Monday, 3 March 2014

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon

Mark Hodder Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon (2011)

Just to get the disclaimer out of the way, and hopefully to scare off any part-timers who happen to have wandered in by accident, it's not so much that I necessarily regard steampunk - that is Victorian science-fiction as one website helpfully and twattily described it - as wank in and of itself, so much as I dislike bandwagons and cultural trends packaged with the sort of cock-obvious cynicism designed to attract the maximum quota of suckers in the shortest space of time. Steampunk qualifies for the sheer step lively, quizling, purchase your brass aviator goggles here and thusly join in the fun at your earliest convenience factor, and because it looks cute as computer generated clockwork Victorians chasing Matt Damon around a cinema screen. It's the drippy comic with a Dave McKean cover aesthetic for the twenty-first century, a fancy and ornate wrapping for what, nine times out of ten, will turn out to be, at very best, a low calorie Flash Gordon serial with handlebar moustaches and oodles of side-splitting Englishness. If you're one of those people busily clogging the arteries of our collective cultural bandwidth with anything that involves chucklesome use of the word velocipede - either by producing it or supporting it - my message to you is, generally speaking, either embrace the habit of original thought, or go fuck yourself, whichever seems easier.

That feels better.

From the general thrust of the above, one might imagine I would have a tough time with Mark Hodder's Burton & Swinburne novels. It is true that I have approached each with a degree of trepidation, but this is because we've known each other on and off for many years, at least since we met at Maidstone College of Art back in the eighties, and it's always a bit terrifying when a friend writes something, and there's the fear that you might find you hate it. Anyway, this being the fourth of Mark's novels that I've read, such fears have diminished over time, as I've come to appreciate that he really can write, and that he's never really written steampunk in quite the sense that brings on the red mist. Indeed, he terms his novels alternate history - albeit alternate history of a form which by happy coincidence seems to be popular at the moment - and the more I read, the more I view this as a legitimate identification.

Whilst inspiration drawn from the writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne hardly seems unusual at present, Mark Hodder distinguishes himself in drawing thematic inspiration, rather than simply presenting a dirigible heavy pastiche of that which they wrote. I expect I've said it before, but this, I would suggest, sets him quite clearly in the tradition of Michael Moorcock's steam opera novels, dissecting the mechanism of empire rather than just pointing at it and smirking. The two previous books in this series have in addition built up a good narrative head of Moorcock-style absurdity in terms of events spiralling dramatically out of control, but Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon takes a more measured approach, mimicking the steady pace of a travelogue as suggested in the title. It's still bonkers, but unfolds with what seems a more confident tone, as is certainly appropriate given that this would seem to be the one in which the underlying message is examined in greatest depth and with most clarity. That message, as with at least Wells and Moorcock, is an unambiguous and quite severe critique of both imperial and capitalist values:

'Christian? Do you then stand in opposition to Darwin's findings? Do you also believe that your God favours some races over others?'

'I use the word merely out of habit, as a synonym for civilised,' Cornewall Lewis protested.

'Then I'm to take it you don't consider the Arabians civilised, despite that they invented modern mathematics, surgical instruments, soap and perfume, the windmill, the crankshaft, and a great many other things; despite that they realised the Earth is a sphere that circles the sun five hundred years before Galileo was tortured by your Christian church for supporting the same notion?'

Hodder's point seems to be that much of our current political systems were born to and remain most vividly caricatured by the Victorian era - or thereabouts - hence his targets, their environment, and the form or narrative by which they are exposed:

'Perhaps some still do,' Wells replied. 'But it's the fluid quality that makes language an excellent tool for imperialists. Force people to speak like you and soon enough they'll be thinking like you. Rename their villages, towns, and mountains, and before you know it, they're inhabiting your territory.'

To soar to a possibly hitherto unprecedented level of pretension, I would suggest Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon might almost represent a sort of narrative colonisation of the genre, taking it back from all the brass-goggled velocipedists, making it do what it was meant to do. Certainly Hodder's alternate nineteenth century has evolved a long way beyond the gurgling clich├ęs - not actually much steam here, but a lot of very weird biology. It perhaps owes something to Edgar Rice Burroughs in this respect - if I'm remembering him right - but it's very much his own creation, formed according to purpose rather than ticking cosily familiar boxes, and with good reason:

The problem, as I see it, is that we don't truly understand the nature of the past. We mythologise it. We create fictions about actions performed to justify what we undertake in the present. We adjust the cause to better suit the effect. The truth is that the present is, and will always be, utter chaos. There is no story and no plan.

Having a more measured pace, I found Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon a little more chewy than its predecessors, although arguably also a little more flavoursome if that makes any sense whatsoever. It represents a new height scaled for the Hodder, and a renewed promise of even better to come.

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