There’s an argument these days that the “punk” in steampunk is really superfluous – that generally, the genre isn’t punk at all. It’s not attempting to rebel against anything. Instead, we get comfortable (often fun) stories dressed up in Victorian clothes. As Cherie Priest succinctly put it, “Steampunk is fun with hats.”
For those of us looking for steampunk with a little more edge and cynicism, steampunk that doesn’t just glorify the fashions or monarchies of the past, we have Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Company Man. Granted, it’s set a bit later than steampunk usually is, but its façade contains that shiny, retro golden age of science fiction — only with sensibilities and characters that would be at home in Gibson’s Neuromancer.
In the early 1900s, the city of Evesden, Washington has almost become a small country. Thanks to the McNaughton Corporation, electrical cars zip across the street, airships line the sky, and World War I was averted (or at least, with little American casualties and involvement). Of course, other world powers are eager to see what makes McNaughton’s inventions tick, and so company security agents are hired with the explicit purpose of keeping the company’s assets and investments secrets, at home and abroad. But when a trolley car pulls into the station filled with dead union workers, the tensions between the union and the company bosses becomes more fraught and dangerous than ever.
Cyril Hayes, the titular company man, hears voices in his head. He’s not quite telepathic, in that people’s minds are not an open book to him, but given the right proximity, he’s granted certain insights into their thoughts. As a result, he doesn’t like other people in general, and avoids crowds. Due to some sabotage, McNaughton assigns Samantha Fairbanks to keep Hayes off the booze and drugs that help him get by, and assist him in a number of investigations. As the mysteries pile up, we follow Hayes and Fairbanks through the slums of this supposedly golden city, down into the mysterious, vast tunnels that connect to underground factories, and possibly elsewhere, in a timely noir of corporations and the working man.
In the end, The Company Man really earned my admiration, which was difficult, because it took me a lot longer to get invested in the story and characters than I would’ve liked (at least 3 hours). Hayes is not the most sympathetic character (which is definitely not a crime in my book), but initially I didn’t find him all that interesting. That the mysteries he’s investigating at the beginning – a murder and possible union saboteurs – seemed to drag on without much tension probably didn’t help. But around the time the grisly trolley car is discovered, it became incredibly compelling. Bennett kept me guessing like a happy X-Files fan about who was conspiring with who, and even what the conspiracy was. Best of all, the revelation of what happened on that macabre trolley ride surprised me, and I found the humanity Bennett gave those events and characters, as well as the closing of the story, genuinely moving.
Richard Poe gives the book a solid, straightforward narration. There’s not a lot of theatrics here, and I think given the tone of the story, it works well. Though it’s took me a little while to get into, I think The Company Man is a book that’s going to linger with me for some time.