Posts Tagged ‘nick Harkaway’

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

February 17, 2014

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.

On Amazon, Nick Harkaway, and digital revolutions

January 16, 2013

I did have a longer book links post to put up yesterday, but it appears wordpress managed to eat it.  Unfortunately, I lost most of the links I was going to use, but I did remember where to get one of them. Nick Harkaway, the author of The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, put up a blog post about a new feature from Amazon called autorip. Now, I think this feature is ridiculous, and shouldn’t be as popular as it will likely be. The gist of it is that when you buy certain CDs from Amazon, they will install a “free” digital version into your Amazon cloud player for you. Now, I quote free because it’s not really free, you’re paying for the CD. And ripping a CD is insanely easy. Ripping it yourself also gives you control over the rip’s quality, the format, and what devices you want to put the rip on. Also, it doesn’t give Amazon the ability to just step in and erase your music for whatever vague reasons they can concoct like they have from time to time done to ebooks stored on their servers. I can think of literally no good reason to want to take Amazon up on this service aside from sheer laziness and apathy. And all of this is slightly to the side of Harkaway’s point in his blog post.

His point is that Amazon is setting expectations for what they get when they buy something. They buy a CD, they will expect to get a digital version for free. It’s something we’ve been seeing for awhile now with blurays, where they package another disk that has your “digital copy.” Harkaway’s thing seems to be that publishers need to get in front of this and start establishing their own brands by creating their own exclusive packages for people when they buy a book from them. And I pretty much agree, up to a certain level. I have to believe that at some point in the whole publishing process, someone has a document file that could be easily converted to a PDF and made available to download with the use of an access code whenever someone buys a hard copy of a book. It’s not like everyone is plodding away on typewriters or scrawling the final versions of their novels out by hand. And this should be a simple thing to do, and able to be used across a variety of platforms. Also, by using a common file, it might help stamp out the individual ereader market a bit and push everyone to a more generic use of a tablet as an all-in-one device for media consumption.

Where I would draw a line is with “enhanced” ebook experiences. I don’t know a ton about programming, but from what I do know, HTML5 seems to be a very powerful programming language that can handle a great variety of tasks from video to text to images to I don’t know what all. So, my suggestion would be to build enhanced ebooks around HTML5 because it would be a common file type that could be opened across a wide variety of devices, while still allowing an abundance of enhancements to make the purchasing of an enhanced ebook worth the price.

Still, with all of my editorializing aside, will the big publishers be able to make the transition? I think so, even if we’re not happy with how they’re doing it right now.I don’t really share Harkaway’s pessimism in that regard, in not being sure that these institutions will still be around ten years from now, filling largely the same role they are filling now. While I don’t believe they are too large to fail, and that the landscape may alter a bit, I think the Penguins, the Simon & Schusters, the Vikings, etc. will still have their place, and they’ll still be putting out big name, big selling writers.  If they would get a bit more aggressive now, though, they might be able to make sure that the landscape down the road is a bit more pleasing to their eye than what may other wise come about.

The Gone-Away World – Review

April 21, 2010

I enjoyed Harkaway’s brick of a novel. For anyone who has read Catch-22, it is clear that this is a descendant of it, a relative somewhat further down the family tree on some outlying branch but still firmly entrenched from Heller’s side of the trunk. The problem is that it’s at least 50 pages too long,  Another problem is that the first half the book is rather slow. Considering what it does, I’m just not sure it’s needed, which deals directly with the first problem. If it’s not needed, cut it.

It’s a curious novel. Something could clearly be done with the duality of nature, considering the story arc and several of the story components. But nothing is done with it. In fact, a story arc during with the literal duality is introduced is neatly (and abruptly) tossed aside.

In fact, the way the novel almost purposefully skirts the philosophical/moral/every day questions of its central plot device, as if Harkaway had no desire to explore things beyond writing a page turner.

And maybe he didn’t. And that’s okay. And it’s still a good, fun, quick read. But, still, you feel you are lacking something when you’re done with the novel. You are left with many MANY questions regarding how the characters carried on after the events in the story, how the crisis changed Gonzo (one of the central characters), how the world and what that says about the people remaking it.

Will you be able to guess many (all?) of the turning points in the plot? Likely, yes. You will know what characters will come back later, what characters are good or evil, and who will prevail.   And you will be left wanting to know more about several situations while not needing to know half of what you’re given about other situations. But it’s still a fun read.