Steampunk Paperback – May 1 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The VanderMeers (The New Weird) have assembled another outstanding theme anthology, this one featuring stories set in alternate Victorian eras. Michael Moorcock, the godfather of steampunk, is represented by an excerpt from his classic novel The Warlord of the Air. In Lord Kelvin's Machine, a fine tale from prolific steampunk author James P. Blaylock, mad scientists plot to throw the Earth into the path of a passing comet, declaring that science will save us this time, gentlemen, if it doesn't kill us first. Michael Chabon's vivid and moving The Martian Agent, a Planetary Romance recounts the lives of two young brothers in the aftermath of George Custer's mutiny against Queen Victoria, while historical fantasist Mary Gentle describes a classic struggle between safety and progress in A Sun in the Attic. This is a superb introduction to one of the most popular and inventive subgenres in science fiction. (June)
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"Highly recommended for all libraries that collect speculative fiction." Library Journal
"VanderMeers, ardent steampunkers themselves, historically sample that fantasy genre, in which the Victorian era is reimagined to include Martian technology, steam-powered robots, airships, alchemy, and various anachronistic technologies." Booklist
"It is as if a mad scientist had done all his shopping at Victoriana instead of Sharper Image . . . effectively captures what the steampunk genre is all about." Los Angeles Times
"This new collection of previously published stories spotlights some of the best short work in the subgenre." San Francisco Chronicle
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Introduction: The 19th Century Roots of Steampunk (Jess Nevins) - This essay covered a lot of things regarding steampunk's relationship with and reaction against dime novels that I hadn't heard before, making several of the stories in the anthology make a lot more sense. I think most of Nevins's arguments primarily apply to steampunk literature and don't necessarily cover its other aspects, but it's very interesting and useful information.
Benediction: Excerpt from The Warlord of the Air (Michael Moorcock) - I don't really approve of including excerpts from novels in an anthology, using the reasoning that if I've just bought a book, I would rather have an entire story than an extended advertisement for another book. This is a good introduction to the steampunk feel, though, as it's basically one extended airship battle.
Lord Kelvin's Machine (James P. Blaylock) - This is one of those that is helped by the explanations in Nevins's essay; it's heavily based on the dime novel tradition, although with a wink and a nod. An inventor must use his ingenuity to save the world both from a villain and from his well-meaning but foolish compatriots in the face of a deadly comet.
The Giving Mouth (Ian R. MacLeod) - While this story really didn't even try to make sense by the end, the world it's set in is fascinating - I've never heard of medieval steampunk before, but I absolutely adore it.
A Sun in the Attic (Mary Gentle) - A woman's husband (or one of them, anyway, as the story takes place in a polyandrous society) uncovers something that some feel the world may not need to know; the story questions the positive and negative aspects of scientific discovery and humanity's reactions to it.
The God-Clown is Near (Jay Lake) - A strange story about an inventor who is asked by a shady organization to build a "moral clown", an automaton that will pass judgment on their society. I think the world it's set in is part of a series by the author, and I'm tempted to track down one of his books; I liked the story well enough, but it seems to lack the context that would ground it a little and give it some weight.
The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel (Joe R. Lansdale) - I have to say, this story goes against pretty much all of my personal preferences. The idea isn't bad - that the Time Traveler from H.G. Wells's The Time Machine accidentally damaged the space-time continuum, causing Very Bad Things to happen - but the violence is extremely graphic, and I can't reconcile Wells's Time Traveler with the one in this story at all.
The Selene Gardening Society (Molly Brown) - This one is based on Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, which I haven't read, but it's still a cute story even without the background knowledge. In an attempt to distract her husband from tearing up her garden, a society wife begins planning a garden on the moon.
Seventy-Two Letters (Ted Chiang) - Again, the world in which this story is set is what makes it interesting; here certain names, when impressed on inorganic objects (and even, they find, organic ones), will give them movement and even life. As the science progresses, the scientists working on the naming project must deal with the ethical implications of playing God.
The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance (Michael Chabon) - A historical revision, featuring the struggles of two brothers in a world where a Declaration of Reunion has brought America back under British control and the Civil War has turned into a second Revolutionary War. This feels like the prologue to a larger narrative, although as far as I know, this is all there is.
Victoria (Paul Di Filippo) - A burlesque comedy in which a very young Queen Victoria has run away, and a scientist must track her down (while donating his creation, a half-newt prostitute that bears an odd resemblance to Victoria, to temporarily take her place in Buckingham Palace). Utterly ridiculous, but goofy and fun, and with several unexpectedly funny in-jokes for people who read too much Victorian lit.
Reflected Light (Rachel E. Pollack) - A series of wax cylinder diary entries by a factory worker. Extremely short, but surprisingly interesting.
Minutes of the Last Meeting (Stepan Chapman) - A declining Russia in a nuclear era. I'm not sure I would consider this story particularly steampunk, and it's a bit too dark for my taste.
Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast (Neal Stephenson) - Again, this is more cyberpunk than steampunk if you ask me, but it stands moderately well as a short story in its own right, if you don't mind accepting that two sides are duking it out over the distribution of information without really understanding what they're going on about.
The Steam-Driven Time Machine: A Pop Culture Survey (Rick Klaw) - A chronological rundown of major steampunk movies, games, etc. It reads mostly like a guy reminiscing about his hobby - which is basically what it is, come to think of it.
The Essential Sequential Steampunk: A Modest Survey of the Genre within the Comic Book Medium (Bill Baker) - Same as above, only with graphic novels.
It's hard to really give a final opinion on an anthology; there are always going to be good stories and lousy stories (really, I'd give it 3.5 stars if I could). Still, I enjoyed this, and even the bad stories tended to be at least interesting in the sheer variety of settings and technology employed.
Reviewer `Redon' gives a good overview of the book's contents. I'll just add my thoughts on some of the material:
For the essays, Jess Nevins provides a concise history of steampunk in literature, focusing on the role of the "Edisonade" genre of 19th century dime novels in setting the major themes and tropes of the genre. Rick Klaw's essay deals with steampunk in television and film, and Bill Baker provides a history of steampunk comics and graphic novels.
My selections for the best stories in the book, with capsule summaries:
"The Giving Mouth" by Ian R. McLeod: more steam-fantasy than steampunk, McLeod's story takes a page from Michael Swanwick's seminal novel the "Iron Dragon's Daughter" and juxtaposes slag heaps, industrial decay, and magic in a coming -of-age tale with a melancholy, but effective, tone.
"The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider" by Joe R. Lansdale: mixing steampunk with splatterpunk, Lansdale relates a violent encounter between the steam-driven robot from the popular 19th century boy's novels, and H. G. Wells's time traveler, made mutated and vampiric by too much travel in the 4th dimension. Readers will be laughing out loud at one paragraph, and squirming at the next. Having a Lansdale story in this collection is bit like bringing along your cousin Bubba from Mississippi - the one who likes NASCAR, squirrel hunting, and making politically incorrect remarks about People of Color, militant lesbian feminists, and ponytailed men who do yoga - to a soiree hosted by the staff of The Nation magazine. But there's no getting away from the fact that Lansdale delivers a great story, howevermuch it sits uneasily with the other entries. [The succeeding tale, "The Selene Gardening Society", which is meant to be a light-hearted parody of a Victorian drawing-room comedy, seems like even thinner gruel than it actually is, coming as it does after a Lansdale adventure. Not a good placement of story order in the anthology by the editors !]
"Seventy-two Letters" by Ted Chiang: a well-written novelette dealing with an alternative Victorian England where Kabbalistic magic gives rise to homunculi and androids, which power a counterpart of our own Industrial Age. Much of the story's plot hinges on the concept of `preformationism', which dominated scientific thought regarding sexual reproduction until supplanted by modern embryology in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, Chiang fails to provide any exposition on the topic in the course of unfolding his narrative; thus readers not familiar with this rather obscure theory may find themselves a bit lost.
"Minutes of the Last Meeting" by Stepan Chapman: a strange, overly worked mélange of steampunk, cyberpunk, and comic fantasy. The story starts on a traditional alt-history adventure note involving the Tsar, his entourage, and Revolutionary Russia, but then get weirder as it goes on, with the author throwing one SF trope after another into the mix. The mix never quite gels, but the narrative has enough crazed energy to keep the reader engaged all the way to the bitter end.
The remaining stories are, in my opinion, disappointments. Some are underdeveloped and needed more work before seeing print ("The God-Clown is Near", "Reflected Light"). Others are rather pedestrian re-hashes of familiar themes, but have some `progressive' element that the editors deemed stylish enough for inclusion ("A Sun in the Attic"). A contribution by current Fiction Darling Michael Chabon ("The Martian Agent") is over-written and plodding. Other stories are pleasant, somewhat droll satires of Victorian social mores ("The Selene Gardening Society", "Victoria"); but in lacking the dystopian, edgy character of steampunk per se, their inclusion in this anthology is a mystery.
In summary, `Steampunk' has too many Misses to make up for the sparse selection of Hits. The `definitive' Steampunk anthology still awaits print......
After the preface by editors Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, Steampunk starts off with an excellent essay by Jess Nevins about the origins and history of steampunk, including interesting details about the American Edisonades, references to other predecessors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and to "proto-steampunk" like Michael Moorcock's The Warlord of the Air, an excerpt of which is used as the "Benediction" for the anthology. Most interestingly, the essay gives a partial explanation for the -punk suffix: "Steampunk, like all good punk, rebels against the system it portrays (Victorian London or something quite like it), critiquing its treatment of the underclass, its validation of the privileged at the cost of everyone else, its lack of mercy, its cutthroat capitalism. Like the punks, steampunk rarely offers a solution to the problems it decries -- for steampunk, there is no solution -- but for both punk and steampunk the criticism must be made before the change can come." Nevins then goes on to explain that this may only apply to first generation steampunk, and that the politics have mostly disappeared from the current wave -- which might explain why some have complained that there isn't anything "punk" about steampunk and that it's more about mannerisms and nostalgia. While that may apply to much of the more recent output in the subgenre, reading some of the older stories in this collection will definitely show that the -punk part of the subgenre's name wasn't just put there to make it sound like cyberpunk.
Be all of that as it may, after you're done with all the scholarly debate, steampunk is like any other genre or subgenre or whatever you want to call it: some of it is seminal, some of it is excellent, some it is derivative but still good, and some of it is just people hitching their wagon to the latest fad. Whether you like steampunk or not, it's hard to argue with the fact that The Vandermeers have done an outstanding job with this collection: most of these stories are simply excellent pieces of short-form speculative fiction.
The anthology starts off with a bang with "Lord Kelvin's Machine" by James P. Blaylock, a wild and surreal story that displays steampunk working on the grandest of scales. It's entertaining, wild and a bit silly -- and a great way to kick off the collection.
"The Giving Mouth" by Ian R. MacLeod, slows things down considerably. I enjoyed and admired the author's steampunk-ish novels The Light Ages and The House of Storms ("-ish" because they're set in a version of Victorian England in which the economy is powered by magic rather than steam). This story is set in a different universe but shares the same melancholy atmosphere. However, it doesn't work as well here and feels a bit out of place.
The collection then picks up steam (sorry) with the wonderful "A Sun in the Attic" by Mary Gentle, set in a matriarchal alternate universe that vaguely resembles the Victorian era. This little gem is one of those stories that make you wish for more material set in the same world.
Jay Lake's "The God-Clown is Near" is the first story in the anthology working on the Golem myth. It's a fun, dark, surreal story that, as I've come to expect from this author, is simply delightful.
Things get much darker with Joe R. Lansdale's "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A DIME NOVEL," which puts a brusque twist on the Traveler from H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. This story is dark and violent, full of rape and torture, and while its concept is unique, it may be a bit much for some readers.
"The Selene Gardening Society" by Molly Brown also builds on a steampunk predecessor (this time From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne) but in a much more whimsical and funny way.
Next up is Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters," which picks up the golem theme again and ties in a few other ideas, resulting in a memorable story -- not that you'd expect anything less from Ted Chiang.
Michael Chabon's "The Martian Agent" features some of the most gorgeous prose in the anthology, and thanks to its title, feels like the first chapter in a larger tale. Reading this story bumped the author much closer to the top of my endless "must-read-more-by" list.
Paul Di Filippo's "Victoria" is one of the funniest and most inventive stories in the collection, featuring newt-based human life and a hilarious uber-villain. This irreverent story (which manages to call the entire royal succession into question) is so over the top that it's sure to make you grin a few times.
The biggest surprise for me was "Reflected Light" by Rachel E. Pollock, an elegant and intricate short tale that implies much more than it states outright and almost begs to be reread. This story about illegal underground manufacturing hints at upcoming social changes in a fascinating society that hopefully will host more stories. It also displays the political side of steampunk in a very succinct way.
Another surprise is Stepan Chapman's "Minutes of the Last Meeting", set in Tzarist Russia. This brilliant story switches viewpoints frequently and somehow manages to introduce a new mind-bending layer of innovation every time, right up to the stunning ending.
Last but not least, the editors throw in a treat: a short story by Neal Stephenson set in the same universe as his post-cyberpunk/neo-Victorian novel The Diamond Age. Calling this steampunk is probably a bit of a stretch, but who cares -- it's a fun read that also reminds you, again, how unique Stephenson is as an author.
Closing out the collection are two more non-fiction pieces, including a look at steampunk in pop culture at large by Geek Curmudgeon Rick Claw, and a look at steampunk in the comic book medium by Bill Baker.
Unless you like your speculative fiction sans airships and steam engines, check out this excellent Steampunk anthology. In addition to offering a quick-shot education in the history and development of the genre, it also contains some truly excellent short fiction. Recommended.