Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lord Dickens's Declaration

Novella by Lawrence Santoro

Broken up over three episodes of Starship Sofa, podcast for free as always, and brilliantly read by the author himself. It must be pointed out that Larry Santoro is one of the greatest story narrators of all time. If listening to this doesn't convince you, check out his other voice work.

On first listen, the first third is nearly incomprehensible in parts. At least to the ability to understand what the hell is going on. Maybe I was just tired though.

Santoro's introduction to Part II explains the first part much more clearly than it came across actually listening to it, so I'd advise not skipping it even if you are listening back-to-back-to-back, there is a decent chance you missed something important. That said, it is also worthwhile to actually listen to the first third, it isn't that bad.

The introduction to Part III is less vital, but still nice. Finally, the wrap up bit by Santoro is really fun and interesting to listen to, about how he came up with the ideas of the story and went about building it up.

Now, on with the actual story review.
This is an alternate history, steampunk time travel story. Set in a 1902 without religion, where war is something long forgotten, Jesus was a politician, as were Poe and Dickens. Literary historians are at the top of the academic food chain, with math and science at the bottom, filtering up through the softer and softer humanities. Philby is one such time-traveling literary historian, and this is largely the love story between him and his constant rival: Master Mary Mariah. The interaction between the two of them is pure gold. They fight and betray each other and call each other names, and from the very first segment, where my overall comprehension was lowest, I knew they secretly loved each other. That effect is throughout the story the finest bit of writing by Mr. Santoro.

So Philby gets in trouble for traveling back in time without proper protection, as part of his research into Lord Charles Dickens's declaration of love and proposal of marriage to Queen Elizabeth. He thinks it was not true love, just a ploy to get out of a publishing contract. This opening sends us off on an exceptionally weird, fun, confusing, and at times hilarious alternate history adventure. The ending is oddly sexy, and then oddly philosophical, I like the concluding segment quite a bit.

I don't want to give too much away in plot summary, so I'll just wrap this up with the comment that Santoro's ending and opening segments around the story are a pretty good description. There are a lot of little puns and fun anachronisms throughout. The dialogue is snappy even when it is written in Middle English (William of Occam is a favorite character). The steampunk setting is neat, although even more implausible than steampunk usually is (i.e. very). And the overall themes about love, religion, and human nature are neat, but not as well thought out as they could have been.

This is actually something Santoro mentions in his last segment: It's facile fun with ideas, which is unusual for SF which tends to be overly thought out, while Santoro is a horror writer, and they tend to be more concerned with the moments. He also comments that the story seems rough and unrevised, unpolished. I'd agree with the author on all these counts, he basically points out every problem I might have with the story. And yet I quite like it. SF often isn't as well thought out as people would like to think, and humor certainly has it's place.

I regard this story as primarily humorous, with some deeper thoughts lurking unexplored around the edges. It is good, light fun. The first third is confusing and overly complex and the segment most in need of revision. The second third was the most funny and worked the best overall I thought. The third third is a little more serious and deep, while still being lighthearted, although it could use some trimming here and there. But it is a good story, especially for what it aims to do.

I don't think I'm cutting Santoro any slack for writing on a deadline when I recommend this novella with 3.5 disaccommodated, illusory timelines out of 5.

Oddly, the biggest thing I take away from his explanation at the end, is how hard it is to swear and cuss people out without Gods or the concept of eternal damnation. I would suggest he could use vulgarity though.

Best Quotes:
  • "Few heeded Darwin anyway."
  • "Oh lovely twin-backed beasts."
  • "I am persuaded that Elizabeth, among her many virtues, was not a virgin."
  • "Nothing seems to improve a thing like making it larger."

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