Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is the second steampunk anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, following 2008's first installment. It contains about twice as many stories as its predecessor, but unlike the first collection the quality is more uneven here, resulting in a less impressive but still fascinating anthology that should please fans of the genre.
While the first anthology only contained one story I was less than happy with, there are at least four or five in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded that I could have done without. There are also a few stories here that are at best marginally connected to steampunk, although that probably depends more on how you define steampunk. After all, there are probably as many definitions of steampunk as there are readers. Maybe the best way to define the genre is simply not to, instead following the famous old "definition" of obscenity: "I know it when I see it."
Still, even if you go by that rule, "The Gernsback Continuum" by William Gibson, while a brilliant story that everyone should read, hardly feels like steampunk, unless you consider "any story that imposes science fiction tropes on an earlier period of history" a valid definition. Regardless, it's hard to complain about a story that's so famous and so excellent. Another example of a great story that seems to be at best peripheral to steampunk is Stephen Baxter's "The Unblinking Eye," which feels more like an elaborate alternate history that happens to have airships in it. Similarly, "The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe" by Ramsey Shehadeh is a quirky and highly entertaining story that mixes Murder on the Orient Express with trans-dimensional aliens, but if it didn't happen to be set on a steam train, I doubt anyone would even consider it as steampunk. Still, all three of these stories are excellent, whatever subgenre you stick them in.
Other highlights of the collection that feel more authentically steampunk are Jeffrey Ford's "Dr. Lash Remembers," about a steam-borne plague affecting the sufferers' perception of reality, and Caitlín R. Kiernan's "The Steam Dancer (1896)," a beautifully written, melancholy tale about a dancer made whole by steam-driven technology.
My single favorite story in this collection is Margo Lanagan's "Machine Maid," a steampunk story that feels like a true period piece aside from the steam-powered automata. It features an awkward but unforgettable protagonist and some of the best writing in the collection.
Another excellent story is "As Recorded on Brass Cylinders: Adagio for Two Dancers" by James L. Grant and Lisa Mantchev, describing the meeting of two relics of the steam age in a modern mall. It almost feels like a steampunk version of Kage Baker's COMPANY universe. While it lays on the emotion a bit too heavily at times, it's a gorgeous, touching story that employs many of the standard themes and devices of the genre but still comes out looking and feeling original.
A true gem, appearing towards the end of the collection, is Catherynne M. Valente's "The Anachronist's Cookbook." Its protagonist -- who puts the "punk" back in steampunk in a big way -- resembles a Victorian version of Richard K. Morgan's Quellcrist Falconer. Also riffing on the political side of steampunk, but entirely on the opposite end of the scale in terms of seriousness, is G.D. Falksen's "The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday," a fun story about a steampunk version of the blogosphere and an intrepid detective trying to catch a suspected socialist dissident.
Cherie Priest contributes "Tanglefoot," a story set in the same world as her CLOCKWORK CENTURY books, but despite its charm, the story unfortunately goes on a bit too long for my taste. More successfully, Daniel Abraham delivers "The Adventure of the Emperor's Vengeance", a solid and entertaining story about Balfour and Meriwether, two agents of the British Empire attempting to stop a curse from the past.
Closing out the fiction portion of the anthology is one of the strangest stories I've read in years, "A Secret History of Steampunk" by a collection of writers and artists working under the pseudonym "The Mecha-Ostrich." It reads somewhat as if Jeff VanderMeer were being remixed by a handful of authors, or possibly vice versa. It cleverly connects to several other stories in the collection, and while it's not entirely successful, it's definitely innovative and unique.
The final section of the collection offers two non-fiction pieces about the non-literary side of steampunk (about fashion and the DIY/Maker culture, respectively) and a brief "Roundtable" interview about the future of steampunk. This section makes the anthology relevant not just as collection of stories but as a snapshot of an entire subculture, as does the artwork, which is one of the only aspects where Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded has the upper hand over its otherwise stronger predecessor. There are a few neat Terry Gilliam-circa-1970-style illustrations mixed into the book, and the Mecha-Ostrich story features some especially gorgeous artwork.
Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is another strong collection of stories from a subgenre that seems to be gaining in popularity every single day. If not for a handful of entries that bring the overall quality of the collection down, this would be another unqualified winner. If you're new to the genre, I'd still recommend picking up the earlier Steampunk anthology first, but this second collection contains enough excellent stories to make it worth your time if you want to dig a little deeper.