The Big What-If

(Warning; Spoilers. I have listed the biggest of them in Comments, but there may be others. Read at your own risk.) 

Last week I read two books. One was the popular and much-hyped Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder. The other was Devon Monk’s Dead Iron

As an aside, both books have been marketed as steam-punk. Both books have enough gleaming brass, gears and cogs, and things that go clickety-click and snickety-snack to qualify in that genre. Dead Iron, however, is fantasy; fantasy the way Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is fantasy. Spring-Heeled Jack, with an alternate history based on the idea that one of the fundamental incidents in the reign of England’s QueenVictoria never took place, hews more closely to science fictional steam-punk . . . 

. . . and I digress.

I want to write about my reactions to these two different books because I think it says something about how we access fiction. Spring-Heeled Jack is a wild, gaudy, theatrical “What if?” of a book. After the primary historical change, the other what-if’s follow fast and furious. What if, somehow, Victorian era scientists had discovered, and could manipulate, DNA (a common steam-punk trope)?  What if heavier-than-air-craft can fly?  What if coal could be augmented to make it provide better mileage—clean coal, I guess you’d call it?  This leads to airships with rotors, flying armchairs, steam-powered velocipedes—an oxymoron—and genetically engineered parakeets who deliver messages and are hilariously vulgar about it. 

Against this backdrop, Hodder positions two figures from history as his main characters; explorer and writer Richard Francis Burton, and poet Algernon Swinburne. People like Dr Livingstone, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale wander through the tale now and then. The book covers murder mysteries, time travel and the appearance of a strange apparition that can spring twenty feet into the air and disappear.

Dead Iron takes place in a remote valley in northeastern Oregon, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The railroad is coming to the town of Hallelujah, and the townspeople have mixed feelings about it. Mostly, though, it is seen as a good thing, a sign of progress. In rapid succession, Monk introduces our cast of characters; a man who is hiding the fact that he turns into a wolf when the moon is full; a man so filled with love for his wife that he tries to return from death; a witch whose thirst for vengeance is stronger than the pull of her own blood; a local girl who was left as a foundling; and the railroad man, in exile from his own land, determined to take back his kingdom by force, even if it means destroying America in the process. 

Can you already tell which book I liked better? 

Dead Iron has a much less elaborate story, and a far smaller canvas than Spring-Heeled Jack. In some ways, it isn’t even as well plotted. The story drags badly about two-thirds of the way in, and Monk rushes her ending. She plays with standard fantasy, standard steam-punk, and some Appalachian-style folk-tales, such as the changeling boy who turns into a block of wood, all familiar tropes. Secretive werewolves, girls with hidden destinies and powerful witches really aren’t new characters either, but Monk’s way of developing them, from the inside (close-third person POV, mostly) makes them intimate and accessible. I fell into Dead Iron and barely came up for air.

Hodder’s characters are revealed from the outside, and it seems like there is a thick pane of glass between me, the reader, and their true thoughts and motivations.

Ah, but Michael Swanwick writes what-if fiction, and reveals his characters from the outside in, and I usually can’t put one of his books down. I loved Embassytown, China Mieville’s extravaganza of a what-if. Avice Brenner Cho, the first-person narrator, is not well developed as a character, primarily because she has to report on everything else that is going on, and I didn’t care. I can be sucked into a cool premise quickly if other things, like fine writing, are also in place.

Part of the character problem with Spring-Heeled Jack was precisely that the main characters were historical. Hodder felt free to play with history any way he wanted, but he pretty much left Burton alone. I think I would have been drawn in more quickly if Burton had been less the Great Man of History and just Richard Burton, exploring a mystery (in fact, Hodder works very hard to justify just why his Sir Richard Burton was even knighted). He has a similar problem with Swinburne, who is basically written as a cliché because Hodder can’t figure out what to do about the fact that real-life Swinburne was probably gay.

Monk’s characters are her own from the beginning. She uses mythology and folklore as a starting place, but these are not real pioneers who settled in the historical Wallowa Valley and Monk is under no obligation to remain true to anything except her vision. Neither is Hodder, but he acts like he is. Perhaps that’s the difference.

So, I liked Spring-Heeled Jack and I loved Dead Iron. The gender divide?  The triumph of character over idea?  I don’t think so. I think the “character” writer has to have an idea the reader can care about when she closes the book. And I think the “what-if” writer must give us people who engage our imaginations. And the best books, of course, are the ones that give us both.

This entry was posted in Thoughts about Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Big What-If

  1. Marion says:

    In Spring-Heeled Jack, Queen Victoria is assassinated in the second year of her reign. Through political chicanery, Albert has been declared King, mostly to keep Victoria’s next of kin, the ruler of Hanover, off the throne.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *