Jean-Christophe Valtat, Aurorama

I'm not entirely familiar with the conventions of steampunk, and I'm okay with that. I like some elements of steampunk -- airships, the survival of obsolete technologies in general, celebrations of ways not taken (even if there were excellent reasons for not taking them) -- but there's enough else going on in the few allegedly steampunk books I've read that I'm not sure what ought to count as convention, invention, and anathema. So, I try simply to figure out whether and how much I like a particular book that may or may not count as steampunk in someone else's canon.

Maybe eventually I'll start thinking canon, but that day's not yet here.

Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorama is an impressively inventive work that kept me interested to the end and/but annoyed me fairly consistently, which evaluation is completely divorced from any questions of its relative steampunkishness. Adam Roberts, who liked the book much more than I did, blends a mid-length review with a long discussion of steampunk, and my post isn't nearly as detailed as his. Anna Perleberg, on the other hand, was not a fan of this book. If you want more than I'm giving you, check either or both of those readers.

Positives: Most real-world Euroamerican political splinter groups from 1880 to 1910 are present in one way or another, and I appreciated the complexity of Valtat's imaginary political science (especially the Doukhobors and other anarchists). Many real-world cultural technologies from the period 1870-1925 also play roles here, and I enjoyed Valtat's perspective on flapper singing groups, hallucinogens, and phonographs. Revolutions can be necessary, as Valtat suggests, and can involve unexpected and fascinatingly incomplete alliances; this is especially true of partly Indigenous revolutionary actions by a badly outnumbered force.

Negatives: The cast of characters is incestuously small, given the near-mythic importance attached to most of their identities; the individual characters are often cartoony, and not in an especially good way. The backstory is flaunted but kept secret (Helen is who exactly? "Blue Wild" is what and happened when, now?), making the novel read like the second volume of a trilogy rather than the first, as it's supposed to be. The wacky names which appear to be a steampunk hallmark are present in full force here (Sealtiel Wynne? Baron Brainveil? seriously?), and I'm no happier with them than I've been in the past. Female characters, as Anna Perleberg reminded me in her post, have next to no life as characters, functioning almost entirely as plot devices, and the sexual relationship within which Gabriel Lancelot d'Allier ends the novel ... well, "awkward" doesn't begin to describe the issues at play there.

At bottom, I just didn't care about the characters or the events, and in consequence I couldn't get excited about the ideas that really ought to have excited me, given my politics and cultural tastes. I recognize that Valtat's prose self-consciously sought a kind of intentional floridity in an effort to distance me from what I was reading about, and that Valtat was successful in doing to so; I recognize that Valtat was dropping me into a world that I didn't have a hope of understanding, in part as a way of emphasizing the impossibility of ever achieving complete understanding of any world. He does an excellent job of what I think he was trying to achieve -- but in my reading experience, Aurorama is at best a really successful intellectual exercise, though possibly not that either, and that's not what I need in my novels these days.

And finally, music video as Aurorama book trailer: make your own judgements thereof.


Popular Posts