Edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer
Tachyon Publications: 400 pp., US$14.95
Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have edited a series of useful genre-based anthologies of cyberpunk, the New Weird, and most recently steampunk. The last anthology is especially well-timed because steampunk—a term coined in the late '80s to describe Victorian alternate history science fiction, a world of Babbage computers, steam engines, and airships—is now more than a literary genre. It has morphed into a small subculture of eccentrics and amateur tinkerers. If you search "steampunk" on Boing Boing, you'll find dozens of postings for phonographs, t-shirt designs, bands, circus performers, watches, lamps, clothes, wedding cake toppers, motorcycles, cars, computers, etc. If you're a gamer, you can roleplay steampunk worlds live or in the paper and dice format. Steampunk has become a fashion statement with jewelry, and outfits ranging from Neo-Victorian vests and dresses to airship crew uniforms complete with goggles. The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Boston Globe have recently published articles about steampunk. There are websites where you can buy steampunk jewelry and other creations. Do you want a steampunk watch or a bracelet, but don't feel like building it yourself? Try eBay. Do you need cogs or old brass for your steampunk project? There's an auction or website for you.
One of the most influential current Steampunks is Jake von Slatt (see his website), who exemplifies many of the steampunk ethos and concerns. He has a DIY attitude in which he places personal touches on mass-produced objects. He has etched brass plates and decorated Moleskine notebooks, Altoids tins, iPods, and a guitar. Some of his other creations include an All-in-One PC with a vintage typewriter-like keyboard and a fancy Victorian-style frame around the monitor. He also has links to other steampunk projects on his site, many of them breathtaking, including a tricked-up Mac Mini, a Victorian bus, and a car.
The steampunk movement is based on frustration over the loss of craftsmanship in the modern world. We live in an age of mass-produced products, lines of identical computers, houses, and cars. The Steampunks have a DIY aesthetic, an urge to expose the inner workings of technology and to add craftmanship. They like to rip out the guts of an object and expose them, to show how the engine is working. They desire quality consumption rather than the modern world's throwaway culture.
The one criticism I have of the Steampunks is that their positions display a certain level of naïveté. Although they are opposed to mass production and capitalism, most of their projects are only possible because of those forces. For example, Slatt's all-in-one computer involves decorating a computer monitor that he bought online. Mass production made the monitor affordable for him, and for that matter created the Internet where he located the monitor. Our culture of throwaway plastic objects certainly has its limitations, but would we really be better off in a world of hand-created objects that only a wealthy few could afford? Mass production is on the verge of creating $100 computers that will make it possible for children in the Third world to have access to information and education unavailable to them before. Carefully hand-produced, aesthetically pleasing computers would cost significantly more. Consider how expensive housing is today, then imagine every house being hand-built by master carpenters and builders with unique personal touches and ornamentation, and imagine how few people could then afford their own home. The Steampunk desire to create a DIY culture is all well and good, but it's an affordable hobby and lifestyle for white collar people in the wealthiest societies in human history.
Steampunk DIY takes advantage of the cognitive surplus we enjoy in the modern world. The term was coined by Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody:
Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened—rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before—free time.
As Shirky points out, people can spend that free time watching TV or they can create something useful. The Steampunks are definitely a group of people using that free time productively. They just misunderstand the larger socioeconomic forces giving them the wealth, freedom, and time to create and contribute to the world. Despite their naivetÚ, they do bring up important issues, reminiscent in many ways of the slow food movement, an attempt to slow down the pace of the modern world and add some individual, handmade quality to our overly consumerist society.
The VanderMeers' Steampunk anthology presents a selection of the fiction that has influenced this subculture. Although I had been looking forward to the anthology for several months, I found it disappointing. The chief problem&—
The anthology begins with a disappointingly brief excerpt from Moorcock's Warlord of the Air—a novel widely seen as an important precursor to steampunk. The chapter depicts a battle scene between airships in a pseudo-steampunk setting. We have no idea why the battle is being fought, or why we should care. The selection contains no interesting extrapolation or ideas—all of which might be present in the full book. The editors would be better off excerpting a larger selection or anthologizing a complete short story.
The anthology provides a stronger selection from James P. Blaylock's novel Lord Kelvin's Machine. The lengthy excerpt—about 36 pages—is a metafictional pastiche of 19th century SF, and expresses the verve and unique voice of Blaylock's writing.
"The Giving Mouth" by Ian R. MacLeod is an interesting refiguring of Arthurian legend and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, and displays the imaginative verve of the best steampunk. A corrupt, brutal Queen—a sort of cross between Elizabeth, Victoria, and a monster from a horror tale — rules over an aristocratic and feudal Industrial Revolution. The primary industry is mining live iron, which makes, among other things, living machines such as steamhorses.
The story involves a fantasy-like quest to heal the land by slaying the blight. The blight transforms England into a wasteland, just as disease infests the land in Arthurian legend, prompting the quest for the Holy Grail (and much later poetry such as T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"). In this story there are no noble, pure knights and no holy grail; like much steampunk, MacLeod's story portrays a dystopian and exploitative industrial landscape.
"A Sun in the Attic" by Mary Gentle also stands out as a strong story, but it's an odd choice for this anthology because it's unclear the story is steampunk at all. Its only recognizable steampunk element is its steamcars. Gentle develops an interesting matriarchal society full of political intrigue. In the story, a Galileo-like figure invents a powerful telescope that reveals information about the universe that the authorities would prefer people not know.
Two stories revolve around the creation of golems. Jay Lake's "The God-Clown is Near" is slow-moving but highly imaginative, depicting the building of a God-Clown—a type of golem or Frankenstein monster. Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" impresses as one of the most intellectually sophisticated stories in the anthology. Chiang has written a hard SF golem story set in an alternate history England in which the Kabbalah has been organized into a science. The world's dominant technology is nomenclature, the study of the names that animate golems. Chiang, who has written several hard SF stories, develops nomenclature as technically and extensively as Hal Clement might develop the chemistry and biology of an alien planet. Chiang also does a superb job depicting the politics and social tensions in this alternate England.
Stepan Chapman's tale is set in Russia during WWI, which is a nice change of pace, since most of the stories are set in Victorian England. The story depicts some intriguing steampunk medical gadgets, nanotech AI bots that keep the heir to Russia's throne alive. A powerful supercomputer—the Imperial Intelligence Entelechy—spies on the citizenry through its insect-sized bots and prevents the communists from succeeding in their revolution. One of the attractions of steampunk is the gadgets, and Chapman's story has the most interesting bots and AIs in the book.
Chapman's story also mixes in magical elements with psychics and the powerful Russian witch, the Baba Yaga. The mixture of magic with technology is common to steampunk, which often borders on science fantasy; the Lake and Chiang stories also contain a heady mixture of magic and science.
"Victoria" by Paul Di Filippo exemplifies the steampunk fascination with the figure of Queen Victoria, albeit in a particularly disrespectful way. The story reveals that Queen Victoria—or at least her double—is a genetically engineered newt. Both the Queen and her double are sexually voracious, which contrasts rather dramatically with the historical image of the staid, conservative Queen. The story also reveals a sense of humor, a welcome change from the bleak dystopias characteristic of the anthology.
Molly Brown's "The Selene Gardening Society" is also a humorous steampunk story set on an alternate Earth. It reminds me of Terry Gilliam with its depiction of oddball Victorian science used to travel to the moon. The humor fell flat—at least to me; I had to force myself to finish the story.
The steampunk genre tends to be dominated by Americans (14 out of 18 writers and the editors of the anthology are Americans), writing stories set in 19th century London, a city they know little about—apart from reading Dickens—and treat almost like an alien planet. American Steampunks often satirize the hypocrisies of the Victorian era. When Di Fillipo portrays Victoria as sexually voracious—and thus satirizes the sexual repression and prudery of the Victorian age—it's all in good fun, but the satire fails to have the poignancy that an Englishman might create. After all, the symbolism and icons of the Victorian age mean more to the English than they do to Americans. To the English the Victorian age represents the high point of their empire. To an American the laced-up imperialistic empire of Victoria is merely exotic story material.
Joe R. Lansdale's "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider" places steampunk in an American landscape populated with figures from 19th century science fiction. Lansdale portrays the Traveler from H.G. Wells's The Time Machine as the "Dark Man" who has ravaged the space-time continuum. The steam man of the title is 40 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and is driven by four men who are hunting the Dark Man. The story borrows tropes not just from The Time Machine, but from Wells's War of the Worlds and Edward S. Ellis's The Steam Man of the Prairies, one of the first science fiction stories in the 19th century.
The editors describe Lansdale's tale as "shocking" and not for the squeamish, and they are not exaggerating. Lansdale portrays torture and extreme violence; cannibalistic Morlocks devour testicles from the bodies of screaming victims, and the Dark Man drives stakes up people's anuses. Personally I wasn't shocked. I just found the violence tiresome: it reminded me of the excesses of the '80s splatterpunks. Lansdale should have developed some of his interesting metafictional references to Wells and 19th century science fiction or further extrapolated his gadgets and ideas rather than relying on extreme violence to resolve the story's conflicts.
The anthology contains some informative nonfiction: three essays, one surveying the 19th-century roots of steampunk, another tracing the genre in pop culture (mostly movies and TV), and the last describing steampunk in comic books.
The anthology has several good—
*[Ed. Note: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have pointed out that it's not that the best examples of steampunk are in the long form, but that some steampunk writers don't use the short form.]