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.