Tue
Oct 11 2011 10:00am

Steampunk Appreciations: Steampunk by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

The VanderMeers’ first Steampunk anthology (2008), can already be considered a classic, for the quality mix of the stories and non-fiction articles. The introduction by Jess Nevins, explains, “The 19th century roots of steampunk” — it’s a real treat, for it offers an extensive research on the origins of the steam-driven fiction writing. An important thing to readers who still don’t know what exactly is steampunk is: Nevins establishes the difference between the All-American Edisonade and the British Steampunk, clarifying things already in the beginning.

In “The Essential Sequential Steampunk: A Modest Survey of the Genre within the Comic Book Medium,” Bill Baker practically covers all the sequential art bases, from Bryan Talbot’s magnum opus The Adventures of Luther Arkwright to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a complete bibliography at the end.

The fiction section begins with an excerpt from “Benediction: The Warlord of the Air,” a book of 1971 where Michael Moorcock describes the massive aerial forces of an alternate British Empire in war with the world. One of his recurrent characters, Oswald Bastable, makes a quick appearance here, but the mainstay of this fragment is its short but nonetheless impressive in its description of an aerial battle between an allied air fleet of five nations (Japan, Russia, France, America and Britain) and the forces of imperial China.

The second story, James P. Blaylock’s “Lord Kelvin Machine,” conduct us in an elegant fashion to explain the coming end of the world and what can be done to avoid it from happening (from using the power of volcanoes to shift Earth of its orbit to building a device to reverse the polarity of the planet), all the while presenting us with a scenario reminiscent of the Great Game.

Jay Lake’s “The God-Clown is Near” is another of his Dark Town stories, and the most frightening of the anthology. The twin brothers Rêve and Traum Sueno (all these names meaning “dream” in English) ask Doctor Cosimo Ferrante, “the finest flesh sculptor” in Triune Town, to build them a clown. But not any clown: ‘a “moral clown,” “judge and executioner of unparalleled power and soul-searing aspect.” Ferrante resists, for he knows this moral clown will probably be sent on a destruction spree all over the city.

The funniest story of the lot is Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel.” Lansdale shows us a very twisted rendition of the Edisonades, mixed with some toilet humor and even the Traveler of Wells’s “The Time Machine.” A damage in the space-time continuum turns the mild-mannered traveler in a kind of vampire-ghoulish creature, but still a genius who can devise a plan to destroy the world. Our last hope is a wild bunch of adventurers who control the Steam Man, a gigantic 19th century robot-transformer-mechanical man.

“Seventy-Two Letters,” by Ted Chiang, is, like Jay Lake’s story, another variation of the story of the Golem. In a Victorian world where Kabbalistic magic and science mix, Robert Stratton studies to become a nomenclator, that is, a developer of names to create and animate things. Upon graduation, he is hired by one of the leading makers of automata in England — but he soon begins to disagree with them as to the proper functions of an automaton. Stratton wishes to “allow automatous engines to be manufactured inexpensively enough so that most families could purchase one.” This will make him contemplate a Von Neumann-like production line of Golems.

“Victoria,” by Paul di Filippo, is an excerpt of his Steampunk Trilogy. In this story we follow the exploits of Cosmo Cowperthwait, who is hired by the British Prime Minister to find the missing Victoria, soon-to-be-crowned. The thing is, Cowperthwait is a scientist who created a being extremely similar to the young Victoria, made from experiments with newts and growth factor distilled from glands. di Filippo’s is a superb story that mixes Holmesian, Frankensteinian and steampunk elements, and also introduces us to the grim, dark backstage of politics, leading us to an end that really make us think that the ends justifies the means.

Rachel Pollock’s “Reflected Light” is a reprint from SteamPunk Magazine. Leatherworker Vick Flinders tells the story of the disappearance of her co-worker Della Dicely, after an accident cut one of her fingers. Flinders search for her high and low because her husband found a mechanical hand which she wants to give Della. It is then that we get to know that humans are being dominated by a people called the Nonnahee (it doesn’t get clear if they are aliens), and that their engineers forbid humans to create abstractly.

In “Minutes of the Last Meeting,” Stepan Chapman tells an alternate version of the escape from Russia of Tzar Nicholas II and his family in a train, in which the royal doctor uses nanobots to try to save the Tzar’s son sick heart, while, in a cavern under Petrograd, a cybernetic intelligence watches everything that unfolds in the train. But a thing that even the artificial steampowered brain doesn’t know is that the Germans, having studied the strange radioactive meteor crater at Tunguska, have developed a trans-uranium device that can cause a great implosion and destroy their enemies once and for all. The astonishing ending is deceptively simple, and it really surprised me.

Rick Klaw presents his list in “My Favorite Steampunk Books and Movies.” The book section is okay, featuring Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, but surprisingly doesn’t include Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine. The movie section includes The City of Lost Children, by Jeunet and Caro, and The Time Machine (the original one).

Steampunk is a very comprehensive anthology. As Ann and Jeff VanderMeer remind us in the preface, they meant to provide the reader with a blend of the traditional and idiosyncratic.  And they did it.


Fabio Fernandes is a writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. Also a journalist and translator, he is responsible for the Brazilian translations of several prominent SF novels including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, England, and USA, in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded and in T. J. McIntyre’s Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction. There’s another story coming up in The Apex Book of World SF, Vol. II, ed. by Lavie Tidhar, later this year.

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2 comments
JeffV
1. JeffV
Thanks, Fabio! I would note that I can't really think of Steampunk without our second antho, that you contributed to, Steampunk Reloaded. Only with the two anthologies together do you really get a full sense of Steampunk--the first covering the stuff in the 1980s-90s, and Reloaded mostly more recent. Thanks again! JeffV
Fabio Fernandes
2. fabiofernandes
I'm glad you liked it, Jeff. And I agree wholeheartedly - both anthos have to be considered as one major corpus of Steampunk reference. Unfortunately, we were at a loss of space and could only review one of them - for now, that is. ;)

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