Steampunk used to be just a handful of books—William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, Paul Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy, maybe Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates if you allow for some magic in amidst your cogs—and not much else. Things went along like this for some time. Then a funny thing happened. People began reconstructing their computers inside brass and wooden boxes. And dressing up in top hats and brass goggles. Once a literary movement, it returned as a fashion statement and a DIY trend. Steampunk’s explosion into the fashion and Maker communities has been well-documented, as has its effect on publishing. The brass and glass affectations having blown backwards, rekindling the subgenre it sprang from here at its literary source, and now cogs, gears, and brass fixtures are everywhere on our shelves these days. Fueled by comics like Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, movies like Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime Steamboy, high-end collectibles like Dr Grordbort’s Infallible Aether Oscillators (wish I could “review” one of those), and art installations like Paul St. George’s Telectroscope, steampunk is permeating media. Certainly, there was a heavy steampunk contingency among the costumes at both the recent San Diego Comic Con and Dragon*Con. And fired like a spring-loaded flechette into the heart of all this exuberance is George Mann’s new novel, The Affinity Bridge.
And I love this novel.
The Affinity Bridge pushes just about every button I’ve got: a brilliantly-realized steampunk environment, a charismatic Victorian detective, a tough female sidekick with more than meets the eye going on, brass automata wandering the streets (and going inexplicably berserk), airships in the skies overhead, and secret service agents of the Crown. Throw in zombies (not one of my own buttons, but a big button these days), and, really, what’s not to love?
Released first in the UK by Snow Books (check out the gorgeous limited), and out this past summer from Tor Books, The Affinity Bridge is the first in the Newbury & Hobbes series—of which I believe six are contracted in the UK, and several here in the US. The books star Maurice Newbury, museum researcher, occultist, and Queen Victoria’s special agent for dealing with supernatural enigma, and his new assistant, Victoria Hobbes, no stranger to the supernatural herself and a bit more competent than she at first appears or he at first supposes. Newbury is the model consulting detective, right down to a laudanum addiction, but if he has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him (eccentric, drug-addicted, detective), there is a bit more of Fox Mulder in both his (unhealthy?) fascination with the occult and in his relationship with Hobbes. The sexual tension between the two oscillates from Mulder/Scully X-Files levels of below-the-surface denial to the unabashedly fun companionship of Doctor Who’s Doctor and Rose. In fact, it’s fair to say that a very definite Doctor Who vibe permeates these adventures in a very good way (and that they are calling out for a television series.)
The first book sees Newbury called away from his investigation of a mysterious—and murderous—Glowing Policeman to the site of an airship crash, a disaster of Hindenburg proportions made mysterious by the failure of its supposedly-infallible clockwork pilot. This all occurs against a backdrop of a London in which Whitechapel is suffering from a plague of zombiism, though the zombies rarely stray from out of the fog and are referred to as revenants (the Z-word never uttered). That none of these details or set pieces are incidental is a testament to the book, which works as a good mystery novel in its own right, as well as a wonderful entry into both the body of Holmes-pastiches and the steampunk subgenres. Newbury’s dalliance with dark magic, touched up on but not fully explored, as well as Hobbes only peculiar sibling situation, are enough to keep me hooked for the series as a whole, while the book itself tied its individual adventure up admirably, and in a “I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming” way. Chris Roberson described The Affinity Bridge as “an enormous pile of awesome” and I would be hard-pressed to improve on that.
There’s a story, and maybe a disclaimer here, too. Though not one that serves to undermine my enthusiasm for the book (if anything it reinforces it). The story/disclaimer is that I saw The Affinity Bridge last year in manuscript form, and—dragging my heels under the mistaken impression that it was a short story collection (as it had originally been presented to me; as it was originally envisioned)—took my own sweet time getting around to reading it, by which point Liz Gorinsky at Tor was already drawing up an offer. My own damn fault and absolutely no hard feelings, as Liz is a good friend, a great editor, and Tor has certainly done right by the book, which by all accounts is making a grand splash. But George hit so many of my buttons, and he’s one of those authors who seems capable of doing a dozen different things at once (he’s got an amazing pulp collection he’s edited coming out soon, and he recently scripted a Doctor Who audio drama—and there’s more I can’t talk about yet!). So we sat down and figured out what we could do together that would compliment, not conflict, with his Newbury & Hobbes series; that would hit enough of the same buttons to scratch the steampunk itch but be unique enough to be its own animal and not just a retread of N&H. The result is Ghosts of Manhattan, the first book in a new series which you will see coming from Pyr in 2010, and which is a 1920s steampunk superhero tale set in an American metropolis evolved forward from the classic 1890s Victorian steampunk setting. Picture a Shadow/Batman-like masked avenger in a world of coal-powered taxicabs and biplanes and you’ve got it. Or better yet, check out the gorgeous cover art by Benjamin Carré and let him picture it for you, seen here for the first time online anywhere. (And while we’re talking about art, check out the analysis of the American cover of The Affinity Bridge at FaceOut Books.) So while we wait for the Ghost, if you haven’t grabbed a copy of The Affinity Bridge yet, why don’t you do so now? Me, I’m eager for the next Newbury & Hobbes novel, The Osiris Ritual, to hit American shores.
Lou Anders is the three-time Hugo-nominated editor of Pyr books, as well as the editor of seven critically-acclaimed anthologies, the latest being Fast Forward 2 and Sideways in Crime. He recently won a Chesley Award for Best Art Director, and is pretty chuffed about that too. Visit him online at his blog, Bowing to the Future.