Pimp. My. Airship. What a title. As someone with very little steampunk reading hours under my belt this was a book I was super excited to read, especially after how much I loved some of the other books put out by Apex, like SNOW OVER UTOPIA, COIL and ROSEWATER (originally published by small press Apex before being picked up by Orbit – lil piece of trivia for ya there). I didn’t fully know what to expect from PIMP MY AIRSHIP, but I was definitely along for the ride.
It tells the story of a chiba-smoking spoken word poet called Sleepy, who inadvertently becomes the face of a revolution when his performance theatre is raided by the authoritarian Indianapolis cops. Taken under the wing of a professional revolutionary known as (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah, the two of them soon find themselves on the run from one end of a retro-fitted Indianapolis to the other, in a desperate attempt to elude the powers that be. Meanwhile, young heiress Sophine Jefferson becomes embroiled in the shady world of corrupt politicians and racist businessmen who run the city, putting her on a collision course with the path of Sleepy, Knowledge Allah and the fomenting revolution.
I’ll start with the good stuff, ’cause there’s a bunch of stuff I thought was *chef’s kiss* about this book. Pimp My Airship really excels on the macro level – themes and world building. It’s a book that brazenly goes to town on the status quo, shining a bright light on the cockroaches of systemic racism, police brutality and the exploitative nature inherent in industrial capitalism. Broaddus does a great job at weaving these themes into the story and showing how all these things are part of a broader and interconnected web of systemic oppression; in Broaddus’ book the primary function of the state is to protect the interests of the wealthy and protect private property, while the City Ordained Pinkertons (COPs) exists as a supposedly neutral force that in reality acts as the violent enforcers of capital and privatised prisons exploit their overwhelmingly black inmate population for free labour. Sound familiar? Yeah.
The broad world building is cool too. Each chapter is introduced with snippets of reports from the corporate press outlets ironically called Vox Populi and Vox Dei, which give us some background context to the kind of world Sleepy, Knowledge Allah and Sophine exist in. They’re propaganda outlets which go out of their way to perform the kind of mental gymnastics often displayed in our own corporate media institutions that variously boost the voices of the powerful, justify police violence and attempt to paint white people as the ‘real victims’ of racism. One of my favourite parts of the book is the section about The Knights of the White Camelia, a real life organisation of mainly upper class white men who occupied powerful positions in government and business in the 19th century. Even though they’re the ones getting rich exploiting people in the fields and factories, sentencing people in the courthouses and pulling the levers of power in government, they see themselves as the real victims of working class and black exploitation when the oppressed make any attempt to resist. After all, when you’re blind to your own privilege, any attempt to level the playing field feels like oppression. This is handled very well in the book, showing how the powerful view the status quo as the natural order of things and any attempt to level the scales as dangerous radicalism.
Unfortunately this method of world building at times felt much too info dumpy for my tastes. These little media snippets are interesting in and of themselves and do give us as readers some wider context about the world, but too often they weren’t directly relevant to the story being told. This stuff always feels more natural and relevant to me when it’s weaved into the narrative, if the characters see it in action or speak to someone who talks about it. I’d rather not be simply told something is the case, but see it crop up as part of the story.
This is where the book is weaker in my opinion – at the micro level of character. This is very much a plot-driven story and for the first three quarters of the book the characters have very little agency. Instead they’re helplessly carried along on a wave of events happening to them and I struggled to identify any goals or motivations they were working towards, beyond simply escaping the bad things being done to them. Even then, they never seem to have any plan to get themselves out of danger, and instead are reliant on the unexpected actions of others to get them out of a tight spot. I mean obviously YMMV on this, but I’m more engaged by characters who do stuff, and it’s their actions that create drama and tension and drive the story forward by their consequences. So even though lots of stuff was happening and danger was never far away, I didn’t get a great sense of narrative tension because Sleepy and Knowledge Allah didn’t really have any goals for most of the book. Sophine was more interesting. She has plans for her life that go very awry and she makes decisions that drastically alter the course of her life; I felt like she had much more agency and a direct effect on the world around her than Sleepy and Knowledge Allah ever did, so this was a plus point in the story.
So yeah, PIMP MY AIRSHIP was a bit of a mixed bag for me; great at the broad strokes stuff, a bit weaker when you zoom in and a method of storytelling I personally just don’t have a taste for. Overall I was a bit disappointed it didn’t reach the potential it clearly has, but there are definitely things to love about it and I still think it’s definitely worth a read for those aspects.
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