maiden voyage

maiden voyageThe Maiden Voyage and Other Departures by Jessica McHugh is a collection of six loosely related stories that hinge on a promising steampunk concept. In McHugh’s take on the early nineteen-tens, the world is polluted by industrial pollen technology and humanity shares the stage with apisthropes–bee/human hybrids living in disguise among humans. There is intrigue. There are power struggles. There is still a lot missing.

McHugh’s style is vivacious and energetic, but there is no nuance to her storytelling. The hybrid idea is full of possibility. However, the driving conceit quickly loses its steam to superficial characters, thin plots, and a lack of historical context. The collection oscillates between four fairly-convincingly related tales and two weak vignettes that have to name-drop to create any connection. The big picture simply isn’t there.

***

This is not a particularly well-crafted book. Worldbuilding is cursory, with little detail to anchor us to the locations. The dialogue is frequently anachronistic, with profanity thrown in for shock value. And the characters are stereotypical (even the apisthropes), underdeveloped, and drawn with a heavy hand.

My two immediate issues with The Maiden Voyage are the slapdash writing and sloppy editing:

“Mama opened the door and hollered for the nursemaid, Helga, but she was outside with the butler overseeing the installation of a beeswax and jellyglass fountain the Goswick’s had rented for the evening, and it had only just given its first spurt when Edith’s Vagnerian voice tugged her inside.”

Another example:

“The gentle voice that cooed from behind him didn’t look like it belonged to the raven-haired woman standing in the doorway.”

I know mistakes happen. Typos and misspellings get missed. But this inattention to detail is found throughout the book, and is the kind of distraction that keeps me from caring about the characters or their fates.

***

Each story in the collection happens in the same alternate past, and is meant to connect to the others if only tangentially.

The Maiden Voyage

The title novelette fumbles an opportunity to provide exposition and context for what comes after. The protagonist is a newborn apisthrope, a drone born without any memory or history of his kind. This information is bestowed by a female shortly after he is born. Apparently, apisthropes have existed for eons. But instead of giving the reader access to any background information, McHugh glosses over it.

Large Blue, Little Darling

The second story expands on another variety of hybrid creature (butterfly/human) to no real end. The piece is more a vignette than a full story, and a sloppy throwaway of a vignette at that. The editing is atrocious, with dropped words, incomplete rewrites, and muddled points of view.

maiden voyageThere’s Nothing Between the Sky and Sea

While this moves the general storyline to America and introduces the Wright brothers (and sister Kate), the historical connection is once again tenuous and the story fails to build on what it has. The existence of a pantheon of bee-gods is mentioned in passing, as is a human who is able to channel other personalities like a medium. There is more included here than can be effectively addressed in one short story.

Pain Like Honey Wine

This introduces a tragic hero, London slums, and human-hybrid S&M to the mix without stirring many emotions. I felt as if this story could have been a broad parody, but the blend of sentimentality and undercover rebellion is too strong for that reading.

Forgotten in El Paso

This one is an inconsistently moody ghost story that neither adds nor subtracts from The Maiden Voyage’s  general concept. It takes place in the West, and expands oddly on the human/spider hybrid introduced in the first tale.

America or Bust

The final piece has a preternaturally gifted teenaged heroine, incomprehensible motivations for the villains, and one character who seems to exist only to reveal that another is gay. It also revives an antagonist from the first story, and teases more to come.

***

McHugh clearly has a good sense of humor, and, despite the editorial issues, an engaging style. Perhaps if the tales comprising The Maiden Voyage had been played more for laughs rather than for drama, the whole enterprise would have worked. As it is, The Maiden Voyage comes across to me as a fast and loose draft of a good idea rather than a fully-fleshed world.

The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, is an intriguing, well-plotted spy drama set in an incompletely subjugated America after the Axis victory in World War II. Germany and Japan share control of the continent, with continued mutual mistrust. A resistance exists under each government’s rule, one that hinges on the transportation of secret films that fuel the rebellion.

Between the Reich’s holdings on the East Coast and the Japanese Empire’s on the West is the Neutral Zone. It is effectively a no-man’s land that provides some safety for Blacks, homosexuals, and other social outcasts. Despite the pressure of the Reich and the Empire, it is apparently quite easy to travel to the neutral zone and back by a regular bus route.

America in The Man in the High Castle
America in The Man in the High Castle

There are a few spoilers ahead.

The Man in the High Castle’s cinematography is quite beautiful, with a muted palate like a faded old film print. The red of the Nazi flags is the brighter for it. There are some strikingly emotional moments, such as the ash falling like snow from the hospital that is burning “cripples, you know, a drag on the state” in episode 1, and the boom shot of mass graves in episode 7. One character leaves origami birds behind him, in a nod to producer Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The plotting is tight, with nothing wasted even when the story takes its time unfolding. It is intrigue upon intrigue, delicate, building on the increasing tension between the Japanese and the Nazis. Like ripples expanding in a pool, the number of characters grows and the conspiracy expands. By episode 4, though, a main driver of the plot becomes Juliana’s search for answers to her sister’s death rather than the resistance itself.

The acting is as impeccable as the writing allows. The Man in the High Castle suffers at times from the rushed characterization of series television. Characters leap into rebellion or radicalism with little prelude to their sudden embrace of the cause. The exposition is occasionally clunky, as characters ask obvious questions and translate what they just said, effectively repeating themselves.

Secondary characters become more developed as the series goes on, while the primary characters actually become soapier. Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and Joe (Luke Kleintank), the young leads, are unfortunately underdeveloped as they are written. As a possibly wavering double agent, Joe’s moral ambivalence too often comes across as indecision.  And Juliana strikes me as too vacillating and selfish to be a hero. Her determination comes off as a sort of Nancy Drew pig-headedness. I’m surprised the resistance didn’t kill her for a loose cannon when she told them she will not sacrifice for the cause.

But there are a number of very strong scenes in the second half of the series that help add depth to what has gone before. One of the best is between an unctuous antiques dealer and a wealthy Japanese couple. The Japanese are attempting to embrace all aspects of American culture while the dealer rejects out of hand any Black and Jewish cultural contributions. Cultural appropriation is rampant on both sides. The awkwardness feels real.

By the last episode, both the Japanese and the Nazi players are more interesting and more important than the resistance characters. Again, much of it falls back on the script. The bad guys are allowed to display deeply moral decision-making processes and a willingness to shoulder their responsibilities in a way that is missing from the resistance characters. As Obergruppenführer John Smith, Rufus Sewell is a nuanced Nazi, believable as a father wrestling with the state-required death of his genetically diseased son and also as a military man who suspects he is being set up. And in particular, Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), and Officer Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) all display a sense of larger purpose, willing to sacrifice their honors and their lives for the sake of averting further war.

In my opinion, The Man in the High Castle is a flawed yet satisfying show. The cast and production are outstanding. There are many philosophical points to ponder among the plot twists, awkward romances, and action. The final scene left us hanging. This is well worth ten hours of your time, either in a binge or more moderately paced. Since I binged, I will have to read the source novel while waiting for season two. I’ll let you know how that goes.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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