Sunday, August 8, 2010

Book review: The Shadow Conspiracy

Although science fiction generally involves a speculative future, broad swaths of the genre look into the past and imagine how our history would change under one or more assumptions: what if the Axis powers won World War II? (Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle) What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? (Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South) What if Babbage's mechanical computer had revolutionized Britain in the 19th century? (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine). Steampunk, of course, is built on a stylized version of such an alternate history, with its theme of steam-based technology yielding unintended consequences on society and its tropes of airships and adventurers, cogs and clanks.

The Shadow Conspiracy, edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and Laura Anne Gilman, is a collection of nine related stories, each by a different author. The premise is that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was not, as is told in the history books, the result of a challenge by Lord Byron to his guests to write a supernatural tale. Rather, as the summer of 1816 unfolded in a villa by Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley befriended a young doctor with an incurable disease. Among Lord Byron's guests is a Dr. Polidori, a "brilliant" man with a secret laboratory who, Mary learns, is close to perfecting a process to transfer the soul of a person into the corpse of another, all for the benefit of his sickly patron, Lord Byron.

"The Accumulating Man," by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, which leads off the book, tells Mary Shelley's tale. The remaining stories explore the often far-flung consequences of the events in Bohnhoff's story. In the next story, Sarah Zettel's "The Persistence of Souls," we find Ada Byron King, Countess Lovelace, looking into the disappearance of her father. Ada and Charles Babbage have combined to develop mechanical servants, making the two of them very wealthy. Rumors have circulated for years that Lord Byron is not dead, and Ada has agents looking for the truth behind these rumors. "The Soul Jar," by Steven Harper, takes us to the circus where the ringmaster has unusual talents and a set of twins with a unique clown act join the circus for a time. The setting moves to the New World in "Zombi," by Pati Nagle, wherein New Orleans voodoo legend Marie LaVeau is asked to look into the odd behavior of a mechanical nanny. In Jennifer Stevenson's "A Princess of Wittgenstein," a servant automaton named Ileen may have a connection with royalty. "The Savage and the Monster," by Nancy Jane Moore, starts in the bayou of Louisiana before moving back to Europe where a ladies' association raises funds to seek out and destroy the mythical New Prometheus. In "The Water Weapon," by Branda Clough, the Chinese provide an unusual exhibit at the Great Exposition of 1851, displaying their mastery of mechanical creations and intrigue. Judith Tarr's "The Sisters of Perpetual Adoration" considers a most unusual convent high in the Alps. Finally, Irene Radford's "Shadow Dancer" finds Babbage and Countess Lovelace financing a ballet that stars one of their automata, with unforseen consequences.

As with any collection of stories, the quality is uneven, but all were eminently readable and the best were quite good indeed. Although the stories are interrelated, there is no single plot that binds them; rather, they are set within the same alternate history, with plot elements and characters that weave in and out of various stories.

The Shadow Conspiracy is available for $9.99 in various e-book formats through the Book View Cafe.

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