L. Joseph Shosty, Abattoir in the Aether. Untreed Reads, 2012. Pp.124. ISBN 9781611872439. $4.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
In case you have never come across anything like Abattoir in the Aether before, ladies and gentlemen, strap yourselves in, because we are about to take a rumbling journey into the ether, with Victorians In Spaaaaaccceee! Otherwise known as the genre of Steampunk.
The plot is a standard one of peril and derring-do. An adventuring scientist and his ‘plucky’ female sidekick are drifting in the aether in a damaged craft, limping away from a previous escapade (this is one of a series of novellas based around the same characters). In an ‘alternative’ Victorian time, space is not a pure vacuum, but filled with the ever-present ‘aether’; a substance thought to exist in the 19th century, filling the void. Running low on fuel, hoping to make it back to Mars, they come across a space station under communication blackout. Taken on board, it transpires the rather beautiful station; decorated in high style with a view to being a future way-station of civilian travellers, is in danger. Its thrusters are not working, and it is drifting ever closer to the edge of an aether storm which will tear it apart.
While adventurer-scientist Nathanial just happens to be the best person to work on fixing the problem, he finds his investigations into the thrusters, and latterly, into strange goings-on and deaths aboard the station, thwarted by the sinister project director. Meanwhile, Annabelle, his companion, has become intrigued by the murders and starts investigations of her own. What they unearth is a dark plot involving a supremely dangerous piece of new equipment (the Steampunk equivalent of early nuclear power) and a lunatic inventor...
Steampunk, while not lead by any Big Name (cyberpunk, for example, has William Gibson often cited as a ‘founding father’), has a devoted following beyond purely fictional into other formats. For a genre to be ‘punk’d, one takes a known genre and twists it a little; adds a spin. Steampunk is the juxtaposition of quite advanced technology, but with a Victorian slant; it is steam-powered or similarly engineered, hence the name. Set predominantly in an ‘alternative universe’ within the Victorian/ Edwardian era, it features exploration of space, riding strange, self-locomotive vehicles and communicating with long-distance devices. It borrows from the ‘scientific romances’ of Jules Verne and H G Wells, developing the futuristic proposals these authors visualised utilising the technology of their day. The ‘space’ travel showcased in Abbatoir, therefore, is more properly termed ‘aether-travel.’ For the purposes of fiction, projects human drama into new arenas in the great beyond. And Abbatoir is a story all about human interaction and human emotion. No grand speculations on alien thought processes, or on intangible uncertainties. Like the greater part of Victorian science (which reacted badly to too much uncertainty and strove for completion), problems are explainable with the right data. Steampunk is refreshingly confident about explication of events.
Steampunk has become something of a catch-all description for all settings that look a bit old-fashioned featuring anachronistically sophisticated technology. There has yet to be a satisfactory filmic version of ‘Steampunk.’ Ironically, one of the clearest attempts has also been slammed by film fans as an absolute lemon: Wild, Wild West! It is not, however, one of the largest single genus on bookshelves, perhaps because it easily combines with other speculative fiction genres and can become subsumed to other, larger themes; notably horror and fantasy. It is a very flexible speculative genre.
The most striking examples are more to be found among the devotees who helped to give it a solid continuance: among the very visual, immediate role-playing community. Steampunk is a very visceral genre; it’s grubby with coal dust, creaks with corset stays, swishes with tailcoats and gowns and sparkles with brass fixtures and features. The unisex signifier for Steampunk role-play is the ubiquitous set of goggles, mostly worn pushed back on the head. An item for racers, explorers and scientists, they symbolise the go-getting attitude of Colonialism that drives steampunk’s moral core. Colonialism as a concept also comes with attendant ideas of racism, exploitation and overruling white, rich male authority, and these are definitely considered outmoded and even offensive to a twenty-first century mind. Instead the confidence and adventurousness is up-played as a form of personal identity by role-players and are carried over as the main drivers for Abbatoir.
Reading like a ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure, Abattoir in the Aether manages to convey a sense of solidity and immediacy while steering clear of too much emphasis on the less desirable aspects of the Victorian mindset. Packed with chases, escapes and strong hyperbole, Shoshty has struck a chord of more innocent genuineness in his writing. By steering the plot to the human drama and leaning heavily on the gorier aspects of a series of murders, he colours his tale like a penny dreadful without having to expand too much on the (to a modern reader) necessarily sexist and mildly racist attitudes of his characters; people of their era.
A potential weak spot within Steampunk can be largely attributed to twentieth and twenty-first century story telling neglecting to remember that the characters must not come across too modern, too slick. A collision of cultural values is inherent in applying advanced tech to old-fashioned social mores and is the ‘punk’ing of an era. As mentioned above, genuine Victorian/Edwardian beliefs can clash with modern ideas of individuality and self-empowerment, and certainly there are more powerfully seductive and plucky adventuresses among the role-playing community than there are domestic women. But in writing, it takes longer to set a scene word by word than the immediacy of a fully dressed-up character approaching you in person. Plus, the act of role-playing itself is a statement of self-definition for the modern attendee. To achieve a real milieu that is plausible to a reader, it helps to take one’s source material more seriously. Perhaps unwisely, modern storytelling set in a recently-passed era, such as turn of nineteenth-to-twentieth-century (only 100 years ago, so still pretty ‘new’ by historical standards), has tended to instil rather modern ideas into its characters; effectively acting out modern concerns in fancy dress (back to role-playing). Shoshty’s figures are still firmly rooted in what does pass for a suitably ‘old fashioned’ mindset, and it suits them.
Annabelle is notable for bending the rules and being considerably pro-active. She is ‘allowed’ to do so because a) she is an adventuress of deep aether-space with a few adventures under her belt, b) she spent time among native Americans in their village, attributing her with an earthiness, and c) as is mentioned in the novella, she is the only woman there, and the all-male crew are at a bit of a loss to know what to do with her. Also, Nathanial is a thinker, not a fighter; his lower levels of physicality make a suitable counter-balance for her higher effectiveness. The ‘hen pecked’ male was a comedic response in an era that was struggling to come to terms with increasing push towards female emancipation. Her very transgressive behaviour is still very traditionally ‘female’: emotional and intuitive and is the opposite of Nathanial’s more considered, ‘scientific,’ male approach. Interestingly, she is also the one who is the most beaten up. She is attacked nastily on two separate occasions, yet she keeps on going. Nathanial, by comparison, is straightened by his overriding sense of respect for a chain of command—really the on-board class system—and while he bemoans Annabelle’s injuries, he takes some time to be able to get up his confidence, and those of other middle management males around him, to overcome his sense of propriety and start making headway in his own investigations. Once he does, he finds the truth faster than Annabelle, and with less wasteful action.
Shoshty maintains his period detail in expanding gender boundaries into clear social delineations. There are definite boundaries between workers and managers; eating and sleeping in very different quarters. The workers live and work in the station’s dark, steam-filled, overheated underbelly, nicknamed ‘Hell’, whereas the management live in relative comfort in ‘Heaven’ above. Feeding into these elements of clear separation, Shoshty is not ungenerous with the hyperbole, drawing thick, definite lines around each image projected. Structures are vast, beautiful, amazing; laying on thickly the idea of impressiveness. And Shoshty did not hold back when it came to describing the station’s Director.
This is a man completely bandaged, head to toe, following an accident that left him scarred, and he is introduced as no less than a ‘horror’. From there, the character has nowhere to go but remain on a Brian Blessed level of bluster and blow. Perhaps ironically, acting in this hysterical, ‘feminine’ fashion leaves him wide open to suffer the same fate as the other female character; to become physically assaulted and reduced. With adroit humour, Shoshty names this brooding, gothic leader van den Bosch. Not only foreign (oh, horrors!), but also amusingly generic (all Germans were ‘The Bosch’ to WWI allied soldiers). Following a Victorian preference for overdoing it in advertising, this tale is entitled ‘abattoir’. It is not actually wall to wall gore, but it is a good signifier for the passionately murky plot to come. Shoshty has done a very good job of creating a tale that feels steeped in its own authenticity via all this excess.
If some of the detail comes across as self-parodying, it can be considered that modern minds can often feel this way when reading genuine historical documents from the same time. Instead of becoming bogged down in such detail, however, Shoshty uses it to his advantage as a spring board for his narrative, which is exciting and driven. The hyperbole and recognisable gender/social positioning is a strength he exploits as a common ground of understanding with his reader, as well as a distancing factor that allows the action to become outrageous and generous in its profusion of emergencies, escapes and reveals.
Drawing back the focus a moment and considering where Shoshty is coming from, it is well to consider that this novella is one of a series based around a significant success story for Steampunk. I mentioned role-playing above because not only is it the main creative venture for Steampunk as a genre, but the ‘Space 1889’ title started life as a role-playing game, the name a playful nod towards the 1970s cult TV show Space 1999; itself a show expressing future ideas for humanity in space. ‘Space 1889’ has now become a cross-media event, with audio adventures and novellas, tying into the same characters and background under the umbrella title of ‘Space 1889 And Beyond.’ These further projects utilise the role-playing game’s original guide book as a primer for limitations and expectations, meaning the writers of the novellas have a broad, pre-sketched landscape to refer to. Some conformity to an original idea should be expected, and having heard the audio dramas, I can confirm that the ‘world’ created is consistent within this novella, although Shoshty has done a far better job of maintaining a more recognisably Victorian social situation, his action is pacey and intriguing. Frankly, having picked it up, I could not easily put it down, and comfortably read it in one very entertaining sitting.
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