Since its christening in the late 1980s by science-fiction writer K. W. Jeter, the steampunk subgenre has undergone few changes to its gaslight-romance-by-way-of-Wired formula. Along with Jeter, authors James Blaylock and Tim Powers translated the dystopian fables of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick into anachronistic fantasies, replete with images of jet-propelled dirigibles, pneumatic-tube ways, and the eponymous steam engine. Steampunk located itself in the Victorian fin de siècle, where London itself became a character, an industrial metropolis as imagined by H. G. Wells or Arthur Conan Doyle.
Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama follows steampunk's basic conventions, but its influences and setting are of a different species. Narrated as a trans-Arctic alterna-history, Aurorarama harks back to Jules Verne, Raymond Roussel, and Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Here, a pearlescent city-state—New Venice—rises from the rugged terrain of the polar ice caps, Inuit tribes battle Anglo imperialists for rights to territory (and magic), and America's and Europe's roles as international superpowers are nothing but footnotes in the history of globalization.
New Venice is introduced as a city teetering between the absolute zero of death and a glacial reimagining of Eden. Amid the burgeoning ethnic and economic unrest, Brentford Orsini and Gabriel d'Allier, scions of the city's preindustrial "arcticocracy," have submerged themselves in the underground world of "polar pop," narcotics, and Eskimo resistance. As they navigate networks of scavengers and anarchists, Orsini and d'Allier are pursued by the Gentleman of the Night, a gestapo force wielded by the draconian Council of Seven. The reason: the samizdat publication of A Blast on the Barren Land, a socialist/Luddite treatise with a mysterious origin. For Orsini and d'Allier, hope for the future lies in a series of ghostly semaphores that emanate from beyond New Venice, luring them toward the uninhabitable lands of the Pole.
Valtat—whose short novel 03 (2005) was recently translated from the French—took the ambitious task of writing Aurorarama in English, and his purple and often ludic prose, particularly his descriptions of New Venice's plexiform bureaucracy (e.g., "Septentrional Scavenging and Sewerage Service") and urban design, is wonderfully reminiscent of Roussel's Locus Solus. This surrealism is largely what distinguishes Aurorarama from standard-issue steampunk, especially in the novel's sophisticated, almost encyclopedic plotting of New Venice. Valtat's dream city is scrupulously archived and mapped, from the history of its bridges and buildings to the "excavation" of its lost arcades and secret societies lying below the ice. At its conclusion, Aurorarama mesmerizes less for its intricate plot twists or descriptions of steam-powered gizmos than for its extraordinary dramatization of the birth and death of a civilization.