I approached Sylvia Kelso's novella Spring in Geneva with trepidation, after reading the cover copy, which promised Mary Shelley, among others, squaring off "against Lord Byron, master of steampunk technology, and his thuggish minions." The Romantic poets and, in Mary Shelley's case, novelists were a fascinating group with complex internal dynamics—making one a hero and another a villain seemed like a waste. However, I did my best to put aside my biases and enjoy what appeared to be an adventurous romp featuring one of the founders of science fiction. Aqueduct Press's Conversation Pieces series, in which this novella appeared, features a number of interesting authors, including Brit Mandelo, whose Tor.com posts have intelligently explored issues of gender and sexuality in the genre, and Nicola Griffith, whose novel Hild (2013) is a highly original exploration of a medieval woman's world. Surely a series devoted specifically to feminist sf, publishing works by such excellent authors, would not put its name to a substandard and hackneyed work?
Alas, my forebodings were more than warranted. This novella is mechanically plotted, sloppily researched, and altogether unworthy of its place in a series which celebrates "the grand conversation of feminist SF."
Narrated in a charming epistolary style by Anton, the romantic son of a Geneva banker, Spring in Geneva chronicles Anton's involvement with the mysterious Mrs. Godstone (Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin) and her companion William, who has been artificially created after the manner of Frankenstein's monster. Pursued by Lord Byron, who is desperate to get his creation back and perform further, ominous "experiments," the pair captures Anton's ardent imagination and he aids them in eluding pursuit and foiling Byron's plans by destroying his mysterious steampunk machinery.
Despite the Frankenstein connection and the historical personages involved, the plot is a bog-standard conglomeration of steampunk and science fiction clichés. The protagonists must break into the secret laboratory to destroy the McGuffin, demolishing minions until they at last confront the primary villain. After predictable setbacks, they get the better of him. The scene in which William argues with Lord Byron that he is a living, sentient being despite his artificial origins is no different, and indeed considerably less tense and moving, than dozens of similarly structured scenes throughout the genre. The heroine's primary virtue, admittedly seen through the eyes of an infatuated nineteenth-century narrator, is being able to think on her feet to an ordinary degree and not panicking foolishly, qualities taken for granted in men. This may make her a "paragon" to Anton, but the modern SFF reader will demand a richer characterization of the author of Frankenstein.
Meanwhile, the book, set in 1818, is rife with anachronisms. The gallant young narrator asks rhetorically, "what value in issuing forth with a wide-brimmed hat and a false moustache, conspicuous as D'Artagnan?" (p. 26). The Comte D'Artagnan was a real seventeenth-century Musketeer whose life had already been fictionalized by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras in 1700, but it is exceedingly unlikely that more than a hundred years later, a young man would instinctively associate conspicuous, humorous disguises with this figure. Dumas's The Three Musketeers, which made D'Artagnan a household name and established his modern image, would not be published until 1844. While the D'Artagnan reference, however unlikely, is at least conceivable, Anton's father's response to his son's strange behavior, "cherchez la femme" (p. 33), is not. The phrase was coined, once again by Alexandre Dumas, in an 1854 novel. These errors are minor, but they betray a failure to research the actual cultural referents of the early nineteenth century, an indifference to the details of the period portrayed.
On the other hand, the broader historical context, the upheavals that followed the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, adds depth to an otherwise shallow tale. Anton is a bourgeois par excellence, squaring off against a swaggering aristocrat and displaying the chivalry and honor traditionally thought to be the sole preserve of the nobility. In republican Geneva, it is the "English milor'" who is an upstart and an intruder, who can be ruined when the establishment closes ranks. While Byron shrugs off Mary Shelley's threats to his already tattered reputation, Anton's financial threat carries greater weight. "'I will destroy your credit,' I said, 'across Europe. Let us hear you laugh at that'" (p. 67). Anton tempts Mary with the scope of action enjoyed by a banker's wife "as advisor, as counselor, as more than a sleeping partner" (p. 89). Recent political events back up this pride and confidence; when William first confronts Byron, the word he uses to express his contempt is "ci-devant" (p. 65).
It is precisely in a stirring speech by Anton's father encapsulating this theme that another problem with the depiction of history rears its head. "'This is not England,' he said, 'with its rotten boroughs and Corn Riots and bullying aristos. This is Switzerland. Napoleon himself recognized us as a confederacy. Now we are an independent, self-governing group of Cantons. A nation—,' his lip curled— 'of bourgeoisie'" (p. 84). This is heady stuff, and it is refreshing to see these issues from a non-English point of view, but why "Napoleon himself" having recognized the confederacy would matter so much in 1818, when Napoleon was already deposed and exiled, is not clear. There is much discussion of the Napoleonic period, since Anton's brother Gabriele died in Napoleon's Russian campaign. Anton is both inspired by Gabriele's adventurousness and constrained by his new position as the family heir. This tension makes Anton a more interesting character, but it is surprising to read so much about the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution and nothing at all about the Restoration and the Congress of Vienna, at which the European powers recognized Swiss borders, neutrality, and independence, in a novella set three years after Waterloo.
While I enjoyed the depiction of Geneva's bourgeoisie and the recognition of Switzerland's unique political history, this theme was not enough to make up for the derivative plot, simplistic characterizations of historical figures, or obvious anachronisms. Spring in Geneva failed to entertain.
Maya Chhabra is a student at Georgetown University. Her reviews have been published by Ideomancer, where she is an associate editor, and by Strange Horizons. She is a graduate of the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers.