Two Books: Eighty Days, Steelheart

This month, I took a trip around the world (traveling East-to-West and West-to-East), plus delved into steel catacombs underneath what was left of Chicago. Take a look, it’s in a book… (Points if you can finish that line.)

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman.

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I first learned about the turn-of-the-century “girl reporter” Nellie Bly from one of the white-backed Value Tales books in my church library.

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In an era where women still weren’t welcome in most professions, Nellie dared to become a reporter for the New York paper The World.

At age twenty-five, she declared that she could race around the world faster than the hero of Jules Verne’s bestseller, Around the World in Eighty Days. And she did, too: she made it in seventy-two days. She makes for good story material.

I’m also fascinated by that time of history. From 1880 – 1920, America saw astonishing technological advances: telegraphs, elevators, skyscrapers, luxury steamships, and that great conqueror of America’s vast landscape, the steam locomotive. We, looking back, scoff at what they considered amazing. But in truth, it was pretty grand, and Americans were pretty darn sure they had arrived.

So when I was casting about for something to read—nonfiction being my first choice for “a little light reading”—I decided to look into that era.

This book was a treasure of a find.

As I said, I knew something about Nellie—including that her name wasn’t actually “Nellie Bly.” It was customary then for women to write under pen names, and she took this one from a song by Stephen Foster, who also wrote “O, Susannah” and “Dixie.” (Don’t look up Stephen Foster songs. They’re gallingly racist. But very catchy!) What I didn’t know was that she wasn’t the only woman who tried to race around the world in fewer than eighty days.

Elizabeth Bisland wrote for a New York magazine, The Cosmopolitan. It might actually be the same one as today’s Cosmopolitan, you know, the one that has a metal shield to hide its cover on grocery store racks. It was, in case you’re wondering, a very different publication in 1889. Both The World and The Cosmopolitan saw the chance to boost their circulation, so the day after Nellie set off heading East, Elizabeth boarded a train heading West.

The story has an inherent conflict—obviously Nellie won, so what happened to Elizabeth? The women themselves made for interesting reading. They visited many of the same cities, but their impressions were different because they were so different. Nellie was a peppery, brisk Pennsylvania woman with just enough education to get her the fame she wanted. Elizabeth was a lyrical, poetic Louisiana woman, highly intelligent (she taught herself French), who only wanted to be able to support herself with her writing.

But the book is much more than just the trip around the world, or even the two women. Goodman is a fantastic author. He definitely passes my “stuck at a dinner table” test. He discusses American race relations (the Chinese were much feared and despised at that time; “Negros” were only a few years beyond slavery), technology, the class system, etiquette, food, and transportation. He takes everything from writings of the times, including the women’s opinions and reactions throughout their trip, so it rings very true. He narrates everything in a readable prose, choosing particularly interesting, illuminating details for his topics.

If you’re a nonfiction fan, or if you want to know more about the life of Americans (and other nationalities, as seen through American eyes) a century ago, I’d suggest you read this book. Oh, heck, I suggest it regardless. It’s a good read.

*

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson.

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Don’t recommend stuff to me. No, I’m serious. Either I’ll like it and discuss it endlessly (see: Radio encyclopedias, Nellie Bly), or I won’t like it and will pick it apart mercilessly.

Occasionally, though, someone will try it and I’ll accept. My friend Swanson the Second recommended Steelheart to me. DJ likes it, Bookgirl likes it… I figured it was worth trying. I jumped in all ready to suspend my usual judgey ways and just enjoy the story.

Me and Sanderson, we go way back. I read Elantris years ago, and chewed it into little bits (figuratively speaking, in case you wondered). But as much as the writing tormented me, the story was great. Later, I read two of the Mistborn books. By this time, I don’t remember much about the writing, but I certainly liked his ideas and his storytelling. And it’s not like he has to care what I think, seeing as he produces a million published words a year.

So. I picked up Steelheart.

It’s set in a world where some ordinary people suddenly gain superpowers. Unfortunately, none of them goes in for heroism. They claim their own kingdoms, kill wantonly, and lay waste to the world. In what used to be Chicago, one of the most powerful “Epics” reigns supreme: Steelheart. He’s got an impressive catalogue of powers, including invincibility to harm, the ability to fly, energy blasts from his hands, and the power to turn non-living matter into steel. But every Epic has a weakness; a team ordinary humans who call themselves the Reckoners have dedicated their lives to finding out those weaknesses and killing the Epics. But nobody knows what Steelheart’s weakness is.

Eighteen-year-old David has two burning passions in life: to join the Reckoners, and to kill Steelheart.

If you read this book, you’ll probably like it. I’m basing this on the assumption that you’re not me.

This really isn’t a novel, it’s a TV show in print. All the scenes are constructed with a viewing audience in mind, and in Sanderson’s favor, he’s really good at it. You can see the dramatic pauses, the slow-motion moments, hear the theme music in the background. It makes for snappy action and quick reading.

And lazy writing.

Sanderson has two default techniques to move his story along: Exhaustive Explanations and Retroactive Justification.

Exhaustive Explanation is exactly what it sounds like. Sanderson’s narrator, David, chatters at the reader endlessly. In the first chapter, we spend three pages running through the steel understreets of former Chicago, while David explains the history, geography, and current social norms of his world. And he never lets up. He’s always there to point stuff out, or explain why somebody said something, or how something works.

A good example was this moment, when David is listening to a conversation between the Professor, or “Prof,” and his research assistant, Tia.

 “Jon,” said Tia, addressing Prof. His real name, probably.

See, I actually figured out it was his real name without being told. Either that, or it’s a special “thing” between Prof and Tia for Tia to call him by a different name periodically.

“Dave,” said Tia. “I found something odd.”

“Sebastian,” said Tia. “I pulled up those files you needed.”

“Sir Percival d’Courcey,” said Tia. “Please put your pants on.”

So David explains everything, all the time. I eventually wanted to put my hand over David’s mouth and say, “Shhh! Hush! I’m trying to read!”

Retroactive Justification was a trick Sanderson used a lot. It goes like this: there’s a problem with the story—something is implausible or doesn’t fit the world. So Sanderson tosses in a comment justifying that it really does work like that, and goes on.

For instance, all the characters, even the ones running covert assassination operations, use mobile phones. Which poses all kinds of questions about availability and security. So Sanderson fixes that by having David say, “I mean, everyone knew that the Knighthawk Foundry was neutral, and that mobile connections were completely secure.” Never mind that this is a city ruled by a supervillain who routinely killed people just for effect. He’s totally cool with having the only mobile-phone server remain neutral and not allow him access to their data.

(Just to make the problem even fixeder, David later mentions that actually the underground rebel band uses only private lines among themselves, not the public lines. Or something.)

But I was trying to shrug off these irritations for the sake of the story, which really is interesting. Even the fact that it’s a running gag that David is really bad at coming up with metaphors, when in fact every example was actually a simile. Or that Tia is always drinking cola, leading one to wonder how there’s still a soft-drink factory in operation. Or that another character, emphasizing her superiority over David, leans back in her chair and sips lemonade… lemonade, in an underground steel catacombs where they have to hide because they’ll be killed on contact if they’re caught? Who is making these remarkable supply runs? I’d think that would be an interesting story in and of itself.

But Sanderson outlasted my charity when he created a Southern character who used “y’all” in the singular. “Y’all” is a contraction of “you all,” and is always plural. It’s also not an obscure word; lots of people use it, and it’s googleable. It poked me in the eye every time the character used it, and I couldn’t take him seriously. Which meant I lost my battle to take the rest of the story seriously.

“Maybe you just don’t get Sanderson,” Swanson the Second pointed out.

Okay, granted. I lost out on a lot of fun because I was distracted by details like how Tia and Megan had such beautifully styled hair in this dystopian underground world. “Maybe not,” I said. “Maybe if I got him, I wouldn’t be confused when David compares himself to someone bringing bad shrimp cocktail to a party—when as far as I know, he’s never had shrimp cocktail or been to a party!”

Second replied, “I’m never recommending anything to you again.”

That’s a good policy.

And most people would probably like this book.

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