Short Story Club: “A Serpent in the Gears”

We’ll begin with Rich Horton, in the January Locus:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens 2010 with a very fine Margret Ronald story, “A Serpent in the Gears“. It’s the story of an expedition — by airship, naturally, this being a story with steampunk elements! — to a long-isolated country. We learn that the isolated country is occupied by mechanical beings (or partly mechanical beings). The expedition, from a wholly organic nation, has both scientific and diplomatic purposes. And it has a spy — the narrator. Besides spies and airships there are dragons, a strangely preserved Professora, and, for the narrator, a crisis of loyalty.

Lois Tilton also liked it:

Another blimp, this one in a fantastic steampunky setting. The dirigible Regina is attempting to cross Sterling Pass into the forbidden valley of Aaris, which is defended by automatic gun emplacements and giant flying hybrid-mechanical serpents. Many of the passengers onboard are spies claiming more or less truthfully to be scientists. The narrator, Charles, posing as Colonel Dieterich’s valet, is a spy from Aaris.
[…]
Crammed full of Neat Steampunk Stuff, delightfully witty prose, and high adventure.

The VanderMeers have also picked it up for their Steampunk Reloaded anthology.

Pam Philips enjoyed it:

There is so much to be revealed, though, it takes nearly half the text to get the setup done. The latter half is an action sequence, with battles alternating with revelations, climaxing with one big revelation. Everyone gasps, takes a breath, and — that’s it. That’s it?

I love the inventiveness. I love the imagery. I really hope this is meant to be the first chapter of an adventure novel. And then maybe a movie, though a movie producer would probably tack on a different ending and blow stuff up.

Matt H also thinks it feels “more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story“:

Is this just a matter of taste? To some extent, it must be…in the past I’ve noted I expect more out of short stories than a lot of people seem to. But I think in this case, at least, I can point to story-specific reasons for my reaction. The story provides closure on two issues: the Regina‘s mission and the nature and origin of the narrator. The narrator’s unique circumstances are strongly hinted at all the way up to where it is confirmed about halfway through, so it wasn’t really a twist. I think my ambivalence about the Regina‘s mission comes straight from the narrator, who summarizes it in a paragraph or two and then goes back to the stuff I came away from the story interested in. If the narrator doesn’t care whether the mission succeeds or fails, why should I?

It doesn’t help that “Aaris Valley” was the thinnest part of the world building. We’re told it’s an insignificant backwater, but then it turns out that multiple countries have spies aboard the Regina with objectives we assume (for they are not actually given) are sinister. And then at the end, a militant and expansionist Aaris is a thought to be a grave threat. Just how big is this valley? None of this is clear, so neither are the stakes of the mission.

And for Evan it’s an interesting failure:

The story here moves along quickly, with deftly sketched characters straight out of steampunk central casting. We’ve a valet with a secret, an expedition into an interdicted country, vaunting overconfidence, and eventually an awakening to a grave danger. Everything flows smoothly and is topped off by a fine action sequence.

And yet… The story is somehow weightless, taking each element of the subgenre that is uses out of the box and placing it just so. Noting new is originated and nothing is actually said (I suppose that one could argue that the statement is that aggressive hegemonizing swarms are bad, or that individuality is important, or that loyalty is more important than kind, but all these seem to go without saying). We are told a story. It is fluent, complete, and hollow, concerned primarily with manipulation of scenery and furniture. No element of the standard building blocks is questioned, or goes unused (it’s even hinted that somewhere out there are magicians, although we never seem to see any).

With some more thoughts on steampunk here:

This is not steampunk at its worst, but all genre writing at its worst. The same point could have been made of the post-Tolkein fantasy boom from the late 70s to the early 90s (the hangover of which is still with us today), or the endless dreary cyberpunk follow-ons that have taken up most of the intellectual airspace in between now and then, or the mini-booms in epic fantasy, dark fantasy, the new space opera, etc., etc., etc.. Paranormal romance and steampunk are just the latest iterations and there’s fairly little that’s interesting to be said about them specifically. These are basically the publishing equivalent of momentum trading. Something equivalent will always be with us.

Your thoughts?