Steampunk Fortnight

Review: Vaporpunk: Relatos Steampunk Publicados Sob As Ordens De Suas Majestades

Over the course of the Fortnight, I’ve talked a bit about the growth of steampunk activity in Brazil. This extends to the publishing sphere, with authors publishing several stories of the Gilded Age in online venues, and two theme-oriented anthologies in less than two years—a record for the Brazilian market.

The second steampunk anthology to be published in Brazil is called Vaporpunk: Relatos Steampunk Publicados Sob As Ordens De Suas Majestades (Vaporpunk: Steampunk Reports Published Under the Orders of His Majesties), published by Editora Draco. In a way, it’s a complementary anthology to Steampunk: Histórias de Um Passado Extraordinário, a review of which you can find here.

I’ll explain: when Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro and Richard Diegues first started to talk about doing a Brazilian steampunk anthology, they soon found themselves in opposite sides of an argument. To Gerson (a longtime fan of Harry Turtledove), steampunk can’t be considered exactly science fiction, but Alternate History. The AH subgenre must have a proper length to grow, so the stories couldn’t be shorter than novelettes—novellas, preferably.

To Richard, however, the length of the stories didn’t really matter, so after talking it through, they decided to go separate ways. Gerson would still edit his anthology exactly the way he wanted, but he decided to look for another publishing house to avoid any conflict of interests and so there would be no hurt feelings.

Richard published first, releasing the Steampunk anthology in 2009. Then, almost a year later, Gerson, along with Portuguese editor and writer Luís Filipe Silva, brought to light a not quite a twin, but definitely a complement: Vaporpunk, featuring stories from Brazilian and Portuguese writers. (Think of Nick Gevers’s Extraordinary Engines in relation to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk and you’ll understand what I’m saying.)

The first story, ironically, is a short story after all, but the only one in the anthology: “A Fazenda-Relógio” (“The Clockwork Farm”) by Octavio Aragão. It’s also one of the best narratives, transporting us to the last decade of the nineteenth century, to the coffee plantations, where recently freed slaves still toil for meager wages—until their substitution by steam automata. The former slaves take their revenge, but in an unexpected way, using the automata to their advantage. An intelligent story with a smart turn of events.

“Os Oito Nomes do Deus Sem Nome” (“The Eight Names of the Nameless God”), by Yves Robert, presents to the reader a plot to defeat Portugal, a nation which, by the turn of the twentieth century, has come to dominate Europe as the major power, due to some sort of scientific secret weapon. French and British agents and and two revolutionaries from the Portuguese Republic go to the Portuguese city of Sintra to steal the will and testament of the King, which is in fact a coded document containing the secret of the weapon. Armed with contraptions like a steam-powered device capable of listening through walls, they manage to steal it (much too easily, by the way) and take it to England, where the Babbage’s difference engines will be able to crack the code.

It is a weak story, which has the merit of emulating almost to perfection the style of the feuilletons of the Gilded Age—but gets too long in regards to the passages of dialogue and wraps up the action too quickly. The motives of the Portuguese revolutionaries leave a lot to be desired—notwithstanding the fact that this is a universe where technology seems to run along with magic, or spirituality, in a way. France develops the studies of Franz Mesmer and turns it into a kind of science of the mind, but it is not clear if it’s a fallacy—since nobody outside of France seems to believe in it except for a few people—or if it’s truly a kind of evolutionary jump to a homo novus. The story, alas, even being a novelette, is too short for us to understand this concept, ending too abruptly. It felt like the part one of a serial. I would like to read the rest of it.

Flávio Medeiros is a lucky guy—he managed to be the only writer to be in both steamer anthologies, Steampunk and Vaporpunk . In “Os Primeiros Aztecas na Lua” (“The First Aztecs on the Moon”), Flavio continues his tributes to Jules Verne, as in his story in Steampunk, “Por um Fio,” but this time with a spy story. (Steampunk seems to thrive on spy stories.) This story reminded me of Paul Cornell’s—“Catherine Drewe” or “One of Our Bastards is Missing,” for instance—but just a little; their styles are very different. In Flavio’s case, he not only pays homage to Verne but also to Poe, as Auguste Dupin is one the protagonists of the story.

One can also think of Alan Moore as a reference, with his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, because Dupin is the head of the French secret service, which commands the services of many important, adventurous minds of his time, like Professor Aronnax, Axel Liddenbrock, Felix Nadar, and Michel Ardan. Together, and under the blessings of the “all-powerful Minister of Science Jules Verne,” they will try to stop England from putting the first men on the moon.

Upon his return to London, Prendick also must deal with a lot of stuff indeed: a serial killer in the Whitechapel area which happens to be the Invisible Man (Have you any doubt as to who was really Flavio’s biggest influence in his story?) and a conspiracy (what else?) to start the Cold War well ahead of its time. The story is another textbook example of a good idea that should had become a novel instead of a novella—it ends too soon and leaves the reader somewhat confused.

“Consciência de Ébano” (“Ebony Conscience”), by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, is a welcome comeback to his Palmares universe, featuring a Brazil where the seventeenth century revolutionary slave Zumbi didn’t die defending his quilombo (a community of former slaves) from slave hunters, but instead lived to see it thrive and develop into a great nation inside Brazil. In this novella, Gerson tells the story of Lieutenant-Captain João Anduro and his expedition into the wilderness of colonial Brazil by order of the Ebony Circle, a secret society to which his grandfather belonged, formed by African-Brazilian elders. The Circle’s intent is to hunt Long-Teeth, a Palmares agent with special abilities who helped them for a very long time, but for a terrible price, a price the elders feel should no longer be paid.

However, this is far from being the end of the story. The fate that befalls João and his family when the government of Palmares discover his treason is reminiscent of some of the best scenes in Dan Simmons’s Song of Kali and Carrion Comfort. Torture, horror, pain in massive doses. Not gratuitous, though. This is perhaps the best story in the antho. Certainly it’s the most tragic.

“A Extinção das Expécies” (“The Extinction of the Species”), by de Carlos Orsi, is all about automata. In nineteenth Century Rio de Janeiro, a disillusioned old man remembers his past when he meets the Automata Maker, a German scientist who aimed to end slavery across the globe by substituting slaves with mechanical men. Having arrived in Rio with the Beagle expedition, the Automata Maker shows the narrator a small automaton which may contain in itself the key to self-replication. Carlos Orsi pays here homage to Argentinean writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, introducing his foremost character in the story, the mad scientist Morel, who the Automata Maker will meet when the Beagle arrives in Argentina. However, things don’t go well for the invention of the Automata Maker: Morel uses his invention for war, creating weapons that are virtually indestructible. The self-replication principle gives birth to a “steam” nanotech industry. Steampunk meets Old Weird—which is not in the least surprising, since Carlos Orsi is a longtime Lovecraft fan and has written a number of stories dealing with the Chtulhu mythos.

“O Dia da Besta” (“The Day of the Beast”), by Eric Novello, starts in full-throttle mode. Brazil is under attack of seemingly otherworldly creatures, but Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, knows better: he knows that Brazil is one of the new powers starting to develop high tech, and there are plenty of jealous nations competing for Brazil’s proprietary technology. The resistance is organized by the Viscount of Taunay (who, in our reality, fought in the war against Paraguay and later became a famous writer of the Romantic period), with electric weaponry to stun the fantastical beasts who threaten to destroy Rio.

Eric’s narrative presents us with werewolves, Gail Carriger-style. Dom Pedro’s daughter, Princess Isabel, has conspired with pirates behind his father’s back to steal gold from English ships in order to boost Brazil’s position of greatness among the nations. The political and economic sides of the equation leave a little to be desired, but the same certainly can’t be said of the action-packed narrative regarding the werewolves. Eric, a writer and translator, is also a newcomer to the urban fantasy genre, and he doesn’t shy away from the action.

Vaporpunk is already being considered a major accomplishment of science fiction in Brazil, but it is far from the last. There are rumors of other steampunk anthology coming soon by Tarja Editorial, and I just got confirmation that there is a dieselpunk anthology in the making, by the same editorial team of Vaporpunk. Finally, as a treat for Anglo-American readers, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer kindly invited me and Larry Nolen to translate the beginnings of all of the stories in Vaporpunk for a mid-November online supplement to the anthology Steampunk Reloaded. These, in Jeff’s words in his blog, “are meant to give English-speaking readers a taste of what Brazilian Steampunks are up to. (And, hopefully, lead to full-on translations of some stories later on.)” My thanks to Jeff for giving this opportunity to Brazilian science fiction.

Fabio Fernandes is a writer. Currently he is writing a lot, and venting a lot of steam as well.


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