As I’ve said before (and repeat below), steampunk is a rather decadent speculative genre: not really plausible alternate history, no plausible technological speculation, and often sort of a retro nostalgia for Victorian fashions and technologic.
Still, I like some of it.
Besides the steampunk work of Mark Hodder, I’m fond of the self-published steampunk Galvanic Century by Michael Coorlim.
I was introduced to his work via a review copy from the author of “And They Called Her Spider” and went on to buy most of the rest though (as will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog) not current with his Galvanic Century work.
Besides his characterization, I like that his world closely echoes the world right before World War One.
This is not one of my regular retro reviews. Coorlim has been shuffling the editions of his steampunk and the ones I reviewed don’t necessarily exist, so I’ll list the stories I’ve read and the current editions they appear in.
The reviews of been stitched together like a Frankenstein monster — rather appropriate because he sort of puts in an appearance in one of these stories.
“And They Called Her Spider“
This story introduces the steampunk – and not very Sherlockian – detective duo of Bartleby and James. Bartleby is the rich one, a socialite with savant-like deductive abilities. He’s there to take care of the small talk that so annoys James, the engineer who narrates the tale.
The Spider is a mesmerizing, incredibly graceful woman – who specializes in killing the rich and powerful, specifically the very public killing of the very well-guarded rich and powerful. The government of England thinks her next target may be Queen Victoria during her Jubilee celebration.
And, from that premise, we get the engaging sort of steampunk detective series you would want as the pair navigate the highs and lows of English society, from opium dens to the Home Secretary’s office encountering strange tech – not all invented by James – along the way.
Coorlim only slips up with one possible and minor plot hole.
And I like the note of political disquiet running throughout the often humorous story, and I hope Coorlim picks that theme up in the sequels to this enjoyable story.
“Maiden Voyage of the Rio Grande” has James Wainwright suspected of murder on the maiden voyage of an airship built by an American industrialist. It’s the mandatory steampunk airship fix for the collection, entertaining in its own right, but perhaps the least interesting story here.
“On the Trail of the Scissorman” has the pair investigating the depredations of a killer who dismembers his London victims. James reveals a tender side when he adopts a Chinese girl orphaned in one of the murders.
“A Matter of Spirit” combines a locked-room mystery with spiritualism as James is commissioned by the Royal Guild of Engineers and Artificers with investigating murder charges against an old, but now estranged, friend from his apprentice days.
“Sky Pirates Over London”
Fundamentally, steampunk is artistically decadent as far as speculative fiction goes. It almost never attempts any serious or rigorous extrapolation of plausible alternate histories or technologies. The worldbuilding of a secondary fantasy world is not there, just a warmed over, weirdly spiced version of 19th Century history. The very name points to a subgenre based around the aesthetics of steam engines and corsets and zeppelins.
Still, the results can be entertaining, and I enjoyed this story. Those familiar with the Bartleby and James steampunk detective series from Coorlim will probably want to follow the adventures of Aldora Fiske, fiancé to Bartleby, and, secretly, quite an accomplished woman in her own right. She’s unflappable and always polite and quite determined in solving a problem.
Here the problem is an aerial blockade laid over London. Already concerned over its effect on her fellow citizens, she resolves to personally end the siege after her own house because a target for the sky pirates. Leaving Bartleby in London with a lie about a French holiday, Aldora an adventure which will reveal something of her talents, her past, and her family.
Besides the appealing Aldora, Coorlim invests his world with portents of a coming world war, a conflict promising to be much more ideological than our WWI. It is that theme, besides Coorlim’s skill in the literary basics of pacing, plotting, and characterization, I appreciate in Coorlim’s steampunk.
“The Tower of Babbage” has Aldora mounting a rescue expedition for an old friend after he disappeared while guiding a film crew in Central America. It’s not just a clockwork Mayan observatory we encounter but Aldora’s past and her reconsideration of it.
“Fine Young Turks” has little steampunkish technology and takes place in a pre-WWI Istanbul much like our own, and Aldora is very tempted to remain there after seeing the new freedoms granted women there and receiving a proposal from one of its prominent revolutionaries. It ends on a decidedly downbeat note, but I would certainly like more in the stories in the life of Aldora Fiske.
Yes, Charles Babbage and airships do make appearances here. But the star of this series is Aldora and Coorlim’s skill in depicting her.
She’s not a warrior babe – though she does know hand-to-hand combat and fencing. She isn’t an inventor. In fact, she thinks the British Empire relies too much on the sophisticated technological infrastructure of this universe and exploits the lower classes. She’s had several lovers, but there’s no sex here.
What she is is a woman who has reluctantly compromised her desire for adventure and travel because of the social demands placed not just an an upper class woman but a Fiske, the family that upholds the standards all others fall short of. Part of that compromise is an engagement to Bartleby (of the crime-solving duo of Bartleby and James who have their own adventures in Coorlim’s Galvanic Century series) in a marriage of convenience.
These are straight-for-award adventure stories with an appealing character and not comedies of manners (though they might, in some sense, be tragedy of manners).
Mr. Coorlim literally seeks to marry his two “Galvanic Century” series together here with the pending wedding between Alton Bartleby, one half of the detective duo Bartleby and James making a name for themselves in London, and Aldora Fiske, an adventuresome woman seeking to square her independence with upholding Fiske honor.
Readers would be best served by a prior acquaintance with the parties.
Those wishing to attend the nuptials without a prior intimacy with the parties’ history can catch up on affairs via journalistic bits Mr. Coorlim includes between chapters.
Opening as something of a comedy with James Wainwright escorting his nervous and drunken partner about the morning of the wedding, the story then becomes an astringent domestic drama with Miss Fiske angry at Bartleby’s state and clashing with her formidable father, Lucian Fiske. Then, half way through, a very unexpected wedding guest arrives, and we enter in earnest into Mr. Coorlim’s latest steampunk adventure.
If steampunk may be presumed to be a decadent sub-genre of no serious technical extrapolation or pondering of alternate history, Coorlim is less guilty of those sins than most. His England of 1911 is not totally unrecognizable. The punk of his steam seems less garish and more respectable than that of his contemporaries in similar literary pursuits.
One may appreciate the company of his characters and follow the courses of their hearts. Mr. Coorlim also continues to delight with his brisk accounting of events and wondrous mechanics. Here, at the wedding, we also become acquainted with Miss Fiske’s parents and an old rival of hers, Regina Worth. Much here is the unveiling of secrets as characters must unburden themselves of unpleasant truths. It is only here that Mr. Coorlim has perhaps not met my expectations in that I would hope for a bit more stoicism on the part of these representatives of a new, dynamic English order.
Another satisfying installment in Coorlim’s Galvanic Century series. Like the preceding installment, March of the Cogsmen , this unites all of his main characters: James Wainwright, Alton Bartleby, and Aldora Fiske. Here, they intervene in a hostage situation at Bedford Mental Hospital.
The inmates have taken over the asylum, led by one Dennis Bartleby, the father Alton had committed there. Dennis wants a real investigation of the murder of the hospital’s director, true justice as opposed to Scotland Yard just railroading any convenient inmate. Confronted by psychiatrists representing various therapeutic approaches, Bartleby confronts his past, James is characteristically oblivious to both suggestions that he may resent Bartleby and Aldora’s marriage and that he’s infatuated with one Dr. Teague. And Aldora fears for her husband’s psychic well-being.
There is a bit of wondrous steampunk technology, but most of the story is Coorlim’s characteristic mixture of humor and drama and violence as we are given another satisfying chapter in the developing and changing lives of these characters.