The OF Blog: Steampunk: Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Steampunk: Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário

Steampunk has exploded in popularity over the past decade.  From anthologies such as 2008's reprint anthology Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (with a second volume set to be released in the next year) and the original anthology Extraordinary Engines (2008, edited by Nick Gevers) to steampunk-inspired garments, typewriters, computers, and other elements that have made steampunk as much a fashion as a literary subgenre, steampunk is huge.  There is something about the ethos behind the images.  Perhaps inspired by equal parts Jules Verne, H.G.Wells, Thomas Edison, the Age of Imperialism, steam-based transportation, and perhaps a violent reaction to the confusion and horrors of the 20th century, there is something intriguing about the notion of "going retro" and creating a sort of alternative past.

This is not to say that practitioners of steampunk fashion and steampunk literature view the Age of Steam (1775-1914, according to some historians) as a pure, untainted golden age.  If anything, the contradictions inherent in the era's social and political structures provide a sense of tension, some of which exploded into the devastating wars of the 20th century, where mechanized warfare inspired new horrors on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, and Asia (and to a lesser extent, the Americas and Australia).  It was an age in which Marx and Engels gave a voice and direction to the frustrations of the emerging industrial working classes across the globe; it was a time which the abhorrent practice of chattel slavery gave its death rattles in the United States and Brazil; it was perhaps, as Dickens described 1789-1794 France, both the best and worst of times.

These elements combine to create narrative possibilities that touch upon shared historical and scientific achievements.  In many senses, steampunk is the one of the first truly "international" subgenres of speculative fiction, as its appeal quickly spread from one country to the next, without a single country or language region dominating the literary landscape. In the past twenty years or so, ever since K.W. Jeter's use of the term "steampunk" in a 1987 letter to Locus to describe this nascent movement, steampunk literary and fashion circles have sprung up in cities all across the globe.  It truly is an international movement, one that adapts to fit the needs of each country's literary scenes.

This certainly was the case with the release this summer in Brazil of Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário (Steampunk:  Stories of an Extraordinary Past would be a good English translation of the title).  Edited by Gianpaolo Celli and published by the São Paulo publisher Tarja, this original anthology of nine stories written by several of Brazil's leading SF writers serves to highlight not just Brazilian interpretations of what constitutes "steampunk," but also that this emerging world power has the potential in the next few decades, as linguistic and trade barriers continue to fall, to play a larger role in the rapidly-growing global SF conversation.

I read each of these stories three times over the past four months, since my reading fluency in Portuguese is less than that of Spanish.  What I discovered with each read is that most of these stories took on additional layers of meaning for me.  There is no single common approach to telling a steampunk story in this collection. Some stories, such as the opening "O Assalto ao Trem Pagador" are a bit more heavy on overt action involving steam-driven trains, boats, and dirigibles than some of the others, but there are certain nuances in the writing that refer more specifically to issues of Brazilian history.  In the footnotes to Romeu Martins' "Cidade Phantástica," the author refers to how the character João Fumaça has been utilized by other authors, including an alt-history where Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay lost the 1864-1970 War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay.  In Jacques Barcia's "Uma Vída Possível Atrás dad Barricadas," Barcia references the long-standing popularity of communists among the proletariat.

These are elements that are often downplayed in much of North American and British steampunk literature.  Yet the 19th century was certainly a time of social unrest, so when reading these stories, I found myself curious to know more about the root causes that the authors referenced in passing.  Fábio Fernandes' "Uma Breve História da Maquinidade" goes a step further, as he utilizes fictional characters such as Doctor Frankenstein to underscore just how stratified social classes were in the 19th century in Europe and the Americas.  António Luiz M.C. Costa's "A Flor do Estrume"in many ways was the most mysterious story in this collection.  Referencing the 19th century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis,who wrote a fictional memoir of Brás Cubas, his story was the one where I felt lost at times, not because his writing was poor (if anything, the quality of the writing was almost uniformly high in this collection), but because there were references to Brazilian history that I did not know well, if at all.

However, this is not a negative to me, but instead a very positive development.  When I first ordered this anthology back in August, I had some trepidation that the authors would ape the manners and styles of the Anglo-American steampunk writers and not write anything that would be original in form or content.  If anything, the elements that these nine writers (the others being Claudio Villa, Flávio Medeiros, Alexandre Lancaster, and Roberto de Sousa Causo) use are more appealing to me than what I have found in the majority of the English-language steampunk fiction of the past decade.  There is a darker undercurrent in this anthology, a sense that underneath the trappings of a steam age "golden age" that there is much wrong with the local and global societies.  A frustration that technological advancement and the rise of a leisure class is not improving the lot of the social classes as much as it should.  There is a dark cloud in several of these stories, a cloud which threatens to burst asunder, bringing destruction and ruinous change in its wake.

This is not to say that these stories are didactic fictions devoid of adventure and fun.  Most of these tales were very enjoyable to read and the undercurrents noted above never threatened to overwhelm the stories being told.  Although there were a couple of stories that didn't work as well for me as did the others, Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário is one of the most taut and enjoyable anthologies that I have read in 2009 in any language.  Hopefully, in the coming decade, the writers that appear in this collection will see more of their stories translated into various languages (from what I recall, several already have appeared in English and Romanian translations at least). There appears to be a growing, if still somewhat small, SF culture developing in Brazil.  I suspect with time, that several of these writers will craft new narratives of Brazil that will challenge not just current Anglo-centric conceptions of that emerging power, but which will influence global conversations on steampunk and SF fiction. 

Highly recommended for those who can read Portuguese (no known English or other foreign language translations are in the works at this time).  Will be featured in a couple of weeks in my Best of 2009 posts.


Dr. Elitist said...

Hopefully it'll get translated to English ASAP because, based on your description, that's really something I'd like to read. I'm not at all familiar with Brazilian authors, much less those who write in the fantasy genre, and based on what you've said, this sounds like a great introduction.

Larry Nolen said...

It'll be difficult to get this translated and published, unfortunately, due to the very low number of non-English works that are translated each year (I think the number is as low as 3%, if I recall). But yes, this is an anthology that quite a few people, especially those who enjoy steampunk settings, would enjoy.

Jacques Barcia said...

Thanks for the review, Larry. I'm really glad you liked it.

Romeu Martins said...

Man! Great review! Thanks, really thanks.

Here a João Fumaça's short history in English:

Alexandre Lancaster said...

Really great review, and I'm glad you liked it too.

vvb32 reads said...

Thanks for the review. So interesting to see how steampunk is interpreted and portrayed in other countries. I'm so looking forward to reading this if ever translated (I hope).

Yay! thanks to Romeu for the link to a short story in English.

Romeu Martins said...

Oh, thanks for your sweet comment in my blog, vvb32!

Larry Nolen said...

Just doing my best to spread word about an anthology that I enjoyed a lot :D And thanks for the link, Romeu. I'll try to read it in the next day or two (Mondays are always hell on my body).

Eileen said...

It's at times like this that I really wish my Spanish was ten times better. This book sounds like fun, but too bad I can't read it.

I know we've talked about this before, but among those works of fiction that do get translated into English, almost none are sci-fi/fantasy, which definitely sucks. said...

Hi Larry,

My name is Gianpaolo. I am both a Tarja publisher and one of the authors of the ‘Steampunk - Stories of an Extraordinary Past’ book.

I am writing because we are considering publish it in other countries and, before start to translate the book, or at least part of it, to English, I like to know if you can help indicating us some publishing houses in order to make the first contacts easier.


Gianpaolo Celli

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