Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama is a steampunk novel. I have some problems with steampunk as a genre, and discuss them below (there’s a part two to this review, you see): but I want to start out by noting that Aurorarama is very good indeed, considerably steamier than the standard punky moist air, even though set in a brilliantly chilly alt-historical North Pole. I recommend it.
We’re in New Venice, "The Pearl of the Arctic," and the era is sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, or one version of that turn refracted through Valtat's "pluriverse." New Venice itself is a generically familiar but still very handsomely mounted location. Ruled by a secretive and authoritarian "Council of Seven," and policed by an elegant but ruthless secret police force, "the Gentlemen of the Night," it is nevertheless a stylish location:
Brentford, leaving the bridge and its sculpted bears, reached the Arctic Administration Building and headed toward the Botanical Building, further on the right. Its lights were turned down, and the glass-and-metal structure loomed large and mysterious. One could sense the life inside, the silent but stubborn relentless growth. (p. 96)
The plot follows two main characters: Brentford Orsini (that's him, on the bridge), a city administrator from a good family with dark secrets in his past; and Gabriel d'Allier, a foppish dandy and academic with a decadent, druggy lifestyle. The two are friends caught up in the secret movement opposing the oppressive Council of Seven, who run the city, and accordingly pursued by the state. Matters seem to be coming to a head: a strange, ominous black airship is hovering mysteriously overhead; Eskimo bandits are circling the city; and a sled without a driver has arrived out of the north "where nobody lives," pulled by a dog-team, and drawing after it the body of a woman.
It would be folly to try and summarize the rest of the serpentine, dreamlike plot; for this is a restlessly inventive and sweetly surreal novel. We get the usual steampunk technological artefacts mingled with strange Vurt-like drugs and supernatural goings on to boot. Indeed, Aurorarama explicitly blends conventional narrative pleasures with the logic of dreaming: a girl tattooed all over with a starmap; moonlight lovemaking on the ice; Polar Kangaroos; Zeppelins powered by "Vapouric Ether" (sic) and navigated by anarchists. Aurorarama mixes in scenes from 1960s hipster jazzland and figures from a Bosch painting ("three men, clad in the traditional black overcoats, white bird masks and wide-brimmed hats of their plague doctors' outfits" (p. 12)—these are the Scavengers, a kind of untouchable caste who handle the city’s garbage). All that sort of thing. The dream logic that structures the novel has a lot in common with stage magic ("Stella came down and bowed to the audience, but as she stood up, her head remained stuck in midair, while the rest of her body faded out" (p. 191)). Quite a lot of the novel has to do with music, bands playing frying pans strung like guitars and other, steampowered instruments (in Pynchon mode, Valtat supplied us with terrible lyrics as well as descriptions of the bands). Some of the novel consists of, to appropriate one character's phrase, "hypnagogic sequences of related and slightly absurd events he had little control over" (p. 233). But counterbalancing the dreaminess, and ensuring the novel hangs together as a novel, is a muscular command of the ripping yarns narrative idiom, including chapter titles like the exclamatory "Eskimos to the Rescue!", or indeed the triple exclamatory "Hypnotized!!!" and "Terrorists!!!" The titular machine is a particularly splendid invention, a device that turns the aurora borealis into a gigantic visualization medium, like "a slightly damaged hand-colorized fantascope movie" (p. 346).
Better yet, the novel is as well-written as it is well-imagined: full of nice phrases—"the vandalized Bibi Eybat oil wells burned non-stop in the night, in true Zoroastrian fashion" (p. 153); a blizzard "whirls madly like a trapped wolf" (p. 174)—and Valtat handles his cod-nineteenth-century tone sweetly ("he beheld, almost miragenous through the whirling snowflakes, four hooded shapes hurrying away down the back alley" (p. 197)). North Pole politics are "poletics"; people travel around not in taxis but "taxsleighs"; and the prose approaches the business of swearing with a degree of propriety (". . . they were against the Council then, and now those phoque-in-iceholes work hand in hand" (p. 69)). Although, at the same time, the writing sometimes falls into the uncanny valley between the formal idiom of Victorian prose and the unidiomatic stiffness of a non-native speaker ("'This is very kind of you. But it happens that one likes to hunt for oneself, even if one is a bad hunter,' he said" (p. 41)). I don't mean to be a neat-piquer. That Valtat, a French national, wrote this long, accomplished novel in his second language represents an almost Conradian achievement. So if I gracelessly note that sometimes the style doesn't quite hit the bull ("It would, Gabriel thought, enlighten his return home . . . provided he would not go alone" (p. 68; "provided he didn't go home alone" would be more idiomatic); or "as he hurried he could perceive rooms whose open doors revealed the strangest scenes" (p. 160; "perceive" isn't the right word there, I think)—then I must also declare that Valtat's command of English is better than many published Anglophone authors I could mention. Overall, this is a very good novel indeed.
So, steampunk. We might want to ask whether this novel, with its manifold excellences, is a symptom of a subgenre in rude health; or whether it is a late bloomer in an exhausted imaginative idiom. I'm not sure how we might want to answer such a question.
What is steampunk? It is a studied dismantling of the consecutiveness of history in the service of a particular set of styles and fashions. As such, it is part of a larger phenomenon; what Fredric Jameson’s famous 1984 essay "Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" identified as a "mesmerizing new aesthetic mode" that has recently "emerged as an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way." It may be less useful than otherwise to invoke this phenomenon's brand name ("postmodernism"), because that term has become so scratched and scrabbled, so contested and overused as to approach uselessness. But Jameson is on to something, I think, when he describes the last half century or so as characterized by "a strange occultation of the present," a situation in which a kind of formalized nostalgia symptomatically reveals "the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience."
Ours is, in other words, a situation in which our sense of history is exhausted; overwritten by an inventively but debilitating aesthetic nostalgia that functions as a deliberate simplification of the past—Jameson calls it a "sterilized" and "fetishized" version of the past: "our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach."
Steampunk is precisely this mode of Jamesonian pastiche, driven by a nostalgia for the styles and manners of Victorian English combined with a sense that the convenience of contemporary technological advances—or, perhaps, more: the exhilaration of the technological sublime itself, upon which so much SF is predicated—can be disengaged from the actual circumstances of their historical production and retrofitted, as it were, into the past. The problem with this is its mendacity: I mean both its ideological untruthfulness, but also its radical misprision of history as such. Things like technological advance are not random events; they are determined by their historical circumstances. The reason the Victorians did not invent computing and space travel is not that they happened not to get around to it, and not that mere chance got in the way; it is that the entire social and cultural ground of their collective lives was not productive of such advances. Had circumstances been trivially different to they way they actually were, Babbage might have actually manufactured his difference engine; but even if he had done so, the computer revolution would not have followed, as the night the day, the way the sidewhiskered granddaddy Gibsonian-Sterlingesque The Difference Engine suggests. The actual computer revolution, from the 1980s to the present, is not a chance event, or even a chance series of events; it is the superstructure of a particular complex economic, social, and cultural base. It required not just a few clever people making clever designs to produce personal computing and the internet; much more importantly it required an entire human economy and culture receptive, or productive, of the million elements that fit together into the whole. It takes more than a Babbage to make this happen. A similar case could be made for the more commonly appearing tropes of so many steampunk novels: flying machines long before the Wright brothers, robots before Toyota, and so on. The fantasy of steampunk, in fact, is the old bourgeois one: that one talented individual matters more than the whole weight of history. It is the fantasy of being freed from the larger context of historical necessity.
And actually, steampunk is not really a matter of this or that technological gadget; the appeal of the genre is in the way it finesses the past into the present. This is an aesthetic strategy it shares with Heroic Fantasy (or much of it) as a mode: a disinclination to encounter the past as past. Most twenty-first century representations of a notional "past" are based on the idea that people in the nineteenth century (or, in post-Tolkienian Fantasy, the middle ages) were basically people exactly like us, and therefore people with whom it requires no effort from the reader to identify. The differences the works do register are superficial ones—the relative deficiency of cool technology—that can be supplied, in the case of steampunk, by retrofitting modern technology into stylish pseudo-Victorian garb (or in the case of Fantasy, by supplying the deficiency with "magic"). Not concrete deserts but neo-Gothic prettiness ("Brentford’s apartment was located in another wing of the Botanical Building, accessible through an exquisitely crafted wroughtiron spiral staircase. This led to a flat decorated in the finest Art Nouveau style, as if the iron girders had melded with the hothouse plants" (p. 100)).
At its worst, then, steampunk is just an exercise in escapism, history as fancy dress: the brutalist aesthetic of modern-day big-scale technological artefacts is softened with a little elegant nineteenth century design panache—instead of the black, slug-shaped enormousness of a modern nuclear submarine we have Captain Nemo's vessel; similarly large but beautiful: silver and art-deco-silhouetted, ornamented with attractive curlicues and stylish lines. Real-life London's Millennium Dome is an ugly, functional affair; the domes in Valtat's Aurorarama have more je ne sais quoi ("the dome itself, supported by white pillars, was of jet-black jasper encrusted with diamond stars and silver filigree work" (p. 159)). In place of today's Pacino-in-Scarface vulgarity of vocabulary and manners, we have characters who speak in mannered Johnsonian or Dickensian phrases, who dress not in shell suits and jogging pants but in exquisitely tailored suits. Or, to cut to the argumentative chase: steampunk gives us not the grinding desolation of post-Darwinian existential insignificance, but a golden ticket back to the pre-Darwinian cosmos (or, a little more precisely, to a Cosmos trembling on the brink of falling into the angst of Modernity) where the universe is fitted more comfortingly to the individual's hopes and importance. Civilization, but with more profound ontological Discontent replaced with the diverting transitory discomforts of adventure narrative.
To use steampunk diagnostically, in other words, is to suggest the ground of its appeal is a sense that the modern world is lacking in refinement. What steampunk tells us is that there's nothing to prevent the marriage of contemporary technological convenience with the elegance and the good manners of the nineteenth century. Another shorthand for this, of course, is breeding; and to think of it like that is to understand the extent to which steampunk is embroiled in reactionary ideologies of class superiority.
Having said all that, one of the things that lifts Aurorarama out of the standard steampunk rut is its awareness of its own mode precisely as a recirculation of styles ("Once again fashion had completed its meaningless but pleasant cycle and come back to its starting point" (p. 67)). Valtat's novel does understand, I think, that steampunk is a kind of dream of the Victorian age; and dreams are simultaneously beguiling and semiotically fluid. Dreams in Aurorarama are actual codes, to be deciphered by those in the know to reveal detailed messages. Here is Brentford trying to make sense of one of his dreams (excuse me if I don't gloss every reference here):
Let us be more precise, he thought. He had wanted to speak to Helen or for Helen to speak to him—the woman (and a lot more than that) whose dead body he had left on the ice field a few years before, after her magic had saved the city. Vomiting ectoplasm on the ice field may have been merely a consequence of his desire to communicate with the dead Helen. And so must have been the Ghost Lady, for a spectre was more or less the form he would have expected Helen to take if she appeared. "Mr. Osiris" was another clue. After Helen had saved the city from Delwit Faber's coup with the Lobster Girls and the House of Hellequin, Brentford had found crumpled in her hand the formula Isis had used to stop the Chariot of the Sun in order to help the diseased Osiris. The very name Osiris could be vaguely construed as a play on his name, Orsini, which in Italian was itself a pun on bear (a bear even appeared on his coat of arms). It would be only logical to find a bear on the arctic ice field, all the more since arctos also meant "bear." Being on the ice, then, like the references to Ross, meant only that he was simply dreaming of himself waiting for a vision of Helen, not to mention that ice is the best backdrop for the kind of clear and sustained mental images he’d been hoping to see. The Ghost Lady calling him Mr. Osiris signified that, if she was not Helen herself, she was conscious of Brentford’s history with Helen, and was perhaps some sort of messenger. "Did you fly?" was more difficult to decipher, but Brentford remembered now that when Helen had made him join her on a kind of shamanic trip, he had found himself flying over an unknown city. So, as he summed it up, the dream was just a rather simple image of his own longing for Helen, and the message he had got was, after all, pointing to her more clearly than he had first thought. (pp. 76-77)
The point is that after all this pre-Freudian Freudianism, all this squirreling around in the dream-matter to pull out nuggets of significance, Brentford concludes: "Of course, there was still the tiresome hypothesis that it was a simple circular circuit of wish fulfillment and that he had only received under a different form what he had first put into the dream." That, I’d say, gets to the point of it. What we get out of steampunk is what we put in. "After all," we're told a little later; "the place is nothing if not nondescript. The North Pole and four hundred miles off it are just the same endless expanse of dreary faceless desert . . . Or to put it otherwise, the North Pole is Nothing" (p. 84).
Aurorarama's first section ("Qarrtsiluni") begins with this intriguing epigraph:
The form familiar to our stage of culture, which aims at weaving together and combining motifs into a whole, while gradually shaping itself toward a climax and tending to an explosive conclusion, viz. the dramatic construction, has no place in the intellectual life of the Eskimos. [C. W. Schultz-Lorentzen, Intellectual Culture of the Greenlanders, 1928]
It's bold of Valtat to adhere, more or less, to this off-kilter Eskimo logic in his larger narrative. The nothingness is doing interesting things in this novel. What I mean is that this is a novel that replaces the nuts-and-bolts techno-fetish of the mode with a pataphysical or surreal dream-fetish, that works its oxymoronic white-heat white-(arctic)-cold dynamic out into all the corners and limbs of its sprawling text. Highly recommended.