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edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
Tachyon Publications, 432 pages

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: 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: 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 Paul Graham Raven

"What is steampunk?" asks the jacket blurb header, and it's a reasonable question that has kept plenty of fans and pundits busy since the style's recent renaissance. Like any other genre definition, it's going to be contentious (has anyone actually settled on a satisfactory definition of science fiction itself yet?); personal taste is always going to come into play when deciding what is canon and what is not. While plainly setting out to answer the question from the informed perspective of the VanderMeers as editors, this anthology is also a trifle schizoid in that it's not entirely clear who they're trying to answer the question for -- the reader-for-pleasure, or the moot courts of convention panels and critical columns.

The VanderMeers present an aesthetic definition in their own brief introduction -- "the idea of steampunk as dark pseudo-Victorian fun" -- while pointing out that "this anthology, while capturing the permutations of steampunk over the last thirty years, represents just the first step toward capturing the best the field has to offer." Meanwhile -- amongst a selection of non-fiction works that seek to direct the reader beyond the anthology's confines to discover more steampunk goodness in books, comics, television and film -- Jess Nevins gets the job of discussing steampunk's literary history, and expands the definition of the term way beyond simple aesthetics. It is a rebellion against the literature of the age it portrays, we are told, yet it is also a homage to and a pastiche thereof; it deconstructs and reconstructs at once; it is "dark pseudo-Victorian fun" but it has a serious side to it, a critical edge hidden like the blade in a sword-stick. Both sides of this coin are represented in the VanderMeers's selection, but the corollary of that is that the individual works captured by the term are very different -- in some case, wildly so.

But the axis that runs from serious to fun is a useful one to plot them against, so let's start at the lighthearted end... the obvious delimiter of which is Molly Brown's "The Selene Gardening Society." So much so, in fact, that whimsical might be a better term; described as "a comedy of manners with a steampunk swagger," it's a continuation of the adventures from Jules Verne's De la Terre à la Lune wherein the mantle of progress is taken up by the ladyfolk of the ossified scientists. It's always a fine thing to see stories wherein women take active and positive roles, and I'm all for environmentally conscious works of fiction, too, but Brown's tale struck me as incredibly twee; that's possibly a function of its stylistic mimicry, but its lack of suspense or revelation did little to endear it to me further.

The opening piece is an excerpt from Benediction: The Warlord of the Air, a classic chunk of mid-career Michael Moorcock. Aesthetically, this is about as steampunk as you can get -- the great empires of the Victorian age battling it out with airships -- and it's well served by the rollicking pulp style of Moorcock in full flow. Being a sliver of a much larger work, it has little to say beyond the action of the moment (some character angst over the glorification of destructive technologies notwithstanding), and it's best treated in this context as a vignette. As such, it reminds us that Moorcock had a rather sneaky knack of drawing a lot of fine implied detail behind his boisterous plots; it's pseudo-Victorian fun in the gosh-wow-awesome sense.

Likewise the story that closes the selection, which masquerades as an excerpt: Neal Stephenson's "Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast," which more than any other piece in the book highlights the common kinship between steampunk and cyberpunk, and which bristles with the hyperreality that is one of Stephenson's trademarks. The stand-off between the gentlefolk adventurers and researchers and an enraged tribe of Mad Max-esque petrolhead barbarians in the ruins of a shopping mall is told dead-pan with tongue in cheek, providing a wry commentary on colonialist attitudes toward 'primitive tribes' as a supplement to the impressive worldbuilding.

"Victoria" is fun, too, in the way that Paul Di Filippo has made his own, but there's a serious undercurrent here, as well. Class, social and sexual politics in the upper echelons of Victorian Britain era combine with crazy steam-powered inventions, webs of intrigue and... well, newts. Di Filippo has a knack of writing stories that quite literally defy belief, but which are immensely compelling reading nonetheless -- it's a tightrope dance along a taut thin line of humour above the pit of the ridiculous, and like any good showman he knows that appearing to be about to fall only makes the balancing more impressive.

If we are to judge on intent, this is the point on the scale where we should mention "Lord Kelvin's Machine" by James P. Blaylock. It's a story evidently written with humorous intent paralleled with a deconstruction of Victorian values, but one which falls flat due to cardboard characters and a rambling prose style; compare it to "Victoria", and it's a colossal let-down, saying less but taking far longer about it. Di Filippo makes it clear you can make the spoof much louder in the mix and still tell a tale that people will actually give a damn about, no matter how gloriously improbable it may be.

"Lord Kelvin's Machine" serves to slightly amplify the blurriness of the anthology's intent; was it meant to define the subgenre's canon or celebrate its high points? Is it an academic reader or an escapist collection? If it is the former (and the inclusion of Nevins' sterling essay suggests it could easily be seen as such), the story's inclusion makes sense as a historical milestone; if the latter (as the VanderMeers's introduction suggests), it seems odd to include what feels to be the weakest story in the selection. Canonical completeness is all well and good if you're a critic, academic or writer, but for the average reader it's all so much hot air: the story must speak for itself, and Blaylock's piece managed little more than a somnambulant mumble in this reader's ear.

We cross the humour axis with Jay Lake's "The God-Clown is Near," which balances an almost magic-realist fantasy vibe with the trappings of a gory blend of steampunk. There's humour here, for certain, but it's a gallows humour. Lake's protagonist is a 'flesh sculptor' who gets made an offer that he cannot refuse, and -- caught between the rock of his clients and the hard place of that which they would have him create -- he immerses himself in his work with all the obsessional attention to detail of the crazed scientist archetype. As with much of Lake's work the characterisation is the star, but "The God-Clown is Near" starts dipping toward a more explicit deconstruction of Victorian attitudes to society, sin and science... and of our own.

Perhaps it is fitting that the closer we get to politics and economics as literary themes, the more serious the stories become. Mary Gentle's "A Sun in the Attic" has a feminist undercurrent thanks to the polygamous matriarchy in which it is set, but the story is also about the potential of new technologies -- in this case, a telescope -- to disrupt a stable society with the revelations it can bring, the lengths to which that society's powermongers will go to ensure the status quo is maintained, and the ethical implications of those choices. In this instance, however, those lengths do not extend to all-out violence and warfare, but instead to sneaky diplomacy, threats and persuasion... the implication that matriarchies might solve social problems in a different way might well be lost on the reader who demands more straightforward action from their fiction, but Gentle's transparent style gives away much more than is initially apparent. I re-read "A Sun in the Attic" immediately after first finishing it, and was very glad I did.

"The Giving Mouth" by Ian R. MacLeod has a more classically fantastic edge to it than the other stories, a distinct flavour of the darkly metaphorical fairy tale whose precise meaning hovers just beyond reach, taunting you with its faint clear promise of comprehension. The blurred line MacLeod creates between crude industrialism and magic allows him to critique unchecked capitalism and resource avarice by showing how it destroys people -- not just those at the bottom of the pile, but those who believe themselves to be at the top. The redemptive ending is well chosen, not only to balance the bleakness with a few rays of hope but to emphasise the fairy tale aspect of one of the most beautifully written stories in this anthology.

Similarly beautiful at the scale of nuts and bolts is Michael Chabon's "The Martian Agent," an alternate history story wherein the American Civil War worked out rather differently than the one in our own timeline. If one was to choose a poster-child for the aphorism "show, don't tell," Chabon sweeps the board among this selection -- anyone who claims the man has no right to be counted and acclaimed as a true writer of genre fiction (if such a thing is not an oxymoron to start with) should acquaint themselves with his effortless grasp of the specialised tools of the world-building trade, alongside the arguably more 'literary' skills of character and pace. Some have taken issue with the ambiguous ending (and the not-entirely-resolved title), but I found these aspects played a part in the appeal of a beautifully written and absorbing piece.

Less subtle in its estrangement from our own reality is Ted Chiang's spectacular "Seventy-Two Letters," whose politics are both personal and social. The rarity of Chiang's output means that this story -- like all of his work -- has been discussed and dissected many times before, but it sits comfortably among the other works despite the explicit introduction of magic -- in this case a form of kabbalism -- into a classical steampunk setting. Indeed, of all the tales in this anthology, it probably comes closest to evoking the same atmosphere as Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine; the kabbalism here is a metaphor for information technology and its potential for misuse, both as a means of self-aggrandizement for personal gain and a lever to further oppress a disenfranchised working class. Being a Ted Chiang story, it's also a great example of the short story writer's craft.

Similarly revolutionary in message is Rachel E Pollock's "Reflected Light." Told as a transcription of audio fragments from a series of wax cylinders, it's a fragment of proto-revolutionary mythology from an oppressed working class of humans under the capitalist boot-heel of an alien (or perhaps simply 'other') race. Pollock's interrogation of Marxist themes is surprisingly human, devoid of the pedagogical podium-thumping that commonly infests such pieces, and very compelling. It's a little too conscious of its own style at times, but its boldness is refreshing, and it's a solid example of the deconstructive commentary that Nevins places at the heart of the subgenre. Also of note is the fact that it is a reprint from the ezine Steampunk, a low-paying small-circulation Creative Commons-licensed internet publication that is available as a physical item for a small fee or as a free downloadable file. Whatever your view of the economics of short fiction publishing on and off the web, for a story to make its way from there to a 'professional' anthology is an interesting development that, with hindsight, may turn out to be the setting of a precedent. On reading "Reflected Light," however, it will be quite plain why the VanderMeers picked it up: it's a super piece of work.

Stepan Chapman's "Minutes of the Last Meeting" is also intimately married to the politics of class that emerged from the industrial era, thanks to Chapman's choice to set it in revolution-torn Tzarist Russia rather than an analogue of Victorian Britain. It's also brilliantly styled, jumping through a chain of different points of view to expand the story across a continental-sized canvas, packed full of sensawunda sf tropes with a steampunk twist -- from medical nanotech to steam-powered artificial intelligences -- and a glory to read, balancing pulp action and pace with measured prose and great imagination to create a serious story that lacks nothing in excitement. This was the first piece of Chapman's that I have encountered, but I shall make a point of it not being my last.

Which leaves one story remaining to classify on our axis, and it's one that has a history of dividing opinion. Furthermore, Joe R. Landsale's "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: a Dime Novel" represents the apogee of the critical and deconstructional approach Nevins ascribes to steampunk, at least within the extent of this particular anthology. Harkening directly and explicitly back to the Edisonade dime novels discussed in Nevins' intro, Lansdale essentially sequels one classic of the form and throws in a character from H.G. Wells as well -- in fact, the story fits Nevins' thesis so closely one might assume it was used as his starting point. Lansdale's story goes on to deconstruct the hero- and techno-worship, imperialism/colonialism and puerile wish-fulfilment of the Edisonades, principally by using a lot of gratuitous swearing, violence and homosexual intercourse -- the latter principally unconsensual.

Perhaps my sensibilities are too highly strung to appreciate Lansdale's commentary (or perhaps Nevins' introduction made it all too obvious what Lansdale was trying to do) but the end result was a story that initially seemed to be beating me around the face with its subtext, and subsequently pissing in the punch bowl out of some sense of limitless freedom. Perhaps without Nevins' introduction I'd have not noticed the deconstruction in "The Steam Man... " (though I doubt it), but there's a case to be made that a story whose themes need to be justified and explained in that sort of detail is perhaps not the best story to hold up as a canonical example of a subgenre to casual readers who may well have just stumbled across the style.

There's also a case to be made that it glories in its own crassness, like a secondary-school Irvine Welsh raised on a mouldering trunk of dime novels. It's not an enjoyable story, and once you've sussed out what's being done it's not particularly clever either, not to mention far too long. But beneath that sensational surface there is a point, so we'll file it under 'serious' (and contemplate excising it before lending it to anyone who thinks stories should just be stories, because they'll likely never borrow another book from us ever again). Its relevance to the history of the subgenre is plain to me, but its appeal to the casual reader is not. That said, other reviewers have described it as hilariously funny... so your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.

So, does Steampunk succeed? Treated as a retrospective 'best of' that seeks to provide a wide selection of quality stories that can be pinpointed somewhere within the cordons of steampunk's blurry Venn diagram of a definition, there are only a few tales which feel out of place. The rest cover a number of the subgenre's stylistic facets and angles of attack, and there's plenty of dark pseudo-Victorian fun to be had alongside some thought-provoking themes.

As an attempt at a definitive anthology, it's also a success, but a qualified one. If this was truly the principal intent, I would have liked the stories to be organised in a more critical framework, perhaps explicitly grouped by theme or style (though not necessarily in the same way I have used here), or even arranged chronologically -- this would have given a greater sense of science to the attempt at imposing a taxonomic or historical order on the subgenre, like a stove-piped naturalist pinning out butterflies by the date and location at which they were trapped. Of course, this might well have made the book less appealing to the casual reader, so perhaps the choice was one of pragmatism foremost. Whatever the reasoning, the end result has a great deal to offer the casual reader and the critic alike -- and that's a rare enough occurrence that to carp too much about purpose would seem churlish.

Copyright © 2009 Paul Graham Raven

Paul Graham Raven does a ridiculous number of things, including publishing the near-future SF webzine Futurismic, developing and managing websites for various authors and agents in the genre field, and online public relations for the UK's foremost boutique genre publishing house, PS Publishing. He also answers tedious and easily-Googled questions about Naval history at his day-job in a museum library, reviews SF novels and music by hirsute tattooed lunatics, and spews the contents of his brain and browser bookmarks onto the web at the Velcro City Tourist Board .

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