Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama is a beautifully-written novel that combines steampunk, revolutionary and authoritarianism politics, druggy subcultures, and anthropology together in an extremely entertaining brew. It takes place sometime in the not-so-distant past in the Arctic city of New Venice, a metropolis filled with wondrous Victorian-era inventions, including machinery that sustains life so close to the North Pole. The story focuses on two heroes: Brentford is the greenhouse administrator in charge of growing the city’s food. He’s part of the city’s nobility but dreams of reviving the city from its corrupt government by democratically integrating New Venice with the surrounding native cultures. He makes up half of an odd couple with Gabriel, a dissolute dandy musician who staggers through the book under the influence of a wide variety of drugs (a commonplace New Venetian pastime for combating the boredom of the short winter days). They both struggle in their own ways – high and low – against the authoritarianism creeping through the city, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the book is how convincingly Valtat depicts the creeping reach of the government, the dread of those subject to it, and the diverse and subtle ways that different subcultures combat it.
Aurorarama feels like a steampunk novel, but Valtat rarely allows the conventions of that genre to become stilted, partly as a result of his inventive wordplay drawn from English, his native French, the Nordic languages, and the Intuit, the latter from which he references wondrously bizarre arctic mythologies (the Kiggertarpok, or the Intuit “polar kangaroo,” plays a major role.) His Pynchon-lite sentences snake around their meaning, never afraid to take a digression into a fascinating detail or fun description before working its way back to the main point. The effect is relentlessly inventive, as when he writes: “Snow redesigned the streets with hints of another architecture, even more magnificent, more fanciful than it already was, all spires and pinnacles on pale palaces of pearl and opal. All that new Venice should have been reappeared through its partial disappearance. It was as if the city were dreaming about itself and crystallizing both that dream and the ethereal unreality of it.”
Despite all of its strengths, the book’s tone oscillates wildly as the action leaves New Venice to wander around the arctic wastes. For instance, a well-scripted horror scene featuring a group of undead explorers dubbed the “Phantom Patrol” awkwardly gives way to a utopian society living in a giant emerald embedded in the arctic permafrost. These tone changes take their toll on the main story, although the refreshingly revolutionary ending picks up the pace again, despite what I thought were sub-plots that were tied up a little too neatly (it read like a pale imitation of one of Neil Stephenson’s apocalyptic endings (The Diamond Age being the best example)).