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Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded
edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Tachyon Publications, 432 pages

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded
Ann VanderMeer
Ann VanderMeer has been a publisher and editor for over twenty years who currently serves as the fiction editor of Weird Tales and as a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. She is the founder of the award-winning Buzzcity Press. Work from her press and related periodicals has won the British Fantasy Award, the International Rhysling Award, and appeared in several year's best anthologies. Ann was also the founder of The Silver Web magazine, a periodical devoted to experimental and avant-garde fantasy literature. A Best of the Silver Web anthology is forthcoming from Prime Books.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Best American Fantasy 2008
SF Site Review: Steampunk
SF Site Review: The New Weird
SF Site Review: The Silver Web, Issue 15
SF Site Review: The Silver Web, Issue 15

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Finch
SF Site Review: The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix
SF Site Review: Balzac's War
SF Site Review: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: Secret Life
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff, airships and Babbage machines and genteel banter between Edwardian attired hero and heroine teamed to uncover some dastardly mad scientist's plan to take over the world with a steam-powered invention capable of high speeds and mass destruction. Steampunk -- fiction combining SF/Fantasy tropes in a 19th century setting -- is just my cup of tea.

I'm not really sure why. Maybe it has something to do with my mid-century childhood when special effects for SF films and television were cobbled together in much the same way as steampunk technology, with all the gears and inner workings clearly visible. Or from watching The Avengers television series, featuring the suave gentleman John Steed, impeccably outfitted in vest, bowler hat and matching umbrella as he flirted with every male (and maybe some female) adolescent's wet dream, Emma Peel while defeating that week's threat to the British Empire. Or my father's workshop equipped with weighty tools made out of steel with nary a piece of plastic in sight, in an era where things were supposed to last, not tossed out as last year's (or month's) phenomenon now hopelessly outdated in lacking some technological feature you never used much anyways.

Which brings me to Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, the anthologists of record for such subgenres as New Weird and pirates as well as the subject matter at hand. The various VanderMeer collections stand out because of their sense of humor about genre classification lacking in most academic treatments and that they supplement terrific fiction with offbeat critical discussions, typography and other diversions of interest. A prime example here is "A Secret History of Steampunk," a collage incorporating graphics, multiple authors, and just plain weirdness to satirize the academic research and discussion of obscure literary fragments. There's also an excerpt of a satirical web-based comic concerning the imagined John Stead/Emma Peel-like adventures of two real pioneers of computing technology -- Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron considered to be one of the first computer programmers, and Charles Babbage, who conceived the "Difference Engine," the first computer prototype. Funny stuff.

Having overlooked the first VanderMeer collection of steampunk (a situation I intend to correct), I was unawares that steampunk is more than SF/Fantasy in an anachronistic setting; it's also a lifestyle, a reaction to our technological throwaway culture. In addition to steampunk fashion, arts and home decoration, there is an overarching "maker" esthetic intent somewhat akin to ham radio and computer hobbyists who built their own technology from scrap parts. The cyberpunks may have Second Life, but the steampunks have hand-made corsets.

"History would seem to indicate that the literature came first and the fashion second," however, as Gail Carriger points out in her essay, "Which is Mightier, the Pen or the Parasol?" (p. 396). And the results of the pen (I'm guessing most steampunk authors don't resort to this writing instrument to compose their stories, though they may outfit their computers in leather and brass to look like old typewriters -- Google steampunk computers or steampunk keyboards to see some very cool retro looks) are what count here. Indeed, the editors claim that "more steampunk short fiction is being written than ever before in the history of the subgenre" (p. 11).

So it seems an odd choice to kick off the collection with William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum," a satire of the 1930s conceptualization of the future which is our present, and generally acknowledged as the progenitor of yet another subgenre called "raygun gothic." A few other stories, such as Samantha Henderson's fusing the Fae with Native American creation myth in "Wild Copper" would also seem to be tangentially steampunk for purists who insist on Victorian costumes and tin shears. However, no need to blow your bowler as most of the content adheres to formula, without being formulaic. There's even a "proto-steampunk" tale, "(Flying Fish) Prometheus," which concerns an aero contraption modeled after the creature of the title that enjoys a pre-iceberg hitting Titanic reputation epitomizing safe travel courtesy of "modern" technology; alas, as the title also implies, it also earns a post-Titanic reputation. Written by Vilhelm Bergsøe in 1870 for a Danish newspaper, the story telling has such modern sensibilities that at first I thought it might be a fabricated put-on (apparently it's not).

Whatever you want to call them, many of these tales are positively brilliant. Margo Lanagan's "Machine Made" is a disturbing fable of a sexually repressed newlywed taking revenge on a doltish husband whom she discovers seeks pleasures of the flesh through a mechanical servant. Caitlín R. Kiernan's "The Steam Dancer (1896)" relates the desires of a woman rescued from death with bionic appendages who only feels truly whole as a saloon dancer before an audience of opium addicts attentive to her body, but oblivious to her artistry. As long as we're on the subject of mechanically enabled creatures, "The Cast Iron Kid" by Andrew Knighton presents a Western gunfight in which the title character is undone not by a six-shooter, but by principles of subatomic physics. "As Recorded on Brass Cylinders: Adagio for Two Dancers" by James L. Grant and Lisa Matchev probably could have been recast as a "mainstream" SF story in which a pair of androids share the troubling human emotions of love and loyalty; however, put in a steampunk context, it seems to me that much more poignant, thanks to such passages as:

  "One of the screw-records in his skull (one of the few authentic bones left in his body, a process accelerated by a terrible attack in Constantinople, 1922) ticked its needle into a groove he hadn't used since before the end of the American Civil War. Motes of dust parted as the brass spike read information long, long disused."
p. 288

If you're looking for something more Sherlockian, no need to fret. Check out "The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monkey" by G.D. Falksen, which posits broadsheet publication as a Twitter forerunner, with dire implications the protagonists can barely comprehend, and Daniel Abraham's "Balfour and Meriwether in the Adventure of the Emperor Vengeance" in which two of her Majesty's special agents, as well as a comely female amateur (there's that Steed/Peel thing again) battle ancient automations whose fate kick starts the Industrial Revolution and modern civilization. The concluding paragraph is particularly affective.

Not everything is restricted to 19th century London, though. "The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar" is another in a series of tales by Shweta Narayan that recast Indian myths with mechanical beings. And the steampunk trappings of Jeffrey Ford's "Dr. Lash Remembers," original to this volume, takes place in some phantasmagoria.

Publishing woes have resulted in the demise of a number of promising anthology series. Here's hoping this particular series continues to pick up steam.

Copyright © 2011 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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