Clockwork Canada: Exploring the Ticking Heart of the North

I first discovered steampunk as an aesthetic, a creative outlet for artists and cosplayers to go and redraw the lines of history: open the skies to adventure on steamships and blimps. Make the world over in polished copper, gold, and bronze. Fill the silence with ticking mechanisms and turning cogs. Since then I’ve been immersing myself in steampunk’s fiction extension and having recently read Nora Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”, Shveta Thakrar’s “Not the Moon, but the Stars”, and Aliette de Bodard’s “Prayers of Forges and Furnaces”, what strikes me is that all the tales go for the societal jugular. They’re far more concerned with the bones and flesh of society in relation to steam technology than the technology in itself.

Steam technology doesn’t only lead to upstanding, impeccably-dressed gentlemen and ladies, switching one romantic set for another and undertaking good-spirited hijinks. It weaves itself into the fabric of daily lives, changes the tides of history, and serves as fuel for great acts of defiance. This is not news for those intimately acquainted with the scene—but for me, steampunk remains a great process of discovery and I’m happy to say Clockwork Canada, a new anthology edited by Dominik Parisien, continues my education in the great potential steampunk has to address and educate.

As a worldbuilder, I gravitate to the small-scale application of steampunk technology. Almost from the get-go, there’s Holly Schofield’s excellent “East Wind in Carrall Street”—a personal highlight. Here the stakes are small but not unimportant, as we see young Wong Shin working on a clockwork lion—upon whose success his immediate future lies—while on a tight deadline. This story works so well because Schofield thinks through every detail and draws out great tension from normally mundane conditions.

Brent Nichols demonstrates how steampunk technology can liberate an oppressed community in “The Harpoonist” by enabling vigilantes to push against organized crime in a small town with a single constable to uphold the law. “Crew 255” by Claire Humphrey makes a different entry point by showcasing the practicality of clockwork mechanisms as replacement for lost limbs, all effectively rendered against the backdrop of a disaster-struck Toronto.

All three stories engage with the distinct sociopolitical and economic makeup of their respective time periods–the social standing of Chinese immigrants in Canada, the rigged system for business owners in towns deep in the wilderness, the industries that blossom after disaster strikes in big cities.

Parisien has made a lot of smart choices in the way he has constructed this anthology, as the stories continue to be as socially engaging when moving into greater conflicts. Terri Favro’s “Let Slip the Sluicegates of War, Hydro-Girl” is as ludicrous as its title suggests, presenting a bizarre Canada at war with a version of the USA; for all the bold worldbuilding choices and gasp-worthy revelations, the story presents rather uncomfortable realities for the subjects of this empire and in the occupations young girls are assigned.

Rati Mehrotra looks at colonialism by exploring the restrictions Indians face in “Komagata Maru”, where steam technology is used to defy authority. While Mehrotra’s story circles around hope for a bright future, Harold R. Thompson reminds us that technology can be used for terror and annihilation in “The Tunnels of Madness”—a fast-paced, straightforward story with a rather grim ending, but one without a strong emotional payoff for the reader.

Clockwork Canada shines when technology meets magic, the occult, and science in fascinating permutations. Personal standouts include Kate Heartfield’s tragic and touching “The Seven O’Clock Man”, where dark family history is peeled off layer by layer, and Michal Wojcik’s “Strange Things Done”–an action story done right, with copious amounts of great worldbuilding decisions and substance, which makes the reader genuinely care for Tessa Fitzpatrick on her perilous mission. Both stories deal with forces beyond human understanding, in a sense, and both leave you greatly satisfied. Tony Pi has turned séances into an actual science in “Our Chymical Séance” (which clearly deserves a slow clap for the play on My Chemical Romance in the title), while Rhea Rose brings us a tragic love story in “Bones of Bronze, Limbs like Iron”—a time travel tale that blurs the lines between steampunk and far future science fiction, which is also a great closing piece for the anthology as a whole.

I also particularly enjoyed Charlotte Ashley’s “La Clochemar”—the opener to this anthology and the story set in the earliest time period—and Colleen Anderson’s “Buffalo Gals”, about serial murders of women. In the first, you have clockwork maps that track living things—including the giant nature spirits that roam the Canadian wilderness—and in the second, you’re treated to ghosts and mechanical half-women/half-buffalo automatons that run on coal. That’s what I call scope. Both certainly expanded my understanding of First Nations diversity and cultures a little bit and sparked an interest in doing a little more research on my own. Ultimately, it’s not for me to say whether or not these cultures have been done justice in the stories as I’m an outsider, but as a reader I got a sense of respect and consideration in their depictions.

Parisien has consistency in taste and the story selection is strong, with only a few low points. I found myself not particularly interested in Chantal Boudreau’s “The Curlicue Seahorse”—a lighter fare focused on retrieving cursed treasure. I adore the fact Captain Roberta Rogers has an all-female crew and funds her own expeditions atop her airship, but tonally it didn’t work as the giddy, quip-filled voice gave it a one-dimensional feel and the overabundant use of the terms “adventure” and “adventurer” was distracting at best.

“Equus”, by Kate Story, started off on a high note, but the further I read the more confused I felt about what’s at the heart of this slightly sinister story. Karin Lowachee delivers a dream-tinged narrative in “Gold Mountain”, but as the focus falls away from civilization and technology I felt that the story comes off as a speculative story with a historical bent without it explicitly being steampunk.

Until Clockwork Canada, I had a very limited understanding of Canada—lumberjacks and maple syrup are the only cultural imports that reach this far in Eastern Europe—and I’m sure had I known more about its history I’d have found the play on historical events in most stories all the more effective. Even without this prior knowledge, Dominik Parisien’s anthology is a true delight that hits on my favorite things in fiction—curious worldbuilding, magic, and tough women taking charge. It’s a carefully curated adventure in short fiction that stays true to a particular vision while seeking and achieving nuance.

Clockwork Canada is available from Exile Editions.

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, he enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors…usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets @HaralambiMarkov. His stories have appeared in The Weird Fiction Review, Electric Velocipede, Tor.com, Stories for Chip, The Apex Book of World SF and are slated to appear in Genius Loci, Uncanny and Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. He’s currently working on a novel.

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