We've got the introduction to Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, edited by Ann VanderMeer, out on December 1 from Tachyon Publications:
Playfully mashing up the romantic elegance of the Victorian era with whimsically modernized technology, this entertaining and edgy new anthology is the third installment in a bestselling steampunk series. Featuring a renegade collective of writers and artists—from beloved legends to rising talents—the steam-driven past is rebooted and powered by originality, wit, and adventure. Lev Grossman offers a different take on the Six Million Dollar Man who possesses appendages and workings from recycled metal parts, yet remains fully human, resilient, and determined. Catherynne M. Valente explores a new form of parenting within the merging of man and machine while Cherie Priest presents a new, unsettling mode of transportation. Bruce Sterling introduces steampunk’s younger cousin, salvage-punk, while speculating on how cities will be built in the future using preexisting materials and Jeff VanderMeer takes an antisteampunk perspective as a creator must turn his back on an utterly destructive creation. Going beyond the simple realms of corsets and goggles, this engaging collection takes readers on a wild ride through Victoriana and beyond.
“After all, what our world is and can be are more about human imagination than well...anything else. And isn’t that a lot of what steampunk has to say? Imagine! Play! Create! Push past the artificial boundary of time to ask the real questions: What does it mean to be human? What are we going to do with all this technology? How can we create the future we want and need?”
—James H. Carrott (Cultural Historian, 2011)
When Jeff VanderMeer and I published Steampunk (the first book in this series) in 2008, we approached the concept through the literature. At that time we had no idea that an entire subculture had grown up around this form of retro-futurism. We had done a lot of research around the fiction but only briefly delved into film, comics, and other creative endeavors. Then we found Steampunk Magazine, which gave us another view of this fast-growing subculture, attended a Steampunk convention, and soon had a better sense of it all. It’s not surprising that we weren’t more aware, given that it wasn’t until the New York Times article in 2008, the month our anthology was published, that the Steampunk subculture became mainstream.
From there, however, steampunk seemed to go viral. We were even approached for an interview by the Weather Channel. I, being a weather geek, was thrilled for the opportunity but asked the interviewer, why us? Why would the Weather Channel be interested in Steampunk? He answered global warming, alternate energy sources, recycling, DIY thinking. This got me to take an even closer look at what was going on in this subculture.
When we agreed to do the second book in 2010, Steampunk Reloaded, we wanted to show how the fiction of this subgenre had grown and transformed. It had expanded beyond just science fiction featuring the Victorian era, and we were able to include many more alternative Steampunk backgrounds and approaches. Correspondingly, the subculture had also expanded and become more diverse and more international—in a very short period of time.
Which brings me to the volume you hold in your hands. So many people asked me to publish a third, but what could I do in a third volume that hadn’t already been done in the first and second? The Weather Channel experience seemed to be the key: I was interested in looking at how Steampunk could change the world, could really make a difference. When I attended WorldCon in 2009 I had participated in a Steampunk panel, along with writer Lev Grossman and editor Liz Gorinsky. We also had a Victorian scholar on the panel, who spoke about all the ways that that time period was horrible. But Steampunk is an opportunity to force us to address those issues of the past, examine what went wrong, what we can do to put it right and make a better world. Just as traditional science fiction uses the future to discuss issues that concern us now, Steampunk fiction can use the past (or alternate pasts) to bring to light issues that we might otherwise have trouble discussing.
During the panel, someone asked if Steampunk would ever be a political force. Could there possibly be a Steampunk candidate in our future? I said yes and everyone laughed. Perhaps it is folly, but I still think the ideas that spring from a Steampunk point of view are valid for a political movement. How else can we make positive change without understanding our past? Let’s not run away from our past, but examine it, take it apart, and put it back together again—the right way. (In a way, civilization depends on some kind of critical self-evaluation, given current global warming and human rights concerns.)
But it is also true that many of us don’t know our own history, much less the histories of other parts of our shared planet, and this is another reason Steampunk is relevant. At the Steampunk Worlds Fair in 2011, Emma Goldman (aka Miriam Rosenberg Roček) organized a mock late-1800s Worker’s Union Labor rally to illustrate to all what it was really like back in those days. Can you think of a better way to teach about a moment in history, to explain to a modern audience how things were then? She used creative ways to challenge the status quo and to think about change—and she used Steampunk to do this.
Revolution—how else can you effect a positive change? In the Steampunk context, it means to examine our relationship with technology, with each other, and with the world around us. And by doing that through the lens of Steampunk, it allows our imaginations to take off. Let’s use creative play to look at creation, invention. For example, Bruce Sterling calls his story in this book salvagepunk, not Steampunk. Well, maybe so, but it seems to me that something like salvagepunk is one direction in which Steampunk is headed. Which raises other questions. Does a story have to have steam in it? Does it have to take place during the Victorian Era in an alternate UK or US? I say no, that’s not punk. Clearly defined boundaries? Pah! Boring. If you want to start a revolution, you must challenge the current situation, and if that means Steampunk becomes something other than its origins indicate, or a part of Steampunk pushes beyond that...it’s all to the good.
So here I present to you stories that largely challenge or comment on the status quo. Stories that provide a different perspective and help us to see the existing world in a new light as we read about an alternative past, or perhaps a possible yet impossible future. What would Friedrich Engels do if he really did liberate a factory and its workers? Would it be as he expected? What happens when a woman challenges the roles that she is forced into? Can people from different walks of life, different backgrounds get along and respect each other’s abilities, intellects, and passions?
But these are not the only situations explored in these stories. How do we view transportation? What is our relationship between the modes of transportation and our social status in the world? Is transportation a political issue? Should it be? Cherie Priest’s “Clockroach” shows us not only what we can create to solve a problem, but how these creations can be stifled by misunderstanding and fear. And just how closely related are man and machine? Lev Grossman tackles this in a more humorous way in “Sir Ranulph...” Do we build a better human with immortality? Just ask Ben Peek in “Possession.” And what about Christopher Rowe’s “Nowhere Fast,” which provides us a look at a true revolutionary? Good fiction is all about the questions. For example, are we the master of our machines—and should we be? Samantha Henderson’s story “Beside Calias” explores bravery and responsibility, broken relationships, and where one can find reserves of strength where one previously thought there was only weakness.
Such questions cut across race and gender. Some of these stories take a closer look at not just the larger society but the individuals as well. What happens when we cross boundaries and reach out to the other? What do we learn from such interactions? Is that a scary notion? In Paolo Chikiamco’s story “On Wooden Wings,” two young people from different cultures come to understand each other amidst the prejudices of their communities.
Beyond individuals and societies, there is also the idea of family. What is a family? Is the idea of a nuclear family the base, the goal, the foundation? And when did that notion take hold? It wasn’t always that way, so let’s tackle that as well. Malissa Kent’s “The Heart Is the Matter” looks at how far a sister will go for another, while Catherynne M. Valente has a new take on motherhood in “Mother Is a Machine.” And what is love, and how do our assumptions undercut love? Karin Tidbeck’s “Beatrice” takes an unflinching look at this question.
All of these stories are Steampunk stories, by most definitions of the term, and yet did my description of them conjure up the term “Steampunk”? Probably not, which is part of my point. Steampunk allows us to address so many different kinds of situations and issues.
At its best, I think that Steampunk allows us to take some of these ideas, throw them out there and build a better mousetrap, flying machine, and, dare I say it, a better place to live, a better society. Let’s strengthen our relationships by reaching out and truly knowing others. Let’s stretch our hands across all those boundaries. Let’s have a Steampunk Revolution.
Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution © Ann VanderMeer 2012