Monday, August 12

Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate #1, 2009)

SFBC 3-in-1 Omnibus
By Gail Carriger, as printed in The Parasol Protectorate 3-in-1 Omnibus, vol. 1, by Science Fiction Book Club, 2011.

Okay, let's get this out of the way right off the bat: I have major theological/philosophical problems with the very idea underlying this series, specifically the rationale that supernatural creatures such as vampires, werewolves, and ghosts (as of the end of this first book, all that have been introduced – well, if you ignore the robot zombie that also appears!) result from a surfeit of “soul” in certain individuals who are balanced off by others who have a deficit of “soul,” the most extreme example being the “preternatural” heroine of these tales, Miss Alexia Tarabotti. I cannot truly conceive of a “soulless person.” It is, however, fairly easy to get past that dodgy foundational concept as a stumbling block – which I'm sure others wouldn't share anyway – by considering the quasi-scientific theory postulated to be about as accurate as others of the time-frame which provides the setting, the late 19th-century, e.g. that of a luminiferous aether that supposedly provided the medium through which light propagated [link] – which is to say, not so. I'm sure that by a century and more after Miss Tarabotti in that literary alternate universe of “The Parasol Protectorate” the anima theory of nature (my term) will have given way to something radically different as the "luminiferous aether" has fallen before quantum mechanics and general relativity. Indeed, the hubris of a scientific theory perversely co-opting a theological concept seems to me to fit well the zeitgeist of the age, especially in an imagined mash-up of steampunk and urban fantasy. The result is an indescribably clever and hilariously written send-up of Victorian England that is best described by the author herself in the introduction, “In Which Gail Discusses Building the World of the Parasol Protectorate”:

Original paperback edition,
 published by Orbit 2009
The simple fact is, Gentle Reader, this was the series I wanted to read. I like steampunk but it tends to be a little too dark and riddled with technobabble for me. I enjoy urban fantasy but I am not particularly wild about a modern setting. So I thought I might just combine the two, and then shake it up with a jot more romance and a whole lot of humor.

I began by thinking about what kind of world could accommodate all these different elements: the monsters of urban fantasy, the gadgets of steampunk, the humor of comedies of manners, the romance of the Gothics. I'm familiar with the Victorian era and I find it a rich source of amusement in and of itself. It is a period of time, both in literature and fashion, that has always stolen away my heart. I used to make hoop-skirts out of my hula-hoops as a child. Those ridiculous fashions and that obsession with etiquette seemed the ideal time period into which to drop vampires (dictating such things) and werewolves (chaffing against them) not to mention steampunk technology. It seemed to me that what comedy I couldn't supply with plot and character, an alternate Victorian London could provide simply by itself.

But I had another reason. I have long been troubled by certain quirks of history that seem never adequately explained. The most confusing of these is how one tiny island with abysmal taste in food, excellent taste in beverages, and a penchant for pouffy dresses suddenly managed to take over most of the known world. How did Britain conquer an empire upon which the sun never set? I decided that the only possible answer was that England openly accepted supernatural creatures, and put them to good use, while other countries continued persecution and abhorrence of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. This led me to postulate that King Henry [VIII]'s breach with the Church was over open acceptance of supernatural creatures into society (the divorce thing was just a front). This gave Great Britain a leg up in dealing with messy little situations like winning major foreign battles or establishing an efficient bureaucracy or convincing the world cricket is a good idea. Vampires could sit as members of the cabinet, advising the queen on matters of state and foreign policy. Werewolves could fight in the armies, making them stronger and better and mobile at night. Ghosts could be used as spies. Suddenly, everything previously confusing about the Victorian Era made sense: the British regimental system was clearly based on werewolf pack dynamics, and pale complexions are in vogue because everyone wants to look like the trendsetting vampires” (pp. vii-viii).

And so on, including a couple pages later the revelation that she took “the same tactic with the most ridiculous aspects of Victorian fashion as well. High cravats? Hide the bite marks. Confining bustle-skirts and healed [sic – heeled?] boots? Keeps your prey from moving too fast” (p. x). But I was hooked long before I got to that point, indeed by the time I finished the first or second paragraph of the introduction – which actually happened in a book store one evening while I let my wife shop in a nearby crafting supply outlet. Knowing that SFBC had the omnibus, I ordered it right away and have been delighted to find that Carriger maintains that wry, whimsical tone throughout the narrative of the story as well, giving me easily as many laugh-out-loud moments as when I'm reading Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. For instance, on the first page of the story itself, where Miss Tarabotti is unexpectedly assaulted by a vampire at a boring private ball when she has retreated to her own favorite sanctuary of the library:

... he moved toward her, darkly shimmering out of the library shadows with feeding fangs ready. However, the moment he touched Miss Tarabotti, he was suddenly no longer darkly doing anything at all. He was simply standing there, the faint sounds of a string quartet in the background as he foolishly fished about with his tongue for fangs unaccountably mislaid” (p. 5).

For Miss Tarabotti's preternatural state has the effect of canceling out the supernatural condition of any with whom she comes into contact – vampires become suddenly mortal; werewolves morph back from wolf to human and lose their mindless bloodlust even if under a full moon – for the duration of that contact. Ghosts? – well, by the end of this first tale none have actually been introduced, only referred to. Nor has the intriguing possibility, I would think (and following the in-story rationale), that when Miss Tarabotti touches a supernatural being she herself becomes ensouled been addressed. But there are, of course, four more novels in the story of Miss Tarabotti, and even more in the universe of “The Parasol Protectorate.” And there are other dangling plot threads by the end of this book, which was obviously meant to launch a series. It is, to paraphrase Carriger's own introduction quoted above, a series I very much want to read.

Cheers! … and Thanks for reading!

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