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Lady Mechanika, Volume 4: The Clockwork Assassin

Lady Mechanika, Volume 4

Lady Mechanika, Volume 4: The Clockwork Assassin (chronologically the fifth in the series, as the unnumbered volume La Dame de la Muerte fits best in between 1 and 2) takes us to Mechanika City, home to the Lady Mechanika and her friends.

It is one of her closest friends, perhaps her closest, Mr Lewis, that this volume focuses on. You see, people from his past have started to die, and the murderer has an M.O. suspiciously like that of his mechanically augmented friend.

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Changing the World: L’Hexagone

What they call France here is the land beyond the Loire, which to them is a foreign country.

Jean Racine, 1662

The year is 1941. The location a nightclub and gambling den in French Morocco. A group of boorish German officials are belting out a loud piano rendition of “Die Wacht am Rhein”, to the forlorn disapproval of the rest of the patrons. With the tacit approval of the proprietor, Paul Henreid instructs the house band to play “La Marseillaise”.

Such is the set-up for one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in cinema history, from the 1942 film Casablanca. The location of the scene, the nationalities and loyalties of the characters, and the time and place in history of the both the story and the film’s production all combine in those emotions. The anthems being sung by each nation’s citizens — France and Germany — are given new context amid global war and the occupation of the former nation’s homeland by the army of the latter.

Both “La Marseillaise” and “Die Wacht am Rhein” were originally written at a time of national awaking. In implicitly identifying their people with their nations, they implore the former to fight for the latter. It is no coincidence that both songs reference the Rhine River, long thought of as representing the natural boundary between France and Germany.

In our history, a powerful French state has been a near-constant of the European map since the Dark Ages. Modern-day France exists within the limits of physical geography. She is bounded by sea coasts and by the ranges of the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Jura mountains. Only her eastern frontier is less clearly defined.

But how inevitable is the emergence of this powerful, unified French state? Does geography make l’Hexagon inevitable? What limits does geography set for an alternate France?

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Steampunk Doesn’t Have to be Political for Everyone

Steampunk performer Professor Elemental is back with some common-sense advice on how to deal with politics in steampunk:

At times, I have tried my hand at politics on stage, and had people shake my hand and thank me for taking a stand. But other times, I have annoyed or upset people who were just out for a good night and a bit of escapism. As the world gets harder, I’m trying to make live shows softer, sillier and less partisan. Some people don’t want politics with their steampunk and we need to respect that and stop bothering them.

I remember when I argued in my controversial “Who Killed Steampunk?” article more than a year ago that the genre had become too political, and this was chasing people away, Elemental was one of many critics who thought I was exaggerating.

A few months ago, he, too, recognized that politicizing steampunk can do more harm than good, and he urged people to stop excluding others on the basis of political beliefs.

Sounds reasonable, except when I suggested the same, I was accused of tone policing; of only caring about white and straight people (although I’m gay); prioritizing the hurt feelings of those who want to oppress others; and called naive, a racist, the son of skinheads and a complete and utter jackass.

In short, I was “canceled” — like so many others who have stepped outside the narrow confines of accepted political thought as defined by steampunk’s leading (and loudest) opinionmakers.

It’s a fate Elemental has so far been spared. Let’s hope that, as an opinionmaker himself, he can help turn the tide.

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Hugo

Hugo

I must admit that when I heard Martin Scorsese had made a kid-friendly film, I was taken aback, given his pedigree of Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990) and most recently The Irishman (2019). It seemed like something out of character for the man, and so it was in the spirit of curiosity, more than anything else, that I watched Hugo on Netflix.

I was enthralled the entire time. My doubts were entirely misplaced.

First and foremost, this feels like a Scorsese movie even without the grit and mobsters. It has his trademark tracking shots, one through Gare Montparnasse in Paris, and it’s gorgeous. It has his way of using music that I can’t quite put my finger on, but is undoubtedly filled with a certain je ne sais quoi that shows how much the man loves the medium. More generally, it has the craftsmanship that Scorsese excels at.

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Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes

Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister has grown up in the country, raised by her single mother and away from her famous siblings Mycroft and Sherlock. After the disappearance of her free-thinking mother, she escapes Mycroft’s attempts to make her socially acceptable — and less of an embarrassment to him, a government official — to travel to London in search of the missing Holmes family matriarch.

On the way she gets embroiled, like Holmes family members tend to do, in the case of a missing aristocrat, has her brothers trying to find her, for various reasons, and is slowly stumbling across the plot her mother has gotten herself into.

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When the World Held Its Breath: First Lightning

For Germans awaking on the Sunday morning of June 22, 1941, the news that their country was at war with the Soviet Union was delivered to them with the usual bombast and lies of Nazi propaganda. They were told that this new war was not an invasion but a preemptive strike, one necessary to deal with the “Soviet Russian-Anglo-Saxon plot” to destroy Germany that was nearing completion. In his statement that morning, Adolf Hitler spoke with great indignation at fictional border violations by Soviet aircraft and scuffles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht prompted by Soviet aggression and how, as he always claimed, he had done everything to try to preserve peace.

The German people were used to rolling their eyes at this sort of fabrication and, although it has unfortunately endured in some corners of conspiracy theory and the far right, the “Soviet offensive plans controversy” has been universally dismissed by all credible historians. Germany had been actively preparing to invade the Soviet Union since December 1940, it had been a dream of Hitler’s for decades. The notion of the German attack being a preemptive strike is rather easily debunked.

Likewise, there’s no real evidence that the Soviet Union was preparing to attack Germany in the late June of 1941. Indeed, their preparations for a defensive war were being hobbled by a leadership that was desperate to try and avoid any military build-up that could be construed as a “provocation”.

But it’s hard not to wonder whether or not they should have.

If the Soviets had struck before the Germans were ready to launch their own invasion, might they have managed to destroy the German threat and end the Second World War before it had reached its crescendo?

The Red Army’s most famous general seemed to think so.

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The Balero Affair

The Balero Affair

The best way to describe The Balero Affair by Aaron McQueen is dieselpunk meets Mission Impossible in the far future. With a lot of airships. Of various kinds.

The plot reads a bit like a Mission Impossible movie: against near-impossible odds, a small crew of heroes needs to get hold of weapons that can destroy the world as they know it from a terrorist cell. It’s fast-paced like the movies, too.

The Balero Affair might not have the most original plot, but it has good characters and a good pace. Which is excellent if you’re looking for some fun, light reading without too many twists and turns to wrap your head around. Character development is kept to a minimum, as is worldbuilding.

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In and Out of the Reich

In and Out of the Reich

One of the most compelling things about any Axis victory alternate history, when done well, is the all-consuming sense of dread that pervades the entire enterprise. How could it not be? The very conceit is the triumph of one of the most bloodthirsty, sadistic regimes this world has ever known. There is something that sends a chill down my spine when reading the details of Generalplan Ost, the plan that made the bloodshed of the war look like small pickings in comparison.

That’s the hurdle all Axis victory works need to reckon with: the sheer, unrelenting, nauseating horror that is inherent to the very premise.

Many alternate histories have done this well. I consider Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992) some of the best dystopian fiction ever written, even beyond their allohistorical content. C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012) is a more subdued portrayal, but no less haunting for it. Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003) has a silent terror lurking in the background as a German color revolution seems to take root.

So it has been proven, quite conclusively, that this genre can be done well. Which brings us to Paul Leone’s In and Out of the Reich.

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