Decopunk: The Spirit of the Age
Edited by Thomas A. Easton and Judith K. Dial
Cover Artist: Duncan Eagleson
Review by Ernest Lilley
Pink Narcissus Press ISBN/ITEM#: 9781939056092
Date: 01 May 2015
Links: Publisher's Books Page / Show Official Info /
Thomas Easton and Judith Dial's Decopunk lead off with a cogent essay declaring Steampunk to have run out of itself, pointing out that it was always more fantasy than SF, and criticizing it for putting on Victorian blinders when it came to social injustice. Their remedy to this being to offer up the decade of deco as a more suitable venue for a re-imagined past. To the ramparts folks, cry havoc and loose the dogs of war!
Unfortunately for Thomas and Judith, writers are closer kin to cats.
The collection opens with Debra Doyle's "Silver Passing in Sunlight", a period piece about transporting a box containing some, presumably demonic, spirit across the country in a shiny new stainless steel train. Though it invokes it, the story fails to capture either the spirit of the times or heed the editors clarion call. Worse, it fails to cobble together a plot.
"Symmetry", by Sariann Lewitt, hops across the Atlantic to the opposite pole of opulence from the preceding story to Berlin during Weimar Germany in the early twenties. Her main character is mathematician Emmy Noether, who developed mathematics involving symmetry and underlying particle physics and we are indebted to the writer for the introduction and reminder that Ms. Curie was not the only woman of science. The setting is again the story, and modern sensibilities, including the persecuted gay character, a network of supportive women, and the thuggery of men both general and specific. The plot is forced, but the setting is good.
The third story, "Quicksilver", by Linda Tiernan Kepner, again features a train, but instead of captains of industry, we meet a pair of itinerant workers, Black and Carruli, veterans of the War to End All Wars. now drifting through the countryside taking odd jobs and stealing the occasional chicken, until Black's past catches up with him and…wait...we’re back to captains of industry again. But this is a good yarn, and if it jumps a shark or two thanks to Black's mechanical genius, well, shark jumping is pretty exciting and I don't begrudge it. In fact, I wouldn't mind if Ms. Kepner took her tooled up vet out for another spin or three.
Sarah Smith's beautiful story, "Every Stone A Soldier", is a lovely little folktale in which clockwork men replace the war dead of a town. It might better fit into an anthology about the rise of the robots, as it has only the vaguest connection to either period or premise of the anthology, but it's a fine piece of writing that shows that not all hearts made of stone are unfeeling.
Bill Racicot's Bernice is a short tale of social climbing and revenge, served up stylishly, but it's fairly far from scientifiction, leaving one to wonder if anyone read the manifesto?
Paul Di Fillipo answers that question in "Airboy and Vooda Visit the Jungles of the Moon". Gosh, but this is an exciting adventure, ripped from the papers of the day, though not perhaps, from the headlines. In this overzealous romp, we meet a boyishly naive hero, his semi-sentient plane, and a heroine who's a cross between Wonder Woman and Betty Page, all out to stop a war between the white apes and black leopards who live inside the moon. See you in the funny pages!
Come to think of it, maybe Di Fillipo didn't read the manifesto either.
Melissa Scott's "The Wollart Nymphs" is nominally about a radical hull design that cheats drag by using advanced mathematics, but in actuality a only moderately interesting pirate adventure story that tries to cover itself in scientific trappings. In the end the idea has nothing to offer the plot and it's more about the social than the scientific.
Edward Lerner has to invoke aliens to make his tale of yesteryear fly, and Catherine Asaro and Kate Dolan don't find enough worth saying in the twenties to keep them from bringing forward a time traveler, or sorts, from further back than that to liven things up, which is sort of cheating.
Duncan Eagleson's "The Peculiar Fate of the Notorious Torrance Gang"’s science is beyond improbable, but it's not bad fare with its G-man chasing bank robbers who can disappear into thin air.
It isn't until the penultimate tale that things get cooking. Jeff Hecht’s "Mr. Tesla's Radio Rainmaker" brings together all the right elements: barely plausible science, a known historical crisis, and even some social themes, all without seeming to work too hard to do it. It's a nice story and good writing, and if it was the mode rather than the zenith, the editors might have made their case. It's telling that even this story leans on Nikola Tesla to get it done.
The last story, "Losing Amelia", by Reu Dicerto doesn't dig up Tesla, but pairs up Werner Von Braun and Amelia Earhart in a string of correspondence around an imagined blending of their two passions, rockets and flying. The story does a nice job of it, following to a degree the aviatrix's story in our history books with the authors rocket-flights of fancy.
Frankly, I'm surprised that the decades that actually gave us what we know as science fiction weren't better fodder for the project. Remember that this was the era that gave us both Doc Smith at its outset (The Skylark of Space was written in 1920, though didn't get published until 1927) and and Doc Savage at its close. Surely today's authors could have found something better than to lean on historical nick-knacks and bygone celebrities. Or maybe not.
Though the editors are hardly the first to imagine Decopunk as a genre, their hopes to spark it's emergence as a full fledged movement fall short of the mark. That's disappointing, but it doesn't mean that the effort was wasted. In science fiction, just as in science, even experiments that yield negative results make important contributions to the advancement of the field.