Edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Tachyon Publications Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781892391759
Date: 01 May 2008 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are well-established in the Science Fiction and Fantasy arena. They are known as reliable, knowledgeable editors, each in their own right. Their introduction to the volume describes it well as a "blend of the traditional and idiosyncratic" - bringing together stories from the early 1970s to 2007. All thirteen fiction pieces are from previously published sources, many by very well-known figures in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and mainstream literature. One piece is an excerpt from the novel The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock featuring an alternative British Empire's air forces engaged in an airship battle. Fought with dirigibles (or airships), of course. Several stories are quite long - more novella-length - balanced with shorter pieces.
Also included in the anthology are three essays: Jess Nevins' "Introduction: The 19th Century Roots of Steampunk"; Bill Baker on graphic versions of steampunk (SP) works; and Rick Klaw on SP in other media - television, film, and role-playing games. These essays differ in tone and purpose. Nevins seeks to present a sort of literary history of SP; the tone is rather academic and assumes prior experience and familiarity with SP. A well-written essay to be sure, but not as useful as might be needed for a newcomer to the genre. Klaw's essay is more personal in perspective, beginning the piece with his first media experiences with and subsequent personal attachment to SP. Jumping around in media history, he discusses several American television programs including the iconic The Wild, Wild West, Japanese programs like Fullmetal Alchemist (based on the manga) and international full-length films. Steampunk-oriented graphic novels and comics are the focus of Bill Baker's piece. Addressing the wide variety available in the European, English, and Asian language markets, he limits himself to the better examples from those still in print and available to a US-market customer.
The anthology is ambitious in its scope, encompassing the more traditional brass and glass, steam-driven technology Victoriana to the more obscurely related, pushing the classic boundaries of SP. There are several stories which illustrate and embody the more traditional tropes of SP; stories which build upon the influence of Jules Verne - Molly Brown's "The Selene Gardening Society"; H.G. Wells - Joe R. Lansdale's "The Steam-Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A DIME NOVEL"; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Paul Di Filippo's "Victoria". There are stories set in alternative versions of Victorian/Edwardian England as well as alternative North America, a few set on presumably earth-like planets, and one or two in fully fantastic locales.
I have to extend my gratitude to the VanderMeers for the word of warning in the introduction to "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A DIME NOVEL". While I love the conceit of H.G. Wells' Traveler as having ripped up space-time and dimension, creating completely unstable multi-verses, Lansdale provided more "What the heck?" and "Eewww" moments than any other piece in the collection. Included in the category of truly not for the weak of stomach is "The God-Clown is Near" by Jay Lake.
Two stories address the concept of the golem - Lake's "The Clown-God is Near" and "Seventy-Two Letters" by Ted Chiang. Several are presented within an alternate history: the Moorcock novel excerpt previously mentioned; "Minutes of the Last Meeting" by Stepan Chapman set in 1917 Tsarist Russia combining steam-train travel, nano-tech surgery, and rocket-delivered nuclear bombs with the personal and political struggles of Tsar Nicholas II and his family and the folktale figures of Baba Yaga and eshmahkie; "Victoria" by Paul Di Filippo in a Victorian England where the queen-to-be has disappeared and is (temporarily) replaced by a namesake genetically-modified salamander; and Michael Chabon's "The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance", a story of political rebellion and brotherly devotion in a North America still largely controlled by Great Britain. The following two frame stories are also created-worlds stories: "A Sun in the Attic" by Mary Gentle presents a world with a uniquely matriarchal social structure and a good set of reasons to suppress scientific and technological discoveries; for the class-conscious, Rachel E Pollock's "Reflected Light" is alone in the volume for featuring the voice of an industrial working woman.
All stories contained in the anthology Steampunk collected by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are of high quality. The stories encompass the variety that is the evolving (sub)genre of steampunk. Recommended for those who enjoy steampunk and those who want a diverse exposure to the possibilities within steampunk, the anthology is not necessarily geared for the newcomer to steampunk.