Review: Cairo by Gaslight

Cairo by Gaslight may not be the book you want it to be.

cairo by gaslight“Evoking the mystic Orient, eh?” (Alexandra Bartoli, “Cairo Delight”)

A common fallacy of literary criticism is to write about the book the critic would have written using the same material rather than the book as it was actually written. Such criticism usually starts, “If this had been my book…” or “If I had written this book, I would have…” But of course, the critic didn’t; if they feel that way, their response should not be criticism, but writing the story as they saw it (I have done this once or twice). To approach a book as a critic, it is necessary to try and intuit the intent of the author from what exists on the page; only then can the critic reasonably attempt to explore: a) whether the author achieved what they had been aiming for, and; b) whether the goal was worthwhile or flawed.

I was reminded of this while reading Cairo By Gaslight, because early on I began to suspect that it wasn’t the book I would have liked it to be, a feeling that proved to be the case. I have no doubt that the collection of eleven steampunk short stories and two poems set in Cairo achieved exactly what the editor had in mind, but I believe that there was something fundamentally flawed with the book’s conception.

None of the stories is told from the point of view of an Egyptian; in fact, with the exception of the Queen in Jay Wilburn’s story “Grain,” none of the stories has a serious native antagonist, either. The stories generally focus on foreigners (mostly British) having adventures in Cairo. This exoticizes the location without actually engaging with its reality.

Consider this description from Damir Salkovic’s “The Infernal Device:” “Here hawkers and street-peddlers sang praises to their wares and beggars sat in the dust, mutilated and diseased limbs held out in mute supplication; carpet merchants sat under colourful awnings, drinking tea and haggling, and dirty children played and screeched in dilapidated courtyards and yellowing ruins of houses.” This is common of many passages in the book: it’s okay as description, but it’s stereotypical, as if the author was working from an exotic myth of Cairo rather than trying to find original telling details that would bring the actual city to life.

I suspect that the point of the collection is to evoke the aura of the pulp magazine stories of foreign places. The problem with this strategy is that you can’t write a story in 2015 the way they did in the 1930s; too much history has passed, our understanding of our place in the world has changed. When we look at the stories of that era, we can look at the cultural assumptions built into their fabric (such as the natural primacy of the British Empire) and claim with a shrug that, “That’s just the way they saw the world – they didn’t know any better.” This is a debatable point: inasmuch as we like to think that artists have the ability to transcend their society’s prejudices, many people would like to believe that writers can rise above and dissect them. In fact, this is quite rare. In any case, writers in 2015 do not have this excuse: we know better.

Setting this issue aside, I will say that there is much to enjoy in Cairo by Gaslight. Three of the stories (Matt Creswell’s “Antonia and Cleopatra,” editor Brandon Black’s “Camryn Bey and the Yeti From Mars” and Gary Bourgeois’ “Ransom at Crocodile Bay”) were hilarious. The military officer in “Antonia and Cleopatra” was straight out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The plot of “Camryn Bey,” which involves a Martian yeti conniving to steal Earth’s water, was deliriously inventive, and not a little bit demented (but I mean that in a good way). The husband and wife team at the heart of “Ransom at Crocodile Bay” were delightfully droll.

In his forward to the collection, Black talked about Cairo as “a major international port, an exotic destination for travellers from the world over and a cultural centre for all the many people around her…” This is most manifest in “The Infernal Device,” a story about British, American, Russian and spies of other nationalities all vying for plans for a machine that would help them dominate the world. It is also the only story that directly refers to “the muezzin’s cries at dawn,” which, given that it happens at least five times a day, I would have thought would have been commonly referred to in stories set in Cairo.

Garrett Piglia’s “Days of End Conquest” has a fascinating antagonist: the four horsemen of the apocalypse reconceived as great mechanical beasts of destruction. The story is cleverly constructed as a series of letters written by two soldiers whose job is to protect Cairo from destruction by one of the beasts; the two points of view sometimes compliment each other, sometimes contradict each other. One nice touch of the story was that occasionally, a word was struck through, as sometimes happens when you’re handwriting a note in a hurry.

I was also taken with “The Gods Return,” an amusing time travel story. The main character, Evelyn Grimwood, is a member of the Atlantic Alliance of Chronometric Transportation & Regulation, which chronicles the adventures of Victorian era time travelers. Since the story purports to be a report by Grimwood to the AACTR, she is listed as the author (although a simple Web search confirms that it is not the author’s real name); it is an interesting conceit. Grimwood has a nice way with language: her time travelers, for example, are called “anachronauts,” a concession to the idea that traveling in time cannot help but involve anachronisms.

There are a couple of flaws in the story. “As our chronometric transporters function by isolating the vibrations associated with the movement of time to a specific destination frequency, by necessity they move in time, not space. All anachronauts must take care to choose a physical location for departure that will, in fact, exist in the intended arrival time, either future or past,” Grimwood wrote. Better that she hadn’t opened up this can of worms, because while her explanation may take into account the Earth’s spin, it doesn’t take into account the movement of the solar system around the galaxy, or the galaxy through space. The explanation actually undermines the point Grimwood is trying to make.

Worse: because Grimwood is relating a tale that is being told to her, “The Gods Return” is a very static story told as a conversation. If Mrs. Grimwood intends to be the chronicler of the tales of time travel the way Dr. Watson was the chronicler of the cases of Sherlock Holmes, she needs to get involved with the time travel itself, not just hear about it after the fact.

The same problem occurs in “Cairo Delight:” the main concept (the creation of a steam-powered vibrator) was great, but it was described almost entirely in dialogue, the worst kind of telling rather than showing. The story suffers from other problems: because it takes place in a single room, it could have been set just about anywhere; its complete failure to engage with Cairo seems to go against the point of the anthology. Also, although I have no problem with kinky content per se, to my mind issues of incest and slavery detracted from what was really interesting about the story.

Finally, the occasional anachronism crept into the anthology. In “Last Throw of the Dice;” for example, Matthew Wilson used the phrase, “If you man up.” However, according to the New York Times, the phrase originated in 1947, long after the Victorian era. Or, to use another example: “These people won’t listen, though. It could be the  stupidity, but then again denial is the first stage of grief” (“Days of End Conquest”). But, the stages of grief weren’t really explored until the 1960s. It could be argued that, since these stories are essentially alternate histories, the phrases could have existed in the depicted alternate timelines. Still, they are jarring.

For people without my political qualms (you know who you are), Cairo by Gaslight will prove to be a largely enjoyable romp. For people who share my political qualms, Cairo by Gaslight will still be fun, but with a formidable asterisk.

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