Mark Hodder A Red Sun Also Rises (2012)
I'm afraid it takes a lot to get me reading anything popularly and presently identified as steampunk, and whilst it may be absolutely unfair to suggest that Mark Hodder is the only author of the entire bunch worth bothering with, most of the rest are still to do anything which draws my attention. The problem here is that I can't help but feel sceptical towards a phenomenon that so strongly identifies itself as a brand, a franchise, even a lifestyle - collect the set, now wear the brass goggles and join in with the cosplay fun - cosplay being a word I tend to associate with hopeless wankers on the grounds of my being a fully grown man.
It's not even that I'm necessarily opposed to a wilfully superficial romp, and I certainly have no problem with Victoriana, but I tend to prefer my fiction to do something I'm not expecting, to take chances, to make random swerves off in occasionally ludicrous directions; just anything but recycle something that's already been written, to which end all those top hatted adventurers twiddling moustaches at some generically feisty female acquaintance as the dirigible sails overhead might as well be Pokémon cards so far as I can tell, although from what I gather there's generally a bit more imagination evident in Pokémon.
The most profoundly gormless facebook comment I ever saw was in response to a status message submitted by Mark Hodder, specifically a status message which had expanded to a leisurely conversation about beer and weather. Amongst various remarks and replies, some person had left a one word comment, just steampunk on its own for no obvious reason other than this being the genre with which Mark has become associated; sort of like walking up to Stewart Lee as he's in the middle of a conversation with friends, wiping the drool from your chin and saying 'funny jokes' out loud in the expectation of chuckling recognition and pats on the back because yes, we do all indeed love those funny jokes.
I really don't know how he puts up with it.
Anyway, science-fiction often serves to pass comment on the era in which it is written by allegorical means, and this is particularly true of Mark Hodder's science-fiction. The Victoriana seems to be not only his native mythology - for want of a better term - but, for this author, a significant key to understanding the present given that, it could be argued, our society came together during the nineteenth century and by a bolder, more transparent design than it has been at any time since. In other words, whilst Mark Hodder may well write for chuckles, there is more going on with this author than, I would dare to suggest, at least a few of his brass-plated contemporaries.
A Red Sun Also Rises roughly mashes up Mark's usual themes with an Edgar Rice Burroughs style extraterrestrial excursion yielding a fiction more redolent of the era in which it is set than any of your Reynolds or Baxters, thus neatly avoiding the problem of present concerns imposed upon another age, effectively addressing that age in its own language - so there's no talk to the hand or I'll be there for you, nor any deeper incongruity. Being essentially the tale of a missionary, it examines colonialism, cultural relativism, and the dynamics of colonial interference, the ways in which the colonised are changed by the colonisers; much of which amounts to a basic and quite insightful examination of class effected most vividly when the natives of Hodder's alien world are themselves transformed into a comic echo of Victorian society; so it's philosophically meaty without once coming across as a lecture.
What additionally distinguishes A Red Sun Also Rises is the explosive imagination at work in a narrative that flies off in all sorts of peculiar and unexpected directions without once worrying about whether the aviator-goggled reader on the Clapham omnibus is getting his proper quota of dirigibles and steam-powered computing engines. Ever since all those historical characters of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack were warped into ludicrous shapes, Mark Hodder has shown a consummate skill in forcing even the most absurd narrative twists into a working story - lunatic ideas to match even the edible dinosaurs of Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series, things you just shouldn't do in a novel, which he does regardless and passes off without a hiccup.
Genuinely wonderful stuff.