Magazine Monday: Beautiful Steampunk

Subterranean winter 2011“The Melusine (1898)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan is this week’s offering by Subterranean Online. It is a wonderful story, written with an unearthly beauty. Kiernan imagines a steampunk circus that comes to town advertising its name in letters five-stories high, “shaped from out of nothing but the billowing clouds of red dust raised by those rolling broad steel and vulcanized rims.” The circus is made of automaton mastodonts and living elephants, and no one can tell if the acrobats are mechanical or real. It promises miracles.

Cala Monroe Weatherall is “a learned woman of industry and science” who comes to the circus in answer to a secret cry, “a dream so vivid and bizarre that she might almost name it a nightmare.” She has been summoned – somehow, some way — to the sideshow, and when she appears before the placard reading “Poseidon’s Abyss Revealed!” the man at the door whispers, “She’ll be glad to see you’ve come.” Once inside, she finds that everything is fake, everything manufactured, everything disappointing, all embarrassingly bad, until… But that would be telling.

Kiernan’s writing is getting better and better. This story is written with such beautiful and compelling language that you’ll be happy you’ve read it just for the poetry of it. And if you’re like me, you’ll puzzle about how it all works, because if the circus is all a fake, how did it manage to manipulate her dreams? How did the barkers know her inmost thoughts? How did they…? It’s an amazing story, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it nominated for all manner of prizes in 2012.

Lady Churchill's Rosebud WristletLady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet is published by Small Beer Press, a lively little press that has been publishing odd and wonderful fiction for a little more than a decade. LCRW is published twice a year, in June and November, and usually contains some of the oddest fiction that you could hope to find, often by new authors who are just testing their wings. Issue 26 seems determinedly weird, with several quite nice stories and a few others that seem to be trying just a bit too hard to be strange and instead winding up merely incomprehensible.

“The Other Realms Were Built With Trash” by Rahul Kanakia is a bit of apocalyptic fiction as seen from the world that inherits our trash. For eons, that trash has come in mighty handy, from the human bodies used by faeries to reincorporate themselves when their current body gets too old to the cloth used by the mages. The Recycling Tower makes use of all of it, and Aldram is the changeling in charge of the Tower.  When humans manage to finally exterminate themselves, everything starts falling through, and it’s clear that soon there will be no more. The story is of Aldram’s transformation when the world ends, and it’s a fairy tale like no other you’ve ever read.

“Three Hats” by Jenny Terpsichore Abeles is a fairy tale that reads like a mash-up of “Rip Van Winkle” and “Briar Rose,” but it is something entirely new and different from either of those classics. Filled with curses and chili paste, it is an entertaining tale of a man’s metamorphosis in the wake of his sister’s death.

Sean Melican’s “Absence of Water” is the most straightforward tale in this issue, a muscular reimagining of the South’s attempts to use submarines against the North during America’s Civil War in the 19th century. It is based on actual events, amazingly enough, and is as riveting as any modern epic of submarine warfare.

Steampunk is J.M. McDermott’s theme in “Death’s Shed,” the story of a boy and his father mourning the death of their mother and wife. The boy meets a bum who is living in the shed behind his new home — or has he met Death incarnated? The fellow, whoever he is, has terrible teeth and gives the boy cigarettes and bad advice when the boy can’t get his father to do anything but play with his model trains and their complex layout, complete with robot men and women and airships that fly above — a clockwork fantasy of a world. What does the man in the shed do with the girl who has been pestering — even torturing the boy? How much of this is real, and how much the sad imaginings of a child who has lost his mother and, at the same time, somehow managed to also lose his father? It’s an intricate story that makes me very eager to read McDermott’s novels.

“The Cruel Ship’s Captain” by Harvey Welles and Philip Raines is a pirate tale gone awry. It is very difficult to tell what’s going on here; and while that dreaminess works for stories like McDermott’s, here it is just frustrating and confusing. Between treasure, a living figurehead, the deaths of all women onboard except Settle, and the ship’s secrets, the reader is lost, unable to hold onto the thread of a plot. As much as one might love weird tales, this story takes the surreal so far past Kafka that it is incomprehensible.

Patty Houston’s “Elite Institute for the Study of Arc Welders’ Flash Fever” comes very near that same border between “enough” and “too much.” It’s the second tale of extreme medical experimentation I’ve read in recent weeks, a variation on George Saunders’s theme in “Escape from Spiderhead,” which appeared in the December 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. In Houston’s story the question is when the experimentation can begin — when a welder is ill enough to allow the surgeons to wield their knives to “repair” brain injury. Howard isn’t particularly eager to have them cut away at him, but he needs the money he gets for participating in the study. And so he spends his days welding automobiles — muscle cars — without any ventilation, and lies on his medical forms day after day as he succumbs to the poison. Howard solves his dilemma about another member of the study very differently from the way Saunders’s hero does.  Reading them together makes each a bit richer.

Veronica Schanoes’s “Alice:  A Fantasia” and Carlea Holl-Jensen’s “Sleep” are essentially meditations, the first on the theme of the girl on whom Lewis Carroll based “Alice in Wonderland,” the second on death. Poetry in the magazine by Lindsay Vella — three in verse and two prose poems — seem strange for the sake of strangeness, with the notable exception of “The Seamstress,” which is a lovely paragraph-long fairy tale of love and loss. Darrell Schweitzer’s “Dueling Trilogies” is an amusing pair of limericks.

Ted Chiang’s essay, “Reasoning about the Body,” originally delivered as the Guest of Honor speech of Congrés Boréal in Quebec City in May 2010, is about “folk biology” — a term he explains as “naïve ideas about the biological world.” The notion that a whale is a giant fish is an example, as is the categorization of spiders as insects instead of arachnids. These ideas vary from culture to culture, and help anthropologists learn about these cultures.  The bit of folk biology Chiang is particularly concerned with is the idea that a human brain is like a computer. Chiang dissects this notion so completely that you’ll never again be able to read a science fiction story about the Singularity without very deliberately suspending your disbelief. Indeed, like Chiang, you may find that you’ve grown weary of the notion, and want something new.


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TERRY WEYNA is spending the second half of her life as a reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, after having spent the first half practicing law in a variety of states and settings. (She still does legal research and writing for a law firm in California). Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor and writer Fred White, the imperious Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a personal library that exceeds 12,000 volumes.

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One comment

  1. I will have to read that Chiang piece!

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