Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review of The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo may be speculative fiction’s best kept secret.  As imaginative as any reader could ever hope, erudite and inventive regarding the history of literature and the writers who populate it, sensitive to his texts’ political stance, boisterous wordsmith of the nth degree, and clever-clever in his plotting, it’s difficult to ask for more.  But perhaps Di Filippo’s greatest talent is awareness of the genre’s undercurrents before they hit the shore.  Though technically a second-wave creation, his 1995 collection The Steampunk Trilogy was nevertheless on the steampunk wagon 10-15 years before the massive third-wave explosion hit the mainstream.

Containing three novellas, The Steampunk Trilogy utilizes Di Filippo’s variegated talents to play with a few of the tropes and themes common to the sub-genre inherent to the title in original fashion.  Alternate history, a bit of clockwork gadgetry, 19th century America and Britain, colorful characters and dialogue, famed historical figures, and some bizarre uses for “biology.” But the underlying ideas (what often amounts to brazen challenges to many of the social and cultural mores of the era) feature most heavily.  Set off by Di Filippo’s raw aptitude for writing, the three novellas set the bar for second wave steampunk.

The cheekily adventurous “Victoria” opens the collection.  As adroit as adroit can be, Di Filippo proves his qualities as a craftsman telling of the young British biologist Cosmo Cowperthwaite and his rough-around-the-edges American sidekick Nails McGroaty as they attempt to track down the escaped teenage queen Victoria in the back alleys and bordellos of London.  Irreverent, splash-dashtic, uproarious, endlessly inventive—these terms only begin to describe the adventures Cowperthwaite and Nails get into fulfilling their (newt-inspired) mission. 

Original to the collection, “Hottentots” tells of the “Swiss-born scientist, master of paleontology, ichthyology, and zoology, doctor of medicine, public lecturer, formulator and popularizer of the Eiszeit Theory, Naturalist Laureate (in journalistic parlance) to his adopted America”—the despicable Louis Agassiz.  An unrepentant racist, Agassiz has his prejudices flummoxed when asked by an Afrikaaner and his “African queen” to track an African shaman who is himself searching for… a specimen of great voodoo power.  The Irish-Polish bastard son of Tadeusz  Kosciuszko likewise turning up in the hunt, the story is the least organic in the collection (the plot never feels fully naturalized) but nevertheless displays all of Di Filippo’s fictional dexterity.

Showcasing Di Filippo’s knowledge beyond genre in a genre story, “Walt & Emily” pits the vim and vigor of Walt Whitman against the loneliness and melancholy of Emily Dickinson in a story of metaphysical dimension.  The most layered of the three novellas in the collection, Di Filippo tucks away bits of poetry, plays with the biographies of Whitman and Dickinson in fictional and realist fashion, and otherwise digs at the underlying tension between the two poets’ work in the context of the times they lived.  Certainly a literary piece of steampunk, Di Filippo sacrifices none of his imagination using clairvoyants, the afterlife, parlor poltergeists, and séances to examine a significant corner of American poetry.

The Steampunk Trilogy shifts across the spectrum of aesthetic to thematic steampunk, or, from another perspective, from the ‘gaslight romance’ side to the pure ‘punk’ in ‘steampunk.’ “Victoria” a full-on adventure that many readers would somewhat expect given the title of the collection, “Hottentots” sees Di Filippo looking a little closer at the ideas of racism and sexism in the 19 th century, albeit with one hand still firmly gripping the fun lever.  With “Walt & Emily,” however, the collection becomes its most serious—a relative term given how Whitman’s verve for life is portrayed and the obvious enjoyment Di Filippo has integrating poetry and American 19th century life into an alternate history of two of America’s more distinguished poets.

While the collection’s title may throw off would-be readers today as too overt, it must be remembered that in 1995 the term was not being bandied about in media as it is today.  While there were certainly hints, the sub-genre had yet to be fully quantified, and as a result Di Filippo’s novellas selectively utilize the tropes we now look back on as first-wave steampunk yet in wholly original fashion compared to much of the paint-by-the-numbers steampunk we see being produced today.  The distillation, in other words, is thankfully not pure.

Compared to works like Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, The Steampunk Trilogy comes across as significantly more orginal.  Hodder’s work by-the-book steampunk (i.e. precisely what one would expect seeing the novel classified as ‘steampunk’), Di Filippo’s stories are impossible to predict.  They contain what we’ve come to think of as the common tropes, but spiritually and ideologically possess a life of their own that is comparable only superficially.  The reader can draw lines connecting all of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack to some precedent, whereas with The Steampunk Trilogy it’s possible only in places, the remainder as unique as Di Filippo has proven himself to be.

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