The OF Blog: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded

Missouri Banks lives in the great smoky city at the edge of the mountains, here where the endless yellow prairie laps gently with grassy waves and locust tides at the exposed bones of the world jutting suddenly towards the western sky.  She was not born here, but came to the city long ago, when she was still only a small child and her father traveled from town to town in one of Edison's electric wagons selling his herbs and medicinals, his stinking poultices and elixirs.  This is the city where her mother grew suddenly ill with miner's fever and where all her father's liniments and ministrations could not restore his wife's failing health or spare her life.  In his grief, he drank a vial of either antimony or arsenic a few days after the funeral, leaving his only daughter and only child to fend for herself.  And so, she grew up here, an orphan, one of a thousand or so dispossessed urchins with sooty bare feet and sooty faces, filching coal with sooty hands to stay warm in winter, clothed in rags, and eating what could be found in trash barrels and what could be begged or stolen.

Caitlín R. Kiernan, "The Steam Dancer (1896)", p. 66

In Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's second steampunk anthology, Steampunk II:  Steampunk Reloaded, the editors continue their exploration of the question "What is steampunk and how is it presented?" in a 420+ page sequel that expands in scope what they had covered in their first steampunk anthology, Steampunk (2008).  For readers who are still new to this vibrant and vivacious subculture, Steampunk Reloaded provides a snapshot of the many divergent strands that collectively are labeled "steampunk fiction."  Whereas Steampunk was completely a reprint anthology that concentrated on early examples of steampunk fiction (including some excerpts from novels from the 1970s and 1980s that are often considered to be the progenitors of steampunk), Steampunk Reloaded reprints (with an original fiction translation, a collaborative mash-up, two original fictions, and three new non-fiction pieces) steampunk short fiction pieces from the past decade.  Some will find the diversity of styles and motifs within this steampunk umbrella to be excellent, while others may find themselves cleaving to one particular type or another.

In both anthologies, the VanderMeers do not attempt to provide a definitive description of what constitutes "steampunk"; it would be a Sisyphean task.  Instead, what they do is cull a selection of representative short stories (and in addition, a steampunk comic and steampunk-inspired layout) and present these to the readers.  Some fictions, such as the Kiernan story I quote above, tackle the social inequalities inherent in the 19th century societies from whence most steampunk fiction draw their inspiration.  I quote Kiernan's first paragraph to her excellent "The Steam Dancer (1896)" because I found her story to be exemplary of the particular subtype of steampunk fiction I prefer most:  the social commentary that uses the dressings of alt-steam to explode myths from the Victorian and Edwardian eras of Anglo-American history.  Behind the mixture of the familiar and exotic found in Kiernan's story lies a shrewd commentary on social and gender stratification, one that is all the more effective because of its alt-world setting.

Another steampunk strand can be found in Jeffrey Ford's "Dr. Lash Remembers," which is published here for the first time.  Ford's story is more nightmarish than "real," utilizing mechanical objects as means to explore a feverish, hallucinogenic setting.  This dreamlike story is an example of the appropriation of alt-steam era machines in service to stories that might otherwise be considered to be "surreal" or "ethereal" rather than alt-histories or social commentaries of the sort depicted in Kiernan's story.  As a story, Ford's tale took a few reads before I was comfortable with its placement in this anthology, as at first it stood out like a sore thumb.  Even now, I dither a bit in praising it, because as interesting of a tale that it is, I am uncertain if it really "fits" with the rest of the stories to create a unified whole.

Several other stories in this collection utilize the costume trappings of the steampunk culture (the brass goggles, the corsets, the monocles, and the like) to set up their stories.  These stories as a whole constitute a mixed bag for me.  Some worked well due to these elements, while others felt so shallow as a result of a perceived over-dependence on the material trappings of steampunk culture to tell stories that otherwise would be at home in several other subgenres.  This, I believe, is not as much the fault of the editors, who have aimed to showcase the main strands of steampunk fiction, as it is a commentary on the limitations of that particular style of steampunk that emphasis the trappings of steam over the exploration of the social conflicts inherent in the time period most often used as the starting point for steampunk fiction.  Other readers, however, will likely find that these stories will appeal more to them than they did for me.

In addition to the reprints and original fictions, Steampunk Reloaded also includes an extended mashup of various writings and illustrations called "The Mecha-Ostrich, 'A Secret History of Steampunk.'"  It is a clever and often amusing tale, weaving in fragments of other stories into a seemingly-paranoid tale of a person hiding from "the Eye."  Other readers, however, may not enjoy it as much as I did, but I do believe that this mashup serves to illustrate potentials in utilizing steampunk tropes to tell inventive stories. 

Steampunk Reloaded concludes with two non-fiction pieces by Gail Carriger and Jake von Slatt as well as a roundtable interview discussion of the "future of steampunk."  This for me was the weakest section of the book, weighted down largely by the vapidity of Carriger's piece, which underwhelmed me after reading the fictions that preceded this piece.  von Slatt's piece on the intersection of technology and romance, however, was much better in comparison and the roundtable on steampunk's future was decent, but with nothing groundbreaking about it.

On the whole, Steampunk Reloaded manages to improve upon the strengths of its predecessor, but it was not a uniformly great read for me.  This is likely due to my preferences as a reader, which trend toward the social commentaries, but some of the stories felt more like fluff pieces after some of the weightier stories that appeared before or after them.  Yet despite this, Steampunk Reloaded largely succeeds in its goal of presenting the wide array of steampunk fictions for readers to explore and for that I recommend this anthology to those who want to see what this steampunk fuss is all about.


Ben Godby said...

Is there any steampunk in this book - or "out there" in the world more generally - that is primarily fantasy rather than alternate history?

I think I have this "image" of steampunk as orcs with monocles and elves in corsets because of a Dragon magazine cover from, like, ten years ago; and then I found China Miéville's fiction to reinforce such a penchant for "fantastic steam."

But now it seems like steampunk is primarily alternate history - which is interesting, I guess, considering how oddly it fits among "the genres."

Anyway, do you - or anyone else out there - know of any steampunkfantasy?

Larry Nolen said...

There is, and some is in this anthology, but most steampunk fictions take as their starting points at least an analogue to the mid-to-late 19th century, whether it be an alt-history or alt-world setting.

Some of Tobias Buckell's fiction is marketed as such, particularly his first novel, Crystal Rain.

Matt Denault said...

Ben, if Miéville's Bas Lag books are your starting point, here are a few other novels that might fit your criteria:

The Iron Dragon's Daughter and its sequel Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

The Steam Magnate by Dana Copithorne

The Fall of Ile Rien Trilogy by Martha Wells

If you don't mind books oriented towards younger readers, the Monster Blood Tattoo series by D. M. Cornish has a steampunk feel at times, but set in a fantasy world, with monsters.

Possibly Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams for an SF take, or Mainspring and its sequels by Jay Lake for an extreme alternate history take.

Chad Hull said...

The Iron Dragon's Daughter and Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick are considered steampunk?

Matt Denault said...

Chad, do you think they are less steampunk than China Miéville's books? That's the comment I was responding to, the request for books that had a similar steampunk element yet were "primarily fantasy"--secondary world retrofuturism, if you will.

Larry Nolen said...

I agree that the books Matt mentions do have elements now associated with steampunk in them, just in a clearly alt-world setting. Plus, it helps that they are quite good.

Chad Hull said...

Matt, I haven't read anything by Miéville so as to that I can't comment. Yes, I think you are correct in your suggestions considering previous comments but I think Swanwick wrote The Iron Dragon's Daughter in 1995: long before the word steampunk existed. (I may be wrong.)

I just cringe to see something placed into a genre after the fact for convenience; which admittedly isn't necessarily what you did.

I don't think I've read anything that was admittedly "Steampunk." Only I didn't associate the genre tropes with Swanwick when I read his novel. So it could be merely my own ignorance; which I've heavily indulged as I have some innate, unexplainable aversion to what I think steampunk is.

Chad Hull said...

Larry, you say it well but I'm not sure "now associated with" carries the same meaning as "a steampunk piece of fiction."

Regardless of genre--genre appellations being a purely marketing term--four of the five books I've read that Matt list are indeed amazing.

quinden said...

The term steampunk was probably coined in the late 80s (I think it was K. W. Jeter?), so it's technically possible that The Iron Dragon's Daughter could have been categorized as steampunk. However, I recall it being categorized as an "alt-fantasy" or "revisionist fantasy" when reviewed (at least when it was initially published).

Matt Denault said...

Since I have Google at my fingertips, I typed in "iron dragon's daughter steampunk" and came up with Dave Langford's review from 1994 that labeled the setting "steampunk-like." So no after-the-fact categorization going on here! ;)

(Although I'd also argue that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with categorizing after the fact; sometimes a critically useful trend may only become apparent after the fact. And the earliest books in any given category are almost always brought into that category after the fact, because the category wouldn't have existed before they were published.)

But Chad, I know what you mean. It's just that "steampunk" is used in so many different ways by so many different people, and has already had at least one certain definitional shift (from the delight in the 19th century setting of Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates, to the deliberate anachronism and fetishizing of Victorian technology in Gibson/Sterling's The Difference Engine), that I simply tend to use the term however the person I'm responding to used it. It's a case where there's no consensus definition, so I feel it's better to ease communication rather than to manufacture misunderstanding.

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