Aurorarama — Jean-Christophe Valtat

In Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Valtat imagines an alternate world where the strange wilderness of the Arctic north has been colonized. The centerpiece of this world is New Venice, a bizarre metropolis on ice, bustling with a hodgepodge of cultures and brimming with dire conspiracies. New Venice showcases a kind of steampunk technology that surpasses its otherwise post-Victorian-era manners and mores: there are airships and pneumatic tubes, dream chambers and psychedelic drugs (lots and lots of drugs). Those drugs are part of New Venice’s underground, a subculture that also features a “Polar Pop” scene (although most of the groups seem to make art-noise-dirge-weird music, not pop). Beyond the subversive art scene, however, more sinister forces are at work in New Venice. The city lies under the shadow of a mysterious black zeppelin; a samizdat Utopian text is circling the underground, challenging the establishment’s authority–and causing the secret police, the Gentlemen of the Night, to shake down suspects left and right; the native Inuit are preparing to revolt; the secretive Scavengers have found a dead woman in a mysterious automotive sled. If this sounds awfully complex, it is. Thrown into the middle of the mess are the book’s protagonists. Duke Brentford Orsini, a reserved and idealistic man, is ostensibly the director of the city’s greenhouse–although he seems to spend most of his time juggling the various political (or, in the book’s terms, “poletical”) problems that surge and resurge in New Venice. Brentford’s levelheadedness contrasts with his friend Gabriel d’Allier’s rakish charm. Gabriel is a literature professor on the edge of collapse–not that that gets in the way of his frequent drug binges and sexual escapades. Valtat alternates his chapters between the pair, forwarding the plot via Brentford’s mounting political (and supernatural!) problems and Gabriel’s libertine snags.

Valtat’s world is as thick as polar ice, with its own history, mythology, culture, and political science. The events in Aurorarama are essentially in media res; the adventure begins at the tail-end of a previous disaster. Valtat has given himself plenty of space here to expand the story–both in sequels and prequels (a novel detailing the founding of New Venice, an event alluded to in Aurorarama, would be fascinating). Valtat also exhibits a playful sense of humor, both in the story’s plot, but also in his tone, which often plays off of stodgy Victorian tropes in humorous ways, particularly in the chapters featuring Gabriel. At the same time, Valtat’s book is quite serious, as he labors to evoke a wholly-realized, wholly-strange world. Sometimes his sentences strain under this pressure, no doubt in part because Valtat is a native French speaker; this is his first novel composed in English. The occasionally over-long or clunky phrase does not, however, detract much from the pleasures of Aurorarama, which rest rather in Valtat’s vital imagination. This is an intelligent work of speculative fiction, steeped in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; it also readily recalls The Difference Engine (by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and even, in some of its strong imagery, the steampunk visions of Hayao Miyazaki. Recommended.

Aurorarama is new in hardback from Melville House.

Polar Madness! — Aurorarama’s Book Trailer

We’re loving Jean-Christophe Valtat‘s new book Aurorarama, a steampunk-romance-high-adventure-academic satire-etc. set in the alternaworld of New Venice, an Arctic metropolis. Check out this post at MobyLives for a chance to win a copy of the book.

Back To School

I think I did a similar post two years ago. I teach, I gotta go back to school, the fall, the kids, blah, blah, blah. Anyway. I’ll try to get one proper book review out per week. I’ve got seven or eight really choice looking promo copies and galleys stacked up here, including new trade paperback editions of Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Per Petterson’s To Siberia. Vintage also has a really cool original by Patrick Alexander coming out in September; it’s called Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time and its subtitle, A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past pretty much sums it up. I’ve read the first 100 pages and it’s really great, and let’s face it, unless some kinda windfall happens where I can just read books all day, I’m never gonna get around to Proust, so, yeah, this’ll have to do. Proper reviews forthcoming, blah, blah, blah. (Even though William Gaddis’s The Recognitions ain’t gettin’ no shorter).

Waltz Rulz
Waltz Rulz

While I’m doing lazy reviews, let me just say that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds is a glorious bastard of a mixed-up masterpiece. Christoph Waltz steals the show as SS Col. Hans Landa, but the real star, as usual, is Tarantino’s sense of cinema (whatever that means; c’mon, I was upfront, this is lazy reviewing). Plenty of folks have kinda sorta hated on (or outright hated on) this film, but I loved it. A revenge film about cinema posing as a Western faking as a WWII flick. Great stuff.


The last time I did one of these hacky “Back To School” posts, I brought up William Gibson for some reason–which gives me a good transition to this excellent steampunk photoset. While Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine (with co-author Bruce Sterling) is often cited as a progenitor of steampunk, many of the images in the set correspond to ideas Gibson put forth in his “Bridge Trilogy” — he envisioned a future of “organic” computers that some of these folks have gone out and made. I’d like one. Jeez, this is really bad writing, but, hey, back to school right. Like that Deftone’s song (yeah, I know the Deftones aren’t cool or hip or whatever, and I’ve never heard one of their albums, but M2 used to play that video all the time when I was in college 10 years ago and I thought it was pretty great).Cheers.

Perdido Street Station/The City & The City — China Miéville


Despite being a bit too long, I enjoyed listening to Random House’s new audiobook recording of China Miéville‘s second novel, Perdido Street Station, read by John Lee. Perdido Street Station is Miéville’s first novel set in the steampunk world of Bas-Lag, a strange world populated by plenty of bizarre races and even more bizarre “Remades,” persons who have been forced (or in some instances have chosen) to restructure their biological makeup to perform (very) specific jobs. This sci-fi adventure story centers around protagonist Isaac Van der Grimnebulin, an overweight renegade scientist trying to perfect a new technology he calls “crisis energy.” Isaac is trying to help a Garuda named Yagherak who, as a form of punishment, has had his marvelous wings cut off. To this end, Isaac experiments with a strange caterpillar that feeds off of an hallucinogenic drug called “dreamshit.” Unfortunately, the caterpillar turns into a giant dream-feeding, brainsucking moth that, along with its relatives, terrorizes the city at night. Isaac tries to stop the moths and save his girlfriend, an artist with a bug’s head. Lots of picaresque adventuring ensues.

Miéville’s Bas-Lag world is finely detailed and richly imagined, and will no doubt appeal to anyone who digs H.P. Lovecraft or William Gibson. Miéville certainly has a handle on both of his many concepts (artificial intelligence, the nature of bodies, difference and (literal) alienation), and his story unfolds with the thrilling clip one expects from pulp fiction. Still, the book felt overwritten to me. Miéville never settles on just one adjective if two (or three) come to mind, and he’s in love with adverbs (oh the adverbs in this book! Is there a sentence without one?). And while exposition of a sort is certainly necessary in a novel about such a profoundly strange world, I think that Miéville would get a bigger payoff if he trusted his reader a bit more. Perdido Street Station feels rhetorically claustrophobic, as if Miéville is afraid to let his reader imagine even a little of Bas-Leg for him or herself. It’s a bit selfish, really. On the whole though, a great read (or listen, in this case), and it intrigued us enough to go straight into Miéville’s latest book, The City & The City (also newly released this summer from Random house, also read by John Lee).

the city and the city

The City & The City combines noir detective fiction with one of science fiction’s greatest gambits, namely, positing something utterly implausible, unimaginable, and then making it ordinary. In The City & The City, two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, occupy the exact same geographic space, yet their citizens are trained from birth to “unsee” and “unhear” all aspects of the other city. Inspector Tyador Borlu is drawn into the mysterious death of a beautiful young woman (is there an older trope? Edgar Allan Poe even wrote an essay on why and how you should use beautiful yong dead girls in your literature). His investigation leads him into crossing the border between the cities, an impossible border, of course, and yet the genius of the book here is that, through Borlu’s narration, the reader doesn’t experience this bordercrossing (and its attendant “unseeing”) as satirical or even ridiculous; rather, we witness the uncanny alienation of double consciousness. Miéville, a Marxist, is working in part from some of Althusser‘s ideas, and he’s not afraid to namedrop Foucault or Žižek. Thankfully, however, Miéville not only knows his theorists, he knows enough not to let theory get in the way of a Chandleresque murder mystery that explores themes of surveillance, alterity, and what it means to see someone seeing you seeing them seeing you (seeing them seeing you . . .). Great stuff.