Another retro review, this from September 25, 2010.
Retro Review: Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Valtat, 2010.
In the year 1908, the city of New Venice is threatened by unrest. Hardly unique in a time when preachers of anarchy and committed revolutionaries roamed about the Western world. The forces of the status quo are particularly interested in who wrote a subversive tract called A Blast on the Barren Land, or The Standard of True Community Advanc’d, an accusation that this utopian community of the Arctic (seemingly around Greenland) has betrayed its principles. The genially sinister and nattily dressed secret police, the Gentlemen of the Night, think dissolute literature professor Gabriel d’Allier knows who wrote the book and pressure him into providing evidence it is his friend Brentford Orsini. The latter is highly placed in the Arctic Administration, manages the Greenhouse important to the city, and is also interested in Inuit-New Venice relationships.
Gabriel and Brentford are the viewpoint characters, and we follow them to meetings with conspiracies of garbagemen, magicians who may just work real magic, anarchists and suffragettes, and try to discover the meaning of a message from Brentford’s dead lover urging him towards a rendezvous at the North Pole. And, especially, we see their romances play out – Gabriel with a Stella, a wild, tattooed magician’s assistant and Brentford with fiance Sybil.
There are things to like in this book. Valtat provides lots of humor. It may not be of the laugh out loud variety, but it’s there. The drugs, avant-garde musicians (a bit like anachronistically early progressive rock), legends, architecture, and wonderfully named places and government bureaus all amuse and kept me reading. In particular, I picked this book out because of its Arctic setting and steampunk tropes. And Valtat mostly delivers there with a mélange of real and fake Arctic exploration and, besides just providing the obligatory airship, he comes up with some interesting bits of invented technology – enough that I think a steampunk fan who likes the subgenre for its alternate technology would probably like the book for that reason alone.
Ultimately, though, these all added up to a less than satisfying experience, a literary trip that, oddly, got less interesting when we actually left New Venice to follow Gabriel and Brentford. For a science fiction fan, the story uneasily amalgamates the supernatural with alternate science. For a fan of utopian fiction, the values of New Venice are too sketchily drawn, its administration too vaguely drawn and disguised by Valtat’s clever nomenclature, to be interesting. The bohemian artists and architecture are too quickly glimpsed, ephemeral visions as we head to the spiritual North Pole of the novel’s end.
And when the novel entered the realm of political revolution, I lost even more interest. Though, to be fair, I did like Valtat’s anarchists who seemed more practical than many of their breed. (We even get echoes of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution with Navy Cadets playing a role.) Our journey of exploration ends up with some mundane statements about the difference between revolt and governing justly, communal politics versus the exclusivity of romantic love.
If you don’t mind a trip to an unsatisfying destination and just want to gawk at some sights along the way, this is the book for you. Besides technophilic steampunk fans, the book also has some appeal to completists of the lost race novel.