March 22, 2011


At FOGcon, during one of the panels related to the theme of The City, I was excited about recommending a recent city-focused book that almost nobody in the room had read. AURORARAMA by Jean-Christophe Valtat takes place in New Venice, "the pearl of the Arctic," a city located 450 nautical miles south of the North Pole, and more than anything else, the story is about the city itself.

AURORARAMA is planned as the first book in a series, and that's evident from how much city history and legend is revealed in this book and how much more is only hinted at. At times as I read, I could have done with a bit less world-building and a little more plot and character development, but overall the book presents a strong story. The writing style is dense but satisfying, with a lot of wordplay and many cool words that I had to look up. This is even more impressive knowing that Valtat is French, and this is the first book he wrote in English.

The protagonists of AURORARAMA are middle-aged, upper-class friends Brentford and Gabriel. The narration shifts between the two of them as they get drawn into an unpleasant tangle of political events. Brentford, an idealist who holds a position in the city administration, feels a duty to solve the problems plaguing the city he loves. Gabriel cares more about sex, drugs, and the droning electronica popular in the clubs of the city, but the local police have become interested in his activities, which motivates him to try to uncover their corruption.

The story plays out in a Victorian-era, steampunk-inspired city where the citizens are determined to live elegantly and decadently despite the harsh climate. Some of the plot revolves around disputes with the native Inuit over land allocation and usage. There are also some ghosts and dream prophecies, but these weren't central. I felt the story had so much going on that the magical elements should have been either more important or omitted. I'll be interested to see how magic is developed in future books of the series.

If I hadn't been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's RED MARS at the same time as AURORARAMA, I probably wouldn't have thought to connect these books, but they do have certain elements in common. Both feature human civilizations built in inhospitable environments and the disagreements over how best to govern these new worlds. The books aren't otherwise that similar, but I do love discovering this kind of synchronicity in my reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Dan Koise writes in the New York Times about the abandoned novels of successful authors. (Thanks, The Second Pass!)

→ Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading reports on a programming language designed to make programs that look like Shakespearean plays.

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