Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Pimp My Airship by Maurice Broaddus

Strap in for smart steampunk adventure centring Black characters in an alternative Indianapolis

Cover Art by Godwin Akpan
With its associations with Victoriana and all the implications for real-world colonialism and oppression that the period evokes, developing a well-realised Steampunk world is an activity that benefits immensely from a critical standpoint that engages with the historical oppression and racism embedded in the genre rather than simply glossing over and thereby almost certainly reproducing it. Joining work like The Black God's Drums by P. Djeli Clark and Everfair by Nisi Shawl, both of which posit alternative histories in which Black polities form and are able to challenge the technological and political dominance of white colonialism, Pimp My Airship by Maurice Broaddus takes a different approach, centring Black narratives in a world where white supremacy and marginalisation has taken a recognisable, but alt-historical turn.

The world of Pimp My Airship has already been explored fairly extensively in Broaddus' short fiction, including a story of the same title, and the Tor.com novella Buffalo Soldier (a full chronological reading list is available in the acknowledgements of this book) but the novel is accessible even if, like me, you haven't read Broaddus' prior work. It takes place in an alternate Indianapolis where the American Revolution failed: the USA is instead the United States of Albion, having never officially split from the British Isles despite having moved its capital from London to Washington D.C. This alternate history means that the Civil War also didn't take place, though slavery has been quietly abolished through the creation of machines which can work more efficiently than slaves. As you'd expect, racism and sexism are still very overtly part of the landscape and all of the main characters are grappling in some way or another with marginalisations which seek to limit the shape of their lives and ambitions.

Pimp My Airship switches between two narrators. The first, Hubert "Sleepy" Nixon, is a pot smoking poet with no aspirations to do anything beyond living his life and getting high. Unfortunately, Sleepy has a run-in with a revoluationary called (120 degrees of) Knowledge Allah, who quickly sucks him into his intense numerological theories about the world and, concurrently, a political underworld which gets the two of them into deep trouble. On the other side, Sophine Jefferson is a mixed-race heiress trying to break into a scientific community which remains heavily biased against women, when she gets caught up in events around the death of her father. Both Sleepy and Sophine are enjoyable protagonists, although Sleepy's reactiveness can be frustrating, and it's his interactions with Knowledge Allah which keep those chapters rolling along. It isn't entirely clear how the two are going to be brought into the same narrative until it happens, but once it does everything ramps up to a satisfying, action packed conclusion.

Pimp My Airship is packed with references, and I think I only caught a small percentage of them: the fact that the two main characters are surnamed Nixon and Jefferson is surely no accident, and each chapter heading is a song title, ranging from "All Along the Watchtower" (Jimi Hendrix) to "Welcome to the Terrordome" (Public Enemy) via "Because I got High" (...Afroman). The local propaganda news channel, Vox Dei, makes regular disparaging references to Social Justice Crusaders in its dispatches - which are often quoted in order to bring us on board with particular elements of the worldbuilding and political situation. There's also elements which I'm sure are rooted in historical richness that I don't have context for, like the use of namechanging and nicknames for many of the characters, and Knowledge Allah's use of numerological reference in his political speeches. Because the novel exclusively centres Black characters, there's a really interesting lack of context for how "objectively" authoritarian this alternate history is compared to our own: on the one hand, the use of Vox Dei propaganda and other cues suggest that we are supposed to read this as a less free future, but at the same time the specific barriers and challenges that the characters face are very recognisable from how Black people are treated in the actual world we live in. The result is something which really confronts the way we conceptualise alternate history and "dystopia", using a steampunk setting in which we expect the trappings of Victoriana to provoke thought about how those trappings also affect our own world, even if we don't have steampunky airships floating around (surprisingly, there's not much of those in Pimp My Airship either).

Having acknowledged that it may be my historical knowledge at fault, I still have to admit that the alternate historical setting sometimes feels flatter than it should. Because Broaddus' alternate history seems to have changed the entire trajectory of technology, I struggled to figure out what time period this was actually supposed to be - were the references to Queen Diana supposed to indicate that, actually, this is the 1990s or after, but technology has developed more slowly and the political landscape feels like its decades earlier than we'd expect? It's likely that this would work better for readers with a greater level of contextual understanding to pick up more of the historical cues, but for me the result is something that's enjoyable but sometimes unmoored. It's hard to really get to grips with this version of Indianapolis in all its complexity, despite the care that's clearly gone into creating a Steampunk setting which really grapples with questions of racism that the genre has a reputation for glossing over.

That said, if you're after a read that offers plenty of complexity and a sly self-awareness of the genre, while still delivering a solid adventure, Broaddus is an author to get on board with. Pimp My Airship didn't work as well for me as I had hoped, but it's definitely interested me in learning more about this universe, and I can feel a read of Buffalo Soldier coming in my near future. If you're interested in steampunk, this is definitely a series to check out.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Smart, genre-savvy steampunk with a ton of easter eggs.

Penalties: -1 Title promises more airships than it delivers; -1 Stakes of the action sometimes get lost in all the clever references.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference:  Broaddus, Maurice. Pimp my Airship [Apex, 2019].