Recently, Mike Perschon reviewed Philip Reeve's young adult novel Larklight, and on his recommendation I found and devoured a copy for myself. Like Mike, I also cannot help but frame my review in Reeve's only-slightly-less recent screed on "The Stink of Steampunk".
Unfortunately, for whatever reasons and perhaps bowing to whatever pressure, Reeve removed the article from his weblog (it has been preserved, in part, here). His gist was that Steampunk has become a creatively dead genre which he has felt himself lumped into as a "half-digested peanut" is lumped into a pile of excrement. His description of the bowl's contents is vivid:
Returning again and again to the same tiny pool of imagery, the writers of Steampunk are doomed to endless repetition. What I used to love about Science Fiction as a teenager was the way that, when you picked up one of those yellow Gollancz SF titles at the library, you had no idea where it would take you; it might be to some dazzling technological future or post-apocalyptic wasteland; it might be to another planet; or it might all be set in the present, just around the corner. But when you pick up a Steampunk book you know pretty much exactly where you're going; it will take place in an 'alternate' nineteenth century which will be neither as complex nor as interesting as the actual nineteenth century. There will be airships; rich villains will be hatching plots involving clockwork and oppressing the workers; rich heroes will see the error of their ways... Steampunk is a genre cul-de-sac: it's Science Fiction for people who know nothing about science; historical romance for readers whose knowledge of history comes from costume dramas.
He asserted that his series Mortal Engines is something other than Steampunk, but lamented that Larklight falls squarely in the genre. He hoped that the novel's humour would be the enema that eased it passage.
I agree with Mike that sometimes you can't trust the artist, though I will take that in a different direction. When I reviewed the short film The Anachronism, I disagreed with the director that it was Steampunk. There was too much interesting stuff going on in its brief 15 minutes to limit it to goggles and barnacle-like encrustations of brass cogs. It may have been to Matthew Gordon Long's consternation, since he willingly adopted Steampunk as a marketing label. My words to Philip Reeve may be more reassuring. Don't worry Philip, Larklight is not Steampunk.
Well, it's not Steampunk by the current definition, which Reeve so succinctly described. Had Larklight been written ten years ago, it would have been full-blooded Steampunk and delightfully so. It would have sat, celebrated, alongside contemporaneous works of the 90's and early 2000's like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Dinotopia, Wild Wild West, Sakura Wars, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, City of Lost Children, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Girl Genius and Disney's European and Japanese themeparks. At the time, Steampunk was defined simply as Retro-Victorian Sci-Fi and Fantasy, not yet having accumulated the rigid set of repetitions that define the style today. Reeve cannot be blamed, nor should he feel ashamed, by the fact that Larklight did not come into existence until the same year that certain people decided to call their lifestyle "Steampunk". Accidents happen.
Let us then take the novel on its own merits for what it is. Let us dispense with the label that neither Reeve nor myself like and return to his admitted roots in Victorian-Edwardian Scientific, Planetary and Imperialist Romances. After all, Reeve's influences and love affairs are still valid despite how they may have been coopted. In the same essay he confesses,
Back in the 1980's, when I started forming the ideas that would eventually turn into Larklight and Mortal Engines, I naively felt that I'd found a nice little niche for my imagination, well away from the computers and starships of mainstream Sci-Fi and the elves and pixies of the fantasy crowd. I was inspired by the Science Fiction of HG Wells and Jules Verne, and while I was dimly aware that sixties writers like Michael Moorcock had briefly revived the scientific romance (presumably in the grip of the same fad that persuaded people like the Beatles into Edwardian military tunics), I wasn't really aware of many in my own generation writing about airships and steam engines.
What we get when we go back to basics is a riotous satire that indulges obvious nostalgic affection for the genre while permitting a modern smirk over its heightened absurdities. To paint a picture of it, Larklight is something of a cross between A Series of Unfortunate Events and Treasure Planet set against Space: 1889-style exposition, but with Isaac Newton in place of Thomas Edison as the inventor who cracked the problem of passage between the spheres.
How nostalgic and how smirking? The story opens aboard the estate of Larklight, floating in the aether around the vicinity of the Moon. Our narrator is Art Mumby, son to an obscure Xenomorphologist and younger brother to Myrtle Mumby. He describes the tizzy that the house is sent into with the word that they will be visited by the esteemed Mr. Webster of the Royal Xenological Institute. Dr. Mumby sets the steam-powered servant automata into action while aspiring Myrtle wonders if he is one of the Berkshire Websters or identified in a great tome of English Lords. It turns out that Mr. Webster is a giant spider in a bowler hat. As Webster and his arachnid minions capture Larklight, Art and Myrtle flee in a Meliesesque escape pod to embark on their cosmos-spanning adventure.
Unlike Mortal Engines, Larklight is not driven by any small central contention. Instead, Reeve seems to be coming from a recognition that this is his big chance to just throw as many of those antiquated tropes in as he can. This everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach makes it as much a reader in the genre in its own way as Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Where Moore makes pastiche of specific characters and events, Reeve throws in a few specific historical personalities but largely rests on allusions to his influences. Mars and Jupiter's moons are like something out of Burroughs with a few Wells references for good measure, there is a giant canon that shoots space-pods, a lunar surface silver and barren but for the mushrooms, a lush Venus, air pirates, British ironclads, ancient civilizations, the Crystal Palace, lines directly from War of the Worlds and Star Trek, and a climax that is part H.G. Wells and part Will Smith. Only the dinosaur-infested centre of some planet is absent, but there must be limits I suppose.
The jokes, as Reeve hoped, do carry it through. It would be a charming romance delivered straight, but the spot-on humour puts it over. For example, gravity is not simply measured in Earthlike terms, but in British Standard Gravity. Both Art and Myrtle are obsessed with being good British subjects each in their own way. Art, our narrator, is full on Boys Own Adventure stories while Myrtle wishes above all else to be seen as a proper lady. During one encounter she laments her inability to faint from shock as a true well-bred woman ought to, according to the books.
Larklight is lighter fare; a right jolly bit of entertainment with one eye wide open and the other giving a sly wink. It is so nearly perfect for what it is that I almost feel sheepish about reading its two sequels, Starcross and Mothstorm. Nevertheless, the official website for the trilogy can be found here.