Aurorarama: Jean-Christophe Valtat



Dang, I am translating so many books! Ironically, this is the reason I have not been reading so many books these days. By the time I am done banging out page after page of comic after novel, my fingers are tingling, my wrists are aching, and all my good intentions to devote myself to this blog and sit down to further hammer out words for these pages have long flown out the window and down to the street below to get a beer at the pub on the corner. In case you were wondering, here are some of the paying projects that have taken precedence over my ramblings about books here.  And one project that I am very excited about that I still can’t say anything about. Oh, NDA! How you thwart my intentions to be open and honest!

But I think I may just have everything under control as long as nothing unexpected happens. Which it won’t, of course. My life will smoothly run along the course I have plotted out for it. Should be fine. So my brain can finally get back to what’s important: snarking about things in books that bug it. Or maybe that will just be today’s book. Normally, we try not to be too snarky because even when something has its problems, they do not outshine the merits of the book. Like back when I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.The just-so-ness of so much of it really bugged me, but the story captivated me and made my plane ride one hundred percent better. But Aurorarama, as intriguing a tale it may tell in a fairly fascinating and well-built world, made me want to pluck my eyeballs from my head, so egregious were its crimes. 

Although I guess it is really just the one crime this story commits. Over and over and over for more than four hundred pages. And if you have been following my brain for any amount of time, you can probably guess what it is. So if you said “representations of women”, a gold star to you, my friend! My reading notes for this book were in quadruple exclamation territory by the end. If you do not want a story with any ladies with any agency of any kind, then this is the book you should pick up right now. If, however, like me, you prefer to read about worlds where men do not spontaneously pop fully formed from the ether, you might want to give this one a pass. Because however entertaining the story is, the treatment/lack of female characters will make you want to stab people. 

The proof of how entertaining the story is in the fact that I actually read this book all the way to the end, despite how increasingly incredulous I became at the female character action. New Venice is a utopian city in the arctic, all steampunk style, airships and pneumatic tubes, ruled by the Council of Seven and the Arctic Administration, who are increasingly at odds with each other and provide one of the threads of the political power struggle at the heart of the story. Naturally, this being around the turn of the last century, this utopia is mostly filled with white Europeans, and the conflict with the native Inuit is another of the thread of that struggle. A couple other threads are a ghost from a magic city hidden at the North Pole and a sea goddess pulling strings, so you know, it’s not all council meetings and what have you. 

Brentford and his supposedly close friend Gabriel are the protagonists of the tale in that alternating chapter structure that I kind of hate, but which mostly worked for me here. Basically because Jean-Christophe Valtat is a hell of a writer and not even a native English speaker. If I could write this well in Japanese, I would be high-fiving myself all the time. Passages like this had me re-reading them over and over again with delight:

Another nerve snapped (he wondered with curiosity when he would reqach the last one, but there always seemed to be something more in him that could be severed, crumpled, trampled, or broken), and he remembered Brentford’s wedding as, if not a good idea, a good excuse to get out of the house. 

The subculture in New Venice is especially interesting and reminded me a bit of Francesca Lia Block’s Ecstasia with its many magical drugs and underground band scene. We mostly see this subculture through the eyes of Gabriel, who is some kind of nobility, but in the old-fashioned broke/debauched way, so he hangs out in clubs, does drugs, drinks too much, and then goes to his job as a professor at the university in the morning. Brentford is the more “upstanding” of the two friends, in charge of the greenhouse that feeds the people of the city, and a bureaucrat. But he’s also the anonymous author of a book calling for revolution in a city that has grown complacent and corrupt. 

The story swings way left as it trots out social justice and racism and authoritarianism and even anarchism as it runs along from unrest to revolution–Valtat even refers to the Inuit as such saving “Eskimo” for a kind of racist epithet, which it is now, but wasn’t at the turn of the twentieth century–and yet somehow manages to run splat up against the wall of teh ladeez. The first female character doesn’t even appear until fifty pages in, after we are introduced to five male characters with significant roles. The first woman who gets any screen time at all is the singer Sybil, Brentford’s fiancee, and he makes sure to note that while she is beautiful, he hates everything that she does. Gabriel also mentions how he dislikes Sybil’s band while grudgingly admitting that she is pretty bangable. 

It’s one thing to make your main characters guys, and another thing to actively hate on any female characters you introduce, which seems to be what Valtat does. Other female characters include Lillian, who is literally helped to her feet by Brentford on her first introduction to the story and later serves as a woman who is still pretty hot, but also has a squad of hot chicks under her looking to incite rebellion. Good thing Brentford is around to lead that charge! And later on, Valtat actually makes Sybil into a full-fledged object, not just an implied one: “Everything around him–lustre, smiles, candles, Sybil, jewels, eyes, glasses–seemed to dazzle, glitter, or glint when it did not twinkle or sparkle.” There is no other person in that sentence; Sybil is on the level of a candle in this story. 

It is just endless here. Women are nothing more than objects men possess/are motivated by. Like Gabriel’s lover, Stella, the second woman with any lines. It turns out she was playing him all anarchist-style and she is really the girlfriend of one of the anarchists. She might be an anarchist, but she is an anarchist who belongs to someone other than Gabriel and that is what we’re going to focus on here.  Even as she is running off to carry out the anarchist plot for revolution, Stella is nothing but a sexual object. Right before placing some serious bomb-type weapons, “[s]he took off her crocheted hat and shook out her corkscrew curls in a moment of pure terrorist eroticism.” She might be a terrorist, but she is so erotic! All! The! Time!

There are, as you might expect in a work this blind to half of the population, other characterization issues. Gabriel and Brentford are stated to be close friends and yet they never act in a way that implies any kind of closeness whatsoever. When Gabriel goes missing for several days, Brentford simply notes the fact without anything remotely resembling worry. They never have any real conversations and merely react to events around them occasionally in proximity to each other, which is I guess what counts for friendship in New Venice. 

Despite the fact that I had been enjoying the story and the various flourishes that Valtat is so good at adding in just the right places, by the halfway mark, I was more spite reading than anything else. I did want to see how things turned out because dang, this is an entertaining story, but I also wanted to see just how terrible representations of people without penises would get. And they do get pretty terrible. So, uh, maybe just hate read this one? Or leave it on the shelf entirely? Your call. 


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