Rebellious children pick pockets and plant pamphlets in dystopian London. A train robbery occurs in a dimension beyond time. An Australian frontier woman plots against her husband with the robot maid. Two-timing agents confront each other in a food court mall. Oh, and a maniacal Mecha-Ostrich is running loose somewhere in New Jersey.
All this and more are found in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded anthology from Tachyon Publications.
Given the wide range and variety of contributions in this follow-up volume to the VanderMeers’ Steampunk, I can’t help but attempt the “anthologies are like a box of chocolates” analogy. I nibbled on this collection of twenty-five stories and articles bit by bit, indulging way more than I should during many bedtime reading sessions. Nuggets of fictional (and non-fictional) delights were contained therein—some light and fluffy, some containing chewy, pulpy centers, others crunchy with satirical humor. And not to mention the lovely packaging: the book possesses gorgeous spot art illustrations, squee-worthy type settings, and a bizarre (but amusing) collection of “found” articles in the unveiled “Secret History of Steampunk.”
(Insert disclosure here: This sugar-and-steel-spun collection of literary bonbons was not found by chance. I was asked to contribute an opinion for this book earlier this year, and so it has been in my sights for awhile. I do not, however, earn a cent from this anthology’s sales.)
Anyway, I’ll switch out the food comparison and get to the ticking heart of this anthology. Steampunk Reloaded’s strength lies in its range in subject matter, style, and story, sufficiently revealing how the subgenre is stretching its limits, both thematically and geographically. No longer confined to London, authors have taken the meaning of steampunk in new directions. In doing so, it’s taking the question, “What is steampunk?” taking flight with it.
Moreso, the authors move past this simple question to pose new ones that are deeper and more complex. Between the pulp escapism and playful anachronisms, much larger themes are addressed in these tales: Are technological advances inherently beneficial? In an alternate history, are the same cycles of imperialism and oppression destined to be reenacted? Can the magic of science (or the science of magic) create a “cure-all” for one’s problems—or is it only as potent as the snake oil charms of yesteryear?
And the authors’ responses to these questions are varied, fun, and occasionally thought-provoking. Stephen Baxter’s “The Unblinking Eye” revels in its clever vision of Incan empire-building. On the opposite spectrum are contributions about common people impacted by robotics in their humble lives. Caitlin Kiernan’s lyrical “The Steam Dancer (1896)” is a standout example, a slice-of-life vignette about a stage dancer with steam-powered limbs and lingering regrets.
These steampunk stories also circumvent the globe on its literary travels; besides Europe, the collection also includes quite a few Weird West tales and even some “Weird East.” In true homage fashion, a few stories pay tribute to older literary forms. “The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar” by Shweta Narayan is told in the same “story-in-a-story” structure as the Arabian Nights, for instance, and Catherynne Valente’s “The Anachronist’s Cookbook” reads like one of the Victorian tracts her characters slyly distribute. Other pulpy adventures are perfect armchair reads for rainy afternoons, where automaton sheriffs guard backwater towns, a child’s mechanical toy becomes a demon-possessed, and the infamous origins of the Sydney Padua’s webcomic duo Lovelace and Babbage are revealed.
There wasn’t a clunker in this collection, though the weaker stories are either too caught up in style or had not enough substance. Tanith Lee’s “The Persecution Machine” has a sparseness that didn’t project as strong a sense of time or place as the other stories do. On the other hand, Marc Laidlaw’s “Great Breakthroughs in Darkness” read more as purple prose than period.
The nonfiction section is much slimmer, but gives representation to several figures in today’s steampunk community, including authoress and fashionista Gail Carriger, and Jake von Slatt, Maker and proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop, who each contribute an essay concerning today’s steampunk scene.
Overall, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded resembles the current steampunk community itself: innovatively creative, expansive, and armed with something for everyone.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker spends an inordinate amount of time consuming books and candy, sometimes both simultaneously. She also runs a blog about multicultural steampunk called Beyond Victoriana.