Oct 6 2009 2:57pm

Letters from Abroad: The Golden Compass & The Ruby in the Smoke

Letters from Abroad SignI am rereading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

Actually, the book I am reading is titled Northern Lights, the original UK title. Here in Vienna, where I am blogging from, almost all the English books at libraries and bookstores are UK editions. (Note today we have a photo of a street sign a few blocks from where this blog is being written. Bratislava is one hour away). 

So I wanted to say a little about Northern Lights/Golden Compass, specifically, to mention a lesser known book by Pullman that I always saw as closely related to his incredibly successful (and awesome) Northern Lights. It is called The Ruby in the Smoke and was published ten years previous. 

(By the way, although it’s a bit off the topic of this post, I’d love it if people who know could explain why or why not The Golden Compass/Northern Lights could be called steampunk. I don’t see it referred to as such anywhere, which made me wonder why. But I digress...)

Ruby in the SmokeNot everyone realizes that, before he wrote The Golden Compass, Pullman wrote a series of four straightforward Victorian England historical thrillers for kids featuring a spunky girl named Sally Lockhart. (The Golden Compass also features a fantastic, tough young heroine, Lyra, though she is clearly different from Sally Lockhart. By the way, The Ruby in the Smoke was his second book for children, following Count Karlstein, a book about kids in an early 1800s Swiss village in danger of being sacrificed to a Demon Huntsman who appears at midnight in the woods, if I remember correctly.)

The 1800s England part of the Northern Lights world always seemed to me to come from the earlier, non-fantasy setting that Pullman had already featured in these four Sally Lockhart adventure stories for kids. (Disclaimer: I have only read the first book, The Ruby in the Smoke, in the Sally Lockhart series.) That is to say, Pullman seems to have gone from writing historical adventure stories—with mystical elements, in The Ruby in the Smoke the mystical element is a curse that lies on a priceless ruby—to writing his otherworldly Dark Materials series, which takes the mystical elements of his earlier books, a curse, magic, or a demon huntsman, to a whole new level.

That is, instead of coming from a sci-fi direction, writing sci-fi and then choosing to explore a historical setting for a certain story, Pullman’s case is the opposite. He started as a historical adventure writer (albeit one with mysticism and surrealistic elements already in his stories) . Then in Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, he worked with the historical setting he was well-experienced writing in (1800s England) and added new fantasy-esque layers onto the setting—every human has a dämon, Dust, armoured polar bears—which he explored narratively. 

I don’t doubt that the incredible proficiency he had already developed for writing stories in an historical English setting helped him realize the extraordinarily imagined world of Northern Lights.

A fact which might be of interest to Tor.com readers: The Ruby in the Smoke was made into a BBC mystery-adventure movie starring none other than Billie Piper of Doctor Who fame.

Help me out here now, folks: First, can anyone say if Northern Lights/The Golden Compass is steampunk for kids? And have you read these lesser-known Sally Lockhart mysteries? Do you see a connection between them and his Dark Materials trilogy?

Keith McGowan is the debut author of The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children, which was named an “inspired recommendation for children” by independent bookstores nationwide. He is published by Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Company.

The Literary Omnivore
1. The Literary Omnivore
Oh, I loved the Sally Lockhart mysteries.

I think Lyra's world is a touch steampunk- the balloons, alternate history, and lack of cars add to the atmosphere, but Lyra is primarily more concerned with the magic of her world than the mechanics of it.

Pullman has written a book dealing with Lyra after His Dark Materials, which might touch on the mechanics of that world a bit, but I haven't read it.

There's definitely a connection in how England is written, but I find that the two universes are otherwise quite distinct.


The Literary Omnivore
Rob Munnelly
2. RobMRobM
Sadly, knowing nothing about Steampunk apart from what I have read on this site recently, but having read Pullman's Dark Materials books, I had assumed they were core Steampunk works and am surprised to learn otherwise. If someone could parse why not, I'd appreciate that. Rob
The Literary Omnivore
3. AbsentMindedProf
I've always considered Pullman's Dark Materials a bit Steampunk-ish. The Aleithometer (I hope I've spelled that correctly, I don't have the books on hand to check and it has been several years since I read them last), the dirigibles, and the Close-to-Victorian setting do flavor the whole thing over with a touch of Steampunk.

I don't think it was ever ranked in the Steampunk annals because it was never overtly labeled as such. Pullman's dashes of Steampunk come, I think, not from the movement or through a choice on his part to write a Steampunk novel, but instead are grown organically as from the fabric of the tale.

I appreciate that about him and the books. To me it is refreshing that we are not beaten over the head with it's Steampunk-ness. It gives much more of a feeling of authenticity- less of a show and more of a reality.
The Literary Omnivore
4. etchlings
Actually, I always considered His Dark Materials to be the first steampunk book I ever read after a childhood indoctrination with Jules Verne.

This was before I'd ever heard of Steampunk, granted, but as soon as I had, I realized how tightly knit that world was with the Pullman books. Aside from the fact that they're glorious, intelligent books that every kid ought to read, HDM seems to me to be a very keen way of introducing Steampunk to kids, sure.

And every steampunk blog/writer/et al was eagerly following the production of Golden Compass into a film (of which the result is, sadly a depressing tale for another post).
The Literary Omnivore
5. euphrosyne
I think the Dark Materials trilogy is clearly fantasy.

It's all too easy to slide into applying that trendy genre label to any non-realist setting with Victorian-era technology, but that's not what steampunk is about. The core of steampunk is the active celebration of a different type of technology than ours.

Pullman's work isn't at all about the technology or the influence it has on society. It's an alternate mysticism through and through. Anti-religious to be sure, but still mystical itself at the core--and all the core "technologies" (the compass, the knife) are grounded in that mysticism.

Don't interpret the mere presence of some of steampunk's icons (and a bit of extra brass here and there) with steampunk's actual themes.
Andrew Mason
6. AnotherAndrew
Euphrosyne: I would agree with you in principle; steampunk in origin is a subgenre of sceince fiction, not of fantasy (the name being a riff on 'cyberpunk', which is clearly science fiction).

But I fear that it may be too late; the term has got loose, and is now being used very widely to mean 'fantasy with Victorian-era settings'. This became clear to me when I saw an article in the Metro (UK free newspaper) which offered as examples of steampunk (in films), Young Sherlock Holmes (which strictly speaking isn't even fantasy, but let that pass), The Golden Compass, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. I'm doubtful whether any of these are steampunk in the original sense.
The Literary Omnivore
7. hapax
The Sally Lockhart trilogy (and the fourth book, THE TIN PRINCESS, which features a secondary character from the books) all have a definite steampunk "feel", especially as technological industrialization is what permits the increasingly fantastical (and by the thrid book over the top) villains to indulge in, and in part motivates, their almost comic-book mad-scientistish scheemes.

Other of his pre-HDM books (esp CLOCKWORK and SPRING-HEELED JACK) have a similar flavor.
Tudza White
8. tudzax1
Sorry, after reading and enjoying the books in His Dark Materials, I was amazed at how badly organized Ruby in the Smoke was. I just could not enjoy it.

The BBC TV series was watchable though.
The Literary Omnivore
9. William Dunigan
Greetings to all, in the name of our Lord, and Savior, “Jesus the Christ”.

We each, as Christians, then, maybe I should say we, who have been Christians for many years, see many changes out on the distant horizon. There also seemingly is a spiritual chill within the atmosphere, at times as well.

We too see things appearing on the scene that the Bible has mentioned saying: when you see these things come to pass lift up your head and look up for your redemption draws near.
What this is referring to is: get your house in order, get packed up and ready to go up, for the time of our departure is not too far out there in the distant future. Of course, as all will know, because we’re living within the closing of time does not mean that our Lord, is going to return for his own in the next few days. However, for each of us, as all will know, there is a departure day that awaits us, regardless of the ultimate ending of all things, as we, at this time, know them to be.

Even so, we each as human beings should have a deep soul yearning to serve him. Some may think and why should this be? Without and except, we’re connected to the giver of life…having our inner man renewed day by day we die, or fade away, a little each day.

Those who are professing Christians do the same. Even so, if they’re truly believers of whom daily resist temptations to be a partaker, or resist on daily bases the urge to nibble on the cheese of temptation, and by so doing break the anointing upon their lives. For with each of us there are things that the prince of darkness can dangle before us, which, will, if accepted, draw us into his realm of darkness. Our closest friend or relative may not know what those things would be…even so, the prince of darkness does.

Of course, for the believer, this does not mean that he/she has taken a fatal fall. He/she can call upon the Lord and receive forgiveness for his/her yielding to temptation, and then continue with his/her life. Even so, the loss of his/her anointing will not be immediately restored. In fact, it may take a while for the person to make back to the place where he/she was at the time of taken a fall.

Many Christians will never accept the fact that another Christian can take a fall. For many think, a person once saved is always saved. To an extent that is true as well.
However, the Bible does speak of a person being turned over to the prince of darkness for the total destruction of the flesh that the soul may be saved. This of course, would be referring to the extremely rebellious ones.

For most, they’re only turned over to the prince of darkness for allowing them to be put through a few fiery trials. This of course is meant by the prince of darkness for their total and absolute, and complete destruction. As the Bible says: he (the prince of darkness) meant it for your total destruction, but I meant it for your good.

I hope all of this will have some meaning to some out there. I know it will have no meaning, in fact, will sound like a lot of foolishness to many, but if only helpfully to one here and there, it will have been worth my effort in giving this.

Much love, your brother in Christ Jesus.

William Dunigan

Dru O'Higgins
10. bellman
I respect your beliefs, but please don't spam us.
Sassy Brit
11. Sassy
Whispers: Is it me, or has it all gone quiet in here?

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