Origins aren't predicative of outcomes. But the consequences of choices are compounded over time. This becomes remarkably apparent with Lantern City's choice of genre in steampunk.
This Iconographies isn't about Lantern City. At least not in the way you think. Not yet, at least. This Iconographies is about what Lantern City is wrestling with, how it positions itself in relation to its chosen genre, steampunk. What is steampunk and what do we expect from it as a literary genre? Especially now that the world we live in has effectively turned into a cleaner, harsher version of cyberpunk. But more broadly and perhaps more importantly, why steampunk?
Let's start with the basics. When first dipping into Lantern City; what are some expectations of the steampunk genre? Just posing the question, it occurs to me I don't know enough about steampunk as a genre to have very many sophisticated expectations. I can't, for example, as I might with cyberpunk (a genre with which steampunk is intimately connected), quote Bruce Sterling and say "Cyberpunk is high-tech meets lowlife", and just define the entire genre in a single soundbite. But even beyond that, have some more narrowly defined expectations than "cyberpunk in the Victorian era but with steam rather than computers".
When I think of steampunk, invariably the first image that springs to mind is the game Thief. Not the current 2014 version, where if you're unarmed, you wander the game environment with outstretched, crooked, hands like a zombie going about for brains. Rather the modern game's 1998 precursor, Thief: The Dark Project, and its 2000 sequel Thief II: The Metal Age. As you stole your way through the various levels of those games, the environment itself became heavy with a story about the conflict between the ecclesiastical zealotry of Hammers and their Church of Industry, and the pagan, druid-esque Tricksters who knew the Secrets of the Earth and its Old Gods. (Disclaimer: none of those terms might be accurate, but they convey the right emotional intent).
Thanks to the Hammers and their churchly works, the Medieval setting of the two original games in the Thief series have enjoy a technological reimagining that makes them seem closer in spirit to the late 18th century through mid 19th century. But of course, human psychology hasn't elevated correspondingly and the cultural politics of the game environment still tend towards Medieval barbarity cloaked in the guise of civility.
But as a literary genre? What little I know of steampunk is there's a Cambrian Explosion from around 2007 through 2009. That's when James P. Blaylock publishes his collection, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, when by the end of that epoch, Cherie Priest publishes Boneshaker and when, kicking things off in 2007, Jonathan Barnes publishes The Somnambulist. Those really are tentpoles of steampunk.
Blaylock is exactly what you'd expect steampunk to be and exactly what you'd hope the genre would be. His sensibilities are Victorian right down to the language. His hero, Langdon St. Ives, finds himself both embroiled in and attempting to master the mayhem of a science that dares too much, and unleashes unprecedented and unpredictable horrors. So it's Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary, but not quite the same insofar as scope of plot. And with the intrepid heroes and dastardly villains tilting not so much at Atomic Age tech, but at the Victorian steam-machineries of some generations earlier.
Barnes' The Somnambulist and its 2008 successor, The Domino Men, goes even deeper in that it draws on the literary resources of the Victorian era. The Somnambulist sees a Sherlock Holmes analog, failed stage magician and amateur detective Edward Moon, take the role of protagonist. Moon and his eight foot tall, mute, and entirely hairless assistant, the eponymous Somnambulist, are summoned by London police to investigate a perplexing but ultimately arbitrary crime—the death of a washed-up actor. Except the crime isn't arbitrary at all, and its full examination rips apart not the social institutions of the city, but the myths upon which "Victorian" society is founded, going right back to pagan conspiracies dating back two centuries. The scope of Barnes's novel is so broad it takes on the proportions of a genuine historical novel (like James Wilson's A Dark Clue, tracking the life and excesses of real life Victorian painter J.M.W. Turner through fiction) only, of an entirely imaginary London and Victorian era.
Cherie Priest's "Clockwork Century" series that begins with Boneshaker in 2009? "The Clockwork Century" is just the best part of all the good things in this world, like July first, when you can feel The Fourth, but it hasn't happened yet and you know in your bones that the full complexity of Summer's promise will be here soon. Priest extends the genre of steampunk into the New World and into the West. It's the 1800s, the early days of the Civil War and elsewhere in the country, in the Klondike in the Pacific NW, the urban legend of gold frozen into the permafrost pushes the Russian to commission Dr. Leviticus Blue to build his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine. But Dr. Blue hits a pocket of supernatural Blight Gas, and those who breathe it in are turned into the living dead.
Now, 16 years on, all of Seattle is walled off and is a place where zombie hordes roam. Stonewall Jackson has survived, Atlanta never burned. England broke the Union naval blockade of the South, and formally recognized the Confederate States of America. The Civil War drags on well into the 1880s, and the story's far from over. There's even a roaring drug trade for Sap, that eerily mirrors the Prohibition era.
Since 2009, Priest has not allowed us to leave the "Clockwork Century," giving us at least a book a year (two in 2010, and two novellas, one in 2011 and one just last year), each time expanding on not only the primary story that began with Boneshaker, but expanding the entire world of the Clockwork Century. That world is just an essay in pure creativity. It's gaslight-powered cities and dirigibles overhead and Old West zombies and interminable Civil War era psychologies both at war with and benefiting from technology they shouldn't possess.
As rich a vein of steampunk as that mini-epoch from 2007 through 2009 proves to be, that's hardly the whole story. Sure with steampunk we get Sherlock Holmes and pulp science heroes like Diet Smith from the pages of Dick Tracy who built Tracy's smartwatch ("2-way wrist radio" and after 1964, "2-way wrist TV", but still nevertheless, "smartwatch"), but that's setting dressing, not cultural aesthetic. To get at the real heart of steampunk as a genre, to get at what it means and what its ambitions are, you could do a lot worse than take a closer look at The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives.
The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives is not one book, it's two. The adventures in question being "Homunculus" and "Lord Kelvin's Machine". As both of these were previously published as independent novels in the '80s and '90s (Homunculus as early as 1986 and Lord Kelvin's Machine following in 1992), The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives is a compilation in the truest sense, the two novel-length adventures being interspersed with four standalone short stories. The comicbook-style structure and graphic novel-style collection of various and sundry stories provides an important clue as to steampunk's aspirations as a genre. That the works are immediate, they are really for the present, and meditate on present conditions in the current zeitgeist, but they filter these meditations through an imagined past.
Perhaps the biggest clue can be found in the "St. Ives/Narbondo Series" itself (Ignacio Narbondo being Langdon St. Ives's perennial nemesis). Even as the series twists through The Ebb Tide and The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs and The Aylesford Skull (how evocative are those titles?), includes two odd moments; one with at the beginning with the first novel in the series, The Digging Leviathan, and again later with the fourth novel, Zeuglodon. These novels aren't set in the Gilded Age at all, rather in a kooky, Venice Beach, Psych version of California in the '60s, featuring a distant descendent of Langdon St. Ives as the main protagonist.
Just look at the cover for Zeuglodon. There's a dirigible in the skies above a twisty mountain road, and is that a steamship powering ahead to… the Arctic? Give the cover just a cursory glance and you can almost be forgiven for thinking that's a flying car. Why wouldn't you, a flying car would fit in perfectly with the endlessness of summer, with Eddie St. Ives's dad escaping from an asylum only to be frustrated by neighbors conspiring against him (but are they really?), with mermen and reading Edgar Rice Burroughs's At the Earth's Core and then trying to build an actual digging leviathan, with not waking a dreamer whose dream is actually creating the Windermere Passage and thereby proving the Hollow Earth Theory.
The Digging Leviathan and Zeuglodon offer a madcap, slightly off-kilter, Disney-esque version of California. Because that's what "Eureka" on the State Seal is really all about. Not the having discovered gold. That's what we tell the rest of the nation, but Eureka's really about the kind of life you're able to lead once you've found something worth having. Eureka's about what comes next.
Why would this even matter? Because, simply, Lantern City's greatest hurdle in building an audience around itself, and perhaps also its most sublimely rewarding achievement, is tied deeply to its capacity to build a story at the mythic level. The choice steampunk as genre becomes as much a statement of intent as a creative choice. Because genre circulates through culture again and again. It becomes a way for younger generations to wrestle with the simultaneous and paradoxical task of no longer being able to live in the world of our parents, and not know if our societal projects would yet succeed.
Edward Norton captures this point beautifully in discussion with Elvis Mitchell in an episode of Under the Influence.
Norton suggests, "I think influence is beautiful when it's not just ripping off, it's that someone has affected you. It gets bent through the prism of somebody else, and comes out this other thing. Joseph Campbell the great…" Norton struggles for a word with a gesticulation and Mitchell suggests the title of Campbell's book, "Hero with a Thousand Faces." This is enough for Norton to power through with his point.
"The great philosopher on myth and storytelling really," Norton continues, still referencing Campbell, "he's got this great point, which is there really are a limited number of stories and we just retell them over and over and over again."
"And only one Hero Journey," Mitchell injects as a way of supporting Norton's point.
"Yeah," Norton agrees, "And each generation tells those stories for themselves. And he has this idea of transparency, which is that the way stories really work are as if you can see through the story somehow and see how it's really about you. We made this cop corruption movie called Pride & Glory. And I remember saying to the director, 'Why do we need to make another New York cop corruption story?' And he said something astute which is, 'Well, I think we need to make our corruption story.' You know what I mean? And I knew what he was saying, because you can make Serpico in the '70s and that's a cop corruption story for the '70s. In a sense, what is Serpico really? He's a beatnik."
"The character of Serpico really, Al Pacino in the hat living in the Village, it's transparent for that generation because they see themselves in Serpico. Now the people of that generation go, 'Yeah, he's one of us.' So again it's story about corruption in an institution, the same institution, the New York City Police Department, so why do it again? Well because we're not talking about the problems in the early '70s, we're doing it refracted through the experiences our generation is going through."
If you're just catching up to Archaia Press's Lantern City with the recent release of the series's third issue, this is where you walk in, right where the world is becoming fully realized. By the opening of issue #3, Lantern City feels like a fist being balled, ready to slam into a face. Posing as Captain Orlin in the highly militaristic environment of The Six, the barracks of the Lantern City Guards, protagonist Sander finds himself needing to adapt life away from his family and his entire social class. As time crawls forward, and Sander's nightmares increase, he begins to discover that his taking Orlin's place was perhaps not the happenstance it first appeared to be. Mysteries deepen, especially around Sander's close friend, Kendal, and around how far this conspiracy reaches.
In many senses, this really is only the beginning. As much for Lantern City as for the genre of steampunk. Because while the genre has always attempted solid and unique science fiction, and sometimes, the thought provoking macabre of writers like Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, Lantern City grows the genre by presenting a tale worthy of Victor Hugo. But like Lantern City itself, that's what comes next.