Book review: Zeppelins West by Joe R. Lansdale


the cover of the book

If this was a comic which is about a thousand times better, it would be The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Cover

Comic-style gatefold (wrap-around) painting of the book's characters. Some nice colour choices, but overall rather 'soft' and lacking in detail, plus the back, for some reason, works differently than the front. It caught my eye, but really if the artist wasn't having fun with this he should look into a new line of work. A steampunk fantasy western? I could have done this better.

Plot

On an alternative Earth, various icons of the American West (Annie Oakley, Bill Cody, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickock) roam around in steam-powered zeppelins, performing in the Wild West Show for dignitaries and the adoring public all across the globe. (In the genre loosely called steampunk, an alternative or parallel past includes technology more advanced than it did in reality, though it's typically stylised as "old-fashioned" nonetheless - here, Bill Cody has been reduced to a head in a jar, but he has a steam-powered robotic body to walk around in, but it's steered by a midget in his chest.)

In Japan, our heroes take the opportunity to abscond with one of the emperor's treasures - a corpse, existing in a state of unGodly animation, which had escaped from one Doctor Frankenstein.

Unfortunately the plan goes off-map when the getaway zeppelin is shot down by Japanese biplanes. Our heroes are rescued from Davy Jones' locker by a submarine piloted by Captain Bemo, then taken to the island of Dr. Momo, where strange and unnatural experiments are performed on animals. Does any of this sound familiar?

The good

Well, it should, because the concept of the book is basically the same as Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, two superb graphic novels later made into one breathtakingly shitacular film. There's also more than a passing resemblance to Robert Rankin's "add-ideas-and-shake" oeuvre, which both authors' affection for Victoriana and monster movies only highlights. But enough of that bollocks, what's it actually like?

Strange, is what it's like. Lansdale specializes in Ellroy-esque contemporary crime novels, particularly those starring his well-liked white-trash/black-trash duo Hap and Leonard. The idea of such an author producing a steam-driven fantasy western is intriguing, you must admit.

The book's slim profile combined with the colourful cover suggests a possible Young Adult classification, but Lansdale quickly exhibits his typical, casually earthy approach to matters of sex, violence and language - in fact, even above the uncharacteristic contrast with the material, these elements stood out - I think the case is that Lansdale was aiming for a lighter, more comedic touch to complement the material, and much of his humour involves the baser stuff. Which is fine when it works, which it can, sometimes. Lansdale, like Rankin, does a good line in overstuffed, crass, frustratingly powerful men - his grotesque Dr. Moreau, I mean, Momo, could take on the egg-like Hugo Rune in an awfulness competition and come out smiling. The cowboys themselves are a blend of boys-own-adventure adaptability and fragile masculine pride - possibly because of this, they're also the only characters in the book with a touch of reality to them.

The prose is light and readable enough to support the strangeness of the story, a not insignificant achievement for a writer trained on gritty crime novels. As a whole, in fact, the book has a spirit of fun, silliness, and invention; even if much of this arrives to the reader through their sense of the author's intention, rather than execution, it still has an effect.

The bad

If you'd told me about this book before I'd read it, you would've needed harpoons to keep me away. But the reality is just a mess, I'm sorry. The plot seems to have been made up as it progresses (the zeppelins in the title, for instance, are totally forgotten after about page fifty); Rankin gets away with this but he's a one-off with an established fan base. Alan Moore's proven that re-combining twentieth century fictional arcana can be skilfully done. But what would you imagine to be problem number one with this idea? Getting carried away? This is exactly what Lansdale does. By the end of the book Dracula's washed up on a beach and it barely dents the plot because on the other side of the island a cybernetic seal is helping a man with a horse-nob graft a body onto a disembodied head while Chief Sitting Bull bones a scientifically anthropomorphised cat-woman in the next room.

I told you it sounds interesting. I suppose it is, in the sense that it held my attention. But it's bereft of reality, unfortunately, and reality is what Lansdale does best. When the cowboys first set foot in nineteenth century Japan, and Hickock is pondering the morality of his relationship with Annie Oakley (his dead friend's wife), there are hints of what could have been - characters who are half myth, half human, inhabiting a world in which the first buzzing lights of industry only highlight the myriad dark corners of civilization. As soon as that zeppelin goes down in flames, however, so does the plot, the characterisation, and any hope for a redemptive ending. I suppose this is best looked at as an experiment. I would have enjoyed it a lot more ten years ago. The question, I suppose, is whether Lansdale should go back to what he does well and forget about what he thinks might be fun. Coming down on innovation never feels great but there has to be a line drawn between creative exploration and raw self-indulgence, and "I'm really glad I didn't buy this book" seems like as good a place as any to draw it.

What I learnt

Nothing. Which is fine for fantasy, as is an entire review without worrying about subtext or thematic development.



In short

Title: Zeppelins West
Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Publisher: Subterranean Press
ISBN: 978-1931081009
Year published: 2001
Pages: 170
Genre(s): fiction, steampunk, fantasy