Steampunk is an anthology of, well, steampunk stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. If you hurry, you can still get to this first anthology before the second one, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, appears in mid November. Based on the quality of the stories in this collection, I heartily recommend checking it out, especially if you’ve been a bit bemused (or possibly amused) by all the people wearing odd Victorian costumes at SFF conventions nowadays, or if you have at best a vague idea of what steampunk exactly entails. If you’re one of those people who’s interested in, but not entirely sure about, the new hot subgenre du jour (like me, prior to reading Steampunk), this anthology is here to take you by the hand and give you a quick, entertaining education. And oh, it also contains some truly excellent short stories.
After the preface by editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Steampunk starts off with an excellent essay by Jess Nevins about the origins and history of steampunk, including interesting details about the American Edisonades, references to other predecessors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and to “proto-steampunk” like Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, an excerpt of which is used as the “Benediction” for the anthology. Most interestingly, the essay gives a partial explanation for the -punk suffix: “Steampunk, like all good punk, rebels against the system it portrays (Victorian London or something quite like it), critiquing its treatment of the underclass, its validation of the privileged at the cost of everyone else, its lack of mercy, its cutthroat capitalism. Like the punks, steampunk rarely offers a solution to the problems it decries — for steampunk, there is no solution — but for both punk and steampunk the criticism must be made before the change can come.” Nevins then goes on to explain that this may only apply to first generation steampunk, and that the politics have mostly disappeared from the current wave — which might explain why some have complained that there isn’t anything “punk” about steampunk and that it’s more about mannerisms and nostalgia. While that may apply to much of the more recent output in the subgenre, reading some of the older stories in this collection will definitely show that the -punk part of the subgenre’s name wasn’t just put there to make it sound like cyberpunk.
Be all of that as it may, after you’re done with all the scholarly debate, steampunk is like any other genre or subgenre or whatever you want to call it: some of it is seminal, some of it is excellent, some it is derivative but still good, and some of it is just people hitching their wagon to the latest fad. Whether you like steampunk or not, it’s hard to argue with the fact that The VanderMeers have done an outstanding job with this collection: most of these stories are simply excellent pieces of short-form speculative fiction.
The anthology starts off with a bang with “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” by James P. Blaylock, a wild and surreal story that displays steampunk working on the grandest of scales. It’s entertaining, wild and a bit silly — and a great way to kick off the collection.
“The Giving Mouth” by Ian R. MacLeod, slows things down considerably. I enjoyed and admired the author’s steampunk-ish novels The Light Ages and The House of Storms (“-ish” because they’re set in a version of Victorian England in which the economy is powered by magic rather than steam). This story is set in a different universe but shares the same melancholy atmosphere. However, it doesn’t work as well here and feels a bit out of place.
The collection then picks up steam (sorry) with the wonderful “A Sun in the Attic” by Mary Gentle, set in a matriarchal alternate universe that vaguely resembles the Victorian era. This little gem is one of those stories that make you wish for more material set in the same world.
Jay Lake’s “The God-Clown is Near” is the first story in the anthology working on the Golem myth. It’s a fun, dark, surreal story that, as I’ve come to expect from this author, is simply delightful.
Things get much darker with Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A DIME NOVEL,” which puts a brusque twist on the Traveler from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. This story is dark and violent, full of rape and torture, and while its concept is unique, it may be a bit much for some readers.
“The Selene Gardening Society” by Molly Brown also builds on a steampunk predecessor (this time From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne) but in a much more whimsical and funny way.
Next up is Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters,” which picks up the golem theme again and ties in a few other ideas, resulting in a memorable story — not that you’d expect anything less from Ted Chiang.
Michael Chabon’s “The Martian Agent” features some of the most gorgeous prose in the anthology, and thanks to its title, feels like the first chapter in a larger tale. Reading this story bumped the author much closer to the top of my endless “must-read-more-by” list.
Paul Di Filippo’s “Victoria” is one of the funniest and most inventive stories in the collection, featuring newt-based human life and a hilarious uber-villain. This irreverent story (which manages to call the entire royal succession into question) is so over the top that it’s sure to make you grin a few times.
The biggest surprise for me was “Reflected Light” by Rachel E. Pollock, an elegant and intricate short tale that implies much more than it states outright and almost begs to be reread. This story about illegal underground manufacturing hints at upcoming social changes in a fascinating society that hopefully will host more stories. It also displays the political side of steampunk in a very succinct way.
Another surprise is Stepan Chapman’s “Minutes of the Last Meeting”, set in Tzarist Russia. This brilliant story switches viewpoints frequently and somehow manages to introduce a new mind-bending layer of innovation every time, right up to the stunning ending.
Last but not least, the editors throw in a treat: a short story by Neal Stephenson set in the same universe as his post-cyberpunk/neo-Victorian novel The Diamond Age. Calling this steampunk is probably a bit of a stretch, but who cares — it’s a fun read that also reminds you, again, how unique Stephenson is as an author.
Closing out the collection are two more non-fiction pieces, including a look at steampunk in pop culture at large by Geek Curmudgeon Rick Claw, and a look at steampunk in the comic book medium by Bill Baker.
Unless you like your speculative fiction sans airships and steam engines, check out this excellent Steampunk anthology. In addition to offering a quick-shot education in the history and development of the genre, it also contains some truly excellent short fiction. Recommended.