Someone tries to sabotage (cause the complete downfall of, overthrow, etc.) a company (government, country, or the like) by jacking into its computer systems and committing all manner of dastardly deeds once inside. That used to be a recurring theme found only in science fiction books. These days it’s just as likely to be the plot of the latest high-tech thriller, though, because it’s the kind of thing we worry about now.
What changed? Technology, of course. Suddenly, what once seemed futuristic and impossible is commonplace. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that our cell phones actually make calls, because they do so many other things. Cars operate via a complicated system of computer chips that monitor and adjust for pretty much everything (let alone the ones that back into parking spots on their own). We can carry hundreds of songs wherever we go in a gadget smaller than a deck of cards. We're able to turn on the computer, click a few keys, and be talking to someone on the other side of the world within seconds--and we can look at them in their pajamas while we’re doing it. Imagining a world before 3- and 4G or plasma TV (or washing machines and clothes dryers that do everything but fold your laundry and put it away for you) grows harder and harder with the passing of every month, it seems.
So, where does that leave sci-fi authors who're scrambling to come up with interesting plots about the future, now that so many once-impossible ideas have become reality? Shuttling back and forth to Mars, contacting beings from other galaxies, or flying around in hover cars? Sure, there’s some of that.
There’s also a totally different direction to take, sort of a backwards look at things. Say, for instance, you think about a simpler place, more like our world was in the early 1800s--when horsepower literally referred to huge whinnying animals with manes, and powering things by steam was all the rage--then plunk down some rudimentary computer technology in the midst of everything... something like those room-size monoliths from the 1960s, which required endless boxes of punchcards being fed into them in order to produce results?
Yep. Meet the newish sub-genre of sci-fi/fantasy charmingly known as Steampunk, which takes the Victorian Era (or something very much like it) and introduces some early, modern-day tech stuff into it, creating a delightfully-odd pastiche of normally-incongruous elements. Intrigued? Well, then... perhaps a closer look at Dru Pagliasotti’s Clockwork Heart is in order.
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Set in a small mountainous country, the action in Clockwork Heart takes place in the capital city of Ondinium, which is built entirely on a mountain. Following a period of upheaval and the overthrow of the old monarchy, Ondinium has gradually realigned itself under a strict caste system, comprised of three parts. The plebeians live and toil at the bottom portion of the mountain, packed into a densely-crowded, filthy sector. They are the miners and common laborers. Midway up the mountain is the area set aside for the religious leaders. Circling the top of the mountain are the so-called exalteds, who function as the governing elite.
As though the stratification weren’t made obvious enough by each caste’s placement on the mountain, though, the exalted class takes it one (bizarre) step further; they’re forced to wear multiple layers of loose robes in public (with no skin whatsoever showing), as well as a featureless mask with only slits for the eyes (but none for the mouth, rendering them mute as well as anonymous). They present truly ominous figures in public, to which the lower classes (unsurprisingly) bow and scrape.
All but one small group, that is. The icarii are in a class of their own... fitted with special suits which have metal wings and given intensive training on how to use them, the icarii function as the couriers and go-betweens among the exalteds and the lower classes, and between the exalteds and visitors from other countries. They regularly see the exalteds in less-formal dress (although--unfortunately for the poor exalteds--that just means three robes instead of the usual seven), and are allowed--by necessity--to talk to them, in the course of business.
Clockwork Heart follows the story through the eyes of icarus Taya, a smart and competent flyer, and an intelligent, witty, and attractive young woman. After finding herself in the right place at the right time to perform a daring mid-air rescue of an exalted female and her son from a falling wire ferry (think ski lift) one day, the young woman with the previously-ordinary career is suddenly thrust into a whole world of intrigue... particularly after the police determine that the sky car failure was no accident.
Who was meant to die in the falling lift? It was one used almost exclusively by the exalteds--in particular those who sit on the governing council. Is it the work of one of the largest, most-well-known radical groups opposing the Great Engine (the most important of the several "thinking machines" in Ondinium), the Torn Cards (whose name is derived from the piece of punchcard they leave at the scene of all their demonstrations against the use of the Great Engine)? Is a network of spies from neighboring countries--who possess neither the buoyant ondium metal which allows the icarii to fly, nor the technology behind the thinking machines? Or, is another, as-yet-unknown element trying to create havoc and disruption in the currently peaceful Ondinium?
When Taya receives thanks from the family of the mother and son she saved in the heroic rescue, she discovers that she very much wants to find out who was responsible... particularly once she meets the fascinating Forlore brothers, who are relatives of the family. Alistair Forlore--the dashing, magnetic, and newest member of the governing council--seems quite taken with the brave icarus. More than just a handsome face, he’s also one of the brains behind the Great Engine (and the other, lesser computing machines in use at the University), and writes experimental programming for the them. Cristof Forlore is more of an enigma; although equally brilliant, the acerbic and prickly elder brother has chosen to exile himself from the exalted caste and now lives at the bottom of Ondinium with the working class, where he runs a clock repair shop. Despite his innate gruffness and awkwardness, he, too, is grateful and seemingly attracted to Taya.
Together with the Forlore brothers and the police--plus a couple of her fellow icarii buddies, a motley group of programmers from the University, and even a friendly hack driver--Taya tries to unravel the mystery of who is behind the near-tragic accident.... and the subsequent acts of political terrorism, murder, and kidnapping which soon follow. The fate of their city, which beats to the steady ticking of its clockwork heart, and of the happiness and welfare of everyone who lives therein, depends on their success.
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Clockwork Heart is a fun example of the Steampunk movement, and a very good place to start if you’re wanting to get your feet wet, thanks to its easy accessibility. It’s a hybrid, really; by turns thrilling action/adventure and mystery, with sci-fi and romance thrown in for good measure, this is a captivating tale which I found instantly appealing. Pagliasotti writes with an ear and an eye for detail, yet doesn’t overwhelm with the technical aspects. Her characters (not to mention the situations they find themselves in) are compelling, and the dialogue nicely-done. Weightier issues are present (most notably the caste system), but she definitely keeps things on the lighter side.
Although Clockwork Heart is a complete story in and of itself, it’s a shame there isn’t a sequel. Besides the evolution of the relationships, it would have been interesting to see how Pagliasotti handled the disagreements within the governing council (especially those relating to the Great Engine) and whether or not she might have dealt with the societal divisiveness wrought by the caste system. But, unless she someday revisits Ondinium, readers will just have to decide for themselves what the future holds in store for the characters. I suppose that's not such a bad thing...
One word of warning: Clockwork Heart can be, unfortunately, a bit difficult to find. It's well-worth the search, though, and if you’re intrigued by the whole premise, this one comes with my recommendation.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3.5 mousies
(With thanks to a friend for recommending this one to me. :))