There are poorly written books, and then there is The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann (born 1978).
We have admitted in the past our admiration for well-written science fiction. (Apologia coming.) Many of the finest adventure novels of the past hundred or so years fall into that category of fiction, and there are several important contemporary novels that inhabit the genre as well -- consider Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, for example. The science fiction genre is plagued by myriad problems, including a rabid and largely unintelligent fan-base, a surfeit of series novels and/or novelized movies and television shows, and an uneasy alliance with comic books. Add to that list of ills a slew of subgenres within science fiction that do little to help elevate the field to literature, and you have a pretty mess.
One of these subgenres is steampunk, which is one of those concepts that sound delicious on paper, but always fall flat in execution. For the uninitiated, steampunk is the reimagining of a historical period (almost always the Victorian era), altered by a different strain of scientific progress. In steampunk it’s not impossible to find steam powered robots attending the Queen, for instance, or airships robbed by the James gang. The major problem with the subgenre is that it is almost always … silly. More damning, steampunk seems to always be written by people who learned all they know about the Victorian era or European history from comic books, bad television shows, or other, silly steampunk novels. Those who are familiar with an actual historical era are more than happy to swallow any number of 007-type gadgets if the small historical details are observed. Otherwise, the whole subgenre is just thrillers in bad fancy dress.
Which brings us to The Affinity Bridge. In Mann’s novel, consulting detectives Newbury (interested in the occult, takes drugs, ripped off from Sherlock Homes) and his sidekick, Hobbes (Mrs. Emma Peel in a bustle) investigate a crashed airship, a series of ghost-policemen murders, and a plague of zombies. (Yes, you read that right.) Now, there is nothing at all wrong with puffery like this … when it’s well written. When it’s poorly written, the results are excruciating.
Mann’s grip of both dialog and prose is loose at best. Characters speak in the most stilted manner imaginable (thank heavens for ‘he said/she said,” or we would never know who is speaking), and the prose has a studied artificiality, as if that is somehow “Victorian.” One wonders if Mann has actually read the great popular writers of the era, who are as fresh and exciting today as they were in fin de siècle Britain. There is nothing in the prose of such writers as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or H. Rider Haggard that does not read easy and contemporary – creating layers of faux artifice is not “Victorian,” it’s simply bad writing.
This bad faux Victoriana is largely the fault of comic book scribe Alan Moore (born 1953), whose stories about The League of Extraordinary Gentleman read more like parody of bad Victorian women’s books rather than a pastiche of more accomplished thrillers. Steampunk has followed Moore's lead with dire results. He has much to answer for.
Opening the book at random, here is Mann at his ham-fisted best:
Newbury glanced at Veronica, a sardonic expression on his face, and then turned his attention to Inspector Foulkes. “Do you know if Sir Charles will be attending the scene?”
“Not initially, sir. He has ceded responsibility for the case to me for the time being. He’s still caught up in this damnable Whitechapel situation. They found another body this morning.”
“Indeed. Miss Hobbes and I were present at the scene.” He glanced back at Stokes, who was attempting to clean the dirt from his shoes by rubbing them on the grass. “Do you know how long it’s been since the vessel came down?”
The other man didn’t look up from his ministrations. “Witnesses are reporting seeing the vessel come down between ten and ten thirty this morning.” He emitted a tutting sound as he continued to rub the side of his shoe on the wet grass, to no avail.
Newbury flushed red. “Damn it, man! Fifty people are dead! Show some decency, and pay attention to the issue at hand.”
All of the pointless stage-managing goes on for page after page (including a servant who is sitting in his master’s home – harder to believe than zombies! – with his hands behind his back; try that at home), and none of it ever crackles. From an eighth grader with literary aspirations, it would be promising. From a published author, it’s simply sad.
Here is the truly amazing thing about it all – Mann worked as an editor for Outland Magazine. Yes, a man who writes likes this edited the work of other people for a living … A development more astounding than anything to be found in The Affinity Bridge.