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Summer of Steampunk: Her Sky Cowboy

Her Sky Cowboy - Beth Ciotta

Due to a perfect storm of gin & tonics, cabin-visitation, and general slovenliness, I read roughly eleventy million pulp steampunk books this summer. Before they disappear into an undifferentiated stew of plucky scientist's daughters and clockwork corsets, I mean to write up just a little about each one.


Trigger warning: rape. 


After my cock-up last go round with a book that was a second in a series, here I actually did my homework. Instead of hauling off and reading His Clockwork Canary -- which the library was fronting on me bigtime, and has a much more enticing name (to me, anyway) -- I actually read book one in the Glorious Victorious Darcys series by Beth Ciotta, Her Sky Cowboy. Feelings are decidedly mixed. 


So, most of my outings in the Summer of Steampunk have been pretty romance-y, with the world building taking a back seat to the romantic needs of the protagonists. All of the Steam and Seduction books by Delphine Dryden, for example, are absolute shit at alt-history, so much so I pretty much spite-read the second, Scarlet Devices, all the way to end, shouting about how implausible everything was. I mean, do you have any fucking idea how big the center of the North American continent is??? I ask, because a part of the plot hinges on someone controlling all of it like it's a couple hundred acres. You could stop up some of the passes on the Rockies, but that leaves just huge swaths of...seriously, I have to stop thinking about this.


But! Ms Dryden writes really lovely relationships, and her comings-together have a sweetness to them, a freshness. So, even though I wanted to punch Scarlet Devices for the horror of its geography, I moved on to book three, Gilded Lily, and was rewarded with giant junkie krakens. So while her world often leaves something to be desired (or strays into downright annoying), I like her characters and writing style enough to give this a pass. Steampunk is a pretty pulpy genre, and I'm going to award points for mutant cephalopods over plausibility any day. (Also, at some point she made an Andrew Marvell joke, which, who even does that? Anyone willing to make a funny about a semi-obscure 17th Century poet rules the school.)


Compare/contrast with my feelings about Her Sky Cowboy, which in many ways has the most inventive (and often downright funny) set-up for a steampulp novel I've read, married to a both perfunctory and offensive romance plot (which is a neat trick, if you can pull it off.) It's almost infuriating, watching this neat idea get buried under pedestrian prose, a prêt-à-porter plot, and romance novel bullshit. Amelia Darcy is one of at least three young women I've encountered in my summer reading who have recently lost a mad scientist father. Darcy discovers her father has bankrupted the family, and is then coincidentally invited to join a sort of treasure hunt, which would solve that problem. Due to a series of breathtakingly stupid decisions, she ends up on a pirate airship on the hunt for Da Vinci's helicopter. Et cetera.


But the world this paint-by-numbers plot occurs in is pretty great. Here, the alt-history is that, sometime in the late 1960s, after some kind of world-ending annihilation, a group of people time-traveled back to the Victorian era to divert this coming apocalypse. Pretty much they're all idealistic hippies who adhere to a sort of temporal prime directive, but, people being who they are, future tech does get out. (How this results in airships not airplanes, just whatever.) (Also, I initially thought this was the Cuban Missile Crisis gone wrong, but that can't be it given the date, so I don't even know what the event was.) (Not that it really matters.) Anyway, a bunch of hippies infecting Victorian culture with songs that haven't been written and all kinds of other groovy things can make for some far out anachronism, and a lot of the background color tickled me. Altogether a fun and funny playset for the action. 


This was my problem: I think literally every man -- including the romantic lead, but not including her brothers -- thinks openly and often about raping Amelia. All the fucking time. The lead thinks about raping her while he helps stitch up her fairly serious flesh wound when there's blood all over the place, because, you know, romance. Also, if any dude sees any amount of female flesh he immediately starts thinking about forcing sex on her bleeding body. The antagonist has raping Amelia on his to-do list, of course, but then we're also treated to descriptions of him enacting rape fantasies on automotons. For fuck's sake, I do not need to see that in a silly romantic adventure novel. She's abducted and nearly raped by some dude, and the hero (I use this word with bitter irony) castigates her for not better deflecting the threat of rape. The hero also spends a lot of time making sure she's safe from his own crew, because obvs they want to rape her too even though of course they're really great guys who get to know her and then selflessly help her on her incredibly stupid quest and never think about raping her again, because, lord knows, no one ever got raped by someone they know. 


Fuck all this business. I have close to zero patience with the whole #notallmen thing -- in a conversation about rape culture, it makes no sense to focus on not-the-problem -- but I'm going to say it: not all men think about raping women all the livelong day. They sure as fuck shouldn't be treated as romantic leads or chummy friends when they do think about raping women all day. As a feminist, I think this view of humanity is appalling, shortchanging men and slyly putting the onus on women to avoid rape. Men are not fucking animals, and any explanation for rape that says it's about how men can't control themselves when they see female flesh is insulting and demeaning to everyone. I go through the godamn roof when I see this diseased ideation in fluff pulp. It normalizes and romanticizes thinking that should be treated like the pathology it is. Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick. 


 So, um, there you have my freakout. I'm not even sure I can pull out of this death spiral to finish up properly, but I should probably try. I hear people say, with great regularity, that reviews should be objective, and yes, I do value opinions that that are more carefully explained. As the closure on your five paragraph essay, I could say something about how some aspects of the book were pleasing, and others were not, so on the balance it's a wash. But it's not. In my subjective opinion, this book sucks, even on a pretty forgiving scale. The things that pissed me off did not balance the things I thought were neat. 


Which made me think a little about the more mainstream and better written fantasy out there that normalizes rape and presents similar views of how men and women tick. How much better does the writing have to be for me to accept this aspect of a novel? How much more "serious" or "gritty" or "real"? Because I've done it: valued the quality of the writing over the odiousness of the worldview. I'm not even going to apologize for that, exactly, because it's obviously a big fucking shitshow with no easy answers. We've all got the levers on which we pivot, and I just want to understand mine.