Saturday, February 5, 2011

To Follow the Waves

Short Story by Amal El-Mohtar.
Read for PodCastle by Marguerite Croft

This is an okay story, but I'm not sure I agree with the insistence that it counts as steampunk. I'll try to judge it simply as a story, but I would like to make a larger post on this later. Maybe I can find time next month or so for a steampunk fortnight of reviews.

I just want to say in this post though, that it is tough for me not to be annoyed. The author and the editorial introduction both try a bit too hard to insist that this is steampunk. There is a steam automaton in the background of one scene that is irrelevant to the story. That is the ENTIRE SUM OF TECHNOLOGY in the story. They argue that "steampunk things are happening in other parts of the world" but I can't believe that matters. Just as stories which might as well take place at the grocery store do not become Science Fiction if you declare that said grocery store is located on a space station. It takes more than hydroponic tomatoes to make science fiction. And however we want to define steampunk, I think that it takes some amount of "steam" (a.k.a. anachronisticly advanced microprocessor-free technology) elements. (Punk is an altogether trickier subject, the term itself is widely abused.)

While cyberpunk is a sub-genre of attitude and philosophy as well as aesthetic, steampunk seems to be entirely about setting. Much like definitions of planets must either exclude Pluto, include far too many things to be useful, or be applied unevenly, a useful and fairly applied definition of steampunk must exclude some border cases. It seems unhelpful to classify anything with a zeppelin or a tophat somewhere in the story as steampunk. No technology is relevant or central to this story, all the elements work by plain and simple magic. I agree that steampunk need not be confined to Victorian England, but you can't just set something in the 1800s and declare it steampunk by theoretical (irrelevant) time period alone. And if we want to talk feelings, this story has a very magical, standard-fantasy feel. It has a lot in common with Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela, from a setting and feeling point of view, although that even feels more "punk" to me than this story.


Anyway, this is a kind of dull story about a girl who grows up as a jeweler who can MAGICALLY carve dreams into crystals, causing people to experience her crafted dreams at night. One day, she sees a girl with unusual, rebellious hair at a cafe, stares awkwardly at her for a minute, and then becomes weirdly obsessed with her. All the dreams she crafts seem to be about this girl she saw once. Crush leads to obsession here. Eventually all this obsessing has a very MAGICAL effect on the other girl, which brings the climatic confrontation with her.

Without revealing too much, the ending seems a little rapey to me. But the solution to rape is not "rape 'em right back." Tit-for-tat doesn't seem right with a rape-like scenario. On the other hand, who is to say it doesn't work in the story culture? But it left me feeling uncomfortable and the other girl seems exceptionally sadistic and empathy-free.

Since some parts read a bit like erotica or a bad romance, I am happy for the dark turn towards the end. It made things a bit more interesting.

2.5 out of 5, not an impressive story, but not as anger-inducing as my post might imply if you disregard genre arguments and just take the story as a story.

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