Short Story Club: “A Serpent in the Gears”

We’ll begin with Rich Horton, in the January Locus:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens 2010 with a very fine Margret Ronald story, “A Serpent in the Gears“. It’s the story of an expedition — by airship, naturally, this being a story with steampunk elements! — to a long-isolated country. We learn that the isolated country is occupied by mechanical beings (or partly mechanical beings). The expedition, from a wholly organic nation, has both scientific and diplomatic purposes. And it has a spy — the narrator. Besides spies and airships there are dragons, a strangely preserved Professora, and, for the narrator, a crisis of loyalty.

Lois Tilton also liked it:

Another blimp, this one in a fantastic steampunky setting. The dirigible Regina is attempting to cross Sterling Pass into the forbidden valley of Aaris, which is defended by automatic gun emplacements and giant flying hybrid-mechanical serpents. Many of the passengers onboard are spies claiming more or less truthfully to be scientists. The narrator, Charles, posing as Colonel Dieterich’s valet, is a spy from Aaris.
[...]
Crammed full of Neat Steampunk Stuff, delightfully witty prose, and high adventure.

The VanderMeers have also picked it up for their Steampunk Reloaded anthology.

Pam Philips enjoyed it:

There is so much to be revealed, though, it takes nearly half the text to get the setup done. The latter half is an action sequence, with battles alternating with revelations, climaxing with one big revelation. Everyone gasps, takes a breath, and — that’s it. That’s it?

I love the inventiveness. I love the imagery. I really hope this is meant to be the first chapter of an adventure novel. And then maybe a movie, though a movie producer would probably tack on a different ending and blow stuff up.

Matt H also thinks it feels “more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story“:

Is this just a matter of taste? To some extent, it must be…in the past I’ve noted I expect more out of short stories than a lot of people seem to. But I think in this case, at least, I can point to story-specific reasons for my reaction. The story provides closure on two issues: the Regina‘s mission and the nature and origin of the narrator. The narrator’s unique circumstances are strongly hinted at all the way up to where it is confirmed about halfway through, so it wasn’t really a twist. I think my ambivalence about the Regina‘s mission comes straight from the narrator, who summarizes it in a paragraph or two and then goes back to the stuff I came away from the story interested in. If the narrator doesn’t care whether the mission succeeds or fails, why should I?

It doesn’t help that “Aaris Valley” was the thinnest part of the world building. We’re told it’s an insignificant backwater, but then it turns out that multiple countries have spies aboard the Regina with objectives we assume (for they are not actually given) are sinister. And then at the end, a militant and expansionist Aaris is a thought to be a grave threat. Just how big is this valley? None of this is clear, so neither are the stakes of the mission.

And for Evan it’s an interesting failure:

The story here moves along quickly, with deftly sketched characters straight out of steampunk central casting. We’ve a valet with a secret, an expedition into an interdicted country, vaunting overconfidence, and eventually an awakening to a grave danger. Everything flows smoothly and is topped off by a fine action sequence.

And yet… The story is somehow weightless, taking each element of the subgenre that is uses out of the box and placing it just so. Noting new is originated and nothing is actually said (I suppose that one could argue that the statement is that aggressive hegemonizing swarms are bad, or that individuality is important, or that loyalty is more important than kind, but all these seem to go without saying). We are told a story. It is fluent, complete, and hollow, concerned primarily with manipulation of scenery and furniture. No element of the standard building blocks is questioned, or goes unused (it’s even hinted that somewhere out there are magicians, although we never seem to see any).

With some more thoughts on steampunk here:

This is not steampunk at its worst, but all genre writing at its worst. The same point could have been made of the post-Tolkein fantasy boom from the late 70s to the early 90s (the hangover of which is still with us today), or the endless dreary cyberpunk follow-ons that have taken up most of the intellectual airspace in between now and then, or the mini-booms in epic fantasy, dark fantasy, the new space opera, etc., etc., etc.. Paranormal romance and steampunk are just the latest iterations and there’s fairly little that’s interesting to be said about them specifically. These are basically the publishing equivalent of momentum trading. Something equivalent will always be with us.

Your thoughts?

40 Responses to “Short Story Club: “A Serpent in the Gears””

  1. Chad Orzel Says:

    My annual moment of silence kept me from getting this up in advance of the discussion post, but I posted comments on it this morning. Basically, I agree with Matt and Evan, though my post includes more snide comments about steampunk in general. So, you know, there’s that.

  2. Niall Says:

    I figured this might turn into a general discussion of steampunk … as it happens I’ve just received the latest Locus, which is a steampunk special with a bunch of essays on the topic, so I’ll go through that later and see if there are any points that can be brought in here.

  3. David H Says:

    I’m of a similar opinion as Chad about the piece — it rumbles along amiably enough without really doing anything of interest. It seems to rely too heavily on its steampunk-ish trappings being inherently interesting (‘a clockwork serpent, cool!’), rather than generating interest from the specifics of the story.

    I’ve no problem with steampunk as a genre, but it has to be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

  4. Abigail Says:

    I don’t mind steampunk that much, possibly because I haven’t read much of it, but I’m not sure this story works for me as a story. The details are very well done, of course, which is something I’ve come to expect from BCS, but they seem to obscure the plot points revelations that should make the meat of the story. If merged beings are common in Aaris, why is it significant that the entire nation has become merged? Does it mean that there’s a single mind controlling all of Aaris (and if so, why, since Charles is merged but still an autonomous being)? What makes a merged nation inherently dangerous and expansionist, which seems to be the implication of the story’s final paragraphs (Charles doesn’t think about the serpent discovered past the border until after it’s been decided that Aaris is dangerous)? I suppose the implication is that Aaris is going to swallow everyone around it into its merged collective, like a steampunk Borg (or like the narrator of “The Things”), but this feels like something the story should have built up, rather than assuming that it would be the obvious consequence of merged life.

  5. Ziv Wities Says:

    I enjoyed the story; I’m pretty good with straightforward and solid on something I haven’t seen much before. I’m inclined to agree with most of what’s been written in others’ comments above – poor pacing, not much substance, and relies very heavily on steampunk tropes.

    Like Abigail, I’m very poorly-versed in steampunk; I like what I know of the genre, but that’s very little, and almost entirely based on my beloved Girl Genius webcomic. Since this story was a simple plot making decent use of steampunk tropes, I’d be happy if we discussed steampunk in general – perhaps beginning with the question of what good steampunk fiction is out there, and who’s already done it right.

    Besides my beloved Foglios, that is :P

  6. Matt Denault Says:

    The main element I liked about this story is that it does aim to provide a moment of payoff:

    It was as if I gazed upon a great green clock, a hybrid land that was not just land nor automata but both. Every part of the landscape bore a design I knew from study of my own inner workings. The slow motion of it—even the patterns of glaciers sliding down the mountains—communicated a vast unfathomable purpose. A purpose of which I was no longer a part.

    I liked that on first reading: it was a very cinematic expansion of the story, a moment where both visual and conceptual sensawunda fuse. It helps that there’s a morsel of universal truth in it, the way that you can tell certain things about modern humanity by looking at the ways we’ve altered the land, that there are patterns to our living. And also, in Charles, the personal dimension: that you can never go home again, that it will always have changed, often seemingly for the worse, and be now strange and different.

    All that said, this moment couldn’t quite redeem the story as a whole for me.

    Part of this is that the moment itself doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It doesn’t feel earned: having spent the story in Charles’s head, there’s nothing in him as a “Merged citizen” that makes me think a country full of similar entities would create a clockwork, homogeneous society like Aaris. The Merged, for example, don’t seem to have any issue with molding their clockwork components into their human bodies, so I’m not sure why they’d want to reshape the land rather than working within its shape in the same way. “A Serpent in the Gears” feels like a very old fashioned tale not just in its steampunky trappings, but in this rather rote fear of the other as dehumanized automata, the yellow/red menace comprised not of individuals but of hordes of nameless cogs in some great purposeful machine which we as independent-minded, individual folks wouldn’t want to be part of, no sir.

    (And yet, if they are hostile and intending to invade, why did they let the Regina go? This makes the ending of the story ring hollow for me. I agree with Evan that the story is presenting these stock steampunk tropes without thinking deeply about them or doing anything interesting with them.)

    The degree of terraforming in Aaris also feels iffy to me, the notion that humans or any similar species could achieve that level of control over the land. You change the geography and the ecology of the valley changes, and too late you realize you’ve messed up the food chain that you in your isolation depend on; your smoothing of the hills alters the natural shelters from wind and rain, changes the natural irrigation; there’s a larger than usual rainstorm and you discover that one of your symmetrical ponds drains differently than another because of different layers of rock they’re on top of, and suddenly they’re no longer symmetrical, maybe one floods and destroys surrounding structures; there are rockslides, mudslides, avalanches from the mountains around you; etc. Granted we only see a glimpse of Aaris, but while the dream of control it represents may be something to fear, the actualized ideal seems merely overdone.

    The other, more over-arching issue I had with the story was that the line-by-line reading of it gave me no pleasure; often, it was jarring and annoying. Just looking at the beginning paragraphs:

    - “at least half a day out of our chosen path” in the very first sentence feels wrong, first because they are where they chose to go–it seems like this should be some synonym for planned or charted–and second because “path” seems the wrong word to relate to time, given that I doubt speed in a dirigible can be constant.

    - In “snowcapped peaks that made all nearby terrain but the Sterling Pass impassable,” “terrain” feels wrong because the peaks are the terrain (plus “Pass”/”impassable” are a bit inelegant so close to each other).

    - Were the scientists really “wandering over the carcass” or were they wandering around it? I would have thought they’d be careful of a never-before-seen specimen.

    - “it was at least twenty times the length of most specimens. It stretched out at least fifty feet.” Do we really need two consecutive sentences about the length of the serpent, each of which includes “at least”? (All these “at leasts” are especially odd given that we’re told later that Charles is very good at complex calculations and estimations.)

    I could go on, but you get the idea. Setting aside conceptual matters, it felt like the story as told would have benefited from another round of line editing in order to maximize its potential.

  7. Evan Says:

    Re Abigail’s group mind question, I just thought that it was just another unexaminEd aspect, using basically anything that hints of communism as a generic threat. Common in Americans of a certain age, late 20s to late 30s. The story is kinda remarkably uncritical of its influences and inspirations.

  8. iansales Says:

    I’m no steampunk fan – I could probably count the number of steampunk books on my bookshelves on the fingers of one hand and still have four fingers and a thumb left. But I enjoyed the flavour of this story when I first read it. I also liked the hints of a greater story. And, it has to be said, it’s about the only story I’ve ever read in which character who is a brain in a jar actually seems to fit.

    Having said that, rereading it today, the story seemed less appealing. The writing is clunky in parts – meeting the imagery for the first time, you tend to skim over those clumsy phrasings; but they’re painfully obvious on a second read. The hints of a greater story which tantalised on first reading, on second reading come across as lost opportunities. The Britishisms walk a fine line between colour and parody, but never quite seem to fit in with the plainly invented nature of the world. It may be steampunk, but that doesn’t mean it has to feature characters from Victorian Britain. The story also seems like several stories badly welded together, and yet still feels a little too long for its length.

    I liked ‘A Serpent in the Gears’ the first time I read it. But it’s not a story which survives a second read or close scrutiny. Which is a shame.

  9. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    Interesting discussion. I have to say, I don’t see the story as making a point about communism one way or the other. Nor is it clear the merging is a bad or a good thing. Nor is it necessary to know more about that society to enjoy the story. I don’t expect or desire the same precision of phrasing from certain first-person stories as from third person, although any story benefits from a copy-edit. The pacing’s just fine, and indeed there’s a conciseness to what’s on the page–a lesser writer would’ve spent a lot more time describing various things–that I quite admire. Ronald gets in and gets out, the end.

    Having read quite an amazing lot of crappy Steampunk over the last year and being quite worn out by it, and actually being sympathetic–especially at novel length–to Chad’s point of view on Steampunk, I can attest to the fact that the renovations performed by “A Serpent in the Gears” do indeed make it different from the norm–even in the choice of the POV–and it’s a nice addition to our Steampunk Reloaded anthology. If it doesn’t answer every question it posits, then all the better. A short story isn’t supposed to do that, nor is it supposed to lecture us about its subtext. (And I say this without wanting to be an apologist for Steampunk–as I say, I’m pretty much worn out by it at this point.)

    Can the story hold up to multiple readings, and does every story have to? The answer to the first part will be different for each reader and the answer to the second part is no.

    Cheers,

    JeffV

  10. James Bacon Says:

    I enjoyed this story.
    I think for me the questions that Charles faced, which are not really gone into, but my personal interpretations of what might be going through his organic and mechanical mind pleased me.
    As he looks down at ‘his’ country – loyalty, what is it we know as home and how he may no longer associate with what was once he desired, how home and ones vision of it may change all interested me.

    The ‘steampunk’ setting is not too bad at all, I liked the sound of the airship, and also Lindquist, and the melding of organism and machine, and the vision of Charles ‘home’.

    I think Evan is harsh about Steampunk, but then everyone has their own taste.

    It’s true there is a bit of hype about the sub genre, but I was reading Steampunk twenty five years ago, in comic form and it’s funny that this weekend, 300 odd people are dressing up and enjoying a ‘Steampunk’ weekend in Lincoln, an indication of how many people view ‘steampunk’ so differently and perhaps are separate from any publishing conspiracy, enjoying a fan run event.

    I don’t think this story deserves to be dismissed nor the genre, sure there may be Steampunk elements, but they are interesting and the author is in my mind fairly inventive, especially with her world which I liked, quite quickly.

    Airships, automata, quirky use of language add a backdrop, but are we to dismiss these as tropes or cliché, because then, Spaceships, Robots and invented futuristic languages are in the same predicament.

    I enjoyed the story, the glimpse of this world does make me desire more.

  11. Lois Tilton Says:

    One reason I like this group is that it’s usually full of opinions even more negative and crankish than mine. But I do think that Niall is right, some people are reacting to the steampunk thing more than the story.

    The story is fun. It’s colorful, vivid, imaginative, with original details along with the steampunk standards. It’s not really trying to be something else.

  12. Evan Says:

    @Lois: I didn’t think that it was. If I had to do it over again, I am not sure that I’d have included it. I definitely was reacting to the steampunk thing more than anything else. If the story had been a similar level of interest and technical skill and not steampunk, I doubt I’ve have included it. At the time, I felt like I had a lot of things to say.

    I figured out in the middle of saying them, though, that I didn’t actually have much to say about the story in particular. In my genre trends post, I started working towards a concept that I may call henceforth ‘playing with the furniture’ (although I feel that tonally it’s a bit too negative. I’d like it to be value neutral, so if anyone can think of anything with the right heft, let me know). I feel like this story is a good example. And truly, it is fun. I liked it on the first read.

    So, both ‘interesting’ (anything interesting I had to say was about something else) and ‘failure’ (it didn’t fail at being a fun steampunk story, which is all that was intended), are really not germane. And with that rather overlong explication, I am out of things to say.

  13. Evan Says:

    Other than to Jeff: I think that the communism as boogeyman thing may be something that I read in. But individualism vs. drone collective-type stuff is how the USSR was sold to my rough age group, which I think (maybe wrong) that Ronald is a part of. The whole think resonated with me on a whole Hayek/Scott homogenizing hand of the autocratic state kind of way. This may be a resonance that only I feel.

  14. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    Evan: Thanks for the clarification. (Off on a tangent, when I read your comment I immediately thought of Chandler Davis’s nonfic for some reason.)

    JeffV

  15. Niall Says:

    Just for once, I find myself mostly in agreement with Lois. I had fun reading “A Serpent in the Gears”; I take Matt D and Ian’s point about some of the stylistic infelicities, but for the most part it carried me along nicely. And I’d quibble with David H’s judgment that it generates interest from the “steampunk trappings” rather than “the specifics of the story”, because I think the steampunk trappings are the specifics of the story. This did not feel like a case of check it: gears; the gears were reflective of a larger vision of human organisation.

    (Although frankly, clockwork serpents are cool enough for me.)

    To that extent, I agree with Evan, Abigail and Matt D that the story weights its scales in favour of individualism and against collectivism; our narrator is one of the Merged, and even he is shocked and scared by how far his people have gone. In a longer piece, I would anticipate (or at least hope to see) some complication of this reaction, but here it has to stand alone.

    I’m also interested by something Ian said:

    It may be steampunk, but that doesn’t mean it has to feature characters from Victorian Britain.

    There is certainly an extent to which I think I like this story because it is not steampunk: not specifically British, though some of the markers are carried through, no actual steam (at least, not on screen), and so forth. But what does make it steampunk? The analogue technology (techno-magic), the vaguely colonialist setting…? Is that enough?

    (I have a sneaking suspicion that the pro-individualism stance may be wired into steampunk even more fully than it is into mainstream science fiction, though I haven’t read enough to be able to state that with confidence.)

  16. Martin Says:

    I just can’t find any story here. Ronald plays the DUN DUN DUUUNN chords at the end when we find out the whole country has turned in a clock but why are we meant to care? (And the fact the country has been turned into a clock is idiotic as others have mentioned.)

  17. Chad Orzel Says:

    There is certainly an extent to which I think I like this story because it is not steampunk: not specifically British, though some of the markers are carried through, no actual steam (at least, not on screen), and so forth. But what does make it steampunk? The analogue technology (techno-magic), the vaguely colonialist setting…? Is that enough?

    It pushes the “steampunk” buttons for me through a combination of the Victorian-ish manners, references to the “Royal Society,” and the technology, which includes at least one or two mentions of “boilers” powering things, which I took to be steam power. Reading through it the first time, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that it wasn’t Ruritanian fiction set in an alternate Europe with imaginary extra countries in the Himalayas or somewhere.

  18. iansales Says:

    There is certainly an extent to which I think I like this story because it is not steampunk: not specifically British, though some of the markers are carried through, no actual steam (at least, not on screen), and so forth. But what does make it steampunk? The analogue technology (techno-magic), the vaguely colonialist setting…? Is that enough?

    The airship is called the Regina, there are characters called Brackett and Crumworth, and the whole think reeks pith helmets and of g & t’s as the sun sinks over the yardarm. It’s Kipling’s Great Game, with clockwork villains.

  19. Lois Tilton Says:

    I don’t believe the theme is individualism vs collectivism. I think it is loyalty and alienation. There is the story, in the person of Charles, who has been altered by contact with an alien culture and no longer has a place in either.

  20. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    Martin: That seems like a lot of aggro for this particular story. Oh, the hate, the hate. Is it James Joyce’s “The Dead”? No, but it’s not trying to be. (In the antho, the story is also placed so that it provides commentary on, and vice versa, on the stories surrounding it.)

    Re the issue of Steam in Steampunk…Steampunk isn’t a movement, “just” an aesthetic, and it’s not even necessarily about the Steam anymore. Tongue-in-cheek a bit, we tunneled down to some sub-subgenres in the forthcoming coffee table book, Steampunk Bible, like Stitchpunk and Boilerpunk..except they kinda exist, especially Tinkerpunk where the emphasis in the stories is on makers and craftspeople (see: Ruskin). There’s a whole subculture out there labeled “Steampunk” that’s into things other than the steam, and since many of them are now beginning to write fiction, that’s going to change the definition of it. Then there’s also the rise of multicultural steampunk, which will be the real revolution and, to my mind, where “Steampunk” becomes revitalized. Otherwise, it’s already on its way out re fiction IMHO. As I said, I agree with Chad to a certain extent.

    Ian–These somewhat foppish explorers get told they’re basically going to get wiped out in another few years. No amount of tea or Victorian flourishes will make that right. I think there’s a goodly amount of absurdism in the aftermath of that prediction in the story. Have some tea? Yes, have some tea–FOR TOMORROW WE DIE!

    Cheers,

    JeffV

  21. Niall Says:

    Jeff:

    Steampunk isn’t a movement, “just” an aesthetic, and it’s not even necessarily about the Steam anymore

    This is what I was trying to get at, sort of: clearly it’s not necessarily about the steam anymore, but what is it about? I quite like Scott Westerfeld’s take, in Locus:

    … steampunk also embraces the puerile pleasure of mussing thigns up. Note to the Internet: steampunk is not about obsessive historical accuracy (in either the clothing or the technology). It’s about mad science, not feasible science, and it’s certainly not about doing things the way the Victorians would have done them, had they managed to build calculation engines and giant airships. [...] People who dislike it see it as a one-off joke, all very amusing twenty-odd years ago but for heaven’s sake why does it keep on happening? But for the people who get steampunk, the Victorian fetish is merely the tip of an iceberg that extends down through history to every period whose technologies, clothing and manners would be fun to remix and repurpose.

    In the present case, it does strike me that “It’s cold enough to freeze a thaumaturge’s tits off” is not precisely period-appropriate dialogue. That said, I do wonder whether Westerfeld claims too much: every period, potentially?

    Lois: That’s true to an extent, but (a) it’s still the case that the culture Charles comes from is much more collectivist than the culture he moves to, and (b) I take a pretty strong implication from the ending that he will be able to make a place for himself in his adopted society, now that he’s committed to it.

  22. Lois Tilton Says:

    Niall – I don’t view that society as collectivist. Collectivism is a human social construct. This is alien. It’s hive-mind, not human.

    It may well be that Charles will be able to find a place in the adopted society, but I see the heart of the story as his alienation from his native one. This is “You can’t go home again.”

  23. Evan Says:

    Lois, I think that’s the point of collectivism-as-bogeyman, that it reduces the human to a cell in the hive mind.

    I am not sure that I entirely buy Westerfeld’s take, there. That said, I don’t view it as a movement, either. I trace the modern steampunk thing from _Perdido Street Station_, honestly, rather than the DeFilippo steampunk stuff. The re-emergence as fantasy. I have an unfinished review somewhere accusing Tidhar’s _The Bookman_ of attempting to re-SFnalize steampunk, but other than that everything that I’ve run across since had largely been fantasy. That’s somewhat skew to his point, but I kind of think that the steampunk-ish stuff that’s being done now with serious intent (rather than momentum following) is an attempt to sort of better shape their fantastical worlds to express modern concerns and treat on modern issues. Urban fantasy may be modern in period, but it’s very limiting in the issues that it seems to be able to address and epic/quest fantasy has its obvious limitations. The recent vein in dark/gritty fantasy can be seen as another side of this coin, perhaps.

    The reason I don’t entirely buy Westerfeld’s argument is that so much of it is momentum following and magpie repurposing of disjoint ideas to the end of shiny. I predict that we’ll need a term, soon, for work done in the dying light of the steampunk day vs the people who’re following the original vein in the direction that it takes them. Gary Wolfe suggests the ‘New Cacophony’ for this kind of work in a recent mind-meld. I am not sure that it’s pithy enough to stick, but it works for now.

    Tim Pratt’s new serial _The Nex_ is something along these lines, from the story in which he laid out the setting. It’ll be interesting to see where people take it.

  24. Martin Says:

    (In the antho, the story is also placed so that it provides commentary on, and vice versa, on the stories surrounding it.)

    I would certainly have prefered to have read it in this context because I don’t think it stands on its own. Not all stories have to be masterpieces but even if the story merely aspires to be a fun piece of light entertainment, it still falls short. There is a complete failure to launch; as Matt says, the story is nothing but introduction.

    As for being angry, no one likes to have their time wasted. In this instance I read the story whilst waiting for a train so my time was there to be wasted and my response was simply: meh. If it wasn’t for Short Story Club I would have just forgotten about it and moved on. But if my comments here come across as agro that is because it does piss me off a bit to come over and find Rich Horton describing the story in Locus as “very fine” without saying why. Locus is an important journal, Horton is an important reviewer but the judgement is just absurd – tastes differ and my opinion (“barely adequate”) is only one of many but even if you liked the story surely “pretty good” or “good fun” is the best you would be able to say? And this pattern of over-praise from respected sources is one that seems to be a recurring feature of introductory quotes for Short Story Club.

  25. James Says:

    Just caught up. Late again.

    Oh, it was Steampunk. :-(

  26. Rich Horton Says:

    One of the features of writing a 1500-2000 word column covering a couple of dozen stories a month is that space given to each is scant. I cannot deny that for many of the stories I cover each month I say very little of substance — I am starkly aware of the inadequacy of such reviews compared, say, to the analysis given to a few stories by the collective mind here. (Even if I sometimes feel that the in depth picking apart here ends up exaggerating minor faults and overlooking modest pleasures — not that such in depth looks are bad, not at all, but it does appear sometimes that the format encourages a bit more negative treatment than the stories may deserve.)

    My take on the story is more or less in line with Niall’s, and with Lois’s. At this remove I can say little more (without rereading it, I mean). I will say it seemed to use familiar steampunk elements in a fairly — though hardly spectacularly — original way, leading to a worthwhile conclusion, though it is entirely fair to say that it is in some sense more of an introduction to a setting and situation than a full resolution of same.

  27. Mike Johnstone Says:

    Apologies for being late to the party with this one ….

    In a nutshell, for me, I wonder if the story misses an opportunity to do something truly interesting — that being actually spending time on the ground in Aaris, so to speak.

    Where the story begins to acquire substance is Charles’ shock at and rejection of (“My breath caught with a crackle. … I shuddered …”) an Aaris utterly different from the one where he was “decanted” and grew up. Much of that shock derives from his realization that the “iterated regularity” he sees in Aaris, from the roads to the glaciers, reflects — or, embodies — his own “inner workings,” and quite literally so. He is now Other among the humans and with respect to a changed Aaris. Yet just as this changed Aaris proves intriguing and inviting for its strangeness (“Only the same Merged calm on every visage.”), Charles and Deitrich and the narrative immediately turn away from it.

    What has happened in Aaris to bring about this seemingly fundamental shift in social organization and political intent? Why, precisely, is Charles basically repulsed by this new, Merged-dominated Aaris?

    The opportunity missed, I think, is one of exploring more fully the Otherness(es) at stake in Aaris, and particularly from/through Charles’ POV. Perhaps this is why the story feels like a prologue to some? I suppose it’s a matter of narrative focus, of targeting the “real” story, in that the greatest interest resides in Aaris as opposed to the folks on the Regina.

    This matter of narrative focus, actually, leads me to muse upon steampunk itself (as others here have done) — or, more specifically, on the tone of some of the critical response to works of steampunk.

    The bits from Rich Horton and Lois Tilton quoted by Niall are indicative of the sort of critical response to steampunk that I frequently see. Horton, for instance, lauds the fact that this story is about an “expedition — by airship,” that it “has a spy,” and that there are “dragons” and a “strangely preserved Professora.” Tilton also highlights the “blimp,” and enthuses about the story’s “Neat Steampunk Stuff” and “high adventure.” The attraction in both cases seems primarily to be to the props of steampunk, to the “Neat … Stuff” of the setting that Ronald works into the “adventure.” This is an attraction to surface(s), to shiny things, to what Pam Philips calls “inventiveness.”

    (It’s the sort of critical response that dominated reviews of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, which was praised routinely for being “fun” and “fast-paced” and a great mixing of steampunk and zombies. I disagree[d], but others’ mileage may vary of course ….)

    With Ronald’s story, the “inventiveness” is definitely there, and Charles is quite an interesting character as a Merged living mostly incognito among regular humanity. Charles also shows that Ronald is aiming for more than shiny surfaces and “Neat … Stuff” in the story, for he suggests a concern with Otherness as explored through the lens of steampunk, especially considering that he ends up in between two cultures/peoples/races/ideologies. Yet it’s a concern that the story ultimately doesn’t make more of (maybe even avoids doing so?), and that appears acceptable to those who praise it as a “very fine” steampunk story.

    Is this maybe indicative of part of the struggle steampunk faces in making itself more relevant and engaging, i.e., the love of and for its props steering authors and (some) critics away from its more challenging metaphorical/allegorical possibilities and directions?

  28. Short Story Club 2 « Torque Control Says:

    [...] Short Story Club: “A Serpent in the Gears” [...]

  29. Niall Says:

    Is this maybe indicative of part of the struggle steampunk faces in making itself more relevant and engaging

    Perhaps. As Evan says, there’s a poweful will to shiny. I do think the material is there for steampunk to be more relevant and engaging, particularly if what is salvaged of it is a generally playful attitude to history, and the rigidity of all social systems as viewed from a distance, beyond one time and place — and I think “A Serpent in the Gears” is interesting as a possible indicator of that process. It is an introduction to a world — so transparently that I find it hard to see that as a flaw — and it is a light adventure. But it tries for a little bit more, even if it doesn’t achieve it, and for the type of story it is, I find what it tries interesting.

    Don’t get me started again on the sort of coverage short fiction gets. (Too late.) I hope The Portal is better, although I suspect it, too, will fall into the trap of preferring breadth to substance.

  30. Jonathan M Says:

    I think that the problem with Steampunk is that we are currently lacking a proper critical vocabulary for it.

    Analyses of steampunk invariably present it as brainless fun or as consolatory escapism – I think that that marks a failure of the imagination on the part of the critical fraternity. The same is also partly true of paranormal romance and YA though YA can and is quite easily be examined through traditional genre lenses.

  31. Martin Says:

    I think you just volunteered yourself to review Dreadnought and Behemoth for Strange Horizons.

  32. Niall Says:

    By a curious coincidence, Dreadnought did drop through my letterbox last night! I also have steampunk Robert Rankin.

  33. Talking serpents « Margaret Ronald Says:

    [...] September 15, 2010 — mlronald There’s a fascinating discussion about “A Serpent in the Gears” over at Torque Control, and while I’m a little [...]

  34. Jonathan M Says:

    Behemoth appeals more than Dreadnought simply because I’ve read neither Boneshaker nor Clementine and the book does evidently take place in the same setting.

    I would be tempted to take a run at the Rankin though.

  35. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Even if I sometimes feel that the in depth picking apart here ends up exaggerating minor faults and overlooking modest pleasures — not that such in depth looks are bad, not at all, but it does appear sometimes that the format encourages a bit more negative treatment than the stories may deserve.

    Very interesting wording here, particularly the “modest pleasures” and the question of just what a story might deserve.

    Everyone’s got their own line I suppose. Personally, prose has to be pretty bad for me to go after it, and I didn’t mind the writing in this story. Matt D has higher standards, apparently, but I don’t think his complaints will ruin the story for people who liked it.

    When it comes to the substance of the story, or to go back to Rich’s wording, the “modest pleasures”, we can say there’s no accounting for taste, but I think editors and especially authors might want to pay attention here. People like Martin and me are grumpy outliers of the set of people who read short stories, but that’s a very small set. I have no evidence, but I’ve always suspected the small readership of genre short stories compared to genre novels suggests there’s a large group of readers who feel the pleasures of most published short stories are a little too modest.

  36. Evan Says:

    Matt: I think that simple economics explains that. There are few skilled short story writers out there mostly because it just doesn’t pay. Most people just can’t be bothered to pick up short story writing skills unless they explicitly plan to do writing as a side gig over the long term (in which case novels just take too much time to keep selling them regularly) or just genuinely aren’t good at novel length work.

  37. Rich Horton Says:

    As for novels versus short stories, I think Evan’s largely right, plus lots of people just like novels more, mostly because they like more more, if you know what I mean.

    As to “modest pleasures”, sure, the pleasure available from many short stories is merely modest. That’s a plus, mind you, give those that give no pleasure at all! But to suggest that novels don’t also give sometimes only “modest” pleasure, and for that matter often no pleasure at all, seems silly. I will say that at the bottom end, the entry barriers to publishing (and writing!) a short story are lower than for a novel, and the worst short stories are likely worse than the worst novels. But, in all honesty, even the grumpiest of readers, it seems to me, can hardly call the stories we’ve covered in the Short Story Club, even the failures, anywhere close to the bottom end of the genre short story market.

  38. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Evan: I just feel like better short stories would get more readers and then would be more financially rewarding. Guess it’s a chicken and egg thing. Which came first, the lack of good short stories or the reader disinterest? From my vague notions of genre history, the short story market collapsed due to external forces unrelated to supply or demand (something to do with how stores sell magazines) so I guess the money went first, then the supply, then the demand.

    Rich: Well, I didn’t mean to imply that somehow all novels are better than all short stories, which is plainly untrue, or that these stories here are the bottom end of the market. I’ve subscribed to short story magazines in the past so I’m very familiar with the bottom end, but thankfully Niall does a good job avoiding those.

  39. Black Gate » Blog Archive » Beneath Ceaseless Skies Celebrates Two Years Says:

    [...] “Invitation of the Queen” by Therese Arkenberg. Over at Torque Control, there’s a spirited discussion — and plenty of praise — for Margaret Ronald’s earlier “A Serpent in the [...]

  40. Short Story Club Post-Mortem « Torque Control Says:

    [...] “A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret Ronald [discussion] [...]


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