Steampunk Under A Lotus Blossom: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Copyright © 2012 by Jay Kristoff.
Copyright © 2012 by Jay Kristoff.

Steampunk is a genre that I feel like I ought to be more engaged with, given its ties to cyberpunk and its opportunity for telling modern stories in a pre-modern setting. With that in mind, I eagerly jumped onto Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff, which I first heard about in a Big Idea post from John Scalzi’s “Whatever” blog.

Stormdancer takes place in the land of Shima, which is a steampunk-style version of Edo period Japan. Technology has advanced to an industrial and motorized level thanks to the fuels known as blood lotus and chi. The Shogun rules Shima with the help of the fanatic Lotus Guild, keeping the people in line while the land slowly dies from pollution and toxic dumps. When the Shogun has a vision of riding an arashitora or “thunder tiger,” he sends out Yukiko Kitsune’s family in search of the mythical beast. What follows is a tragic airship ride, a journey through deadly forests, battles with mythological demons, and a plot to expose and overthrow the corrupt leadership of the Shogunate.

At first glance, Yukiko didn’t interest me as a protagonist.  She seems to be an action girl whose only real flaws are bitterness about her ruined childhood and poor impulse control.  Her father Masume and his companions Kasumi and Akihito seemed a lot more interesting by comparison, having a more colorful history and good camaraderie.  But Yukiko gets better when she forms a bond with Buruu, the arashitora that her father attempts to capture for the Shogun.  Their friendship is the real heart of this story, as the two begin to rub off on each other and their temperaments begin to blend.  It’s a maturity that makes for a good Hero’s Journey and does a lot to improve Yukiko as a protagonist.

Yukiko’s journey also takes her through different parts of the constructed world of Shima.  What Kristoff does well here is to take the steampunk genre and show how all that technology would impact the environment.  For all the shiny new airships and radio stations, there’s also a toxic atmosphere in the cities and several species of mythological beasts going extinct.  The need for resources only gets worse through the fanatical rule of the Lotus Guild and the Shogun’s war with an unnamed Western power.  Instead of giving us a shiny and optimistic steampunk world, we get a gritty setting that would fit many modern-day tales.

While the steampunk development came off well, I had to wonder a little at the integration of Japanese mythology into the story.  The arashitora is a great character and a good focus for the novel, but there are other elements that don’t quite fit.  It doesn’t help that sometimes the story crawls to a halt in order to give the reader a lecture on a Japanese folk tale or heroic legend.  I’ve also read other reviews where some Japanese-speaking readers were questioning Kristoff’s use of Japanese words and terminology, and how accurate he was.  Though I’ve tried to reserve judgment myself, I do wonder how well a non-Japanese author can portray Japanese history and culture even with the best intentions.  But in any case, the mythology and linguistic elements do add more color to the world of Shima, if nothing else.

At the end of the day, Stormdancer is still a pretty fun and engaging read, whether you’re a steampunk fan, a samurai admirer, a Japanophile, or a mythology buff.

Stormdancer is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Powell’s Books.

Bibliography: Kristoff, Jay. Stormdancer (The Lotus War Book One). New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2012.

Modern Music In An Old-Fashioned Way: “Goggles” By The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing

Album cover. Copyright © 2010 by Leather Apron.

Steampunk.  It’s an easy-to-recognize genre visually.  Just take some Victorian man or woman, throw on a pair of goggles or a wrench, and you’re good to go.  But what of its acoustic nature?  “What about steampunk as an actual derivative of the punk music genre?” he said whilst fiddling with his glasses like a Cambridge scholar.

Well, if you want yourself a good ol’ introduction to steampunk music, then you need look nor listen no further than “Goggles,” that hit song by a band called (quite simply) The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.

The Song: “Crusty Punk Meets Cockney Sing-Songs Meets Grindcore In The 1880s” (Couldn’t Have Put Better Myself)

Andrew O’Neill and Gerhard “Andy” Heintz provide the boisterous vocals for this song, doing a lot of the front work.  They provide the old Cockney style and phrasin’ as our link to the Victorian past, while the raw modernist energy comes straight out of the minimalist rock ethos of guitar (O’Neill), bass (Marc Burrows), and loud drums (Jez Miller).  And going back to that visual ethos I mentioned at the start, O’Neill and Heintz sing about their ideal girl–one who wears goggles, smells of oil, and doesn’t mind a good ol’ scrape.

In other words, just about every girl that’s been featured in a steampunk work ever.

Final Verdict: I Love The Song About Loving A Girl With Goggles!

This isn’t a complicated song.  It’s rowdy, it’s spirited, and all in good fun.  It captures the can-do, break-the-status-quo attitude of the steampunk genre and is a great rock tune in and of itself.

“Goggles” and the album Now That’s What I Call Steampunk! Volume 1 are both available through iTunes.  The band can be followed on both Facebook and Twitter.

Bibliography: The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.  “Goggles.”  Now That’s What I Call Steampunk! Volume 1.  CD.  Leather Apron, 2010.

A Dark, Romantic Steampunk Ballad: “The Ballad Of Mona Lisa” By Panic! At The Disco

Album cover for Vices & Virtues. Copyright © 2011 by Warner Music Group.

So I guess have Conan O’Brien to thank for introducing me to both this crazy awesome band called Panic! At the Disco, as they played their new hit “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” on his show back in March.  Just by the first few notes, I was hooked–and after you watch the music video below, maybe you’ll be, too.

The Song: Soulful Singing, Powerful Playing

“Mona Lisa” is the first track on Vices & Virtues and a pretty good opener at that.  The first few seconds are just tinkling piano keys, followed by a steady bass as lead singer Brendon Urie pulls us into the ballad about the mysterious–and dare I say treacherous–Mona Lisa.  Then it kicks us into hard-hitting guitar riffs and pounding drums (not unlike “Mother Earth” by Within Temptation, but less heavy metal and more alternative rock).  Then comes the change in melody at 2:12, dropping us back into piano keys and Urie’s soulful voice carrying us along a passionate plea to the titular lady… and then kicking it back into the chorus reprise and finale with the same passion.

The Music Video: Just Your Typical Haunted Steampunk Funeral

So that's what a Victorian era rock band would've looked like! Copyright © 2011 by Warner Music Group.

By itself, the song is great, but it was finding the music video the day after I watched its performance on Conan that sold me.  The entire three-and-a-half minute sequence is a loving tribute to all things steampunk.  And why not?  They even managed to get the League of STEAM to be extras in it.

The scene depicts a steampunk-style funeral in the Old West, as Brandon Urie (in between singing) plays the ghost of the deceased man being honored.  The video reveals that he’s invisible all the guests–except for one small girl–and trying to point out his onetime lover and current undertaker, Mary, is the one responsible for his untimely demise.  In between all that, we get some fantastic shots of Panic! At the Disco playing retro-style rock band instruments; my particular favorite is the banjo-turned-electric guitar.  Brandon Urie (when acting as the lead singer) also gets the most impressive steampunk outfit I’ve ever seen, a crazy menagerie of gears, goggles, and gold plating secured to a slick suit and top hat.

Final Verdict: It Rocks On So Many Levels

Both the song and the music video are a fascinating mixture of soulful melody and pure rocking fun.  Just the steampunk elements in the video alone was reason enough for me to want to review this song, although the music itself is worthwhile.  Most people probably know Panic! At the Disco by their older and more popular single “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” but this one deserves equal interest and affection.

Both “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” and the album Vices & Virtues are available for download on iTunes.

Bibliography: Panic At The Disco!  “The Ballad of Mona Lisa.”  Vices & Virtues.  CD.  New York: Warner Music Group, 2011.

Britannia Rules Again With Steam Power!: “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Copyright © 1991 by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

When we think of sci-fi authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, we think of the cyberpunk genre they pioneered.  But what you may not know is that they also pioneered a derivative genre known as steampunk.  If cyberpunk looks at future technology through jade-colored lenses, then steampunk is a romantic view of technology for a historical period where it shouldn’t exist yet–specifically, modern technology in a Victorian era setting.

So what do you get when Gibson and Sterling pool their talents together to write a story that dares to put modern tech into the nineteenth century?  Why, The Difference Engine, of course!

The Story: Things Are About To Get A Bit More… Radical

The year is 1855.  The place is London.  History as we know it has been changed forever thanks to the success and spread of the eponymous difference engines invented by Charles Babbage.  What follows is a takeover of Parliament by the Industrial Radical Party under Lord Byron, a Luddite uprising, the fragmentation of the United States, and an upswing in the general quality of life for the British.

However, all that hard-earned progress will be jeopardized, as several plots circle around a mysterious box of punch-cards whose mathematical functions could spell disaster for the Radicals and their Engines.  It is through the eyes of a politician’s tart, a respected paleontologist, and a Foreign Office spymaster that we see the chaos unfold, with only the slightest chance of thwarting what some sinister individuals have set into motion.

The Cast: Hackers Vs. The State “Clackers” Vs. “The Mob”

There are three protagonists to this story.  The first sixth of the story goes to Sybil Gerard, the daughter of a famous Luddite agitator, who finds herself caught up in the intrigues surrounding an exiled Texan general named Sam Houston.  The last sixth of the story goes to Laurence Oliphant, a diplomat and spy who hopes to serve his government by rooting out conspirators and getting to the bottom of a plot involving murder, theft, and a potential scandal with Lady Ada Byron, the Prime Minister’s daughter.  And between these two storylines is the bulk of the novel, wherein we follow Edward Mallory, a fellow of the Royal Society and paleontologist credited with the discovery of the Brontosaurus, who becomes the possessor of the mysterious punch-cards for a time and joins Oliphant in getting to the heart of the conspiracy surrounding Lady Ada.

Although Mallory’s story covers most of the novel, I didn’t find him to be as substantial a hero as I’d hoped.  Granted, he’s a classic British gentleman and a true man of Science, but beyond his earnest nature, I didn’t feel as deeply connected to him as I did with the other viewpoint characters.  Sybil at least had a tragic backstory that she was always trying to overcome, while Laurence Oliphant has all the hallmarks of a professional, taking each development and challenge in stride while calculating his next move.

The Style: A Familiar Era In An Unfamiliar Light

Although this story is written in modern English, the words themselves bring to mind a true Victorian story, like reading the Sherlock Holmes tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  What struck me most throughout this story is just how much research Gibson and Sterling have clearly done while writing.  From telegrams to the Crimean War, from Victorian social etiquette to the principles of steam technology, they really make sure that the reader is immersed in what the 1800s were really like.

Having said that, they also show just how different everything becomes.  The hard part about writing an alternate history story is that changing one thing won’t automatically change everything.  In this case, it’s not just that Babbage’s engines become a success or that steam power becomes the new standard for energy production.  There’s the Balkanization of America into five sovereign territories, the British expedition to Japan, the French conquest of Mexico, the prevention of the Great Famine in Ireland, and the surprising new career paths taken by historical figures like Babbage, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Marx, and Darwin.  All these changes manage to work together, allowing us to see what kind of a world men and women like Sybil Gerard and “Ned” Mallory live in.

Final Verdict: A Great View Of The Future Through The Eyes Of The Past

In spite of what I said about Mallory’s role as a protagonist, the novel is quite good.  Admittedly, it can seem a little dry, considering that there’s more intrigue and investigation than action, but that’s not the heart of the story.  The heart is in Lord Babbage’s Engines and the “clackers” who run them, in the pollution of industrial London and the people’s agitation against endless reforms, and in the very altered nature of the Victorian era that we take for granted in our own modern time.

In looking at what might have been, Gibson and Sterling do a fantastic job of showing us our own issues, making us appreciate what we have to solve using the technology we now have and the lessons that our actual history has given us.

Bibliography: Gibson, William.  Sterling, Bruce.  The Difference Engine.  New York: Bantam Books, 1991.