Monday, April 21, 2008
Steampunk For Kiddies
I was a big fan of Larklight by Philip Reeve. Starcross, the second in the Larklight series (the third book, Mothstorm, will be published in November) is just as entertaining--at least, for those of us with the background to enjoy the sly, understated humor.
The Larklight books are examples of steampunk, science fiction or fantasy set in alternative nineteenth century worlds before the advent of gas-powered engines and electricity. Reeve, in the case of his Larklight books at least, doesn't take the subgenre too seriously. These books are takeoffs on every nineteenth century British stereotype I've ever heard of and probably a great many I've never known. Swooning young women, boys' adventure stories, retired military figures, drawing room gatherings, empirial attitudes...the list goes on and on.
The basic storyline for Starcross made me think of something you might have seen in an episode of classic Star Trek (not that there's anything wrong with that): While gathered at a resort (think of one of those planets where the Enterprise crew liked to go for rest and recreation) Art and Myrtle Mumby, those classic siblings from the first Larklight book, encounter thought-sucking creatures from the future intent on dominating the British Empire, (the equivalent of the Federation) and only our strapping young boy hero and his ethnically diverse friends (like the crew of a Star Trek away mission) can save the homeworld and her possessions, which stretch out across space. There is also a threat from France in the form of a French secret agent. (Sort of like a Romulan spy.)
I love these books but with Starcross, even more than with Larklight, I wonder about the audience. The writing style is a little on the elaborate side, as one would expect from a nineteenth century novel or memoir. A lot of the humor is very subtle and dependent on at least a superficial knowledge of British history. I've read complaints from adult readers of Larklight about sexism and ethnic stereotyping (to the extent that you can have ethnic stereotyping when you're talking about races that don't really exist), meaning that those grown-ups didn't get the jokes.
How do the middle grade readers the book design suggests these books are marketed to feel about them? Will the YA readers who are more likely to have the historical background to enable them to enjoy them find these books?