Cyber Circus – Kim Lakin-Smith

The circus and the carnival seem to be very popular subjects in sf again at present, perhaps in part because of the recent reinvention of steampunk. There has been a whole slew of novels , among them Geneieve Valentine’s Mécanique, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe, and Kim Lakin-Smith’s Cyber Circus.

Cyber Circus is something of a misnomer for what appears to be a steam-powered flying vessel which is also a fully equipped circus. It does not appear to be an airship but neither is it a plane. The cover illustration suggests a ship with the big top acting also as a sail, which only goes to show how strangely difficult it is to visual so extraordinary a object, particularly given some of the feats it will later perform, such as travelling through underground tunnels. While Lakin-Smith does describe its various features it remains difficult to get a sense of it as an entity. Whether or not this is intentional, I don’t know. One would like to believe that the circus perhaps has some kind of strange interdimensionality to account for this elusiveness, but given what takes place in the rest of the novel, I doubt this is so. Similarly, it would be pointless to query the physics of the Cyber Circus’s ability to fly. Fictional physics is very accommodating, so the Cyber Circus does what the novel requires of it.

Indeed, the technology of this alternative 1930s dustbowl America is generally a little difficult to grasp. Genetic engineering seems to exist in some sort of haphazard fashion, likewise cybernetic engineering that doesn’t rely on steam power. Various characters have been altered and enhanced, but rather crudely, and it is clear there is a thriving street trade in body parts, blood and so forth. Quite where all this comes from is unclear; again, it exists to drive along the plot and it is pretty much pointless to query this strange mish-mash of background details.

The Cyber Circus itself seems to own its inspiration in part to Jonathan Dark’s carnival in Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and in part to Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao. The literary circus and carnival traditionally signify disruption to the conventional social order, to the extent that they are almost institutionally transgressive. They appear out of nowhere, providing glamour, strange wonders, a break from the normal routine, but also offering the possibilities of temptation or moral redemption. The circus, we are led to understand, is a force for change. Nothing can ever be quite the same after such a visit.

In Cyber Circus, we travel with its performers, and it is outsiders who represent a threat. In this instance, D’Angelus, a brothel-keeper, is anxious to reclaim his property, Nim, an enhanced woman who travels with the circus. Quite how she left D’Angelus is not clear but what is clear is that D’Angelus anticipates a fight to get her back, not least because he has also decided to steal Rust the Wolf-Girl. Hellequin, the Hawkeye, an enhanced soldier, and Pig Heart, a man who is now part pig, having received a pig’s heart, are equally determined to stop them, Hellequin because he is somehow in love with Nim, while Pig Heart loves Rust. That it is Pig Heart who has betrayed the circus to D’Angelus so that he can retrieve Nim is beside the point.

When D’Angelus and his men are turned off the circus vessel without their prizes, they determine to take their revenge and follow the Cyber Circus in a digging machine, from which they stage a series of attacks on the circus folk, trying again to kidnap Nim and Rust. And this is where the novel’s problems really begin because that, pretty much, is the plot, although for variety various other members of the circus crew are held captive and then rescued. As I noted with <God’s War last night, it is as though the plot can only be moved forward by an act of violence, which means that the narrative is mostly a repetitive series of acts of violence, with occasional interpolations, such as a sudden recollection by Hellequin of his early life. The final showdown in the underground cavern ever-so-slightly rings the changes, because at last something different is happening – here, the Scuttlers, a group of genetically altered insect-like children, assist in the watering of the circus vessel by dragging a hose to the lake and discover a ghostly man, the one-time fiancé of the mysterious Zen monk who has previously boarded the circus and been revealed as a woman, and the two are finally reunited, while the Scuttlers themselves find a sanctuary that until that moment I hadn’t realised they wanted.

The circus meanwhile sails off across the horizon, but the magic has dissipated, and not I think as part of an intentional act on the writer’s part. It is more as though it has dwindled away because there is nothing left to do with it. There is no sense of cathartic release or of redemption; the circus just keeps on going, not even providing a metaphor for the relentlessness or hopelessness of life.

The problem is not so much that the plot is disorganised, although it does seem to flail at times, more that knowledge and events are brought into play only at the moment they’re needed rather than the groundwork being laid earlier in the novel ready for their emergence at the appropriate moment. And so much is focused on the chase that there seems to be little left to spare for more firmly defining the characters on the page. Yes, we learn things about them but rarely as a natural development of the plot. In fact, the characters are quite fascinating but much more needs to be done with them. At present they stand against a backdrop of ‘atmospheric’ writing’ that doesn’t always make sense and do comparatively little.

The biggest pity of this is that Lakin-Smith is quite clearly capable of producing something so much better. Cyber Circus is accompanied by a short story, ‘Black Sunday’, set in the same alternate universe, and prior to Cyber Circus. It is everything the novel is not: tightly written, good characterisation, strong plotting, and a much greater sense that Lakin-Smith understands her world, physics and all. If she could only have brought this into Cyber Circus it would have been so much better. As it, the novel reads like a short story stretched too thinly, while the short story is much more satisfying to read.

6 thoughts on “Cyber Circus – Kim Lakin-Smith

  1. Jonathan M

    There's a class of trope which, though once grounded in reality, has long since ceased to exist as anything other than a trope and a literary conceit.Examples of this trope include things like evil parkies and slap-up feeds in comics (taken from a time when rationing and park attendants actually existed) but also sinister and chaotic circuses.As you correctly point out, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Carnivale tap into the idea of circuses as chaotic eruptions in otherwise very settled and grindingly mundane lives. To a small town American without TV or the capacity to travel, circuses must have seemed terrifyingly exotic, hence the suggestion that circuses might well be ambiguous entities.The problem is that circuses are no longer all that common or all that exotic and people are now more likely to encounter circuses in fiction than they are in real life. Thus the sinister circus is a trope that exists purely as a trope… a remnant of a bygone age stripped of resonance and meaning. Symbol of a literary culture that prefers the familiarity of old ideas to the challenge of creating new ones.I don't doubt that the novel itself is weak for the reasons you suggest but I think there is something particularly shit about writing a novel about a weird and sinister circus in this day and age.

  2. Paul Kincaid

    As Maureen says, though, the circus is enjoying something of a renaissance as a trope of fantastic fiction. And I wonder if the reason is the very fact that it is a trope without referent. These authors are not writing about the world today, but about the world they first encountered in books. It is a deliberately retrospective if not regressive, and hence conservative, form that is becoming the new dominant in sf and fantasy.

  3. Maureen Kincaid Speller

    Picking up on what Paul says, I've been reading this resurgence in interest in fictional circuses as part of the broader steampunk reinvention, which I read in turn as yet another expression of a post-millenial nostalgia, particularly given the emphasis on a visual rather than a literary aesthetic. And nostalgia in turn suggests a reaching for comforting images, hence the conservatism, the familiarity, that both Paul and I currently perceive in a lot of sf and fantasy, a form of transgression that can be safely carried out and we can still be home in time for tea. We are, if you like, in the 21st century version of the long Edwardian afternoon, except that the war that threatens is economic rather than territorial. Which makes me wonder in turn if sf is now afraid to consider a future that doesn't involve an apocalypse.

  4. Jonathan M

    Paul — Regressive as you say… I think the return of the circus may well be part of an emerging tendency to write genre fiction about genre fiction. Unsettling parallels with the world of US comics where the story of Batman has been told and retold so many times that the culture is almost hermetically sealed. Nobody is interested in making Batman relevant to the modern world, it's all about reacting against the last guy who was successful writing Batman stories. If Batman is dark, let us write his as heroic! If Superman is light, let us write him as tortured and conflicted. Reading US comics is increasingly like looking at Christian artwork; you can see what they're doing with the symbols and understand why they're doing it but the artwork itself is so removed from contemporary sensibilities that it is emotionally dead. My concern is that this type of regressive trope-wrangling may well be sending SF down a similar rabbit hole.Maureen — I think nostalgia is a somewhat misleading term as steampunk's appeal lies precisely in the fact that the past it harkened back to never existed in the first place. I see steampunk as a form of historical colonialism whereby people with modern sensibilities construct fictional versions of the past where contemporary tastes and values held sway. Thus, white people can look to a fictional past and feel pride and meaning rather than shame and a desire to distance oneself from one's roots.To put this in more personal terms – I went to my dad's last year and he had a painting of his grandfather holding up a severed fox's head. I felt a good deal of shame and alienation from this painting because I see none of my values or priorities in that family legacy. One way of responding to that alienation would be to own it and say 'I am not like my great grandfather' but another way of dealing with it would be to create a fictional great-grandmother who was an academic or a humanitarian. Now, I know that no such great-grandmother exists but there's more comfort to be had in myth than there is in the unpleasant truth that my family are a bunch of moneyed psychopaths who murdered animals for fun. I think the desire to reclaim fictional pasts (whether it be that of steampunk or that of elves and vampires favoured by otherkin) is key to the appeal of steampunk.

  5. Paul Kincaid

    One of the reasons I am coming to believe that science fiction is an exhausted genre is precisely the way it is becoming hermetically sealed. Far too much of the science fiction we see these days, and particularly the sf that wins popular acclaim, is inward turning: sf about sf. Steampunk is, I think, not the only but probably the most visible symptom of this. I don't think it is nostalgic exactly, but neither do I think that historical colonialism quite nails it. I think a large part of the appeal of steampunk is visual, it is playing with technology that is big and visible and full of bright surfaces (as opposed to, say, the invisible digital technology we encounter every day). It is, I suspect, a way of being afraid of the future, rather than any movement into the past.

  6. Jonathan M

    I shall have to think about the idea of future fear as it ties up with something else I've been thinking about lately.Reading your comment, I'm reminded of Gary Wolfe's collection of essays and how he claims that SFF is really healthy because, unlike crime and horror, SFF blurs the line between genres. Wolfe is certainly right about the tendency of genre writing to be derivative and there are just as many books reworking The Big Sleep as there are books retelling Call of Cthulhu. However, what he fails to realise is that while SF and Fantasy have managed to evade the ossification that comes from sticking to a single key text, both genres are well on the way to ossifying themselves by borrowing from each other.Clearly, there is something wrong with crime's struggle to move past Chandler but I'm not sure Hamilton and Vinge re-working Lord of the Rings to produce bloated space operatic epics is much of an improvement. Similarly, I'm not sure Mieville's eye-catching willingness to insert SFnal techniques into Fantasy is all that healthy either. Both movements are regressive and based on the assumption that the people who read SF also read fantasy and so will be able to 'get' the in-jokes and understand the techniques in use.Post-modernity is undeniably clever but it is also a sign of cultural decay and acceptance that there is nothing new to say except to comment on the stuff that which has already been said.

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