DNF Report: “The Buntline Special”

Published December 23, 2019 by Iphis of Scyros

This is a post I’ve been putting off for a long time.  Like, six months or so.  So a lot of what I wanted to say about the book is now a bit hazy with time, but I did jot down a few notes at the time, so there’s at least that.

I’ve never written a “DNF Report” before, so I’m not sure what the procedure is (is there even a procedure for such a thing?), and will therefore just stumble along incoherently, for which I apologize.  “DNF,” in case anyone doesn’t know, stands for “Did Not Finish.”

So, I guess the place to start is “what is this book” and “why I didn’t finish it.”   To answer the first question, the book is called The Buntline Special, and its cover looks like this:

As to why I didn’t finish it…that’s a longer answer.

I started reading this book to fulfill the Read Harder Challenge #2 for 2019, “An alternate history novel.”  Which this really isn’t, but I was being lazy.  (Ironically, the package I just got today (or possibly yesterday and it sat on the porch all night?) included a genuine alternate history novel called Judenstadt, by Simone Zelitch, which I’m really looking forward to.)

So, this is sort of a steampunk Western.  Sort of.  There’s like this whole weird set-up going on that we’re only partially filled in on, where American western expansion stopped at the Mississippi because the shamans for certain tribes (or maybe all of them?) actually have magical powers, which were strong enough to keep the white man at bay.  Which is pretty awesome…except then you still have white men all over the place in Tombstone, Arizona, including all the people who were actually there in reality, and some who weren’t, like Thomas Edison.

Oh, and you have steam-powered robotic whores.  And bullet-proof stagecoaches.  And voodoo-style zombies.

Which all sounds like it should be a fun read.  And evidently a lot of people find it one, but I am not one of those people.

The further I got into it, the more I became aware of certain aspects of the book that were increasingly grating on my nerves.  In no particular order, those aspects were:

  1. Unlike the story of the events in Tombstone that included the gunfight at the O-K Corral in reality, there is a very large undercurrent of White Man vs. Indian in this book, and the book definitely expects you to be rooting for the white men, even though they’re the freaking invaders.
  2. Increasingly anachronistic language.  At the start of the book, I was able to hear the dialog of Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers in the voices of the actors who played them in the movie Tombstone.  The longer it went on, the less I was able to do so, because the dialog became increasingly inappropriate for men of the late 19th century.  (I was never able to hear Kate’s dialog in the voice of the actress from the movie, because I saw zero connection between the two characters.  Also, by the time Kate actually showed up, I was beginning to lose all patience with the book.)
  3. No particular sense of character.  It’s like we were just expected to overlay our previous knowledge of the real people (or rather their various fictional presentations) on top of what was in the book, making actual characterization unnecessary.
  4. Did I already mention the anachronisms?
  5. Oh, and anachronisms.  Crazy, crazy, over-the-top-crazy anachronisms.

So, by now you’re probably sitting there going “you’re being too hard on the anachronisms!  It’s a steampunk alternate history; it’s supposed to have anachronisms like robots and stuff!”

And you’re right.  It’s supposed to have all sorts of technological anachronisms like robots.  (Sort of.  Actually, robots are not usually where I expect steampunk to go.)

It’s not supposed to have the word “robot.”  Because that wasn’t coined until 1922 and it’s from the Czech word for “slave.”  Putting that word in the POV of a Southern gent who was born before the Civil War?  Uh, no.  Just no.  Even if Doc wouldn’t know what the word meant, the fact is that the people reading the book all know, and that makes it just as bad.  Not to mention that the word’s Czech roots mean that it’s not the word most Americans at the time would coin if they wanted to make a new word for mechanical beings; they would work from Greek or Latin if they were trying to come up with a new word.  And if they didn’t want to coin their own word, a 19th century person would call a mechanical person an automaton.  Which, in addition to being more accurate, is a way cooler word.

Much of the other anachronistic language was just…how do I even put it?  Like…trying to be too 21st century casual?  A word like “enthused” does not belong in a western.  Period.  Though the worst offender was “morphed.”  That word wasn’t coined until the 1980s.  That’s a hundred years off.  And that was also in Doc’s POV, which just makes it the more egregious, because “morph” comes from the Greek word for “shape” not “change,” so the word doesn’t even make linguistic sense.  And yes, Doc was educated enough to know what the Greek root meant.  There’s literally no excuse for using “morphed” to describe a man changing shape into a bat.  It’s not even the word most people would use now.  Most people would say “transformed.”  And guess what?  The first known use of “transform,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (app) is the 14th century, making it perfectly acceptable for use in the 19th century.

When I complained about the anachronisms to my brother (who loaned me the book, having enjoyed it himself), he said he hadn’t noticed them, and made all these defenses for the author, talking about deadlines, and how editors would complain if the language was too old-fashioned, and all that stuff.  But there’s no deadline hasty enough that it would force an author to shave off a few letters by using “morphed” instead of “transformed.”  And there’s nothing “old-fashioned” or hard to understand about “transformed.”  It’s used very commonly in modern English.  Much more commonly than “morphed,” in fact.

I don’t know if it was ultimately the anachronisms or the fact that the author obviously wanted us to see the tribal people defending their homes as the bad guys, but one or the other (or more likely both) just made me decide to put it aside a while and read something else.  I went back to it after the something else for a few more pages, then just plain put it aside.  Because there is literally no reason to read it, so why should I force myself to read something I was actively disliking?

Which actually brings me to the other thing I wanted to say, that I’ve decided I’m not doing the Read Harder Challenge anymore.

My piles of books I actually want to read are too tall for me to be wasting time reading books I don’t want to read just to fulfill an online challenge checklist.  Especially since I got on the PM Press e-mail list; they keep sending me e-mails advertising their new books, and I keep saying “ooh, I want to read that!” and then I end up with a $75+ box of books on my porch.  😛  To say nothing of that stack of 11 Zola novels I bought earlier off Abebooks.  😉  (Seriously, why would anyone buy books on Amazon when it’s cheaper on Abebooks and you’re supporting an assortment of independent businesses instead of one monstrous and inhumane corporation?)

My one regret about stopping doing the Read Harder Challenge is that I no longer feel compelled to post book reviews, but…well, I should try to post them anyway, as a motivation to do more reading and get through all those stacks of books.  (It’s just…there’s all these, you know, video games…and resin experiments…and all these stories I want to write…and there’s anime I want to watch…and there’s only 24 hours in the day!  I need 60 or 70 hour days.  Minimum.)

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