In praise of Billy O’Shea’s Steampunk novel, set in post-Apocalypse Scandinavia
Author and translator Billy O'Shea
I am obliged to warn Cic Saor aficionados that the subject of this blog, author and fellow Irishman, and indeed fellow professional translator, Billy O’Shea, is a friend of mine, and also that Billy has paid me that great honour of placing an extract from one of my poems about Copenhagen at the beginning of his novel Kingdom of Clockwork. Some readers may remember this poem – A ‘Christmas homage to Copenhagen’. See here- http://www.fadooda.com/index.php?itemid=489
Having now read Kingdom of Clockwork, I can see why Billy O’Shea would want to include this passage (below) from the poem as it is almost presciently redolent of the atmosphere in parts of his book:
strange that in fog
we feel the mechanics of things
Tycho Brahe’s whirring mental cogs
Copernican spheres and trajectories
softly rending the thick air above me
planetary charts over Denmark and Sweden
The poem could have...
... almost been commissioned specifically to ‘evoke parts of Kingdom of Clockwork, not least because the shortest sea crossing between Denmark and Sweden, where København (Copenhagen) and Malmö more or less face each other, forms an integral part of the story and very often from a bird’s eye point of view.
A brilliantly written novel
All the above aside, the most important thing about this book is that it is fantastically well written and I would not say so if this were not the case, regardless of my friendship with the author. So it will be enjoyed by any connoisseur of good literature, not just those who have been lucky enough to visit Copenhagen and Scandinavia generally, or those who have become interested in the Nordic countries following the plethora of well-made and usually, Noir, detective series.
Early steampunk? Fritz Lang's Metropolis 1927
I must admit, perhaps to my shame, that I’d never heard of a genre called ‘Steampunk’ Sci-Fi, even though it’s clearly widely known. I can’t even explain this by saying I don’t like Sci-Fi because what little I’ve read has always enthralled me – for example Philip K Dick and Philip Kerr (Gridiron etc), Neal Stephenson’s brilliant Snowcrash, or just lately the highly disturbing but gripping Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux.
In fact Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, in its Bladerunner film version, is one of my all-time favourite movies. Moreover, now that I understand the Steampunk concept a bit more, Bladerunner is clearly a good example of some its best aspects: a stress on mechanical artefacts from the 19th Century – not much steam power in the film obviously, but check all that ornamental cast iron, the rivets and bolts and elevator shaft paraphernalia, all those pistons, cogs, pulleys and levers. Dystopian fog and rain (lots of it) also feature heavily. You get the Steampunk idea.
(There's a very good synopsis of the Steampunk concept here):
Another key aspect of Steampunk Sci-Fi is its frequent portrayal of a post-Armageddon society and in Kingdom of Clockwork Billy O’Shea gives us a fascinating vision of Copenhagen and then subsequently other parts of the huge Scandinavian peninsulas after some great catastrophe, talk of which is mostly banned. Or at least it's banned amongst the plebeian masses.
The story’s narrator, a young man by the name of Karl Nielsen, describes his amazing adventures as taking place in or just prior to 2413. However O’Shea has chosen to name Copenhagen as Kantarborg. The Danish word ‘kant’ means ‘edge’ and it’s not a bad description of Copenhagen, perched as it is right on the edge of Denmark’s eastern side and facing into the Baltic. However Kantarborg can be taken as being both Copenhagen and then the whole of the Danish hinterland going back west and southward. The rest of Denmark is rarely mentioned but one assumes that if Kantarborg suffers from meagre resources and a poor diet amongst the ordinary populace, the country as a whole must be a veritable wasteland.
When politics and clockwork trains collide
Mechanical clock machinery is of course also very much a retro ‘Steampunk’ technology and forms a central part of Billy O’Shea’s tale, not least because Karl soon discovers a passion for clocks and the repair of same. Moreover in a post-industrial world, where there are no other forms of alternative energy that can be stored, clockwork (as wound up and stored energy basically) can be a precious device. This in turn makes Karl Nielsen a suddenly valuable commodity and he is soon drafted into the services of no less a person than the King of Kantaborg himself; Nielsen then becomes more of a King’s precious by finding a way to run a steam train by clock power. Of course, this fairly sympathetic and straightforward, though naïve, clock mender (who memorably says somewhere that ‘people baffle him’) now has a problem. This problem being that he is now moving, by definition, in a political world, in a King’s court with conflicting factions and possible sources of tension from abroad. Spies, double agents, people who covet the new technology, jealous state mandarins also. Not to mention Karl’s dubious brother.
It is this shift in political gear, if I may put it that way, which transforms Kingdom of Clockwork from being a pleasant read into a far deeper study of human behaviour and what we ‘want’ with our lives.
A wise vision
Reading Kingdom of Clockwork one gets the impression that Billy O’Shea is a veteran novelist. The narrative flow never dips, the plot has the correct number of pearls strung out along the plot-necklace and the characters (for the most part) are living, independent figures who breath the air of the novel rather than its creator. However, though Billy O’Shea has been a professional translator and word-smith for many years, this is his debut novel. A highly sophisticated bow. For, as with the political intrigue point above, Kingdom of Clockwork can be read on many levels, sometimes literally so, and sometimes metaphorically or even neurotically.
How far dare you go into your 'irrational layer'?
For example, most new technology was destroyed and/or deeply buried in what is called 'the Great Cataclysm', presumably some huge nuclear war conflagration, but the book more or less starts with a regular Kantarborgian occurrence – bits of the old world being dug up from the upper crust of what is delightfully called the ‘irrational layer’. A much younger Karl sees a long piece of metal being pulled up and then some kind of ladder like structure, which are actually railway sleepers and their footings. Karl hears the word ‘railway’ in his own language for this thing – but is warned by his parents against ever using the word and reminded that there are severe punishments for even mentioning anything that might be connected with the irrational layer.
So right at the start we get clues that Kantarborg is based on shaky soil – there seems to be two official languages – Kantish (Danish) and Anglian (English), the latter being spoken by more well-to-do people. You could say that ordinary people are wedged between an inscrutable upper strata of other-speaking elitists and a forbidden bottom strata, they may not talk about. Regardless of whether O’Shea intended this, or whether it’s part of his own irrational layer, it sets up a tension. Is the author referring to a future Scandinavia where Danish, Swedish and so on is supplanted by English? It's happening right now. He may also be making a back reference to a time the when the Danish royal court and aristocracy very often spoke German or French rather than ‘common’ Danish. It was the Danish people of no property (or very little) who saved the Danish language by stubbornly refusing to accepts its ‘inferior’ status.
So if you like dear readers, we have two great metaphors for global language hegemony and censorship respectively thrown up as reflective mirrors. That’s before we start talking about the irrational layer as Freud’s subconscious or Kierkegaard’s vital inner passions,which he urges us to follow. All the while O’Shea’s rather sober narrator reports these things and his growing attachment to clocks with a slightly purging air of detachment. You the reader can go off on flights of fancy if you so wish but I will remain here in this dingy quasi-medieval town with its crooked streets and houses and simply report what happened. Even when Karl gets thrown into jail, it’s as if he says well what else would you expect really? Typical! Now what do I do? iI suppose I'll have to wait for some kind of bloody deus ex machina, or I'll die here. Although he does show the occasional flash of real anger.
Our rulers will love wars – for as long as we are stupid enough to fight them
I will refrain from saying too much more for fear of spoiling the book for potential readers, except to say that Karl’s travels across the dangerous West and Northland with the King (Northlanders being the Swedes and traditional enemies of the Danes), offer not only more intrigue but more insights into Karl’s sometimes baleful view of human behaviour and traditional politics and alliance building. There is also a wonderful inbuilt comic element to this sometimes hair raising Odyssey that comes from the tension between the King’s gung-ho sense of ‘Up and at ‘em men!’ adventurism and Karl Nielsen’s reluctant participation. The phlegmatic Karl observing how ridiculous it is for a Kantarborg clockmaker to be travelling in the Northern badlands and probably killed by savages who seem to worship an object called ‘blackstone’ (coal).
The friction between Karl and the King increases for other reasons as well, because the clockmaker realises that the King has a hidden agenda, as kings or politicians usually do, and has kept this from him. Or as the king puts it - ‘I always tell you the truth Karl … not all of it. Not always.’
I am not a politician – I just like clocks and trains!
Karl Nielsen is an interesting character because he has no craving for the trappings of wealth or fame, the reins of power. He just wants a comfortable life, preferably with a wife if he can get one. He also wants to be let do what he’s good at. We all have a calling or special talent in life as Kierkegaard never tired of telling us. What is it that blocks us from making use of it? It is this that depresses us - gives us 'hysteria of the spirit'.
Read this novel. Rather like its narrator Karl Nielsen, it makes no great claims about itself but it carries many layers and will leave you thinking about things at the same time as you enjoy the narrative. That’s some understated achievement.
Kingdom of Clockwork is available both as a physical book, as an audio book and then as en e-book. The physical and audio books can be ordered from Black Swan publishers here - http://blackswan.dk/
Though it must be said that prices for the traditional book reflect Scandinavian values for literary works and many readers may prefer to opt for the kindle version - http://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Clockwork-Billy-OShea-ebook/dp/B00LXGSP8Y?tag=ama-prod-id-20
There is a very good short publicity animation for Kingdom of Clockwork here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtxtkDjeHVU
I am grateful to the publishers for allowing me to use some stills from this animation in the above review.
Mí Lúnasa 2014