Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale (2010)

The common wisdom is that you are not supposed to judge a book by its cover. That tune changes a bit when one is confronted with a stack of novels to review amidst the regular goings-on and voluntary readings of one's life. Said reviewer's comeuppance occurs when the covers of these novels end up being practically indistinguishable.

Last October, our friends at Pyr/Prometheus Books were been kind enough to send us copies of their full "Steampunk Autumn" lineup. In addition to the previously reviewed, and quite good, Burton and Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, we also received...




And the focus of this review...



Judging from the covers, what are they about? I would guess that they're each the thrilling tale of a group of Steampunks off to a convention. Marvel at the excitement as they dance at an Abney Park gig! Endure the gauntlet of a thousand photoshoots! Will the guy from The Vampire Empire really risk wearing an off-the-shelf Sgt. Pepper jacket from Hot Topic? And what of his girlfriend, who isn't really into the whole Steampunk thing but goes with him to the conventions anyways?

As it turns out, The Buntline Special is the first Steampunk/Weird Western novel by ridiculously multi-time award-winner Mike Resnick. The man holding a Dr. Grordbort raygun is supposed to be a ye olde pimped outte Doc Holliday. The woman is not dressed-up for a Steampunk fashion show, but rather, is an actual prostitute. The town is Tombstone, Arizona, and the lanky gunslinger is an undead Johnny Ringo.

The set-up is that Wyatt Earp, his brothers, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson (who actually turns into a bat at sundown) have been charged by the US government to protect engineer Ned Buntline and inventor Thomas Edison (who has a prosthetic arm) and their shoppe in Tombstone. They are in need of protection because Edison has been working on a technological method for dispelling the Native American magic that has been keeping the United States on the eastern side of the Mississippi well into the 19th century. The plot winds its way through Geronimo and Hook Nose and the Clanton gang, leading inevitably to the OK Corral.

The Buntline Special is an odd entry into the annals of Steampunk literature because it's difficult to determine what exactly he's doing with it. In this alternate history, Ned Buntline is an engineer rather than a dime novel writer and his greatest claim to fame is a type of bulletproof, super-hard brass. The result is that every building in Tombstone is, literally, coated in brass. So are Buntline's horseless stagecoaches, and the armour worn by Holliday and the Earps. Even the mechanical whores are made out of it. Everything is brass. Did Resnick simply study the fetish well enough to get down the "right" components, or is he making sport of it? However, with Edison being involved, everything is powered by electricity. Is Resnick just tweaking the formula or is he consciously flipping the idea that absolutely everything in Steampunk has to be powered by steam, even if it's something that doesn't require power anyways? (Behold my Steampunk bookshelf!)

The question stands on account of Resnick's credentials. Five Hugo wins after a record 34 nominations, 10 Homer awards after 24 nominations, a Nebula Award, and national awards from Spain, France, Poland and Japan, and a Skylark Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction. So why is he condescending to the Sci-Fi equivalent of glittery vampires? Is The Buntline Special A-Tale-That-Must-Be-Told? Or is he just having a bit of fun with it?

So far as I can tell, there isn't really any deep, meaningful Tale-That-Must-Be-Told happening in the pages of The Buntline Special. Resnick was quite deft in casting Buntline as the great engineer, as this book really is a straight-up dime novel in the tradition of the historical writer. He did copious research, as evidenced by the bibliography at the novel's close, but his characters are not far removed from Hollywood. Furthermore, the core events of the most famous gunfight in the Old West are fundamentally unchanged.

If anywhere, this is where Resnick fails to write a novel to the genre, whether or not he does so intentionally. The sorcery of the Native chiefs, Masterson literally becoming a bat, Ringo as a zombie, Edison in the Arizona territories, and all are window dressing to overlay a Steampunk aesthetic on an otherwise straight retelling of the OK Corral. Certainly the Earps and Doc Holliday are bedecked in brass armour, but they all get hit in exactly the same places history records. The spiral of events leading to that vacant lot beside Fly's photo parlour are the same, and so is the aftermath. It is the diametric opposite of Hodder's Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, in which a major change to history creates the Steampunk'd world. In The Buntline Special, the world is already Steampunk'd and nothing is different.

Where Resnick does not play to the genre, he does pique the interest of the history buff. A second appendix reproduces the original report of the gunfight from The Tombstone Epitaph of October 27, 1881, and a third provides biographies of the characters. Like any good alternate or fantasy history it compels the reader to investigate and see how closely he does or doesn't hew to fact. Strip away the brass (the 1993 filmed version Tombstone provides a much more attractive aesthetic than anything Steampunk'd could offer) and he hews quite closely.

So The Buntline Special is not about the past Steamcon nor does it really matter that this is supposedly a Steampunk novel. Therein lies the question of why Resnick made it so. Was he simply commissioned to produce one unit of Steampunk novel? Is he making a comment on how fundamental real history should be to the genre? Or that history is ultimately more interesting than the brass-encrusted self-parody? Or is it just supposed to be a fun little dime novel? Who knows? Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable and easy read.

1 comment:

Russell said...

"I would guess that they're each the thrilling tale of a group of Steampunks off to a convention. Marvel at the excitement as they dance at an Abney Park gig! Endure the gauntlet of a thousand photoshoots! Will the guy from The Vampire Empire really risk wearing an off-the-shelf Sgt. Pepper jacket from Hot Topic? And what of his girlfriend, who isn't really into the whole Steampunk thing but goes with him to the conventions anyways? "

I almost lost a keyboard on that, thank you!