Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Steampunk Westerns

Steampunk Westerns: Flaming Zeppelins & The Buntline Special

The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale by Mike Resnick (Pyr/Prometheus Books, $16 paperback, 9781616142490/1616142499, December 7, 2010)

Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal by Joe R. Lansdale (Tachyon Publications/IPG, $14.99 paperback, 9781616960025/1616960027, October 25, 2010)

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a real-life historical event that swiftly became one of the iconic moments in the mythology of the western--for many audiences, it is an instantly recognizable drama, and its contours are well-known. How, then, to make the story fresh? Filmmakers can cast a new generation of actors, or execute the narrative in a new visual style, but literary variations are, for the most part, more subtle. Unless, that is, you take Mike Resnick's approach and turn the whole thing into a steampunk fantasy.
In the alternate 19th-century of The Buntline Special, Native American shaman leaders like Geronimo have managed to hold back the United States at the Mississippi, save for a few outposts like Tombstone. Thomas Edison has relocated here from Menlo Park, setting up shop with Ned Buntline (better known historically as a writer and self-promoter) to produce an array of technological marvels, from electric street lamps to mechanized animatronic prostitutes. The Earp brothers are hired to protect Edison from both the Clanton gang and the Indians; much of the novel unfolds from the perspective of their deathly ill comrade, Doc Holliday.
Resnick doesn't do that much to the actual story, just serves it up with some cosmetic twists: Bat Masterson is cursed by Geronimo and becomes a vampire; Johnny Ringo is a zombie; Doc and the Earps are outfitted with bulletproof armor (nicely displayed in J. Seamas Gallagher's interior illustrations). Though the stage is set for a sequel, this steampunk shootout is essentially a curious set-piece: the characters (Holliday especially) are entertaining, but there's still a sense that they're going through the motions.
The real-life personages that populate Joe R. Lansdale's Flaming Zeppelins, on the other hand, are much more looser and free-wheeling. In "Zeppelins West," the first of two novellas published in limited editions earlier this decade, Buffalo Bill Cody (his head kept alive in a jar until scientists can grow him a new body) takes his Wild West Show (including an anachronistic Ned Buntline) to Japan--with a secret, second agenda to liberate Frankenstein's monster from the Shogun. Though many are killed during the escape, Cody, Wild Bill Hickock, Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull are rescued by "Captain Bemo" of the "Naughty Lass," who takes them to the island of "Doctor Momo," whose half-man, half-animal creations deliver some of the story's funniest scenes (including a side-splitting encounter with Dracula).
This first adventure seemingly ends with everybody dead (or safe in another dimension), but Ned, a seal who has learned to read and write, shows up on Spain's Mediterranean coast at the beginning of "Flaming London," making friends with Mark Twain and Jules Verne just before the Martians from The War of the Worlds begin their invasion. Lansdale's bawdy characterizations preserve readers' impressions of the well-known historical and fictional characters while adding a layer of unpredictability lacking in Swanwick's tale, even though the core elements of Lansdale's yarns are as familiar as the OK Corral. Both novels are entertaining in their way, but one is a comfortable diversion while the other is a madcap excursion.--Ron Hogan

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