“Fixing Hanover”/Extraordinary Engines Student Discussion at Furman

As I’ve mentioned here before, my story “Fixing Hanover” from Extraordinary Engines, edited by Nick Gevers, was picked up by three year’s bests: Rich Horton’s Science Fiction: Best of the Year (now being bundled with the fantasy volume), Jonathan Strahan’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Infinivox’s The Year’s Top 10 Stories of SF (audiobook). Awhile back, I also posted about changes in the story from first to second drafts, as well as some first draft material.

Recently, Rima Abunasser, who teaches at Furman University, let me know that her first-year college students were studying the anthology, and in particular “Fixing Hanover.” None of the students had read any SF before their semester in her class (“Science Fiction and Reality”).

Rima and the students were kind enough to allow me reproduce their discussion points below–thanks very much to them for that. If you haven’t read the story, you’ll discover lots of spoilers and, er, it might be incomprehensible in places. I found it interesting in the larger context of readers’ first contact with SF. I also found it personally interesting, of course–you don’t usually get this much feedback in one go on a short story, let alone, in reviews, anything approaching analysis.

Student (10) touches on something I worked hard on in the story, re Rebecca. Some of the others mention the isolated vision of the village, an issue that would preclude the story being turned into a novel–i.e., the relationship of the village to the hill people, and both to the empire would have to be mapped out. Debatable whether you have room to do more than paint in some details in a short story. There’s actually significant room for further discussion here re the relative importance of characters, how you modulate a story to bring some things into the foreground and leave others in the background, as well as issues of compression through nonlinear techniques, and how when you do so there has to be simplicity in other areas to offset the stress of that. The engine that makes the story work is the central relationship between three characters, but this is not actually what the story is about, if that makes sense, which would probably be a useful starting point for discussion in the context of a writing workshop. In fact, the material below has made me think about using “Fixing Hanover” in that context. Besides, it would be in keeping with the DIY/maker part of Steampunk subculture: let’s take the pieces of this story apart, see how it works, and put it back together again. I could even call it “Breaking Hanover.”

This is a good time to buy the anthology if you haven’t already, of course.

Everyone have a great weekend. I’m bogged down in final Finch/Booklife edits until Monday.

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(1) – It is interesting what the Lady Salt says in the end—“Some day I will kill you and escape to the sea.” I do not understand whether she was saying it to the protagonist or to the Captain. But the fact that the protagonist forces himself to listen to Shyver and Blake dying has a dystopian effect—morbid and hard to read and imagine. It is interesting that the captain wants the protagonist to live, perhaps to fix everything since that seems to be his redeeming, lifesaving quality.

(2) – The narrative technique of the story was a little different from what we’ve read so far. It was kind of scattered time wise, and it revealed information about the characters through conversations, memories, or through their actions. Also, the narrative would describe a character that seemed different from the existing ones, but he/she would end up being one of the existing characters. For example, the narrator describes his lover Rebecca and then the Lady Salt in telling two different stories within the narrative, and they end up being the same woman. The same is true for himself. He describes a child prodigy who becomes an empire’s chief engineer. This talented engineer ends up being the narrator.

(3) – I thought the connection between the tense of the story and the title was quite interesting. Both were in present tense. The narrator does jump into past tense when he talks about his time in the Empire, but the story is narrated as if everything is happening as the reader is reading it. Since the story was set in the present tense, the story started out in the middle of the plot. At first, this was a bit confusing since I did not know any of the background information, but as he seemed to flash back to former times, it began to make more sense. Although after reading the story I felt like I knew more than I began with, I still felt that several things were left unexplained, such as the hill people. I was not really sure of their purpose and what they really had to do with the whole plot of the story. I liked how the narrator seemed to construct two difference personalities for his lover, Rebecca.

When she was more focused on her town and staying a part of it, she was Lady Salt, but when she showed her true side, she was Rebecca or Lady Flight. I am guessing that she was Lady Salt because of the town’s relationship with the sea and its reliance on it, but I am not entirely sure. She also has an odd relationship with Blake. It’s as though they like each other because they had something before, but Rebecca cannot really decide if she wants to be with the narrator or Blake. She wants to please Blake so that things in the town will go right and always encourages the narrator to please him, but then she devotes a lot of her time to the narrator. It seems that when Rebecca is taking Blake’s side and is trying to please him she becomes Lady Salt to the narrator.

(4) – It is apparent that this society called Sandhaven has a very simple structure for its inhabitants. They lived a simple life focused mainly on what they retrieved from the sea. There is also little mentioned about what they do for entertainment. Each person has a main function, but everything members salvage also has to serve a function, because if it doesn’t then it’s unnecessary in this society. Hanover could only be considered if he was able to talk or do something. But does everything in society have to serve a particular function? While everyone seemed fine with serving their particular function, Daniker sometimes was doubtful of his contribution to society, “What if Blake is right about me?” Daniker was aware that he didn’t belong to their society since he was an intruder, but he got upset if he felt that he was failing others.

(5) – The first thing that I found interesting from this story was the futuristic technology and the lack there of. The Empire has futuristic flying vehicles while the people in the island have only the simplest and most rudimentary tools and devices. This is interesting because this island does not seem to be a poor or underdeveloped place and the reader would expect them to have greater technologies.

(6) – This is the first story that I have read for this class where descriptive passages really stood out to me. The author does a beautiful job describing everything from the rusty broken robot to the scenery that surrounds the village. This is perhaps an example of the increased literary appeal that was brought to the science fiction genre thanks, in part, to the much earlier New Wave movement. I thought that this story was incredibly interesting. We have read numerous stories about technology and its destructive capabilities from a third person point of view. But we have never really looked at it through the point of view of someone who has experienced it, especially not the person who created it. I really liked how the author let us see the regret and remorse felt by the creator. He had meant for his work to be used for good but both he and his work were manipulated until they no longer resembled their intended purpose.

(7) – The engineer describes a story about how he creates something magnificent: the airship. For the engineer this is a great success; however, the government uses it for warfare to control other countries, causing the engineer to regret creating the airship. This makes me wonder about the feelings of the creators of the nuclear bomb. Even though it was a great scientific advancement, it is also one of the most dangerous and, basically, unnecessary weapons. The nuclear bomb has been used to instill fear in others, which was likely not the goal of the creators. This makes me wonder how the creators felt about their creation after seeing it used. At the end the author states, “…the village burns as all villages burn, everywhere, in time”. This is a somber statement. To the empire it was just another village; it burned like all the other villages. This final line seems to be written for the purpose of displaying the power and apathy of the Empire towards other villages.

(8) – The narrator of the story explains how he was the head mechanic of the Empire where he once lived. In his attempt to escape from the Empire, he arrived into the village where he also became the main mechanic and is asked to fix everything. When they find the robot the narrator names it Hanover because “Hanover never gave away what he thought.” I believe the narrator is also describing himself because throughout the rest of the story he did not show many emotions in that he would have his own opinion in his mind but never expressed what he truly thought.

(9) – I wonder if the inhabitants of Sandhaven are refugees of some kind from the Empire, which can be inferred from the word haven being in the name of the island. It is interesting to see that the inhabitants of the island have created their own government system and do not use the same technology as the Empire does. This seems to be a common theme in steampunk and cyberpunk literature where the inhabitants of the new technologically advanced world are trying to escape it, even though that new technology was supposed to fulfill that need.

(10) – I really liked this short story. I think it’s interesting because he says at a point, “Why should every-thing have to have a function?” and yet he himself has become a kind of robot. He is only known in the town he has escaped to by his function, and the only person who knows anything else of him is Rebecca (also known in another way by her function — Lady Salt.) It’s an interesting element because they are in a small town, and small towns seem to function that way just to survive. However, he would rather fulfill his function in that town than in the Empire, where he will be the same thing, only not out of his own free will.

Rebecca is an intriguing character to me. She is so solid and not at all like the typical female in this type of story who must be helped by the male protagonist. She is supportive of him but she puts the town first, every time. Even though he thinks it is unsafe to rebuild Hanover, she wants him to for the sake of the town. And at the end, when he saves her for the sake of their love, she says that she will throw that away as soon as possible to return to Sandhaven. She is not the damsel in distress or the femme fatale; she fits into a kind of powerful archetype that parallels Queen Elizabeth I or Joan of Arc, whereas the male protagonist is not shown to have much strength or courage. It is an interesting aspect of this story to see the differences between these two characters who are romantically involved and yet completely different.

(11) – This story brings up the fears and concerns and guilt of many inventors whose inventions get turned into weapons. If I remember correctly, Einstein was beside himself with the knowledge that much of his research could and did lead to the Atomic bomb. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in a position like that, as you are personally responsible for each and every death at the hand of your invention. This story makes me realize how much steampunk I have read or been exposed to without really even realizing it. Many of the books I read in middle school have at least elements of steam punk, such as the Golden Compass series and to a lesser extent the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix. There was one book that I read that was complete steam punk (though I don’t remember the name of it) whose premise was there were these bunches of flying cities (I think on zeppelins, which seems to be a common theme throughout steam punk) that attack and take over each other. There have also been several steampunk movies in the past couple of years (I think one was called Flyboys?) I just find it interesting how prevalent the genre is without me having even heard of it until this class.

(12) – When Blake is pressuring Daniker to fix Hanover, there is a point in the conversation where the main character states “Or I fix it and it kills us all,” and in response Blake says, “Don’t care, fix it.” I thought this was an interesting transaction; first of all you see the human determination to increase technology without considering the consequences. You are also able to see the naiveté of Blake and the other village people, because it is one of the greatest fears of modern society that what we create will destroy us.

In “Fixing Hanover,” during the process of fixing Hanover he says “I have made decisions that cannot be explained as rational, but in their rightness set my head afire with the absolute certainty of Creation.” Through fixing the robot he is given the ability to become the almighty to that robot; he can destroy it just as he can fix it. This power is one of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the human race. We will do anything to obtain this power.

(13) – When Daniker talks about the Empire in detail we undertand why he doesn’t want to return. He was a part of the development of machines that killed and conquered many people. I think Daniker’s story presents a very loaded question about the negative aspect of technology and the psychological effects that a person must deal with when it is devastating to others. Although Daniker may not have been the one pulling the “trigger,” he was the one that created the “trigger.” Technology has made the killing of people something very distant from the killer. You push buttons and make maneuvers but you may never see the damage or the pain. For Daniker, when he saw the destruction he decided to no longer be a part of this destruction. This is not to say the killing should be something personal, but when someone kills another person without ever feeling anything, like those who Daniker described in the Empire, it reduces the value of human life; which is what is seen frequently in this story at the hands of the Empire. For example when the Empire came to retrieve Daniker they destroyed the whole village. This destruction was completely unnecessary, all they had to do was find Daniker and bring him back.

(14) – The elements of Steampunk used throughout this story help instill a healthy level of fear in relation to technology. My main understanding of this story relates to the respect for and fear of technology and its advances. The main character shows this by trying to convince people to take caution when fixing Hanover. They don’t listen to him, and this reckless regard for machinery’s capacity ends up burning down the entire town.

The character of Rebecca is interesting and fascinating, and I have yet to figure out exactly what she represents and what her part in this story is. She is “in love” with our chief engineer, but he talks about when she turns into Lady Salt and hides behind her façade. She is playing the part of a femme fatale, and in the end, she resents that Daniker saved her life and pretty much threatens his life. What type of person is she and what exactly is her goal?

(15) – It is interesting that Daniker’s creation comes back to capture him. In a sense, he is like God; he dedicated his life to create something so powerful, and then it went against his will. Yet he loved his creations unconditionally: “I watch their deadly, beautiful approach across the slate-gray sky, the deep-blue waves, and it is as if my children are returning to me.” I also found it funny that the airship’s name was Forever Triumph. Although Daniker was the creator, the machine was the omnipotent one.

When Daniker told Shyver not to be afraid of Hanover once its eyes started glowing, and Shyver said he wasn’t, I questioned why. Daniker then said, “You should be afraid.” Then he went on to say, “It’s harmless.” And there was another emphasis on “harmless.” That was a little foreboding to me. As it turned out, Hanover itself wasn’t dangerous; it was a taste of what was to come: machines. Still, Daniker destroyed Hanover, as if that would keep the airships from finding him. I wonder if he recognized what was to come from the first few moments that Hanover’s eyes started to glow.