'Steampunk' ed. by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
This review does contain spoilers because there are a couple of stories in this collection which I feel are inappropriate and may offend readers, so I feel it is important to alert readers to them. Having begun work in the middle of this month I thought I would be reading more. However, deliberately socialising with colleagues has meant me sitting in the works canteen, it is not called that but it is effectively what it is, rather than spending an hour reading each lunchtime. In addition, in the evening I have been watching the two John Le Carre television series and now the entire 'Van Der Valk' series of DVDs on my laptop rather than reading.
This book is a collection of essays, short stories and novel extracts. It does rather pin the Steampunk genre to American attitudes though there is some reference to British and Japanese work in this field. One of the problems is the evangelist Jess Nevins who I have had problems with before: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/jess-nevinss-steampunk-generations.html and continues to wheel out a similar attempt to nail Steampunk to US culture that he has done before.
Before moving on to a broader survey of the book, I must address the two chapters which concerned me most. The first is 'The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel' by Joe R. Lansdale. The concept is fair: the time traveller from H.G. Wells' novel has torn the fabric of time and space by his travels, something also considered in 'The Time Ships' by Stephen Baxter (1995). In doing so the traveller has been turned into a vampire and has returned to 19th century Mid West America where he feeds on people, aided by an army of Moorlocks [sic - in the original book they are 'Morlocks'; this may be a reference to Michael Moorcock often termed the 'godfather of steampunk'; it may simply be laziness]. A group of adventurers travel to do battle with him in a man-shaped walking vehicle which he counters with one made of wood. The key trouble is simply how nasty the story is. It quickly turns into a sequence of descriptions in too much detail of torture. It turns out like a sadist text and any of the plot just disappears as Lansdale indulges his clear delight in describing torture. The warning given by the editors at the start of the story is far too mild and I really believe that they should have thought twice before including this story in the collection as all it is, is a perverse torture story given Steampunk elements.
The other story that jars with the collection is 'Victoria' by Paul Di Filippo which is set in 1838 and envisages Queen Victoria newly on the throne being installed in a brothel by Lord Melbourne, her prime minister, so that she may learn more of her kingdom. Her place is taken by a newt named Victoria that has been impregnated by human genes to grow to the size of a small woman of Queen Victoria's stature and who serves as a bestial prostitute in the brothel until the two have their roles reversed. The clear descriptions of bestiality in themselves are distasteful. Again this seems to be some perverse sexual story which has been wrapped up in steampunk trappings to get it a wider readership and yet completely brings the genre into disrepute.
If I had been the author of any of the other stories in this collection I would have been offended to see my work included alongside these others. There are extracts from 'The Warlord of the Air' by Michael Moorcock which despite being over forty years old stands out as an engaging novel. An excerpt from 'Tribes of the Pacific Coast' by Neal Stephenson is a decent post-apocalyptic story, though to me seeming more mainstream science fiction than steampunk.
'Lord Kelvin's Machine' by James P. Blaycock is a decent steampunk story about averting a meteorite crash into Earth and I liked the internecine battles between different scientists. 'The Giving Mouth' by Ian R. Macleod, is more like standard fantasy than steampunk, but for that, is pretty well written and I like the idea of living metal. Like a couple of the stories it takes viewpoints from the workers of a steampunk world as much as from the rulers who tend to feature in these stories. 'A Sun in the Attic' by Mary Gentle is very much in the clockworkpunk style of Gentle and does its job pretty well, looking at why technology might be stopped from developing. It also has the counter-factual element of a continent in the South Pacific which I liked. 'The God Clown is Near' by Jay Lake shows how you can write unnerving steampunk with genetic elements without sliding into obscenity of Lansdale. The creation of a powerful being in a city which sits parallel to 19th century North America in the uncharted areas of the map is an interesting one and Lake conjures up this setting with its own dynamics, quickly and effectively. 'The Selene Gardening Society' by Molly Brown about bombarding the Moon with compost in order to develop and atmosphere on it, is interesting, but Brown seems undeveloped in short story writing skills, as unlike these other authors, she does not create a world in miniature and really very little happens in the story and we learn little of its context.
'Seventy Two Letters' by Ted Chiang is the second story after 'The God Clown is Near' to feature golems. This story is set in a more standard 19th century Britain but in a short time shows a completely different society though with concerns of our own; it even envisages a different form of human reproduction. In my view this is probably the best story of the collection. 'The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance' by Michael Chabon, one of the more broadly better known authors in this collection, is very different from the title and features two boys whose parents were involved in the Ohio Uprising against British rule of North America in a steampunk world and what happens to them before they are liberated from a children's home by their airship flying uncle. This felt like proper steampunk with some counter-factual politics thrown in for good measure. 'Reflected Light' by Rachel E. Pollock is a little frustrating. It is features steampunk wax recordings of the friend of a woman who went on to be a revolutionary in the world Pollock creates. She does very well in quickly creating this world, but leaves the rest of the story to the reader's own imagination. I guess I like a little bit more in my short stories in the way that Blaycock, Chiang, Gentle, etc. do. 'Minutes of the Last Meeting' by Stepan Chapman almost goes to the other extreme featuring a cyber/steampunk Russia in 1917 where there are nanobots alongside steam trains. It features many historical characters and a whole host of scenes which rather overload the short story. However, the set-up and the ideas are refreshing. This one with Blaycock's have effectively encouraged me to abandon a steampunk short story I was to set in Russia on the grounds it would now appear derivative.
There are a couple of essays, 'The Steam-Driven Time Machine' by Rick Klaw and 'The Essential Sequential Steampunk: A Modest Survey of the Genre within the Comic Book Medium' by Bill Baker. The former is better than the latter, though the limited space means they are naturally restricted. I think the editors envisaged this collection being bought by people who have not encountered steampunk before because the content of those essays will not be news to anyone who has followed the genre to any degree. I do worry because of the Lansdale and Di Filippo stories, this collection will drive general readers away from steampunk. Reading online reviews of new books in the genre it is noticeable that some are being dismissed as 'airships and lesbians' and the straying into unnecessary perverse sexual contexts (I am not saying lesbians are perverse, this is referring the torture and bestiality of Lansdale and Di Filippo which are perverse) is liable to damage the genre. Including such work in a book which is supposed to encourage general readers into the genre was a grave error on the part of the Vandermeers which steampunk authors should condemn.