Halloween may be the annual celebration most closely associated with October, but Tor.com is also making this the month of its new yearly tradition of “steampunk fortnight,” honoring that currently ubiquitous subgenre. During this period both the articles and the short fiction appearing on the publisher’s blog feature the theme, including the first two stories covered in this review. These are, respectively, Felix Gilman‘s novelette “Lightbringers and Rainmakers,” and Eileen Gunn‘s short-short “The Perdido Street Project.” Gilman’s “Lightbringers” is a novelette set in the same universe as his recent novel, The Half-Made World (the first three chapters of which can also be found on Tor’s web site, along with a “Review of Sorts, With Academic Shenanigans Throughout,” by Mike Perschon).
Gunn’s “Project” is part of her “Steampunk Quartet” for Tor.com, consisting of four short-shorts, each done in the style of a “formative” steampunk author and indeed, offering a take-off from a specific work. As those who follow the genre may guess, “Perdido Street Project” plays off China Mieville‘s Perdido Street Station. (The three other stories in the set are “A Different Engine,” playing off William Gibson and Bruce Sterling‘s novel The Difference Engine, for which Dr. Gunn has previously published an online concordance, The Difference Dictionary; “Day After the Cooters,” using Howard Waldrop‘s short story “Night of the Cooters”; and “Internal Devices,” inspired by K.W. Jeter‘s Infernal Devices.) This is not an exercise in parody, however. The stories actually use the stuff of the original works to pen a complementary narrative.
The third story covered here is Peter Orullian‘s novelette “Sacrifice of the First Sheason,” appearing on Tor.com in advance of the release of The Unremembered, the first volume of his epic fantasy series, The Vault of Heaven, in April 2011.
As those who have already encountered Gilman’s The Half-Made World are already aware, the book presents a version of nineteenth century America in which magic is operative in the unsettled Western frontier, in contrast with the modernized, rational East (hence, the titular description of this world as “half-made”). The central conflict in this milieu, initially occupied by the “Hill People” analogous to Native Americans, is a long-running war between two more newly arrived forces-the “Line” with its westward-spreading railroads (and Progress with a capital “P” coming up behind it), and the “Gun,” wilder elements that had preceded the Line west, then gone on to resist the arrival of the railroads, and the industrialized modernity traveling in their wake. The Line carries on the fight with “machines and legions,” all the material power modern organization can raise and ruthlessly bring to bear, the Gun with “saboteurs and arsonists and poisoners and blackmailers.” Naturally, the adversaries in this ugly and uneven contest are not clear-cut good guys or bad guys, and most of the people inhabiting the continent are caught in between.
“Lightbringers” features as its protagonist and narrator just such a person, “Professor” Harry Ransom (who appeared in Gilman’s novel, but only as a minor character). Ransom, who tells the story through his letters, is a specialist in electricity who claims to have invented an Apparatus that can make “an infinity of Electric Light” without burning fuel, who is now traveling from town to town seeking to make his fortune in the manner of an Old West rainmaker–which is to say, dubiously. As the story starts, he has wound up in the town of Disorder, with his “invention,” his horse, his wagon, and even his business cards lost.
As this premise suggests the story is essentially a bit of picaresque making use of the darkly fantastic Western-meets-science-fiction backdrop Gilman created in the novel. Ransom’s voice is engaging, the story is nicely paced and the episodes are suitably entertaining, while the narrator’s unreliability never gets in the way of the reader’s following the tale. However, those looking for something a bit more substantive in the way of its handling of the compelling themes Gilman picked up in the book (the conflict between modernity and the libertarian/pioneer spirit, and the dilemmas of terrorism and counterterrorism, to name but two) would do better to look to the original novel instead and enjoy this as a diverting companion piece.
Gunn’s story, “The Perdido Street Project,” depicts the arrival of a stranger traveling by train in the city of New Crobuzon where Mieville’s novel takes place. He subsequently meets with Gedrecsechet, the Palgolak Librarian, in the Moon’s Daughters pub (both of which make minor appearances in the story). The plot of “Project” is rather slight, the pleasure it offers instead a view of the city as seen with the fresh eyes of a new visitor, and another taste of the world Mieville created in his new classic. Like the other pieces Gunn has penned in her quartet it is most likely to be enjoyed by those already familiar with, and affectionate toward, the work in question, and accordingly open to seeing an expansion of some of its elements, but Mieville’s creation is compelling enough, and Gunn’s telling smooth enough, to endow it with some interest on its own.
As yet very little has been said about the story of Orullian’s The Vault of Heaven (nothing so much as a book jacket-style blurb for The Unremembered making an appearance online as yet), so it would be impossible to properly explain the connection, but it is clearly set early in that world’s history, and whatever its role in the plot, offers a part of the epic’s background mythology. The setting is the early days of that world, which is still “under construction” by the god-like Founders and their servants, the Sheasons. Humans exist as the most recent addition to that world, but as “the Founders’ will and benevolence . . . held sway in the hearts of men,” violence is unknown among them. One day Palamon, the First Sheason–first to be called into being by the world’s creators, and first in rank among his kind–finds his friend and colleague Manoa (who had “worn the mantle of intercessor with the Great Ones on behalf of men, for those times when the work at the Founders’ hands might prove imbalanced”) brutally murdered on the steps of the Tabernacle of the Sky. Investigating that death, he starts to suspect that the Founder Maldaea, “the member of the council set apart to refine mankind by challenging it with adversity,” has betrayed his fellow deities, setting in motion a conflict that seems likely to define this world’s history, and which brings on the First Sheason a burden he will carry all through his own existence.
Some of the earlier parts of Orullian’s story make for a bumpy ride due to the profusion of unfamiliar vocabulary, the considerable off-stage action, and the abruptness of the transitions between some of the early scenes (with the ascription of a key turn in the plot simply to Palamon’s instinct not quite working). Additionally, while Orullian drops some interesting hints in the exposition, I wished for a fuller and more vivid sense of how his world works, something to make me feel that we really are at the beginning of Creation (especially after the opening scene seemed to lay the groundwork for something quite different), of who the Founders are and how the divisions among them come about in this variant on the old theme of how evil entered a world created by benevolent deities.
Nonetheless, with the basics established Orullian’s story proves highly readable, and its central conflict an engaging one, while the deficiencies seem to me to reflect the function “Sacrifice” is apparently meant to perform, the same as Gilman’s “Lightbringers”–to be a companion piece to his novels, and whet the appetites of readers for the rest of the story. Ideally such a story works as a standalone piece, but the larger canvas and greater ambition of Orullian’s tale (apparently the start of a much bigger and longer drama), makes it less easily self-contained, while the fact that the novels have not been published yet deprives the reader of anything the story can be a companion to for the time being. Still, “Sacrifice” has made me want to find out more about The Unremembered when it appears later, so Orullian succeeds on that level.