Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steampunks," perhaps ...
- K.W. Jeter, letter to Locus magazine, April 1987
Although Jeter's letter is widely considered to be the terminus a quo for the usage of the term "steampunk" to describe those tales that utilize and (often) subvert Victorian Era steam-based technologies to create fantastical, adventuresome tales, steampunk-like stories can be traced back at least four or five decades, to the inventor/adventurer/conqueror pulp fiction called "Edisonades" and to the reactions to the oft-jingoistic, racist undertones of such novels. It is this juxtaposition of 19th century positivist attitudes towards technology and our more recent concerns with social relations (among a great many other things) that makes steampunk fiction a very popular and creative literary cousin to the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s.
In Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's just-released anthology, Steampunk, the editors begin by noting the influences on steampunk, its various forms and foci, and how interest in all things steam-driven has created a subculture that revels in brass knobs and gears affixed to their computers or other everyday appliances. Since steampunk doesn't have the attribute-defining problems that New Weird fiction does, the editors instead have structured this anthology differently from their February The New Weird anthology. There is an introductory article written by Jess Nevins that explains the 19th century origins of steampunk fiction, which goes into detail describing the rise of the Edisonades and how by the 1960s, authors such as Michael Moorcock had begun writing stories that took the the Edisonades' entrepreneurial spirit and subverted it, creating tales that were much more complex in their focus and which contained quite a bit of ambiguity in regards to the notion of "progress" being sacrosanct. This article sets the stage well for the 13 stories/excerpts that follow and for the two concluding articles written by Rick Klaw and Bill Baker.
The stories chosen represent a cross-section of authors who are primarily known for their steampunk fictions (Joe R. Landsdale, James Blaylock, and to a lesser extent, Paul di Filippo) as well as those whose works utilize steampunk tropes on occasion (Michael Chabon, Ted Chiang, Michael Moorcock, and Jay Lake, among others). Although some of the more famous steampunk writings do not appear here because they are novels (such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine), the stories that do appear in this anthology are very strong choices.
I usually don't spend much time reviewing individual stories when I comment on anthologies, since I am much more interested in seeing how "well-glued" the anthology is rather than elaborating at length on each of the stories. However, I do want to point out that in each of the stories presented here, we see evidence of the various motifs that Nevins discusses in his introductory article. We see the use of an industrial golem in Ted Chiang's brilliant "72 letters." In an excerpt from his 1971 novel The Warlord of the Air, Michael Moorcock explores questions of whether or not gadgetry employed for destructive purposes is something that ought to be glorified. Some of the tales are funny or satirical, such as Paul di Filippo's "Victoria," while others contain gruesome warnings, such as that embedded in Jay Lake's "The God-Clown is Near."
As I read each of these tales, I could not help but to reflect back to not just Nevins' introduction, but also to the closing pieces by Klaw and Baker. In their pieces, the two discuss what it is about steampunk that creates such a lasting impression on the reader or upon the movie/TV viewer who enjoyed shows as diverse as the old Jules Verne-based movies from the 1960s to the original TV version of The Wild Wild West. As I read these stories in light of the point raised by these articles, I could not help but to remember reading one of the last major Edisonades, the reworked and updated Tom Swift novels released in the 1980s, and thinking about how there was so much that appealed to me then but which now leaves me feeling uncomfortable with the underlying assumptions behind writing such tales. Reading these steampunk stories served to highlight their distinctions from the earlier Edisonade form, while they still managed to capture some of the energy and spirit that makes such works exciting reads. Based on this, the VanderMeers' latest anthology works both as a historical piece that concisely tells the origins and importance of the steampunk subgenre and as an enjoyable set of tales that ought to appeal to a wide range of readers. Highly Recommended.
Publication Date: May 1, 2008 (US); tradeback.