Today finds me at El Paso Comic Con. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop into the convention center and visit me at Booth A15. Also today, I continue my look at Thomas Pynchon’s steampunk novel Against the Day. Part 2: Iceland Spar is nearly three times as long as Part 1 with an elaborate plot ranging the American continent and even the world. Since I want to tackle this part of the novel in one post, I’ll do my best to limit my summary to the highlights. Part 1 opened in 1893. Part 2 moves ahead to 1899 and opens up with the young airship adventurers, the Chums of Chance. The Chums have been sent to find the Voromance Expedition which has found a meteorite harboring a consciousness and a purpose. I found myself reminded of Legion from my Clockwork Legion novels. What’s more we meet an airship crewed by Russians, who are rivals of the Chums. We ultimately learn that the Voromance Expedition is being funded by the industrialist Scarsdale Vibe.
We then join Kit Traverse at Yale. Kit is the son of Webb Traverse, the anarchist and miner from Colorado in part 1. It turns out that Kit’s education is being funded by Scarsdale Vibe and that the industrialist sees Traverse as a better potential heir than his own children.
Jumping forward to 1900, we find private investigator Lew Basnight in Denver on the trail of a dynamiter called the Kieselghur Kid. During his quest, Basnight accidently ingests cyclomite dynamite, which proves to be a hallucinogen. Basnight become addicted and eventually teams up with a pair of Englishmen who take him back to the United Kingdom where he’ll get involved with a group called the True Worshipers of the Ineffable Tetractys, or TWIT. The Tetractys is a numerical pattern with spiritual significance and they want Basnight to join as a sort of psychic detective, believing he’s gained special sight from his ingestion of cyclomite.
Meanwhile, we return to the Chums of Chance, who are now in Venice looking for a map called the Sfinciuno Itinerary which dates from just after the time of Marco Polo. As they continue their quest, they find the Itinerary may not be a literal map but a guide to a spiritual quest. One of the keys is the Iceland Spar, which proves to be a lens made from calcite which has many strange properties explored by characters through this section of the novel. In particular, calcite has the property of “double refraction” as shown in the photo I took of a calcite crystal from my home state of New Mexico at the Smithsonian Institution earlier this month.
From here we move ahead to the period from 1903-4, about a decade after the novel’s start. We have an extended sequence out in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado following the family of the anarchist Webb Traverse and people connected to him. We learn about hired guns who kill Webb. Those same men end up getting involved with Webb’s estranged daughter, Lake. Meanwhile, Webb’s sons Frank and Reef vow to avenge their father. All through this section, there are hints that Webb or his son Frank may be none other than the famed Kieselghur Kid.
In the course of their quest, Frank Traverse meets Merle Rideout, the photographer from Part 1, who is now working as a chemist in the mines. Merle points out that Iceland Spar is useful to people engaged in alchemy. While they’re meeting, Frank finds out people are gunning for him. Merle’s daughter Dahlia helps him get away, then decides to make her fortune in New York. She ultimately becomes an actress for a sleezy vaudeville company run by Scarsdale Vibe’s brother and finds her mother Erlys who had run off with the magician Luca Zomboni. He uses Iceland Spar to help create optical illusions, but it also has the danger of creating duplicate people.
Also in New York, Frank and Reef’s brother Kit meets with Nikola Tesla and Dr. Vanderjuice. Kit begins to realize that Scarsdale Vibe may have been responsible for hiring his father’s killers. Kit looks for a way to get out from under Vibe’s thumb and asks to go to Germany to continue his study in mathematics. Vibe, who seems a bit relieved not to have Kit nearby agrees to pay for his journey.
At this point we return west and follow Reef Traverse, who has become fascinated with dynamite and finds himself associated with the Kieselghur Kid. After someone tries to kill him with an avalanche, he heads east and finds himself in New Orleans. Once again, I find a fun parallel with my Clockwork Legion series. We leave Reef traveling to Genoa, Italy with a group of anarchists.
It’s now 1904 and we return once again to Colorado to follow the adventures of Reef’s brother Frank who is on the run from the people trying to kill him. Frank flees to Mexico and finds himself arrested on political crimes. He’s eventually able to break out of prison and meets up with three Tarahumare people who lead him on a spiritual quest worthy of Carlos Castaneda. During this episode, he learns that Iceland Spar has the property of duplicating places. Frank goes off on his own again and catches up with Sloat Fresno, one of the men who killed his father. Frank succeeds in killing him, but the other killer is nowhere to be found.
Finally, while the Chums of Chance are taking a vacation in New York, they learn about a professor who has built a time machine. Following up on that, two of the boys take a trip to a frightening apocalyptic future and then seek more information about time travel. They find themselves at a conference of professors interested in time travel in the Midwest. After this adventure, the chums are sent to Asia to continue their search for the Sfinciuno Itinerary. Along the way, they discover a device that can allow them to travel through sand the way a ship travels through water, which was funded by Scarsdale Vibe.
Whew! All that and I’m not even halfway through the novel! Since I’m writing these posts as I read, it’s distinctly possible that I’m not covering things that will prove to be important and giving too much emphasis to minor plot points. Still, it continues to be an interesting, if challenging read. In part 2, we see more women taking an active role. I love the way Pynchon weaves together all these disparate plot elements and it’s fascinating to see how he sets a lot of the novel in locations I would later visit in the Clockwork Legion series. You can learn more about my series at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion
That sounds like an intriguing novel. I’ve read cyberpunk style science fiction but I don’t I’ve read steam punk.
It is. Pynchon isn’t exactly an easy read, but I find he rewards the effort. I’m not sure if Against the Day is the steampunk novel I’d start with. Read some Gail Garriger, Cherrie Priest, K.W. Jeter — or heck, even David Lee Summers — first to get a sense of the genre. If you like it, then dive into Pynchon.
Thank you very much for the advice David
What an odyssey, and they’re just getting started.
It definitely is. I just finished part 3 and I’m getting ready to embark on part 4. Breaks do help. It’s a good read but not a fast or light one!