Saturday, October 16, 2010

Brass Were

Genre fiction can be done as “write by the numbers” fiction. This sounds like a put-down, but it isn’t. Like all forms of art, there are agreed upon points that need to be paid attention to, and an artist ignores them at her peril. For example, if you’re going to write steam-punk (a form of alternate history fantasy typically set in Victorian Europe with anachronistic technology) you need to pay attention to the social norms of the time, and you need to at least hint at the presence of the aforesaid technology. In addition it’s become fashionable to feature a lot of corsets, as well as complicated looking goggles. I have no idea why.

Gail Carriger’s first volume of the "Parasol Protectorate" Soulless is most definitely steam-punk. It’s got corsets and goggles and Queen Victoria and a lot of amazing brass studded machines chugging away in the background. In the foreground it has Alexia Tarabotti, spinster, and Connall Maccon, hot Scot. Between the two they manage to provide plenty of steam for those gleaming steam engines. (Hm. Yup, probably not a recommendation for pre-teen readers.)

This particular version of the British Empire has made its peace with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, and integrated them into respectable society. Alexia, whose Italian father is dead and whose mother has remarried and brought two rather dim half sisters into her life, has the useful talent of being soulless. This would be scandalous if it were generally known. Instead she is drawn into the middle of a conspiracy to commit a terrible atrocity, together with the aforementioned hot Scot, who also happens to be the top honcho in the Queen’s service for dealing with terrible atrocities, preferably before they are committed.

Fast reparté as well as some fancy footwork make certain the reader keeps turning the pages.

What I particularly enjoyed about this story is how Carriger manages to create a cast ensemble that you really want to meet again. And you’re in luck: there’s at least one sequel.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Becoming More

I’ve said before that I don’t generally think of science fiction as a genre that’s about religion. In fact, when Dave Wolverton said at one time that he thought of fantasy as modern religious writing, while science fiction was entirely secular, I eventually agreed with him. Science fiction, no matter what guise it takes, seemed to me to be essentially about people for better or worse taking charge of their fate.

I came across Douglas E. Cowan’s book Sacred Space while I was browsing through my local public library for something interesting to read. The title reminded me of McKee’s The Gospel According to Science Fiction, and reading a couple of pages into the book made me think that Cowan’s book would explore that topic, as well, albeit a bit more rigorously. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that Sacred Space is about something else, entirely.

Where McKee essentially draws parallels between various science fiction films and TV series and mostly Western religious ideas, Cowan explores "The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television."

Transcendence, according to Cowan, is any state of being that is beyond what we currently are. He describes states of both physical as well as spiritual transcendence, and suggests that we can gain insight into this aspect of human experience by looking at how science fiction film and television have treated our striving for becoming something better.

Cowan covers a lot of material. There are over a hundred films and television episodes referenced in his book’s filmography. But where McKee merely looks for points of correspondence, Cowan refers to a broader schema for his ideas. In fact, Cowan derides McKee and others like McKee who manage to merely “baptize the text” in the service of their own particular belief systems.

I found the result to be entertaining and insightful. In the book’s nine chapters Cowan explores the subject of transcendence and illustrates the treatment of different kinds of transcendence by referring to science fiction ranging from Star Trek to Babylon 5 to Battlestar Galactica. I not only learned new ways of looking at this material, but I’m thinking perhaps it’s time to buy the BSG boxed set and finally watch that series.