Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Imagine that Isaac Newton saw not a falling apple, but a rising bubble of air in his bath and thus conceived not the existence of gravity but the principles of hot-air balloons. And imagine that not only did the planets of the solar system have breathable atmospheres, but so did the space in between them, so that sailing ships could navigate from one to another as they did the continents on Earth.

That's the world -- with some steampunk overlays -- in which David Levine sets his Arabella of Mars romp, giving us the story of Arabella Ashby's journey to save her brother and her family's fortune from a greedy and potentially murderous plotter. Mars is on the frontier of the British Empire's vast holdings, and when Arabella learns of the scheme she has no way to warn anyone except by taking ship for Mars, which she doesn't have the money to do. So disguised as a boy -- because proper young ladies don't crew ships in this early 19th century any more than they do in ours -- she gets hired on a trading ship bound for Mars, hopefully in time to thwart the evil schemer she's chasing.

Some of the details of this alternative world are excellent. For example, Levine posits "trade winds" that sweep between the planets to make journeys of millions of miles possible for sail-driven craft. Some asteroids are forested sources of timber for masts and water for survival. Ships use the principles of hot-air balloons to rise far enough above ground to catch the winds from one planet to another.

But the story itself is pretty pedestrian. Levine pays some lip service to the idea that the inexperienced Arabella needs to learn how to do things on board one of these interplanetary sailing craft but usually has her smarter, faster and better than just about anyone else she's around. There's really very little tension even in the most extreme dangers she faces, because there's really no possibility that she'll fail to conquer everyone and everything set against her. The voyage from Earth to Mars takes up enough of the book that the final act seems rushed.

Levine did an excellent job in dreaming up a work in which technology that's recognizably Regency-Era can make interplanetary travel feasible. Grant him a couple of assumptions, and the rest of things hold together. But not enough of that kind of thought went into plotting out his story arc and giving his characters some genuine depth beyond recognizable tropes. The book is sometimes listed as "Adventures of Arabella Ashby #1," so he may get some more chances.
Although he was definitely a propagator of the "mythic West" that didn't always jive with history, Louis L'Amour also had a decent handle on frontier living and could tell stories with a lot more reality that the standard six-gun shoot 'em up. In Bendigo Shafter, he wraps the story of the creation of a community carved out of the wilderness around a coming-of-age tale of the title character.

The little caravan with Shafter and his brother has stopped to ride out the winter season and members have built shelters. These improve over time as many of the people in the caravan decide to see what they can make of the area, figuring they might move on in a few years. Shafter is sent west with the group's savings, directed to buy cattle to both help the new community survive and to provide an ongoing source of income. Even though he has been given opportunities to improve his thinking and other skills associated with survival, this journey represents his first step into the independence and responsibility of adulthood. The obstacles he overcomes help him forge a man from the raw material that kind community members had provided.

L'Amour's main intention with Shafter seems to have been showing the parallel between the development of the little community and of Shafter himself as both face obstacles in their paths, and trying to use a story to describe what he thinks goes into making a grown man from a boy. As he's showing these ideas in the first two thirds of the book, it's a compelling message and a compelling story. But when he switches over to a more lecturing style as the book winds down, Shafter loses its way and a lot of its charm. L'Amour led an interesting life both before and after he became an iconic storyteller of the American West, so his ideas on what he believes would be a meaningful philosophy of life are worth a listen. But when they take over the story that's supposed to illustrate them, it gets hard to do so.

No comments: