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Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Aurorarama" by Jean-Christophe Valtat (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Jean-Christophe Valtat at Melville House
Order Aurorarama HERE
Read a Short Excerpt HERE (Amazon offers a longer excerpt with Kindle for PC)

INTRODUCTION: "1908: New Venice--"the pearl of the Arctic"--a place of ice palaces and pneumatic tubes, of beautifully ornate carriage-sleds and elegant victorian garb, of long nights and vistas of ice. But as the city prepares for spring, it feels more like qaartsiluni, "the time when something is about to explode in the dark." Local "poletics" are wracked by tensions with the Eskimos circling the city, with suffragette riots led by an underground music star, with drug round-ups by the secret police force known as the Gentlemen of the Night. An ominous black airship hovers over the city, and the Gentlemen are hunting for the author of a radical pamphlet calling for revolt. Their lead suspect is Brentford Orsini, one of the city's most prominent figures. But as the Gentlemen of the Night tighten the net around him, Orsini receives a mysterious message from a long-lost love that compels him to act."

Despite our monthly spotlights in which we try to showcase the most interesting sff, I would have missed "Aurorarama", if not for its inclusion in Jeff Vandermeer' extended list about which I have talked recently. After the exciting blurb above and the extended excerpt available from Amazon, this was a buy/read on the spot and it turned out to be even better than I expected and it's possibly the best sf I've read so far in 2010, though it should appeal to both fantasy and literary readers for its wealth of material and beautiful style.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Aurorarama" stands at about 415 pages and is divided into three parts and 30 chapters, all interestingly named which adds value to the novel. There is a prologue which is worth rereading later once you understand its meaning and an epilogue that nicely concludes the tale, though the way is clear for more books in this superb milieu imagined by the author.

Each chapter starts with appropriate quotes related to the Arctic and the novel has several pictures that are both beautiful and illustrate well scenes from it in true Vernian spirit. Aurorarama is modern speculative fiction at its best - an "ice punk" adventure in an alt-history setting. While a standalone that concludes superbly its threads, Aurorarama is intended to kick-start a series based on New Venice and based on the quality of this one, any new volume will be a top anticipated book of mine.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Aurorarama" alternates POV's from its two main heroes. "Duke" Brentford Orsini is a scion of the New Venice "articocracy" with a leading position in the Administration of the city as the Gardner-General of the Greenhouses & Glass Gardens. New Venice is under the real control of the Council of Seven established by the founding fathers, the Seven "Sleepers" whose bodies are supposedly cryogenically preserved to return in case of dire need. The Council is moving toward autocracy and ignoring the Utopian roots of New Venice; there are even rumors that the Council intends to crack hard on the native Inuits and get into the export drug trade.

"Whereas the Council was supposed to keep intact the utopian ideals of the Seven Sleepers who had founded the city, it was now more than ever involved in all matters of business with the “Friends” who funded it, and these Friends had themselves increasingly turned from philanthropists into shareholders who wanted a return on their investments. The Administration, which had originally been devoted to the practicalities of running a city at a latitude that was anything but reasonable, had meanwhile—and Brentford was one of the main actors in this conversion—evolved toward a faithfulness to the first principles that was at times somewhat fanatical. "

"Earl" Gabriel (Lancelot) dAllier (de St-Antoine) is also a member of the articocracy and friend of Brentford since college, but in contrast to the still rich and important Orsinis, he inherited mostly debts from his father. Needing a paycheck, he moonlights as literature professor at the local Doges College with an interest in recreational drugs, weird music and younger girls like some of his students whom he prefers to "bed than corrupt" in his own memorable words from later in the book....

Alas, the Council's new puritanical direction - for a long time drugs were regarded as vital in New Venice both as survival tools and in the Transpherence process the articocracy used to preserve memories between generations, while casual sex was encouraged in places like the (in)famous Ingersarvik swapping den based on Eskimo customs - means that Gabriel is vulnerable to blackmail from the secret police...

All because a "seditious" pamphlet that the Council says it calls for revolution and its overturn - "A Blast on the Barren Land" has just been published and pretty much everyone in the know believes Brentford wrote it, while Gabriel contributed too. Since Brentford is too important and well connected - he is even respected by Captain-General Frank Mason, the New Venice 2000 strong army commander, not to speak of his ties with the powerful Scavenger guild, the "middle class" shopkeepers, the bohemian artists and the native Inuits - the Council cannot charge him without hard proof, so the Gentlemen of the Night in the person of obnoxious Sealtiel Wynne and sidekicks are dispatched to put pressure on Gabriel to confess and rat on Brentford.

To top it all, a mysterious black airship has been hovering above New Venice for a while, a sled with an elderly dead woman holding a mirror that spells "Lancelot" has just been found, Brentford is busy planning his upcoming wedding with singer/performer Sybil Springfield while receiving a prophetic dream from former (presumed dead) flame Sandy Lake for a North Pole rendezvous on March 1st that may portend great changes and Gabriel is busy falling for troubled student Phoebe and later magician assistant Stella...

So, why would you read Aurorarama? For me the answer started with the blurb - very interesting setting and great story potential - and continued with the excerpt since I really liked the author style: literate, full of language plays as well as of literary allusions and showing the author's command of the English language and both of the history of Arctic expeditions and their novelistic renderings. But the author' style is also very clear and the novel becomes a page turner once you get in the flow of the action. I felt compelled to read it again twice both to fully appreciate its finer points and because I wanted to spend more time in its wonderful milieu.

What made it so memorable though were the characters of Brentford and Gabriel as well as the many supporting ones that come out vividly and enrich the novel. The idealistic Brentford and the jaded, but still somewhat naive Gabriel come alive from the first chapters and the reader cannot help but care for them even when things seem to be at their bleakest.

The atmosphere of the novel is exquisite - and I use "atmosphere" rather than "world building" since
Aurorarama is definitely not hard sf, so things are hinted and there are mentions of various aspects that make New Venice and more generally year-round life on the 80th parallel possible, but nothing is spelled out in say Baxterian detail. So in that sense Aurorarama is a clear Vernian successor, rather than a Wellsian one.

There is intrigue, action, ice travels, prophetic dreams, occasionally somewhat explicit sex and drugs and just pure fun - there is a scene in which Gabriel is interrogated under supposedly infallible hypnosis that epitomizes the pure fun part of the novel and made me laugh out loud even on the third read
. Here is Gabriel mocking the policeman and his henchmen who supposedly have him under hypnotic control:

“Mr. d’Allier, there is one thing we would like to know above all others. Would you please tell us what or whom A Blast on the Barren Land evokes for you?”

A flurry of images gushed forth in his brain. Whatever they were, they would have to do.

“Flap,” said Gabriel, after a pause, not without surprise.



“Who is Flap, Mr. d’Allier?”

“Flap is … a friend.”

“Where did you meet him?”

“Her. I met her in the Greenhouse in Grönland Gardens. I took a path that I thought would take me out of the hothouse but did not. It kept on, it seemed forever. At some point, I fell asleep under a tree. And after a while, I woke up, feeling a fresh sensation below the waist, and Flap was over me.”

“Over you?” said Wynne, in a faltering voice.

“Over me. Yes. I opened my eyes, and I saw her. She was rather cute but a bit on the chubby side, with little dragonfly wings on her back. I asked her who she was and what she thought she was doing. ‘I’m Flap the Fat Fairy,’ she said..."

"Aurorarama" (A++ and possibly best sf of 2010 for me) is fun, compelling and full of gems; the biggest positive surprise for me in sf for 2010 though as noted above, the novel should appeal to both fantasy and literary fans for its many aspects and superb style.


Anonymous said...

Wow, if you rank it as one of the best of 2010, I'll have to make sure to check it out. Wonderful review.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the kind words; this book is one I am so glad I discovered since I truly enjoyed.

The short excerpt linked on the NPR page is from the prologue, but at least for people in the US, downloading the free Kindle for PC (Mac) and the free sample gives also chapters 1 and 2 where we meet Brentford trying to broker a deal between the Council, the Army and the Inuits and then Gabriel and his start of police misadventures and more...

Those two chapters made me buy the book on the spot; also the novel is not a dense or complicated read, but a really fun one

MCLK said...

Wow, indeed. I probably would have picked it up just because of the airship on the cover :) After reading your review it is definitely on my must read list. Thanks.

Ove said...

Thanks for pointing out this one. I ordered it after reading your excellent review.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; I hope you like the book as much as I did.

ediFanoB said...

I don't want to butter you up. But you are one of my favorite reviewers.
Your reviews are informative, alluring and entrancing.
You find books which I like and would have missed without your reviews.
Your review of Aurorarama is intoxicating.
I read the short excerpt and it is gorgeous.
As I don't buy hardcovers due to several reasons I really hope that there will be a paperback edition within 2011.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the kind words, but for finding the book the credit goes to Mr. Vandermeer who posted about it - otherwise I could have easily have missed it.

I hope there will be a paperback edition - have no idea what the publisher Melville does but I added them to the "once in a while check" list


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