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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 1995)
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Book Review: Taking Newt Photos of the Queen

by Faye Ringel, Department of Humanities, U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Copyright © 1995, Faye Ringel

THE STEAMPUNK TRILOGY: Victoria, Hottentots, Walt and Emily, by Paul DiFilippo. [New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1995. 352 pp. $20.]

In a just world, this review would be appearing on the cover of the "New York Times Book Review," or as the leading item in the "Times Literary Supplement." But the world is unjust; therefore, I must attempt to do justice to DiFilippo' s work in this venue.

All three of these beautifully-written novellas concern alternate worlds, much like our own, but in which the fantastic and Gothic are part of consensus reality. The title of the collection, with its reference to "Steampunk," is more inaccurate than apposite, and it may alienate readers who love words and history, the very readers who should seek out this book. "Steampunk" is a coinage applied to the sub-genre of alternate histories of the nineteenth century that carry with them some of the punk sensibility of the end of the twentieth. The name is most suited to "The Difference Engine," product of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, who are credited with the creation of cyberpunk. Because DiFilippo contributed a story to Sterling's definitive Mirrorshades anthology, he has been (for good but mostly for ill) lumped in with the cyberpunk movement.

Though the three novellas in the present volume, two of which have been published previously, do bear a surface resemblance to steampunk--alternate nineteenth century, use of historical characters in unconventional situations--they lack the anachronistic punk sensibility. In other words, they don't have an attitude problem. DiFilippo is a wicked satirist, but these stories go beyond wicked satire. They radiate a warmth that transcends genre. DiFilippo's art, his style, and his depth of understanding seem much closer to post-modernists such as A.S. Byatt and Umberto Eco than to, say, Kim Newman and Mark Frost.

To summarize these stories is to trivialize them, though each has a fascinating speculative hook: in "Victoria," the young princess is replaced for a short time by a cloned newt who appears human, though she occasionally flicks out her tongue and eats flies (and yes, it was first published in 1991, before the rise to power of another Newt who generally appears human). "Hottentots" deconstructs H.P. Lovecraft, as various powers invade Massachusetts searching for a cult object. "Walt and Emily" chronicles the (unknown to our world) meeting and mating of Whitman and Dickinson.

But these brief re-tellings do not adequately convey the cleverness of the concepts, the three-dimensionality of the characters, or the charm of the prose. "Walt and Emily," in particular, should be required reading for American Studies courses. In less than 120 pages, DiFilippo captures the poetry, the lives, indeed the essence of the two great poetic innovators, along with the history of Spiritualism and the nineteenth century's strange, conflicting visions of the afterlife. Emily and Walt speak in their own voices from letters and poems, and the effect is so inevitable that you can't imagine them sounding any other way. They simply feel right.

Contrasting with the ecstatic vision of "Walt and Emily," the other two novellas re-vision the underside of nineteenth-century England and New England. DiFilippo's Victoria is the sexy and irresponsible teenager who assumed the throne, not the figure better known to popular imagination, the Widow of Windsor who could not possibly be amused. "Hottentots" clearly sets out the racist origins of what is now called "Creation Science," in its merciless picture of Louis Agassiz, the revered founder of Harvard's Museum of Natural History. The novella overflows with New England's Gothic history: sea monsters, the Great Boston Molasses Flood, occultism, anarchists. Lovecraft's true believers may gnash their teeth, but the rest of us can revel in the cleverness of DiFilippo's conceits. For example, those critics who complain that Lovecraft made a fetish of sexuality should be amused by the (historical) scientist Cuvier, who literally transforms the preserved pudendum of the (historical) "Hottentot Venus" into an occult talisman or fetish.

Though their choice of omnibus title is not felicitous, Four Walls, Eight Windows Press should otherwise be applauded for the physical presentation of the book. Everything is beautiful and harmonious, from the cover, with its collage-triptych of hybrids whose beasts, poets, and fish actually illustrate the novellas, to the readable yet antique look of the typefaces, headers, and page layouts. Let us hope that this book finds the wide audience it deserves.


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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