Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of 'The Innocent's Progress' by Peter Tupper

Peter Tupper is one of those writers whose work I actively seek out. His name on a story is a virtual guarantee of rewarding literary experience, originality, craftsmanship, and illumination on many levels. I first became aware of his writing through the short story Upgrade, which was included in the Gabrielle Harbowy-edited Jacked In: Transhumanist Erotica. In my 2014 review of that superb anthology, I wrote:

Upgrade is a beautiful, melancholy, elegiac but ultimately uplifting tale of one man’s final memories of physical sensation before transitioning to a new form, leaving behind and transcending the body in order to become a being of pure intellect. But not abandoning human curiosity.  “When there is no possibility of loss,” Tupper tells us, “action becomes trivial. Even if we can’t die, We can feel fear, and feel even more ashamed because of that fear. We need to try new things. We need to find something that scares Us.”

The story stayed with me in a powerful way, and I simply could not rest until I'd read more. Earlier this year I was able to download Tupper's erotic steampunk masterpiece, The Innocent's Progress as well as two collections, each including one of his short stories; these were Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (edited by J. Blackmore) and Touched By Death (edited by D.M Atkins). Tupper's story The Change of the Soul from this latter anthology is also available separately. I will offer a more in-depth review of the two collections in a later post, with due attention paid to the other contributors as well. 

I should also note that Tupper has recently published an important work of nonfiction, Our Lives, Our History: consensual master/slave relationships from ancient times to the 21st century which will no doubt be of interest and considerable value to those writing historical BDSM erotica. 

At first glance, The Innocent's Progress is a hodgepodge of tenuously connected short episodes. Only later on does the tight interlocking structure of the whole become apparent. And what a world Tupper builds! Drawing on true historical elements, characters, contemporary art and literary landmarks viewed through a haunted stereoscope, this is the nostalgic past portrayed as dystopian future; erotic visions filtered through Victorian fun house mirrors and classic steampunk. The novel casts a cynical beam on its setting, an empire in decay, bereft of optimism, morally reactionary, stratified along lines of class, gender and race, hypocritically repressive wherever sex is concerned. In short, a world rife with seething conflicts and, thus, ripe with dramatic possibility. The characters cast odd shadows, like actors standing before flickering gas footlights on a stage. Indeed, stock-players of an ossified  comedia de l'arte meet no-less rigidly typecast avatars of Victorian 'decency' in the titular opening chapter, engaging in a form of ritualized prostitution off stage. There is always a tinge of melancholy and regret, a sense of loss and foiled aspiration tugging at the heartstrings. But there is adventure--of a cozy sort--flashes of levity like sparks from a fantastical machine as our view of this at-once familiar and strange world gradually expands with each subsequent chapter, 

In The Pretty Horsebreaker and Spirit of the Future, we meet the irrepressible Miss Ccri (based on the notorious Catherine "Skittles" Walters) as she endeavors to do a good turn for the widow of a famous explorer and hero of the empire. (Captain Braen bears a striking likeness to the great real-life translator of the Kama Sutra, Sir Richard Francis Burton, while Lord Hough, Braen's rival and fellow collector of all-things erotic is, as the author informs us in his notes, "a hybrid of Richard Moncton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, and Henry Spencer Ashbee. The oily middleman, Mr. Wycke is a barely disguised Oscar Wilde). Famous literary characters appear in Tupper's world as well: in The Impurity, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is re-imagined sans the original's rigid black-and-white dualism with a rather delicious BDSM element, and a macabre love triangle involving servant girl Mary, at once "angel of the house and dominatrix."

Probably my favorite section of the book, the virtually self-contained  Delicate Work, is Tupper's moving and mature twist on Oliver Twist, the author's self-described attempt to "put the punk back in steampunk". Tangwin, a teenaged orphan living in a vast prison-like institution for 'wayward girls' uses her innate inventor's skills ultimately to escape, but not before finding something wonderfully like love with the most unexpected of partners. For all the seeming lack of sentimentality in its telling, Delicate Work is deeply affecting, and one is left marveling at how the author so skillfully puts us into the setting, and the very soul of his characters.

Beautifully written, fastidiously researched, exquisitely brought to life, The Innocent's Progress is enthusiastically recommended.

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