Steampunk Fortnight

Review: Steampunk: Historias de um Passado Extraordinario

Since 2008, it seems that Brazilian science fiction has finally began to keep up to speed with what’s being written in the Anglo-American sphere of science fiction and fantasy. Blame it on steampunk: the apparent fad became a lifestyle for a big chunk of the Brazilian fandom, and most of the newcomers are first of all hardcore steamers.

Brazilian writers and publishing houses weren’t blind to this trend, in spite of all that steam: they adapted. The first case is Tarja Editorial’s Steampunk: Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário (Steampunk: Stories from an Extraordinary Past), which was published last year and is close to a third printing. Officially considered the first Brazilian steampunk anthology, this book contains nine short stories from writers old and new to the genre in Brazil. The result, though irregular, is very interesting.

The first story, “O Assalto ao Trem Pagador” (“The Great Train Robbery”), by Gianpaolo Celli, starts with a bang. A fast-paced heist story, with zeppelins and electrical dartguns against gatling guns and armored soldiers who look like Iron Man’s ancestors, “O Assalto” takes us to nineteenth century Scotland, where a train containing a precious cargo must be stopped by any means necessary. A temporary alliance is made between Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, and the Freemasons in order to get this cargo. In so doing, they will help unify Germany, restoring the balance of nations and keeping the peace.

The fast pace of the narrative keeps it a page turner in spite of its downsides, namely: 1) the ease with which the trio of conspirators from the different fraternities join and agree to work together almost without disagreement, and 2) the amount of end notes to explain names and historical events to the reader.

The second story of the anthology, “Uma Breve História da Maquinidade,” was written by me, but I won’t comment on it. Suffice it to say that’s it a rather altered version (almost an alternate-earth one) of the English-language story I published originally in the online daily magazine Everyday Weirdness, “The Boulton-Watt-Frankenstein Company.” You can read it on their website for free. (A third, more fragmented version of this story can be found in the section “A Secret History of Steampunk” from of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.)

A Flor do Estrume” (“The Dung Flower”), by Antonio Luiz M. C. Costa, is a Terry-Pratchett-like romp, chock-full of references to the Brazilian literature of the nineteenth century, so if you haven’t read your Machado de Assis, it may not be so funny to you. On the other hand, if you have read at least one of his books of his short stories (like The Alienist), you’re in for a treat, as you follow the exploits of mad scientist extraordinaire Quincas Borba (himself a character from one of Machado de Assis’ greatest novels, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas) in a Brazil where mysterious jungle creatures such as the giant firesnake Boitatá take the place of trains as means of transportation (a kind of hybrid biotech reminiscent of John Meaney’s beings in Bone Song and Black Blood, but with a special Brazilian flavor). It’s one of the best stories of the anthology.

Alexandre Lancaster’s “A Música das Esferas” (“Music of the Spheres”), on the other hand, might be the weakest of the lot, featuring the adventures of young Adriano Montserrat, a scientist who, along with his friend Eduardo, must find the cause of the horrid death of Waldecyr Bontempo. They slowly uncover a way to enhance intelligence by means of capturing the sound of stars via harmonic frequencies. But what should only work as a brain-cell growth device turns out to be a cancer machine…which would be used in the members of the Polytechnical Institute in Rio de Janeiro!

Despite how good it sounds, the story is not very fast-paced when you read it, nor are its characters very compelling. It should possibly be noted that Lancaster is a writer and a longtime fan of anime. That may explain why his characters sound so unconvincing, especially the women. “A Música das Esferas” reads, especially at the end, like an episode of Fullmetal Alchemist. This is not bad at all, but should not be taken exactly as a compliment, for a short story is not an anime.

“Uma Vida Possível Atrás das Barricadas,” by Jacques Barcia, is another story which was also written in English, and will be published soon as a web exclusive as part of Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. As with other Barcia stories, like the recent Salvaging Gods, this is more New Weird than Steampunk proper, but works wonderfully: love between automata in times of war. Be warned: there is plenty of sense of wonder here.

Romeu Martins’s “Cidade Phantastica” (“Phantastic City”) is another story I enjoyed very much, and you will have the opportunity to read an excerpt of it soon in S. J. Chambers and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk Bible. This story, as with the first one, “O Assalto ao Trem Pagador,” also begins with a train robbery, but of a different nature: this is weird steam western, ladies and gents, with many a flying bullet and postcolonial confrontations between Americans, Englishmen, and Brazilians for the end of slavery and the establishment of Brazil as a free nation.

The last story in the anthology is a kind of a classic par excellence: Por um Fio” (“By a Thread”), by Flávio Medeiros, is a highly suspenseful sea adventure story. It tells of an encounter between two of the most celebrated characters in the history of steampunk: Captain Nemo and Robur, the Conqueror, locked in a perpetual tug-of-war by the sheer force of their magnificent weaponry. The story itself presents no big surprises: the characters are there, just as Jules Verne imagined them, and maybe the story is all the more nostalgic because of that.

All in all, Steampunk is a fine anthology, and by no means the only one of its kind in Brazil. There is already another one in the bookstores, this time featuring authors from Brazil and Portugal, called Vaporpunk, which will be my next review for the Steampunk Fortnight. For Brazilian steampunk, this anthology seems to be just the beginning.

Fábio Fernandes is a writer and translator living in São Paulo, Brazil. He is currently translating Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and loving it.


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