13 April 2011

Aurorama (Jean-Christophe Valtat)

You know how a book can seem like it's going to get good any minute, and then it's over and it hasn't? Aurorama is one of those books.

The setting really should work. The book takes place in New Venice, a metropolis stubbornly carved from marble in the wastelands of the Arctic (deduction says Ellesmere Island, just west of Greenland). The time period is vaguely Victorian with steampunk trappings and the culture British Imperial, with a drug-induced aristocracy and good old-fashioned oppressin' the natives (the local Inuit). It's ruled by a Council of Seven who take the names of the days of the week and glean their power from the Seven Sleepers, the city's cryogenically frozen founders; they are, of course, corrupt to the core. Various forces are gathering to challenge their authority: Brentford Orsini, a disgruntled duke in charge of the Greenhouse; Gabriel d'Allier, an ostensible professor and true wastrel caught up in forces beyond his control; the mysterious black airship hovering over the city; the garbage-collecting, plague-mask-wearing underclass known as the Scavengers; and the perhaps-protective but slightly menacing semi-mythical beast known as the Polar Kangaroo. It's a good melange to start with, and there's a lot to like in the details of everyday life in a place attempting to preserve genteel society in a climate where "inhospitable" is an understatement.

But it fails in too many ways. First, I was distracted throughout the whole book by when this was supposed to take place: there are gas lamps coexisting with electric guitars, occasional very modern turns of phrase--is it Victorian? Is it society-imposed retro-Victorian, but if so, what's going on in the rest of the world? Is it proceeding as usual? The year is once given as 1908, but it's also said that the city's founders decided to count the years backwards, and there's a reference to a paper founded in 1927...does this mean it's 19 years after that, 1946? If so, is this a post-WWII world? The tale's scope is so narrow it allows for none of these questions, but in a story taking its cue from the real world, they are questions that must be asked.

I was also irked that all the female characters are muse figures in some way or other: living or dead, shamanic or sybaritic, they serve only to lead the male protagonists on their journeys, dropping convenient clues along the way. None of the characters are compelling, to be honest--but the women are just passive plot elements.

The denouement is kind of hilarious, too, in that the overthrow of this entrenched power structure consists mostly of one ever-so-nice soundwave bomb and then everybody just laying down their arms and getting drunk together...honestly, I get the feeling that Valtat just couldn't write a good fight scene, so he wrote a bloodless coup instead.

And the biggest shadow hanging over the book for me? China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. There are endless similarities between New Venice and New Crobuzon, none of which reflect well on the former. The imagination isn't as fertile, the characters aren't recognizably...crap, I can't say "human," because a lot of Mieville's best characters are recognizable without being human at all, and some of them are, conversely, so alien that they defy recognition. Whereas all of Valtat's are simply standard.

The best part of the book, really, was that it made me have a dream about seeing the Northern Lights. Turns out my subconscious has zero clue what the Northern Lights look like...but its analogue was pretty!


  1. I've just read the first 100 pages and I have to say that I agree with virtually everything you've just said. Something else which gets on my nerves is Valtat's self-consciously 'learned' intertextual references, such as Phoebe's 'Ophelian streak of madness'. As a passing comment which is not corroborated by further character development (at least not thus far) this does nothing more than to blurt out the fact that Valtat has read Shakespeare's Hamlet. The irony of all this self-promotinal English erudition is that you can tell that this book has been written by someone for whom English is not the first language. Who on earth says in a club 'it seems like [this band] is playing'? The book would benefit from being made into a film because that way one would be spared Valtat's extremely annoying, desperate-to-impress style.

  2. You know, three months later I'd completely forgotten I'd read this book? Only thing I can say for it is if your weather is anything like here in NYC, reading about frozen wastelands probably feels pretty good right now.


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