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"Steampunk" Anthology, Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Making all gearheads and sci-fi punks in the world "feel lucky", since 2008

(right image credit: John Coulthart)

The term Steampunk is applied almost too often these days, with some sub-genres even branching out from it like from a twisted, tangled tree - dieselpunk, greenpunk, stitchpunk, you name it (see definitions of various "punk" literary varieties here). This book, however, aims to preserve the purity of the steampunk mainstream by collecting some ripe and delicious fruits from that rapidly-branching tree. Although none are very recent - most of the included stories are from the 1990s and before - there is a reason for that:

"The goal of the anthology was to collect the iconic first/second wave stories along with some interesting variants, also mostly from ten years ago or earlier," says co-editor Jeff VanderMeer, "Steampunk II, which we're working on now, collects reprints from the last ten years".

So, if you haven't read this book yet, what are you waiting for? Here is a handy guide to what's inside the covers (reviewed by Avi Abrams).

(image credit: John Coulthart)

Scroll down to read reviews of individual stories:


James Blaylock
"Lord Kelvin's Machine"

(Langdon St.Ives series)
© IASFM, Dec 1985
book: Arkham House, 1992
--collection : 1993 World Fantasy
--sf novel : 1993 Locus/19
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award

If you had to include one quintessential story in the genre-defining anthology of steampunk, this would be a good choice: it covers all the bases, and is unpretentious enough to fill most stomachs hungry for a quick meal of the Victorian Bizarre.

"A scientist-explorer Langdon St. Ives and his valet, Hasbro, pursue their arch-nemesis, the hunchback Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, across Norway, contesting Narbondo's plot to destroy the earth and, later, efforts to revivify Narbondo's apparently frozen corpse. In the process St. Ives gains access to a powerful device created by Lord Kelvin, which allows St. Ives to travel through time."

Quite an enjoyable steampunk romp through the (now already cliched) staples of the genre: deliciously cheesy arch-enemies, a plot spiced with mighty volcanoes and swell Victorian technology. Good stuff, recommended.

Ian R. MacLeod
"The Giving Mouth"

© IASFM, March 1991
Voyages by Starlight, 1996
--/ fourth place f story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ style award
--/ shock value
--/ rare find

This is the most peculiar epic fantasy you ever likely to read (I realize this is quite a statement). Very stylish, very Ursula Le Guin-like at first (think of her low-key "Orsinian Tales"), it evolves into a ferocious Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique spawn, at once disgusting and irresistibly complex. Wonderful tour-de-force, liked it very much.

"The Giving Mouth" features a fantasy landscape of mining, coal and smoke where knights in animated armor ride steamhorses made of "liveiron." Soon it enters highly-cinematic territory, later explored by Michael Swanwick and China Mieville: post-industrial monsters with weird eating habits, wonderfully detailed epic quest and gross-out ending.


Joe R. Lansdale
"The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel"

© 2000, The Long Ones
Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories, 2004
--/ fourth place f novella
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ shock value

"Dime Novel" it very well may be, but if it had appeared for sale some hundred years ago (unrated and unabridged), it could've caused a few fatalities among unprepared Victorian readers, through sheer shock and utter, disgusted disbelief. It is an entirely wicked novella, and is meant to be just that. I daresay it's even more offensive than Lansdale's "Zeppelins West" - but for all that hype and coarse sensationalism, it is a gorgeous example of no-holds-barred Wild West Steampunk Blockbuster. It is a blast, like many, many works of Joe R. Lansdale in his screwed-up version of the Wild West (think "cow-punk" plus a few "Saw" movies)

It is one heck of a ride, and it has everything a dime novel should have - mystery, wonder, adventure and crazed horror mixed with deeply dark atmosphere. You've been warned, but by all means, if you just watched, say, "Crank 2: High Voltage" and came out unaffected, then you'll see no problem with this novella either.

This sort of ferocious entertainment in literature reminds me of some wild and crazed Clark Ashton Smith stories in the 1930s "Weird Tales" pulp.


Ted Chiang
"Seventy-Two Letters"
© Vanishing Acts, ed. E. Datlow, 2000
Stories Of Your Life And Others, 2002
--novella : 2001 Hugo
--novella : 2001 World Fantasy
--shortlist : 2001 Sturgeon
--novella : 2001 Locus /4
--short form : 2001 Sidewise W
--foreign short story : 2001 Hayakawa W
--translated short story : 2002 Seiun W

--/ third place sf story
--/ idea award
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

I found this story a bit long and tedious, but these are probably the only faults in what turned out to be intriguing and entirely unique tale. The concept here is that Names (words) are truly powerful tools capable of creating or modifying reality – this is an important idea in ancient Hebrew culture, starting from Adam, who named (defined, co-created) all the animals in the Garden of Eden. In this story we have some ultimate "incantations" helping robots to achieve their peak performance, but of course, meddling with these building blocks of the Universe leads to the deeply disturbing results. If you remember, a similar idea was the basis for Arthur Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God", but Chiang gives it a highly sophisticated and learned makeover, creating another classic tale from the Genesis-old spiritual know-how.

Very impressive mixture of high-flight science fiction and meta-physical and meta-spiritual conjecture, which is really hard to do without overdoing it... but Chiang succeeds spectacularly (and garners a plethora of awards in the process).


Michael Chabon
"The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance"

© McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, No.10, 2003
--/ fourth place f story
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

I will describe my experience of discovering fiction by Michael Chabon: at first bite it does not seem to be that intense, or delicious. You get into the story for a couple of pages, then you realize that the characters are too bizarre, the world-view does not fit, the plot does not compute, and even the words themselves that author uses are baroque, esoteric, obtuse... in other words, if you approach it lightly, Chabon's prose is not going to make much sense. But now you are too intrigued. You go back a couple of pages, read it again with more attention and respect - and BAM! you are hooked (or doomed) to read the whole story, with rewards piling up in every paragraph.

A Planetary Romance? Yes, but not in a conventional way. Subtle. Subdued. Emotional undercurrents require a careful appreciation of how characters speak, think and (rarely) behave. This is more of a meditative piece, and yet it's not lacking in adventure. If this is your first taste of Michael Chabon's fiction, I envy you. Now you will have to go and get more... more...


Paul Di Filippo

(Steampunk Trilogy)
© Amazing Stories, Jun 1991
Steampunk Trilogy, 1995
--/ third place f novella
--/ shock value
--/ humour award
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

Not only is the entertainment value of this novella is through-the-roof, the significance of its appearing as far back as 1991 is notable as well: it pushes the envelope in more ways than one, defining steampunk black comedy with its own brand of humour.

Try not to grin as you read: naughty, improbable, grotesque, the tale bests itself at every turn, featuring such wildly bizarre concoctions as a homunculus/newt on the throne of England, nuclear train engines and "ideoplasm"-powered transdimensional prairie schooners, with inevitable Lovecraft monsters duly appearing in the "Hottentots" sequel.

This is a highlight of any summer reading (for just like in the movies, there has to be a "Summer Blockbuster Reading Season"). You are not going to forget it, but some readers might think that Paul Di Filippo goes too far into the territory they can't follow.

Also included in this anthology:


Michael Moorcock
"The Warlord of the Air" (nv)

(Oswald Bastable series)
© 1971, DAW Books, Ace Books
--/ cool sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award

Seminal early steampunk novel, with wonderful airships jumping off the page, and Japanese animation-like action thunders into your ears - with some color and silly plot to boot.


Stepan Chapman
"Minutes of the Last Meeting"
© 1998, "Leviathan 2", ed. J. VanderMeer
--/ cool f novella
--/ wonder award

The Nuclear Age comes to the Imperial Russia just before the October Revolution. A great - even brilliant - idea, but could be better plotted and executed. As it is, this is an entertaining, but somewhat shallow read.


Neal Stephenson
"Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast"

© 1995, "Full Spectrum 5", ed. J. Hershey
--/ cool sf story
--/ idea award

Tribes of the Suburbia: the Mall Sub-Culture. Basically, more cyberpunk than steampunk, also reminiscent of the George A. Romero's iconic "Dawn of the Dead" - "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".


(image credit: John Coulthart)


...and an interview with Jeff VanderMeer ->

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Blogger DonkeyMoses said...

I do not "feel lucky". Give it a name and it will die as a fad. Speaking as one whose art and personal style has maintained this aesthetic for many years, surviving the peirced and tattooed anger of the 90's, I rather resent the current tendency for my art, music, and general style to now be lumped into a catagory full of people who didn't have an interest in it until they read about it online. I do feel grateful that this style is more understood now, but mainstream attention and labeling has been the death of sincerity for every subcultural wave. Can't we just leave it alone and let it exist without putting it into a jar of chloroform so we can pin it to a board under a magnifying glass? Maybe I've been ahead of my time, along with many others, but with this development, I feel that we have only obsolescence to look forward to.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Quite and astute observation, thank you. Creativity often diminishes after it's labeled and slotted into a proper "drawer". Obsolescence? I would not go that far. As long as people dare to dream and put it on paper, we have a future.

8:57 PM  

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