Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

I’ve never delved much into steampunk, the most involved I’ve gotten is probably the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki and about fifteen minutes of Wild Wild West. I think Wild Wild West sort of ruined it all for me.  So picking up Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl was somewhat of a new experience for me, at least partially egged on by the title, the cover, and my wife’s obsession with theming our kid’s room around steam punk. Right now the room is mostly just orange. Not sure where she’s wanting to go with it, really.

But back to the novel. It’s really a blender full of tropes and ideas. We have Bram Stoker, Lady Bathory, mummies, an ancient weapon fueled by who knows what, dirigibles, the aforementioned mechanical girl, and a boy being thrown into adulthood as he…well, seeks adventure. So, what is Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl? (another question might be why I’m asking this question, why do we have to categorize it and why can’t it just be what it is and put afloat on the sea of Isness, and maybe I’ll get to that later) Well, as I said, it’s definitely steam punk, as it twists history over on itself, pushes forward with advanced steam and other technologies and just generally has a helluva lot of fun with itself.  It would be tempting to call it a metanovel, considering Bram Stoker plays a central role, and Sherlock Holmes is hinted strongly at. I don’t think it really fits, though.

I think it is really just a lot of fun. Barnett writes a quick, funny, human tale of the defining of humanity, self-perception, and ravenous frog faced carnivorous children of an Egyptian goddess. What more could you really ask for?

But to revisit this idea of why I (or we, as I think all of us do ask this question to a differing degrees) do we ask what a novel is? Is it scifi? Is it fantasy? Is it a murder mystery? Is it literary?   I think part of it is to create a personal shorthand for ourselves to easily delineate our likes and dislikes, for ourselves and for others. If you have  read some political thriller novels and you absolutely hate them, you can pretty safely cross that entire genre off the list of stuff you should aggressively pursue to read more of. It also gives you a quick way of telling someone else that you might not be the biggest Grisham fan.

A slightly more controversial aspect might be that it also infers some degree of quality or goal to the writing. When someone hears “scifi” and then they hear “literary” I would take a wild stab in the dark that the expectations for each would be markedly different. While it would be unfair to think of a “literary” work being of higher quality than scifi, I think it’s a common perception. Is it deserves? I am not entirely sure, but literature does have the benefit of a far larger backlist to draw from. Though part of that surely derives from the malleability of literature to eventually envelop anything deemed literary enough to fit. Old tails such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf would seem to have more in common with modern fantasy than what we would think of as literature, but I think they fall more accurately beneath the umbrella of the latter. Literature, the sort that is always  capitalized, has the benefit of being able to acquire anything for itself.

If labeling a novel, such as Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, a steampunk novel, am I helping or hurting it? I am accurately describing it. If you have experience with steampunk and know what to expect when seeing the term, then Barnett’s novel is certain to not disappoint. But it could just as easily foster some negativity because either a dislike for steampunk or a misconception of what steampunk is, or for another of a variety of reasons.

The short answer is I don’t know, but probably a bit of both. for what it’s worth, though, Gideon Smith is a wonderful read. It’s quick. It’s inventive. It’s fun. It makes me think strongly of how I felt about Nick Harkaway’s Gone Away World. Here’s the B&N link.

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