a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: steampunk

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

SO I have no intention of ever reading the Game of Thrones books; not out of a sense of I’m-too-good-for-it, but rather, Who-has-the-time? But I was curious about Martin’s style, so I have been meaning to get this book for a while now. Fevre Dream is a vampire story, which is much more up my alley than chain-mail-clad sword-brandishing fantasy, anyway. Written in 1982, this book is what one might call steampunk science fiction.
Summary: It is the story of a steamboat captain named Abner Marsh who is commissioned to construct a new boat by Joshua York, a strange beautiful gentleman and businessman who wishes to be his partner. The magnificent new steamboat is called the Fevre Dream and it is Abner Marsh’s dream to make it the fastest running vessel on the Mississippi. Part of Abner Marsh’s contract with York is to stay out of his away, no questions asked about York’s nocturnal habits or the strange company he keeps. Abner Marsh is more than eager to accept York’s conditions for the chance to captain his dream boat. That is, until he begins to discover a strange pattern to York’s secrets. A rumour floats upstream… vampire.
Meanwhile, in a small settlement along the Mississippi lies a haunted house. A house inhabited by such monsters that no slave is ready to work there, no guest returns alive. The property is run by Damien Julian, who calls himself the bloodmaster of his clan. As the neighbouring town turns against the demonic presence in their house, the ancient Damien Julian sends out his clan to find accommodation elsewhere. And a couple of them just happen to board the Fevre Dream.
“The very one, Abner. An astounding man. I had the good
fortune to meet him once. Our steamboat put me in mind of a poem he once
wrote.” York began to recite.

She walks in Beauty,
like the night
Of cloudless climes
and starry skies;
And all that’s best of
dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and
her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that
tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy
day denies.

“What shall we name
her?” York asked, his eyes still fixed on the boat, and a slight smile on his
face. Does the poem suggest anything? I had in mind something like Dark Lady,
or—”

“I had somethin’ in mind myself,” Marsh said. “We’re Fevre
River Packets, after all, and this boat is all I ever dreamed come true.” He
lifted his hickory stick and pointed at the wheelhouse. “We’ll put it right
there, big blue and silver letters, real fancy. Fevre Dream.” He smiled.

For a moment, something strange and haunted moved in Joshua
York’s gray eyes. Then it was gone as swiftly as it had come. “Fevre Dream,” he
said. “Don’t you think that choice a bit… oh, ominous? It suggests
sickness to me, fever and death and twisted visions. Dreams that… dreams
that should not be dreamed, Abner.”
My thoughts: To me, a well written speculative fiction contributes to the existing lore, offers an alternate. (To me, for instance, the ‘vampires don’t come out in the sun as they sparkle and stand out’ bit of the Twilight series is the least of its faults because of its sheer innovation. Did anyone ever even consider that the sun did not in fact harm vampires directly but made them more conspicuous?) In this aspect of lore-feeding, Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin fares rather excellently. The vampires of Fevre Dream are not supernatural, but rather a distinct race – humanoid yet different. A race afflicted by a thirst which might just find itself a cure in science.
The popular vampire myth is steeped in Christian ritual. The vampire is a reanimated corpse that rests in its coffin, leaves it at dusk, can be repelled with the cross, may not enter a church, gets burnt by holy water. Take all that away and what is left may not be a vampire at all. Hindu mythology speaks of batlike demon creatures but they bear only a vague resemblance to our walking dead. Like all recent vampire mythology, Martin’s story is a fight of good versus evil. It is also very Christian, but in a different way. Martin tells the story of Joshua York as a messiah come to free the vampires of their curse, the Pale King come to lead them to a newer tomorrow.
On a more meta-level, Martin’s story is a fight between the popular contemporary myth and the old darker one. I have heard of Martin writing morally ambiguous characters. Here, however, there is a clear black and white, which serves its (unintended?) purpose. On the one hand, you have Joshua York, beautiful and alluring, leading a civilized life and on the other, Damien Julian, blood master, a frightening creature wrought with pure evil and destruction. The vampire myth has adapted itself to the needs and likes of every generation and Martin’s story tests our allegiance. It does not leave you with a satisfying ending, but rather, drags you along till you make a choice – which is more enduring? The tragic prince-turned-Beast or the terrible monster? I chose the latter. Abner March, loyal to the end, remained alongside the beautiful and tragic Joshua York; the perfect friendship.
Fevre Dream is engaging; a surprise, for its size is tremendous. Martin’s lengthy descriptions of characters and their physical appearances bored me. Literary references abound, with Shelley and Byron being particular favourites of Joshua York. But the atmosphere of steamboat racing, breaking the chains of slavery, bubbling invention is a fantastic capture. The writing loses its way sometimes, gives in to gimmickry, but on the whole, it pulls you in. I have been chewing on this review for a long time, and one thing is clear, the book has left an imprint on my thoughts, if not always a positive one. 
Accidentally slitting my hand on a knife yesterday may have played a major part in pushing my opinion in favour of Martin’s book; the uncaring spillage of blood in modern vampire stories, its supposed beauty, now brings a particularly bitter taste, and having a young man or woman lust sacrificially after the metaphorical knife seems plainly objectionable. Dracula makes more sense than Prince Lestat, and Fevre Dream lets you pit one against the other.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

About the series: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett is the fortieth book in the Discworld series (yes, four-zero-eth) and the third installment in a mini-series that describes a period of industrial revolution on the Discworld. 
For those of you who don’t know, Discworld is a long series of books set on a strange planet swimming through space, comprising a giant turtle carrying on its back four elephants who balance on their heads a magical disc. Discworld inhabited by characters at once like and wholly different from those who people our Earth. It is a humorous retelling of life with a few basic rules changed. The Discworld series has over fifty books, with miniseries dedicated to certain characters.
The Industrial Revolution series of the Discworld stars a scoundrel and thief named Moist von Lipwig who ends up at the centre of many new developments in technology. In the first book, Going Postal, Discworld gets a Post Office. The second book Making Money is all about the first mint and introduction of money to the Disc. Raising Steam, the third and unfortunately, the last in the series is about the invention of…. the steam engine. 

My thoughts: A long time ago, I had listened to a short clip of an interview by Terry Pratchett where he talks about his fascination with the Victorian delight in technology. Here is a link to the video. ”Once upon a time, people wrote poems about technology and communications… I wanted to get the feel of the world where the technology was so new and light and wonderful, that people really cared about it,” says Pratchett. 

Raising Steam is all about the spirit of invention, the curiosity and unending effort that drive innovation, its maddening, sometimes silly allure. It is also about the rejection faced by those at the head of change. The modernity embraced by the story and its characters, however, is not restricted to invention, and in a charming way, Raising Steam is also a modern claim on equality between the sexes, between castes and between species. If all this were not enough, it is a heady mixture of wise and sidesplittingly funny. 
When the first engine is built by a young self-made engineer Dick Simnel, it is initially eyed with suspicion. Soon however, it finds its happy audience in Ankh Morpork, a city of entrepreneurs. The engineer wins over investors and lawyers. And it is then that the Patrician of Ankh Morpork assigns the job of ensuring the railway brings profits beyond measure to his city to none other than Moist von Lipwig, reformed crook, fairly decent guy and now Head of the Post Office and Royal Bank.
It is the age of reform in every sense. Non-human species like trolls, goblins and vampires are increasingly letting go of their old binding traditions to become members of Ankh Morporkian society. But not everyone is quite so flexible. Trouble is brewing in the court of the Low King of dwarves. The Low King is modern for his position. But certain dwarf clans stand stubbornly in the way of change, ready to hunt down any of their own who yearn for it. The new railway becomes the perfect target for these anti-progress forces and it is up to Moist von Lipwig to guard the railway against the attack of the dwarves. Meanwhile, the Low King has a special secret to guard…
Select quotes: ”Sometimes, Mister Lipwig, the young you that you lost many years ago comes back and taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘This is the moment when civilization does not matter, when rules no longer hold sway. You have given the world all you can give and now it’s the time just for you, the chance to go for broke in the last hurrah. Hurrah!”
.
“The train is the future; bringing people close together. Think about it. People run to see the train go past. Why? Because it’s heading to the future or coming from the past. Personally, I very much want the future and I want to see to it that dwarves are part of that future, if it’s not too late.”
.
“Moist knew about the zeitgeist, he tasted it in the wind, and sometimes it allowed him to play with it. He understood it, and now it hinted at speed, escape, something wonderfully new, the very bones of the land awakening, and suddenly it seemed to cry out for motion, new horizons, faraway places, anywhere that is not here! No doubt about it, the railway was going to turn coal into gold.”
Afterthought: This is a strange, in fact bizarre… ridiculous, comparison to draw but the topic of Raising Steam kept making me think back to nearly twelve years ago, when I had read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which was similar only in its supreme thrust on the industrial revolution through the construction of the railway. And I once again found myself realising how over-the-top, self-indulgent, threadbare the book had been (even apart from the whole matter of its philosophy), doubling with laughter at how I went through a phase where that felt like good writing. Today, I find, simplicity is the best and hardest to achieve.