“Stxeamtown” by John Reinhold Dizon was my introduction to the “steampunk” genre which I didn’t even realize existed at the time. I saw it as a hilarious satire, which apparently is the intent of the genre generally. This particular book operates on so many levels that it can only be compared to such works as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Alice in Wonderland” and Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Readers of all ages can enjoy its genius though if you choose to read it as a bedtime story your young children may not understand why you laugh uproariously from time to time.
This brilliant satire creates a vivid post-apocalyptic world in which the few survivors following the “Big Bang” form a variety of societies. The teenage protagonist is Trip Nortel, short for Amitriptylene, his name credited to the custom of finding baby’s names in pre-Big Bang formulary volumes. Trip is an Abovegrounder, a subculture that lives on the rooftops unbeknownst to the Grounders below due to a perpetual cloud of water vapor that obscures visibility; steam is the primary power source, having been rediscovered following the Big Bang. Abovegrounders are held to strict rules, including the need to be obsequious toward tyrannical “young-uns” by meeting their every demand. Those who don’t follow the rules are “crossed-out,” i.e. given a lobotomy, and sent to the ground below. Those who don’t make trouble don’t fare much better since upon reaching the ripe old age of 30 they, too, are banished. The rules are enforced by Big Boys who maintain limited contact with Traders below.
Trip falls in love with Lyrica, another Abovegrounder who lives on a different rooftop. She’s not only beautiful but wears stitched clothing rather than the wraps worn by most of the others. The two exchange Morse code messages in which they express their affection and finally the day comes that Trip finds his way to Lyrica and the pair makes a precarious escape to the ground, some rooftop friends subsequently joining them.
Once amongst the Grounders, Trip immediately connects with influential people who advise, “He who moves the most paper is the one who goes farthest ahead.” He’s quickly dressed in stitched clothing like the others in styles reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ world of fantasy. Eager to learn, he soon finds himself elevated to the upper echelons of society. The hero and his girl are instrumental in instituting numerous changes, including starting a school system to educate the Idiots, i.e. those “crossed-out” and cast from the rooftops, so they can reach their full potential. Things get more complicated as their Abovegrounder friends lament receiving unequal benefit from Trip’s influence and stir up trouble by associating with the Traders Guild and the Society of Black Beards who enjoy strong drink. The complications of the culture clash that follows are ultimately solved and of course everyone lives happily ever after.
While this tale is presented in a style similar to the best of fairy tales, more sophisticated readers will be greatly entertained by recognizing the allegorical themes running throughout the surprisingly intricate plot, colorful characters and their societal predicaments. Dizon’s dry wit is only matched by his genius in creating this must-read allegorical tale that bears a striking resemblance to the world in which we live.