Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat

Yesterday I was an anti-anti-philistine; today I will simply be an anti-philistine. That’s harsh; I’m teasing. But I do have some complaints about Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama.

The book is Valtat’s first novel written in English, and it promises fun steampunk adventure. In its alternate history, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Arctic boasts a cosmopolitan gem, ruled by aristocrats and exotically climate-controlled, called New Venice. New Venice has problems: conceived as a Utopia in the grandest Victorian style, its citizens now fear the totalitarian secret police, the Gentlemen of the Night, and relations with the neighboring Inuit are strained at best. The plot consists, of course, in saving the city through mysterious/heroic means and making the delicious fantasy world even more delicious.

I, at least, read such novels for the world-building, and I won’t deny enjoying the genre’s leaning toward the clever (if not precious). And I wanted to read about this world—a gaslit wonderland where a cast from all nations goes around in fancy-dress winterwear, the protagonists are titled, and a glamorous sex&drug culture underlies the fastidious outside. But too much of it is done clumsily, and too much left out. Our introductions to the alternate history, intended to be subtle and oblique, are often simply confusing. For example, one of our protagonists, after crashing his ice-ship, tries to decide the best way out of his predicament.

He did not want to end up like the captain of the fabled ship Octavius, found frozen, brittle quill in hand, in front of his logbook after thirteen years of drifting and wintering around the Arctic seas.

What is meant by this “drifting and wintering”? I believe it’s a reference to the fact, itself obliquely referenced elsewhere, that the ice up here really is a sea, and the sheets of it move around (especially in warmer seasons). But “wintering” has such a strong connotation of living someplace for the winter, that surely I’m not the only one who feels like this should mean the poor captain actually lived for thriteen winters on the Arctic ice. And all this just for another reminder, of which we have plenty, that many have tried and failed to reach the North Pole.

In addition to clumsiness of that sort, the cleverness often seemed too twee even for me (and I’m known to be bad about this stuff). Our ice-ship-sailor’s fiancée is a member of a band called the Seal Cub-Clubbers (a name at once bizarre, cute, grotesque, confusing), everything is alliterative (Cavendish Canal, the Blazing Building, the Arctic Administration), everything is “elegant/Goth” (the Gentlemen of the Night, aka the Poshclothes Police), everything is cutesy-cosmopolitan (Venustown, Novo-Arkhangelsk), and ultraprecious neologisms abound (snowcaine, Arcticocracy, anarchitecture). And the inclusion of so much Inuit, always marveling at its polysynthetic morphology, just ends up seeming like a way to show off and make the novel “different” by virtue of its setting—as if that wasn’t unusual already.

But the most frustrating part for me was that despite all the details, too many of the broader questions about the world remained unanswered. The plot itself is deeply involved in the politics of New Venice, but we don’t know anywhere near enough about the city’s history or economy to understand any of what is going on. Sure, the government has an evil secret police force, and our rebel protagonists are extremely likeable, but there is little beyond that. It makes the good guys and bad guys both rather bland. And this Arcticocracy—where did it come from? How is Brentford Orsini a duke when his family hails from Nova Scotia (or whatever it was called in the novel) and his father appears to be the first of their family to go to New Venice? What is this business about New Venice having been founded by the nations of the world, which needed to waste their own money on this bizarro boondoggle to avoid economic ruin at home (a concept not, of course, explained)? I would rather be able to understand this than get all the darling epigrams (from real or imagined books? I don’t even know, or really care) that start each chapter.

I haven’t mentioned much of the plot. There’s a mystery, a bit of a quest, it’s fun enough but not very substantial. I do believe the point here is the world-building. The characterization, likewise, is good enough; Brentford is all right, and I quite liked his friend Gabriel. But none of it is super deep and there is no great psychology at work here. It’s a fun book, but was too frustrating to be all that much fun for me.