Monday, October 19, 2015

Review of Steampunk ed. by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

There are the novels that everyone thinks of when the word ‘cyberpunk’ is mentioned: Neuromancer, Mindplayers, Hardwired, and others.  But it may be Bruce Sterling’s anthology Mirrorshades which best defines the sub-genre.  Capturing the spectrum of the movement in artistic terms, the anthology covers aesthetics to ideology.  Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s 2008 anthology Steampunk does precisely the same with the eponymous sub-genre.  Likewise featuring a representative range of stories with superb introductory and essay material, it captures the next -punk in all its major forms, in essence defining it.

Canvassing the field, the VanderMeers came up with fourteen stories—or at least excerpts from fourteen stories—in Steampunk.  Like Mirrorshades, most are recognizable to the sub-genre while a few are intended along ideological lines.  Airships, steam horses, pulp nostalgia, alternate history, Victoriana, clockwork apparati, plebian struggles, anachronistic machines, social revolutions—all are represented in some form or another, most more than once.  The authors well to lesser known, there is not one story, however, poorly written.  Certainly every reader will have their own opinion about what is and isn’t steampunk, but the supplementary material—essays from Jess Nevins and Bill Baker as well as story introductions (from the VanderMeers, assumedly)—go a long way toward establishing a steampunk context that includes all the material selected, and in the very least erects a scaffolding for what the sub-genre might be.

But there are naturally differences to Mirrorshades.  The first is time.  Where all of the stories Sterling selected were published within five years of one another, the VanderMeers tread further back in time, surveying the field and gleaning material that covers four decades, 1971-2007.  The earliest selection opening the anthology, it is an excerpt from Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, “Benediction”.  And it’s precisely a tone setter. Featuring the great airships the sub-genre is renowned for, the excerpt likewise dips into the political issues that, steampunk—when it dains to descend from its airy heights—is renowned for.  (For those interested in reading The Warlord of the Air, I suggest skipping the excerpt as it is the climactic moment of the novel.)  “The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel” by Joe R. Lansdale is one of those airy stories.  A rollicking take on pulp fiction, I wanted to dislike this story, but Lansdale’s sense of style, attention to detail, and sustained self-awareness at least pushed me into the ‘didn’t regret reading this’ status.  (The other way I thought to describe this story is an anti-Lone Ranger meets Stephen King’s Gunslinger traveling in H.G. Wells The Time Machine—a combination that should not work, yet does in the context of pulp commentary.)

Unlike commissioned or year’s-best anthologies, Steampunk has the distinct advantage of being able to cherrypick from the wealth of genre stories of the past several decades.  Case in point, Ian Macleod’s darkly beautiful “The Giving Mouth”.  About a boy stuck in a vassal’s rut of life in a gritty, feudal setting, the story resonates with proletarian sentiment, the conclusion soaring into the heights of allegory—as richly drawn as it is literary.  Just a perfectly written little piece.  “Seventy-Two Letters” by Ted Chiang is a novella that exists at the intersection of Frankenstein, and The Difference Engine.  An intentionally pseudo-scientific story that is concerned with the direction of humanity’s evolution; the superficial elements (golems, Judaism, the Industrial Revolution, and vat grown humans) are only the doorway to discussion on the some of the most basic ideas surrounding human procreation, particularly the role mankind plays in the process.  Like Macleod’s story, Chiang’s is a wonderful balance of the visual and conceptual sides of steampunk.

Looking back to when steampunk was just good ol’ fantastika, “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” is Jules Verne with a zinger of pulp.  The vagaries of pulp plotting foresworn in favor of colorful character, setting, and dialogue, Blaylock’s sense of style is spot-on—amazing for a non-Brit (though I’m sure the Islanders would have some criticisms) telling of Langdon St. Ives, his trusty side kick Hasbro, and their attempt to stop the nefarious Narbando from unleashing volcanic tragedy on Earth.  Another delightfully written spot of fun is the first third of Paul Di Filippo’s fixup The Steampunk Trilogy, the novella “Victoria”.  As clever as clever can be, Di Filippo is a wordsmith of the nth degree telling of the young British biologist Cosmo Cowperthwaite and his rough-around-the-edges American sidekick Nails McGroaty as they attempt to track down the escaped teenage queen Victoria.  Irreverent, splash-dashtastic, uproarious, endlessly inventive—these terms only begin to describe the adventures Cowperthwaite and Nails get into in the back streets of London and beyond fulfilling their (newt backed) mission.

“The God-Clown Is Near” by Jay Lake is a bit of macabre Weird in a Victorian setting where golems are constructed of living flesh in back alley “offices”.  A combination of doll-making and mortuary work, Doctor Cosimo Ferrante receives a most unusual commission one day from the glint-eyed twins Reve and Traum Sueno: to create a moral golem.  A very visual story with a surprise yet fitting twist, the deal is eventually consummated, just not to everyone’s liking.  “The Selene Gardening Society” by Molly Brown is a Victorian delight of gardens on the moon.  Fun science in a light-hearted aristocratic setting, Brown captures a ladies club, bustles, and ‘natural science’ in a turn of the 20th century tale of lunar terraforming straight from Jules Verne’s imagination. 

It’s title intriguing, “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance” by Michael Chabon is a piece of alternate history wherein the American Revolutionary War never happened, and is instead pushed back to the middle of the 19 th century, round about the time the American Civil War took place.  The story of two boys separated from their family, it is a superbly written story that never goes where the reader thinks it might, poignancy pulling the reader along whether they want to read or not.  “Reflected Light” by Rachel E. Pollock is a short but intriguing story that leaves as much between the lines as in them.  Purported to be the fragments of historical recordings of a woman and her daily work at a leathersmithery, revolution against a never-described overseer simmers on the fringes in this understated yet quality story.

While I wish the VanderMeers, like Sterling, had chosen to name their anthology based on a symbol (Clockwork: The Steampunk Anthology has a nice ring to it, no?), the selection of stories they produced is nevertheless representative across a wide variety of points.  They have an eye for quality regardless of sub-genre, and the anthology reflects it.  While I personally think the expression ‘gaslight romance’ better conveys the core of what we’ve come to call ‘steampunk’, either way you look at it, the VanderMeers have captured the heart of the sub-genre in short fiction form—the essays and introductions to each story the icing on the cake.  Given that the scope of the work is more a look back into the field than an attempt to capture the zeitgeist, I would even argue that Steampunk is able to offer stories of a slightly better caliber than Mirrorshades  Regardless, the anthology is an invaluable resource for those interested in learning more about steampunk or are established readers.  Well done.

Published between 1971 and 2007, the following are the fourteen stories in Steampunk:

Introduction: The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk by Jess Nevins
Benediction (Excerpt from The Warlord of the Air) by Michael Moorcock
Lord Kelvin's Machine by James P. Blaylock
The Giving Mouth by Ian R. MacLeod
A Sun in the Attic by Mary Gentle
The God-Clown is Near by Jay Lake
The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel by Joe R. Lansdale
The Selene Gardening Society by Molly Brown
Seventy-Two Letters by Ted Chiang
The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance by Michael Chabon
Victoria by Paul Di Filippo
Reflected Light by Rachel E. Pollock
Minutes of the Last Meeting by Stepan Chapman
Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of 'Tribes of the Pacific Coast' by Neal Stephenson
The Steam-Driven Time Machine: A Pop Culture Survey by Rick Klaw
The Essential Sequential Steampunk: A Modest Survey of the Genre within the Comic Book Medium essay by Bill Baker

For a much better review than mine, see the SF Site here.

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