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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

I had the chance to get an advanced copy for Dan Simmons' latest book Black Hills, which pubs this month, a book that easily falls into several bins: historical fiction, supernatural suspense, and Weird West. In fact, Dan Simmons is one of those writers who has spanned multiple genres in his career, leaping easily from sci-fi to horror to historical to crime thrillers and even blending them all at once. Much of his success lies in his clever inspirational play between classical forms and fantastical content. After all, he's best known for the Hyperion Cantos, a four-book space opera that's structured after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, and his sci-fi epic Illium/Olympos draws from Homer's Iliad. Recently, the settings for his latest novels have roamed throughout the nineteenth century. The Terror, which landed Simmons on the New York Times list and gave his publishers an excuse to market him as "speculative fiction", is about the ill-fated lost voyage of Sir John Franklin's expedition to find passageway through the Arctic in 1847. His next book, Drood, is a Victorian gothic mystery thriller narrated by Wilkie Collins as he tries to puzzle out the mental stability of his friend Charles Dickens, who had taken a turn for the worst after surviving a horrific train accident. Now in his latest book, Black Hills, Simmons continues his fascination with the nineteenth century, but this time, he writes about the heartwrenching life and times of Paha Sapa, a Sioux Native American who lived through the bloody days of the American West.

The drama of Paha Sapa's life begins when he's a child on the battlefield of Little Big Horn (in a place he knows as Greasy Grass), "counting coup" to prove his bravery. Paha Sapa, however, is no ordinary child; he had experienced moments of "small-vision-backward-touching"times when he'd accidentally absorb people's memories or suffer from visions of the future. After witnessing the death of one of the officers, he goes to "count coup" and instead of a mere touch, he feels the ghost of the dead man flow into him. And it turns out not to be just any dead officer now living inside him, but the soul of General George Custer himself. Thus, Paha Sapa is literally and figuratively haunted by the legacy of the white man throughout his entire life as he tries to figure out a way to fight for the Sioux (who call themselves the Lakota). His lifelong efforts culminate at the construction site of Mount Rushmore, where he plots to save the sacred hills he was named after by blowing them up in front of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Despite being an interesting twist to the narrative, Custer's ghost only serves as a foil to Paha Sapa's perspective and never becomes fully a character of his own. But that is Simmon's intent from the start: Paha Sapa is the focus and his struggles provide the emotional drive of the novel as the story jumps constantly between different time periods of Paha Sapa's life. Obviously, it's rough going at times; Paha Sapa finds happiness and joy, but a lot of the time, he just never gets a break.  He fails his vision quest, gets separated form his people, witnesses the destruction of his homeland, suffers from discrimination from other Natives and white men alike, and slowly loses everything he ever knew in the name of progress and some mystical fate.

In fact, if there were characters who earned a place beside Paha Sapa, they are Progress and Technology. Paha Sapa is fascinated by machines and engineering; as part of the plot, he becomes a powderman who works with dynamite in order to build Mount Rushmore. Simmons spends great portions of the book talking about a various technical details about mechanical things but they, surprisingly, don't drag the story down. The only times that I felt he was tangenting a bit too much was when Paha Sapa visits New York and then relates the story of how his former boss built the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, Paha Sapa (and, in turn, Simmons) manages to engage and I was impressed about the meticulous amount of research that went into the book, both in describing the development of nineteenth century technology in America and the nuances of Lakota culture (there's a substantially long Acknowledgments section at the end of the book for the academically curious). Simmons also uses the technique of incorporating Lakota words into the book, but they don't feel like window dressing and actually has significance in the novel, especially when Paha Sapa talks to his half-white, half-Lakota wife Rain.

In this book, Simmons also proves that there are no small roles, only small actors. The other characters are portrayed vividly, from the wistful and occasionally sardonic Custer to the proud and violent Crazy Horse to the cheeky and intelligent Rain and their brilliant son Robert. The best character moment for me was Rain's: on her first date with Paha Sapa at the Columbian World's Exposition, they both ride the Ferris Wheel and she stands on top of a chair when their car stops at the top of the wheel so she could beat least for a few momentsthe highest person in Illinois. With dozens of moments like that scattered throughout the book, it made me wish that these characters played a larger role. Also, Simmons takes care not to fall into the "noble savage" trap, especially with a sympathetic character such as Paha Sapa. For as much discrimination and hardship Paha Sapa faces in the white man's world, Lakota culture is not painted as the bright and sunny antithesis but deeply flawed with its own complex problems as well.

As the book comes to a close, Simmons takes an especially sci-fi twist to the narration that feels like a heavy-handed silver lining painted around the dark cloud that pervaded Paha Sapa's life. But then Simmons blurs the lines between historical characters doing fictional things and present people doing real things in a way that was still satisfying at the end.


Dan Simmons discusses BLACK HILLS on YouTube
Dan Simmons' official website
Dan Simmons on Wikipedia
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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

I'm taking this week off to celebrate Lunar New Year's with the loved ones. To fill in, then, I've invited Jaymee Goh to guest blog with her review of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-up Girl.


In all fairness, I probably should not have been reading and watching several other fun books before embarking on Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl. Or rather, putting Windup Girl down after the third, infuriating chapter and letting my resentment fester while reading more fun books and watching Avatar the Last Airbender.

Paolo Bacigalupi is clearly an excellent writer. (He has to be, after all, because he's been published in plenty of places, and has been nominated for a Nebula.) Windup Girl is filled with suspense, with convoluted politics that only keen minds can cook up, with gritty scenarios that really show the worst of humanity. This is a world where economies run on calories for energy, where tinkering with genes in order to create food (hence, more calories) is a large-scale industry, where gene samples have all sorts of potential and are thus regarded as treasures. Windup Girl piqued my interest for one primary reason: it is set in a science-fictional Thailand, and I was curious to see how my neighbour would be treated. Of course, most people would be reading it for the story; I would be reading it to pick on details. If you don't care about tiny details like accuracy, narrative trends and revisionism, move along right now. Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon has a much more kinder review.

Click to read Jaymee's unkinder review. Minor spoilers ahead. )
You can reach Jaymee at her blog Rebellious Jezebel Blogging. She is also a contributor to

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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there. While gathering materials and suggestions for things to feature on Beyond Victoriana, fellow steampunks offered quite a few delicious tidbits that were interesting reads and looks, but not quite enough for a full post. So here are some Odds & Ends from the aethernets and elsewhere for you to enjoy---

The Reads:

The Effluent Engine, part of A Story for Haiti project
N.J. Jeminsin (author of One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) wrote this steampunk tale about pirates set in New Orleans, originally for a lesbian steampunk anthology. Enjoy reading it, but better yet donate, donate, donate.

Pimp My Airship
Another entertaining read featuring African steampunk by Maurice Broaddus.

Distant Deeps or Skies
This just in today -- Mexican steampunk story by Silvia Moreno-Garcia that's featured in Expanded Horizons magazine.

Moon Maiden's Mirror
An evocative steamy fairytale in an Asian setting, written by Joyce Chng as part of Semaphore Magazine. Link goes to PDF of the September 2009 issue.

Steampunk: A Mobile Device Concept for Rural India
The technology blog Adaptive Path wrote an interesting article about how engineers use concepts of steampunk technology to design mobile cell phones in India.

The Pics:

Frist mentioned by Jess Nevins (you may know him as the editor for the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana) on the speculative blog community No Fear of the Future, about Lu Shi'e's Xin Ye Sou Pu Yan (1909), with the following blurb:

"In this tale, Europe is a Chinese colony and it describes the Chinese government’s suppression of an uprising planned by European "restoration" rebels. The Chinese Emperor orders the generalissimo in charge of Europe, Wen Suchen, to suppress the rebellion with flying warships. Generalissimo Wen not only conquers all seventy-two European nations but continues on to the moon and Jupiter as well. The most marvellous part of this tale is that Jupiter is described as being covered completely with gold and abounding with flora and fauna–the perfect destination for migration. Wen is then appointed Governor of Jupiter. From then on, the means of communication and transportation between Earth and Jupiter is, naturally, by flying ship."

Sent in from Professor Von Explaino in Australia:

"Found this picture in a holiday home my wife and I were staying in and thought it would be something you'd like or have a use for.  The tattoos definitely seem Maori."

"Punk Tribe" by 343GuiltySpark

And, as always, any suggestions for this blog are welcome! Drop me a link on the announcement page or send me a email. ^-^

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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

The intelligent automaton—one of the many symbolic Others in sci-fi literature.  When characterized sympathetically, the automaton represents humanity without being human, the lone outsider puzzling the world around it.  The Othered Automaton pops up in steampunk lit too, like Boilerplate and Mattie from The Alchemy of Stone. In both cases, the automaton finds camaraderie with people who feel similarly alienated by the societies they live in; Boilerplate had his Buffalo Soldiers, Mattie had her mechanic dark-skinned lover Sebastian.  But what Jaclyn Dolamore brings to the table is a new perspective to this relationship in her fantasy steampunk novel Magic Under Glass: the protagonist is not the Othered Automaton, but that of Nimira, the human Other seeking her fortune in a strange land.  

In this YA novel, Nimira travels west from her Middle East-inspired homeland of Tiansher to the Victorian-esque Lorinar, a land where an uneasy conflict is brewing between it and the neighboring fairy realm. Lorinar, however, isn't as welcoming as she had hoped. Its citizens are familiar with Tiansher only as the "exotic Tassim" and Nimira can only find work at a cheap sideshow as a "trouser girl" singing her country's native songs to ignorant audiences. That is, until she meets Hollin Parry, a sorcerer who takes her in to sing alongside his clockwork automaton.  The previous girls Parry had hired left, claiming the machine to be haunted. Nimira discovers, however, that the automaton is not a possessed machine, but an elaborate prison. Inside is Erris, a fairy prince long thought dead. Now, Nimira must figure out a way to free Erris before war breaks out between Lorinar and the fairy world.

What makes Nimira so memorable is her resilience against the daily prejudice and ignorance she faces. What makes Magic Under Glass commendable, however, is the fact that her outsider struggle is not the point of the novel, but another layer of social complexity that Nimira must navigate through in order to accomplish her goals.  Nimira, for her part, does not forsake her identity to assimilate into Lorinar culture: she carries the world of Tiansher inside her, drawing strength from her memories of home. On the other hand, she also has to deal with those who try to exoticize and diminish her existence, such as when she's asked to perform in her "trousers" instead of her elegant Lorinar dress during an important performance. Her complicated feelings toward her employer are another case in point: echoes of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester resonate in the relationship between Nimira and Parry, but I along with Nimira questioned the root of Parry's fondness toward his "Tassim" girl.      

Her position as a foreigner in a Western-based culture is more interesting to read than the reverse—that of the "Eurocentric" traveler in the "Othered" foreign land, which is more frequently represented in fantasy.  Moreover, her background paves the way for her sympathy toward fairies and Erris. Nimira also wins major points for being a strong character that doesn't wait passively for the action to happen, yet she can still show vulnerability and cry when she needs to.  All the women in Magic Under Glass are sharply defined; only the villainous Miss Rashten seems a bit flat.  Also Parry, as misguided as he is, earned my sympathy.

The magic of this novel is a bit sketchy for my tastes, and I'd rather have more detail about its system and details about the fairy world. The vagueness I encountered can be explained by the open ending that's the set-up for a second book. Usually I'd be upset by this, but I'm more than willing to wait for the next installment of Nimira's journey.


On another note, I first heard of this novel because of the US cover's whitewashing controversy, and after reading the book, I find it even more insulting to the reader and disrespectful to the author that Nimira was represented as a light-skinned white girl instead of her dark complexion. However, the YA blogosphere unleashed a furious wave in response, culminating in Bloomsbury's announcement that the hardcover jacket will be changed immediately.  That is why, for the curious, I linked the UK cover instead of the US one for now. I can't wait to see the revised cover, though.

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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.
Image courtesy of Kory Lynn Hubbell

One of the interesting challenges non-Eurocentric steampunk faces is how technology can be re-imagined for peoples that did not develop industrialized technology during the nineteenth century. Case in point this week: First Nation peoples. There has also been the assumption that First Nation peoples “lack” technology, and so therefore what role can they play in any science fiction genre, nevermind steampunk?

Notwithstanding the imaginative block (and racist subtext) implied by those who say FN peoples didn’t have technologywhich is argued against by Kay Marie Porterfield in her article Ten Lies About Indigenous Science – How to Talk Back concepts like time travel, tech, and alternative histories aren’t confined to any particular culture. This week is a linkspam featuring discussions concerning First Nation peoples in sci-fi and reading suggestions to get those mental gears turning.

For research resources, I have included a selection of articles concerning FN sci-fi, history, and technology at hand; for reading suggestions, I’ve listed examples that can also be considered under general sci-fi, alternative history, or Weird West.

UPDATED 15 February 2010: I've updated this post with the most relevant suggestions given by readers included below. Enjoy!

Read more below the cut )
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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.


When Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was published in Japan in 1878, science fiction fever infected Japanese writers, and within a few years, imitations of Verne's mysterious submarine and its Captain Nemo cropped up in their adventure stories. The most famous is Captain Sakuragi from Oshikawa Shunro’s six-part series Kaitei Gunkan (The Underwater Warship, 1900-1907).


Like much of Japanese sci-fi literature at the time, one of the prevailing themes of the Captain Sakuragi series reflected Japan’s rising nationalism and its own imperialist goals to defeat foreign threats in order to safeguard Japanese interests.


The premise of the first novel begins with a frustrated Captain Sukuragi leaving the Japanese navy when he decides his country is weak against the potential threat of Western governments. Moreover, he considers the West in competition with Japan’s expansion into Asia. With a group of fellow scientists, he flees to a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean and builds the Denkotei (also translated as denkopan): an underwater battleship similar to the Nautilus in design, complete with its own rotating screwdriver-like horn.  The Denkotei is decked out with torpedoes and bombs, and, on a private martial mission, Captain Sukuragi and his crew set off to confront those set against Japan. In the first novel, they successfully fight pirates interfering with Japanese shipping, but later confront British, the French, and Russian forces, defeating them all. Later on, the Denkotei even fights alongside Filipino nationals against American occupation.  


This series was highly popular in Japan, especially when the novel’s battles against the Russians predicted the country’s own victory in the Russo-Japanese War. The unintended irony in the captain’s battling the “foreign imperialists” is how the books stridently promoted Japanese imperialism over others’. As Owen Griffith’s notes in his academic article Militarizing Japan: Patriotism, Profit, and Children’s Print Media, 1894-1925:


“Oshikawa’s purpose was to ‘oppose those who oppressed freedom’ and to inculcate in young readers ‘the spirit of resistance at all costs.’ Yet neither Ito nor Oshikawa himself acknowledged Japan’s own imperialist endeavours or its brutal treatment of its own subject peoples. The tendency to lionize one’s own and demonize the other has many antecedents in Japan and elsewhere.”


Later, Captain Sukuragi’s underwater warship inspired a live action film in 1963 (titled “Atragon” in the US) and the anime OVA series Shin Kaitei Gunkan in 1995.




Oshikawa Shunro on Wikipedia


Atragon on Wikipedia


Kaitei Gunkan’s trailer and info page on


Shin Kaitei Gunkan on

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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

In 1893, Archibald Campion believed he created an invention that would “prevent the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations”: the Campion Mechanical Marvel, later to be known as Boilerplate the Victorian-Age robot. Constructed with the aid of close friends and inventors Edward Fullerton and Nikola Tesla, Boilerplate was unveiled during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that summer and fought in several major combat missions between the Spanish-American War in 1898 until its disappearance in 1918 on the battlefront of World War I.

Of course, Boilerplate never really existed except in Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett’s book Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, published by Abrams Books last month. Based on an extensive website that had created and expanded upon the Boilerplate character since 2000, Boilerplate the book is an illustrated history of this Victorian curiosity, who fought in several wars, traveled from China to Saudi Arabia to the brink of the South Pole, and even had his own series of dime novels and silent movies.

My general reaction: the book was a joy to read. It's chock full of interesting historical details and many ingenuous illustrations, many of them cleverly manipulated to look like authentic images of the robot alongside familiar historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia.

The book trailer for Boilerplate

What is just as interesting as these photos is the way Guinan and Bennett used Boilerplate’s story to highlight marginalized histories, emphasize the pursuit of social justice issues during that time period, and dispassionately narrate the full consequences of American expansionism.

Cut for spoilers )

Additional linkage

Boilerplate official website
Boilerplate’s MySpace
Boilerplate Historical Society on Facebook
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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.
Image taken from the original illustrated edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Image courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library

Swashbuckling sky pirates are an iconic steampunk archetype (or cliche...), but the genre's most famous pirate did not rule the uncharted skies but the seven seas. Captain Nemo, Jules Verne’s most infamous underwater sea captain, has raised much discussion about whether he would serve as steampunk's #1 pirate and antihero. Read More below )

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