19 May 2008

New Steampunk Lit

The book Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti (2008), is the latest literary contribution to the Steampunk movement.

It is equal parts detective thriller, romance, and techno-social commentary. It takes place in Ondinium, a technocratic, caste saddled early industrial state where psychological testing determines your career. The title's reference is to a computer dating program to be run on the city's mechanical computers, which are akin to the analytical engines (i.e. protocomputers) conceived by Charles Babbage in the early 19th century. Angelic icarri, chosen humans wearing wings made of the lighter than air metal ondinium (after which the city is named) carry messages across the city's caste divided sectors, rescue people from explosions and disasters in the city's wireferry system (elevated gondolas that allow the elite to travel above the masses) and have a reputation for being sexually loose.

The book nevertheless confronts modern concerns: terrorism aimed at holding back modernity, the price of failing to deal with domestic violence, politicians worried about immigration from less prosperous neighbors, a nation whose security is dependent upon keeping technological secrets from potential adversaries, the risks and benefits attendant in abdicating human judgment to computers and psychological models, the moral ambiguities that flow from having a society run by an isolated uber-wealthy class that is merely human, the extent to which genetics are destiny, the virtues and vices of the death penalty, the impact of a free press, the economic benefits we derive from having a technocratic reasonably non-corrupt society, and the depersonalization that flows reducing people to cogs in a massive coordinated economy.

The pacing of the novel is odd. It follows a traditional novelistic structure with a complete picture perfect ending that concludes the story in three hundred pages, then tacks on another ninety page encore novella like a short sequel that didn't merit another full length book, without acknowledging the break with anything more than a chapter ending.

But on the whole the book is a quick, but thought provoking summer read that stands out for avoiding cliche in a fresh new world.

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