Monday, December 5, 2011

Myth in the Age of Victoria or Steampunk in "The Bookman" by Lavie Tidhar

Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.
The Bookman, a mesmerizing tour-de-force, refreshes Steampunk, while adhering to its basic elements and demonstrating the author's encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and his endearing love of literature. Its major theme is myth; however, its subsidiary theme is books or, more, precisely literature. Structurally, it is a quest novel, situated in a Steampunk-like setting, but hiding a Childhood's End-like mystery. Ultimately, it is a novel about novels with the overarching theme being myth. As the character Gilgamesh says: "Oh Orphan. This is the time of myths. They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeating motif." Succinctly it is a mystery set in an alternate history of England during a steam age in which automatons, giant lizards, and humans equally abide, while an orphan braves danger in order to find his lost love.

The genre known as Steampunk, strictly speaking, if that is even possible to do, concerns a period of English history from June 20, 1837 to January 22, 1901, or, more precisely, a period that runs from the birth of Queen Victoria to her death, and incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and speculative fiction. Accordingly, Steampunk harkens back to the scientific romances of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley and emulates, or imitates, their style and content, while concentrating on certain identifiable memes and grand themes of the Victorian age: the industrial revolution, colonialism, revolution, nationalism, science, particularly biological science--Darwinism-- sociology, and the rise of the novel, as well as the flourishing of poetry and art, especially in France. The Victorian age also saw the emergence of the gentleman scholar in England and the rise of capitalism. With all these disparate but potent forces at work, the period is ripe for incorporation into the mise-en-scène of  modern artists.

Lavie Tidhar's steampunk universe is bit larger than the Victorian age. As we said above, it is a novel about myth but it is myth filtered through English or French literature. The exciting force and one of the chief images of the novel is Shakespeare's The Tempest. The ruling power of England comes from Caliban's island and they themselves are monsters in the sense that Caliban was a monster. Caliban is an apt image for Tidhar because he can incorporate through a type of shorthand all the wondrous tropes in Shakespeare's fantasy as well draw on the image of the magician, Prospero, whose powers rely upon books. Magic, after all, is only language spoken to control or change the world, and Prospero is one of the most potent images or symbols of that power. Remember, too, Prospero has a daughter and that The Tempest is a love story. So Tidhar's alternate history begins in the 17th century. At that time, an event occurs that creates the alternate history of the world: the appearance of an alien race. One of the major tropes of science fiction underlies the meaning of the novel. And this is just one of the thousands of threads within the novel. To describe each is to destroy its beauty and complexity. Suffice it to say that the book is worth several readings because the author's vast knowledge and love of literature is on every page. And in this sense the book is a meta-fiction.

The Bookman has not garnered the exposure it deserves. It is an intelligent, clever book, that creates a wonderfully complex secondary world. And most importantly, it is as well-constructed as a Swiss cuckoo clock and as readable as any genre fiction being written today.

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