So, what can we expect from this new anthology? Let’s hear it straight from the authors themselves, answering a few questions on their stories, starting with two-sentence summaries:
Sean Holland, on “Playing Chess in New Persepolis”: A young and now broke mechaniker enters her mechanical chess set in the yearly competition hosted by the Persian Shah. There she finds that chess is only one of the games being played.
Stephanie Lai on “One Last Interruption Before We Begin”: In post-Merdeka Malaysia, Shu Ping bustles through her life, drawn to a life of adventure but unsure if it’s what she really wants.
Jeannelle Fereira on “A Thousand Mills Lofts Gray”: Polly Clarke can buy anything she wants; Rachel Isaacson must work for everything she gets. The abstracts — optimism, hope, romance — they have to create for themselves.
Patty Templeton, on “Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues”: Balma Walker is plain tired of Cazy Tipple’s cheating, especially now that it’s interfering with business. The moonshine ain’t gonna make itself and who has time to feud with ex-lovers, current sheriffs and make ends meet?
Zen Cho, on “The Terracotta Bride”: Siew Tsin died young and has been trying to avoid surprises ever since. But her hopes for a quiet death are destroyed when her husband brings home a new wife — a beautiful terracotta automaton who comes with secrets that may overturn the order of the universe.
Shveta Thakrar, on “Not The Moon But The Stars”: What would’ve happened if Buddha had never become Buddha? In its way, it’s a tale of first contact.
Nicole Kohrner-Stace on “Deal”: Alt-western silver-mining tall tale. Midwife vs. Pinkertons!
A. Tuomala on “Dark Horse”: The evening before her mercenary company departs for the Balkans, Suhailah al-Saghira bint-e-Azzam meets a desperate stranger: Prudence Crewe, who claims to be searching for her runaway husband. Before they’ve exchange three words, Suhailah knows that the steely-eyed Mrs. Crewe is trouble — but Suhailah has a taste for trouble, and she could never resist a woman with a secret.
Rebecca Fraimow on “Granada’s Library”: In an alternate Emirate of Granada that never fell to Christian Spain, a great mechanized library has for centuries peacefully guarded the wisdom of three faiths. But as the spirit of the Enlightenment starts to reach Al-Andalus, Chief Curator Pilar — a woman who has her own secrets — finds herself at the center of a battle for the library’s future.
C.S.E. Cooney on “The Canary of Candletown”: A burnt-out revolutionary’s kindness awakens the passionate devotion of a young mining laborer. But the Candletown Company is careful to stomp out any flame ignited underground.
S.L. Knapp on “Amphitrite”: An engineer from newly-independent Cuba must recover her stolen submarine. While crossing the open ocean, she has just the plan to evade anyone who might try to claim her vessel.
Beth Birdsall on “Journey’s End”: In an alternate 1910, Chief Engineer Dolores Salas has spent her career working on sentient, aetherium-powered airships. When her airship’s time to die comes, Dolores agrees to accompany her into the unknown — but the sky contains more surprises than the certain death she thinks she’s sailing towards.
Alex Dally MacFarlane, on “Selin That Has Grown in The Desert”: Dursun, a teenaged girl in 19th century Central Asia, must soon be married — but she is starting to realise that she only wants to be with other girls.
Nisi Shawl, on “The Return of Cherie”: Twenty years after she helped found a socialist Utopia in the Belgian Congo, Lisette Toutournier returns to the nation of Everfair with urgent advice about its role in Europe’s fast-approaching “Great War.” And despite their ages, Lisette also hopes to rekindle the love she once shared with another co-founder still living there, Daisy Albin.
How did your characters come to be?
Sean Holland: I wanted a Dutch main character, and so she is. The supporting cast just sort of appeared, mostly a microcosm of Europe in this reality with a few characters from the Americas and Asia.
Patty Templeton: Once I name someone, I can think clearly about them. I start to see their personality form on the page. I wanted women who, even for their opposite natures, found solace in one another. Balma Walker became a sturdy, town educated woman and Cazy Tipple, a hard-drinking rake.
A. Tuomala: I’ve been looking for a home for Suhailah for some time, with her keen mechanical mind and her need to uncover secrets. I put together Prudence Crewe as a foil for Suhailah — someone who would engage her curiosity and make her fierce intelligence work. I got a stunning James Bond of a woman for my trouble, and I couldn’t be happier.
Rebecca Fraimow: I knew that I wanted to write about an established couple who were very secure and comfortable with each other, because that’s something I always want more of in fiction than I get. From that point, I started to develop Pilar and her lover Zainab, older women in positions of authority who know each other very well and can communicate with each other very well, and whose duties and responsibilities play an important role in their relationship.
C.S.E Coony: It started with the name Kanarien, which is the German for canary. I’ve always been haunted by the idea of sending a singing thing into the dark, then waiting for it to stop singing. And I really like the name Dagomar. I didn’t necessarily want two German characters, so I played with the idea of a girl growing up in the mines without a name, and also what it would mean, suddenly, to be given one by the first person to care about her.
Beth Birdsall: I wanted to explore a character who was blue-collar, from an immigrant background, and not an aristocratic officer from a privileged upbringing. Dolores is the child of Mexican immigrants, and a no-nonsense woman who’s spent her whole life working with her hands and navigating a world that may not be actively against her, but also isn’t set up for her success. For Mabel, her sort-of-potentially love interest, I wanted another working-class character, but one from a different background — she’s mixed-race, daughter of an ex-slave, from California — who grew up in a different setting, and had slightly different challenges in life.
Alex Dally MacFarlane: Even without the lesbian parameters of the anthology guidelines, I would have wanted to write about women. Their stories are too often ignored in favour of male endeavours. The lesbian aspect immediately gave me more details: my character is a lesbian, and I quickly decided she would be young, grappling directly with the difficulties of being a lesbian in a time and a place where such a concept was not acknowledged.
Nisi Shawl: Three of “The Return of Cherie’s” five characters are loosely based on historical figures: Matty on Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie; Lisette on Colette; and Daisy on children’s author E.M. Nesbit. Rima is a sort of mash-up of Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston. Fwendi evolved from photos and anecdotes of several sub-Saharan children and women; the histories of indigenous peoples in that area are pretty much eradicated, so I have to use lots of references as her armature. Her name is a phoneticization of the nickname a young playmate gave to Barrie, which he eventually elided into Wendy.
Why this setting?
Sean Holland: Persia/Iran is one of those places that has always been important in the world but often ignored in the West, though, sadly, it is mostly a backdrop to the story.
Stephanie Lai: I first created this universe in my short story “The Last Rickshaw.” Malaysian steampunk (and South East Asian steampunk in general) is not super common, and once I encountered it, I was hooked. I love expanding this universe, and every story is like a love letter to the island of Penang. My favourite bit was the creation of the MR, a made up building functioning as a stand-in for the building I really wanted to lovingly describe to the world, but which wasn’t built until decades after my story was set. I hope other Malaysians will be able to guess the building.
Zen Cho: Since I first encountered Eileen Chang’s short stories, I’ve been wanting to write an elegant, tragic story about glamorous Hong Kong women leading miserable lives poisoned by family and love. Plus, robots! I can’t remember how Hong Kong morphed into a version of the Chinese afterlife plucked from TVB series and a Singaporean amusement park, but it probably proves that I’m not very good at being Eileen Chang. The great thing about working off a vision of the afterlife derived from Hong Kong TV is that it allows for deliberate anachronism, which is very steampunk if you think about it.
Shveta Thakrar: Siddhartha Gautama, the man who didn’t become Buddha, is very much a product of his world. Besides, ancient Nepal seems like it would have been an exciting place to be, especially when you bring in steampunk technology.
Nicole Kohrner-Stace: Well, earlier this year, I wrote a poem in a similarish setting/voice (“The Witch’s Heart” in Issue 21 of Apex) and had an absurd amount of fun with it. I wanted to get back in there and play a bit more. And then I got to thinking how much fun it would be to write a Western steampunk story using traditional tall tales as a framing device. Somewhere along the line, the story decided it wanted to take place in a failing silver mining camp. The rest pretty much wrote itself.
Rebecca Fraimow: The golden age of al-Andalus provided an incredibly rich and exceptionally tolerant intellectual atmosphere for philosophical and scientific development, with scholars from all over the world taking inspiration from the work being done there — and that was circa the year 1000. Once I started to wonder what would have happened if the Reconquista had played out differently and that culture had lasted through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment, it seemed to make perfect sense that al-Andalus would have managed to develop sophisticated clockwork technology before our Europe ever did!
S.L. Knapp: I don’t see much about Cuba in fiction and I wanted to put more out there (I’m also lazy and it required less research). I set the story a bit later than traditional steampunk, but the War of Independence was a fascinating time, especially for Cuban-American relations, and it’s fairly close to when my great-grandfather graduated from medical school and had female classmates. I figured a woman engineer would be historically believable. You know, if Cuba were building a fleet of super-subs.
Beth Birdsall: I wanted to do a steampunk take on a fantasy trope, and I settled on the idea of ships sailing into the west, and into the epilogue, and what happens when a character gets to live into her “epilogue.” Airships were the logical choice. I didn’t want to rework an active war, and I didn’t have time to do as much research as I would have wanted to do a setting I didn’t know as well as the U.S.. — but I definitely wanted to address the blue-collar side of the military that a lot of military-set history ignores. I also liked the slightly claustrophobic self-sufficiency of a vessel on a long voyage, and this version of airships let me play with that to an extreme.
Alex Dally MacFarlane: My starting point for the story was actually my quite strong disinterest in most of the steampunk I’ve ever read. JoSelle asked me to write a story for the anthology, but I didn’t really want to write a steampunk story.
At the same time, I was reading a really beautiful manga, Otoyomegatari (A Bride’s Story) by Kaoru Mori, set in 19th century Central Asia. I loved the domesticity of the story, how it focused primarily on female relationships and day-to-day life.
These two combined, giving me the idea of a story set in a part of the world where steampunk was at best irrelevant, at worst an indicator of foreign imperialism. And I wanted to focus primarily not on the technology, but on the people of Central Asia.
Nisi Shawl: I chose this setting because it’s where most of Everfair, my novel-in-progress, takes place, and the story is a fragment of said novel. And I chose this setting for Everfair because King Leopold’s devastation of Equatorial Africa is one of the most extreme examples anywhere of the costs of Victorian technology, which is the fetish and domain of most current steampunk.
You’re in an anthology of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting?
Jeannelle Fereira: Well, Polly Clarke is from Boston, home of the Boston Marriage! And the lower east side of New York was a strange combination of tradition-bound immigrants with tightly stratified paths in life, and the “anything goes!” world of the populist Yiddish-language theatres. Both of my main characters have been exposed to underground gay culture, and Polly, who’s older, has had a long-term relationship.
Stephanie Lai: Shu Ping herself feels a need to hide her lesbianism, a reflection of older laws and colonial attitudes flowing through the setting. In a way, her story is one of working out which bits of herself she can put forward, and how she chooses to do so is somewhat political, too.
Patty Templeton: This story is set in an alternate 1914 Kentucky. People live and let live. Folks think more on Balma and Cazy’s moonshine than they do on their bedroom. Unfortunately, what is acceptable to most, doesn’t mean acceptable to all. The town sheriff has an idiotic bone to pick with Cazy about his daughter... who is not Balma.
Zen Cho: Lesbianism is marginal, but not unacknowledged. I had the idea of a romance between wives before I read Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life, but in it, he describes how his wife seeks to arrange for a singsong girl to be his concubine because she’s in love with the girl herself. The point is made by a reference to Cherishing the Fragrant Companion, a Qing era play by Li Yu about a married woman who successfully conspires to have her husband marry her female lover so they can be together. (This is still performed as an opera, the Fragrant Companion.) So it’s obviously a bit of a cliché!
Nicole Kohrner-Stace: The story takes place in an alternative California in the late 1800s, where it seems that what with race, gender, and class issues running high and none-too-subtly, lesbians were probably lumped in with the rest as “secondary” citizens and didn’t really stand out as much more or less “inferior.” To write “Deal,” I did a lot of research into the time period in that part of the country and didn’t really come across anything suggesting otherwise. I’ve been meaning to read more into this topic, actually — I’m curious as to what the actual answer for real!California might have been, but I couldn’t find much on it at the time. Now I’m extra-curious.
A. Tuomala: In this alternate Istanbul, I’ve treated lesbianism as largely a non-issue when it occurs in private, sex-segregated spaces. Female mercenaries make coarse jokes about it in coffee houses, after they’ve driven out the people who usually drink there, and Suhailah feels comfortable making an advance to a stranger in that enclosed space. Part of what thrills Suhailah about Prudence, though, is how brazen they can be together — kissing in the market, of all places! I wish I’d devoted more time to this aspect in the story, because lesbianism is an important cultural phenomenon as well as an interpersonal one.
C.S.E Coony: These characters are the lowest of the low. They’re so far down the social ladder, they’re underground. Nobody cares about them, or what they do, so long as they get their work done and don’t raise dust. They have no one and nothing else to care about than each other. They’re best friends and lovers and family — and none of that matters in a world where they are already invisible.
And now, some words from the editor herself, JoSelle Vanderhooft:
So tell us about your feelings for this anthology!
This is such a strong and diverse collection of steampunk stories, with tales set in India, Malaysia, Turkey, China, Persia, Africa, and all over the United States. I’m deeply honored to have been able to assemble it.
You’ve mentioned before that the Steam-Powered series will be continued for as long as you can manage it. Congratulations on the annual contract from Torquere! Do you feel this series fills in any significant gaps in steampunk, or genre fiction in general?
Why thank you! I’m thrilled that it is a series and look forward to doing many, many more volumes. For the reasons I said above, I hope that it is filling a need for readers and writers who don’t often see stories about themselves in print or get to print stories about themselves. I hope I’m doing well in my selection choices on that front. As for whether or not Steam-Powered is filling significant gaps, I think that it is certainly contributing towards doing so, but of course no single book, story, or anthology can really fill a gap. It takes a movement to do that.
Jaymee Goh is the steampunk postcolonialist of Silver Goggles. She recently finished her M.A. project entitled Towards Chromatic Chronologies: Using the Steampunk Aesthetic for Postcolonial Purposes which is about, uh, what the title says.