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Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

Cover art by Dan Jones and Tinkerbots

Published by Tachyon

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

What is steampunk? That is the question posed by the editors in their introduction to this, the second volume in a series of anthologies compiling what the editors consider to be the exemplary works of the subgenre. Having posed the question, they proceed to explore its literary roots in the dreams of Victorian writers such as Jules Verne who first tried to extrapolate the future course of the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution that were transforming European society all around them. When the electrical and electronic developments of the early decades of the Twentieth Century left the visions of those Victorian science fiction pioneers behind, it became common to view them as quaint, even passé, stories best left behind with childish things. When Disney produced a movie adaptation of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that strove to re-create the sort of technologies Verne would've imagined rather than something futuristic to contemporary viewers, critics panned the effort as clunky and old-fashioned.

But in the second half of the Twentieth Century a new sub-genre began to develop within science fiction, that of alternate history. As writers turned from imagining what might be to what might have been, a certain nostalgia began to creep into the science fiction community for the days of futures past. Suddenly yesterday's futures no longer seemed so embarrassingly outdated, like an elderly aunt still sporting the Flapper fashions and slang of her Jazz Age youth in a vain effort to hold onto a time now gone by. Imagined through the lens of later technological developments, the possibilities of roads not taken, of machines that might have been built, took on a nostalgic charm all their own. What kind of a world might we have had if Charles Babbage had gotten adequate funding for his Analytical Engine, thus ushering in the Information Age a century earlier? What would have happened if the Victorians and their American cousins of the Gilded Age brought to fruition all those grandiose plans for remaking the world in a clean new scientific and technological image? It might not have been a perfect world, given that its actors would've still been human beings with all the frailties and flaws the human condition is heir to, but it certainly would've been a very different one.

We see that notion very much in the first fiction offering, William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum." Strictly speaking it is not steampunk, for it deals not with the dreams of the Victorians of their future, but of the era that followed, the Art Deco period of the Roaring Twenties in which it seemed the stock market was on a climb that would never end. The corresponding retro-futurism of that period is often called dieselpunk, although the architectural style Gibson's first-person protagonist is commissioned to photograph has no clear line of demarcation parting it from the Googie architecture of the 1950's dreams of a future that Donald Fagen celebrated in his song "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)," a retro-futurism sometimes called atomicpunk or rocketpunk.

And then our protagonist begins to have visions of the world that might've been, the future imagined by the designers of those buildings he's been seeking out and photographing, sometimes moments ahead of the bulldozers clearing them away to put in another WalMart, another gas station, another strip mall. The cars with their sharklike tailfins come to life on the giant multilane superhighways that wind past giant supertall skyscrapers over which soar enormous flying-wing aircraft.

But there's something sinister about this future that might have been, something that keeps him from embracing the promise of a time of lost optimism. The people are beautiful, but maybe a little too perfectly so, all tall and tanned and fit with their blond hair and blue eyes, wearing those pretty white tunics and silvery sandals that set off their beautiful bodies so perfectly. Where are all the brown people, all the round people, all the LGBT people, all the people with disabilities? What sort of mechanism made everybody over into somebody else's vision of perfection? Alarmed by the hints of some unspeakable atrocity in that world's past, he rejects it, instead wallowing in the nastiest and ugliest aspects of the present until those terrible visions fade to the point he can shut them out.

But even the Victorian Era proper had its dark side, as we see in "Great Breakthroughs in Darkness," which Marc Laidlaw presents in the form of a series of entries in a subject dictionary of photography in his imagined world. But not all of the entries are normal definitions, as the imagined essayist wanders off on tangents, telling the story of an experimenter who discovered something he wasn't bargaining for.

Jeffrey Ford's "Dr. Lash Remembers" takes place in a commercial Republic which is never explicitly stated to be Gilded Age America, yet the casual way in which it is willing to sacrifice thousands of its citizens to a mysterious infection rather than give up the least profit certainly echoes the robber barons, who fought tooth and toenail against far too many safety precautions purely on the grounds of cost, even a relatively minute loss of profit. On the other hand, the Prisoner Queen is less easy to place. Is she supposed to be understood as a historical figure, or a metaphorical one? In the end, I'm not sure it really matters, for there's a certain surrealist element in this story that defies easy classification.

Stephen Baxter's "The Unblinking Eye" takes us to a topsy-turvy world where Europe is weak and backwards, its mariners never quite able to gather the courage to sail beyond the sight of land until the day they are visited by emissaries of the powerful and technologically advanced Inca Empire. They invite a group of European representatives to ride upon their wondrous steam-powered ship, where the learn the secret by which the Inca have been able to sail the trackless ocean deeps -- a whirlpool of stars from which the Inca scientists believe the Sol system was violently ejected in some cosmic encounter with another star millions or even billions of years ago. It's a fascinating world, but the premise has the problem that such a major point of departure, so early in the history of life on Earth, would probably cause such extensive changes that it's unlikely a recognizable humanity would ever develop at all.

Although many readers associate steampunk primarily with urban settings, it also includes the Weird West, stories of an American frontier in which strange steam-driven technologies intrude In "The Steam Dancer (1896)" Caitl&iacutr;n R. Kiernan gives us the story of a saloon dancer with sophisticated steam-driven prosthetic limbs and her struggles to find her place in a society where a woman alone has few available roles.

Andrew Knighton's "The Cast-Iron Kid" tells the story of a mechanical gunslinger, and how he finally met his match. Maybe there was no faster gun that could match his mechanical speed and precision, but in the end machinery had other vulnerabilities.

In "Machine Maid" Margo Lanagan introduces us to Clarissa, a lovely mechanical woman whose seeming of humanity is at once compelling and disturbing to the unhappy protagonist. And in the end such mechanical beauty proves too threatening to be borne, and is thus must be destroyed.

Ramsey Shehadeh gives us a steampunk take on the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics in "The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe." The titular character is a railroad conductor who longs to become the greatest pianist in the world. But he lacks talent, and in his search for it he unmoors himself from his own world and begins a journey through a succession of bubble universes in which he becomes one after another person. One has tremendous talent, but will never realize it because he was born in a slum in India and never even sees a piano. Another cannot attain the woman he loves for she is mad. And finally he finds a world he can live with -- but he is haunted ever after by the memories of the worlds he left behind.

In "The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-un-din Muhammad Akbar," Shweta Naryan takes us far beyond the familiar steampunk settings of Victorian England and Gilded Age America to give us a story reminiscent of the Arabian Nights, of fabulous clockwork birds and the follies and tragedies of humanity. It is even told in the manner of an oral tale, with many of the turns of phrase that characterize rhetorical delivery, as opposed to a story intended for solitary silent reading.

Chris Roberson's "0 One" takes us to China, in a world in which computation is one of the chiefmost activities of the bureaucracy of the Forbidden City. When that supremacy is threatened by pools of specially trained fish, the Chief Computator is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his own primacy.

"Wild Copper," Samantha Henderson's story of a modern young woman taken into the fairy court as a substitute for her brother's trespass, is a lovely work of fiction, but not one I would classify as steampunk. Yet the tale of courage, self-sacrifice, and a spirit tormented too far is so powerful that I dislike levying too harsh a criticism, lest I appear to condemn as inadequate an excellent story merely on the grounds of a mismatch between story and anthology theme.

David Erik Nelson's "The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond" is another Wild West piece, this one belonging to his Clockie continuity, in which the Union resorted to the use of a large number of Chinese clockwork soldiers to win the Civil War. It's the story old Dickie, a half-mad wounded veteran who feels more akin to the surviving Clockies than to humanity, and who encounters a squid who's built a device by which to carry with him a marine environment by which to explore the land.

In "Tanglefoot (A Clockwork Century Story)" Cherie Priest tells the story of Edwin, an orphan who lives in the basement of the mad scientist Dr. Smeeks and earns his keep by running various small errands. In the process he learns various skills which he puts to use building an automaton, a mechanical boy to be his companion. But Ted proves to have a penchant for mischief, and something has to be done before it goes beyond harmless pranks.

Margaret Ronald's "A Serpent in the Gears" draws upon the old literary tradition of the lost land or lost civilization story. In a world in which every obscure nook and cranny of the world has been mapped, surveyed and photographed from space, it can be hard to remember that even as recently as the late Victorian Era vast swaths of Africa, Asia, and the Americas remained Terra Incognita, where one might plausibly imagine valleys in which forgotten or unknown peoples might enjoy a remarkable degree of civilization apart from the familiar Western world.

It is to just such a valley that our protagonists are headed when they find their passage blocked by the corpse of a most peculiar serpent. Its physiology incorporates both mechanical and biological elements, leaving our intrepid explorers to wonder if it were hatched or manufactured. Furthermore, there is evidence that the beast was domesticated, which puts the warning in a different light.

But our brave explorers are not to be daunted by this, nor even by the dire warning graven upon the walls of the valley entrance and the terrible weapons emplacements beyond. They are on a mission to make contact, to bring the benefits of modern science to the isolated valley of Aaris. But what they discover once they force their entrance is a nightmare of machine life, a hive of mechanized people more like ants. And they are left with a puzzle -- will this composite entity be satisfied to remain within its hidden valley, or will it seek to spread its version of perfection to the rest of the world?

In "The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday" G. D. Falksen gives us a story of a world where the modern blog combox is anticipated in paper, in the form of thick gazettes of comments going back and forth in response to various articles and events. But one of these tatters, as such writers are called, is producing enormous amounts of commentary under a visibly false name. Inspector Wilde has been tasked with finding the true identity of the mysterious Mr. Salad Monday. What he discovers brings to mind the gelatinous eldritch entities that populate the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, a writer very much of the Victorian Era in spirit for all that he lived into the 1930's.

Tanith Lee's "The Persecution Machine" is the story of a young man with a mysterious uncle who's traveled far and wide, and who has some strange tales to tell. But he has angered someone, and the titular Machine is being sent for him. But his uncle is not helpless, and the story ends other than its masters had intended.

In "Balfour and Meriwether in the Adventure of the Emperor's Vengeance" Daniel Abraham gives us a story of hidden truths behind the familiar Scriptures, and a family among the priestly Cohenim who has preserved not only the secret of a forgotten time of machine domination of humanity as punishment for the Fall, but also hints that not all of those foul machineries were destroyed -- and that modern men are collaborating with them to restore that tyranny. Thus begins a race against time to prevent the ultimate betrayal of humanity. The ending leaves one feeling a little odd about the origins and benefits of the Industrial Revolution.

James L Grant and Lisa Mantchev give us "As Recorded on Brass Cylinders: Adagio for Two Dancers," a story of Victorian cyborgs of brass and gems. It is a story of the fascinating mechanical devices they acquire to replace their organic functions, devices with long and elaborate names that really feel like inventions of the era. But in the end they prove vulnerable to the same contradictions of desire as fleshly humans, particularly in matters of the heart, and from those contradictions come tragedy.

In "Flying Fish Prometheus (A Fantasy of the Future)" Vilhelm Bergsoe brings us a tale of a wondrous and terrible new explosive of unprecedented force. But it also proves to be useful for its lifting properties, for it is of course hydrogen gas. Thus begins the story of a journey by airship.

Although the Victorian Era was a period of tremendous creativity and enormous increases in wealth, it was also a time of an enormous erosion in the position and conditions of the laboring classes. They went from largely self-directed employment as independent craftsmen in small workshops and farms to closely supervised labor in impersonal factories in which the person adapted to the machine rather than the other way around. It was the era of Charles Dickens, of Benjamin Disraeli, and of Karl Marx, father of Communism. Catherynne M. Valente's "The Anachronist's Cookbook" is a fictional exploration of how some of those social pressures might have worked themselves out in a world in which technology blurs into magic, but in which human hearts remain hard toward the small and the weak.

Although most of the works in this volume have been prose, Sydney Padua's "Lovelace and Babbage: Origins with Salamander" is sequential art. In a humorous sequence of panels we get a quick summation of the history of their collaboration on the Analytical Engine -- and then the narration takes a sharp turn into a skewy world of cartoon adventure in which they fight a monstrous Salamander.

"A Secret History of Steampunk," credited to the Mecha-Ostrich, is a collection of faux documents and story excerpts presented in such a way that it comes together in a quirky way to tell the story of the development of steampunk as a subgenre. There are also illustrations, humorously captioned, to complete the effect.

In addition to the fiction, there are several pieces of straight-up non-fiction. Gail Carriger's "Which Is Mightier, the Pen or the Parasol?" and Jake von Slatt's "At the Intersection of Technology and Romance" are essays about the appeal of steampunk, linking the literature to developments in fashion and in art, particularly three-dimensional installations involving mechanical elements of a design characteristic of the Victorian Era. There is also a roundtable discussion involving a number of steampunk authors on the state of the subgenre, and the volume is concluded with contributor biographies.

Table of Contents

  • "What Is Steampunk" by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
  • Fiction
    • "The Gernsback Continuum" by William Gibson
    • "Great Breakthroughs in Darkness" by Marc Laidlaw
    • "Dr. Lash Remembers" by Jefrey Ford
    • "The Unblinking Eye" by Stephen Baxter
    • "The Steam Dancer (1896)" by Caitl&iacutr;n R. Kiernan
    • "The Cast-Iron Kid" by Andrew Knighton
    • "Machine Maid" by Margo Lanagan
    • "The Unmaking of Virgil Smythe" by Ramsey Shehadeh
    • "The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-dun Muhammad Akbar" by Shweta Narayan
    • "0 One" by Chris Roberson
    • "Wild Copper" by Samantha Henderson
    • "The Bold Explorer of the Place Beyond" by David Erik Nelson
    • "Lost Pages from The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana" by Jess Nevins
    • "Tanglefoot (A Clockwork Century Story)" by Cherie Priest
    • "A Serpent in the Gears" by Margaret Ronald
    • "The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday" by G. D. Falksen
    • "The Persecution Machine" by Tanith Lee
    • "Balfour and Meriwether in the Adventures of the Emperor's Vengeance" by Daniel Abraham
    • "As Recorded on Brass Cylindres: Adagio for Two Dancers" by James L. Grant and Lisa Mantchev
    • "Flying Fish Prometheus (A Fantasy of the Future)" by Vilhelm Bergsoe
    • "The Anachronist's Cookbook" by Cathrynne M. Valente
    • "Lovelace and Babbage: Origins, with Salamander" by Sydney Padua
    • "A Secret History of Steampunk" by The Mecha-Ostrich"
  • Nonfiction
    • "Which Is Mightier: The Pen or the Parasol?" by Gail Carriger "At the Intersection of Technology and Romance" by Jake von Slatt"The Future of
    • Steampunk: A Roundtable Interview"
    • Biographies

Review posted July 24, 2012

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