m just not one of them.)
Despite this personality quirk, I enjoyed the heck out Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, which was recently reissued to coincide with director Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming movie, which stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine. The Prestige’s box-within-box-within-enigma structure is a perfect choice for Nolan, who so wonderfully played with a similar hat-from-rabbit idea in his Memento. My hopes for the movie are high. But that is a column best left to the Hollywood Madam.
The Prestige the book is a remarkable work and one that is undeniably steampunk, although I can’t tell you why without giving away Priest’s secrets, but it is safe to mention that Tesla happens along. It is a story of two magicians who are embroiled in a feud that neither can escape from. The rivalry defines each’s existence by the end and the book as a whole becomes a study of how one member of a pair of anything can’t thrive without its opposite member to pull against. It’s a neat concept, frankly, and Priest’s epistolary structure -- the story is told through a series of diary entries and/or letters -- keeps the reader at the mercy of the limits of first-person, non-omniscient narration.
Which doesn’t stop the reader -- or, at least, not this reader -- from discovering where the characters’ secrets lie long before Priest chooses to provide a map. But it’s not a book that pivots on these secrets staying unknown until the very end. Instead, the book is a giant slight-of-hand, where Priest’s diversions are just as important as the trick they cover. It’s pretty clear why the book won the 1996 World Fantasy Award, despite the fact that the last 50 pages are troublesome and feel as if Priest felt compelled to add just one more twist but couldn’t quite build up enough flourish to keep the reader from seeing what was up his sleeve. Still, it’s a fun read -- and I say that despite my distaste for the subgenre. Which isn’t to say I’m a steampunk convert who is ready to exchange my copy of I, Robot for the Gormenghast trilogy, but I may be willing to give some of it a good try.
It’s hard to tell, however, if my newfound flexibility is due to wisdom or exhaustion. If this keeps up, I just might be reading Danielle Steele on my 45th birthday. And if I am, you have my permission to slap me into a coma.