Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories, by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (eds)

Steampunk cvr

Steampunk is a flexible concept but, while Steampunk! is an entertaining enough anthology, some of the stories surely exceed the general understanding of what can be considered to fall within its boundaries.  Even so, editors Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant have done a reasonable job in coming at steampunk from an angle which looks at other possibilities than a concentration on a parallel Victorian England (though you can’t get away from it completely), and included a high proportion of female writers.  The quality is patchy, suggesting a limited choice when making their selection, though one would have thought that a relaxed view of the genre would have allowed a greater pool from which to choose.  The following are brief notes on each story.

 

‘Some Fortunate Future Day’, by Cassandra Clare

A young girl alone in a rural house during a national conflict of some kind has only robot dolls for company.  Her loneliness is brought to an end when she finds an injured soldier who had fallen from an airship and crawled into the garden.  She nurses him, harbouring romantic feelings which she thinks are reciprocated, expecting him to take her with him when he returns to the capital.  Her father had invented a device to turn back time, and when she discovers he is not in love with her and is about to leave on his own, she uses the time device to try again – with the assumption that, Groundhog Day-like, she can keep at it until she gets the result she wants.  The story generates an eerie and unsettling atmosphere but its shortness is unsatisfying.

 

‘The Last Ride of the Glory Girls’, by Libba Bray

This also hinges on a time manipulation device, though it only goes back a few minutes.  A version of the Wild West on a distant planet is the setting for an all-female gang of outlaws who rob trains by enveloping them in a bubble where time stops.  Unfortunately the device has stopped working and the gang are looking for someone to repair it.  A young girl with mechanical expertise escaping her fundamentalist Christian community is apprehended by the Pinkertons for a misdemeanour and offered the choice of jail or being recruited to go undercover, infiltrating the gang so they can be caught red-handed.  She agrees, is picked up by the gang and repairs the device, but then she goes native and helps with the robberies.  Eventually the Pinkertons catch up with her, but she has a last trick up her sleeve and helps her compadres escape.  She turns down a job with the Pinkertons, and still has possession of the device.  There is much backstory about her upbringing which tends to drain the story of its potential excitement and it has an unrealistically optimistic ending – in real life the heroine would have been banged up in chokey for assisting fugitives.

 

‘Clockwork Fagin’, by Corey Doctorow

The setting is a Canadian institution – Saint Agatha’s Home for the Rehabilitation of Crippled Children.  It houses those who have been mutilated in industrial accidents, of which there are many thanks to lax health and safety, presided over by a wicked overseer, Grinder, who exploits and abuses his charges.  One day a lad made of sterner stuff than the other inhabitants arrives and when he receives the standard greeting, does no more than stick a sharp knife in the horrible man’s chest.  But can the children keep the place going on their own without being caught?  With the aid of some machinery and trickery they can, turning Grinder into a puppet operated by the kids to fool the outside world.  But how long they can keep it up without adults finding out is another matter.  It’s a neatly told fantasy of children learning that they can rely on each other, and they fare better than they had before.  You don’t expect horrible things to happen in Canada, which adds further to the strangeness.

 

‘Seven Days Beset by Demons’, by Shawn Cheng

A comic strip looking at the life of a toymaker who falls in love with a woman who is already in a relationship, told over seven days, with his changing emotions charted in terms of the seven deadly sins.  It’s neatly executed but is notable for the conceit rather than the story and doesn’t linger in the memory.

 

‘Hand in Glove’, by Ysabeau S. Wilce

A noirish riff on the Hand of Orlac, a female cop has up to date ideas based on the work of ‘Bertillo’ (ie Alphonse Bertillon) but is derided by her stick-in-the-mud department.  A series of murders has been committed for which an indigent is to be executed.  She thinks he is innocent and sets out to prove it, which means she has to find the murderer.  The trail leads to a weird laboratory with a talking chimpanzee and a woman creating a Frankensteinian creature.  If that sounds silly, it is rather, and not particularly steampunk by any definition.

 

‘The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor’, by Delia Sherman

A feisty young woman lives in a country village on the Welsh borders. Nearby is a large empty manor house.  A new baronet moves in with his collection of automatons, but he is penniless and the vultures are circling for his remaining assets.  Can the woman, taken on as the housekeeper, save the day?  With help from the ghost of an ancestor who had hidden a large amount of treasure before being murdered in the Civil War she has a fair chance.  This could be the first-ever story in which a ghost is able to interact with the world by inhabiting a robotic figure.  In classic steampunk style Queen Victoria puts in an appearance at the end – and is amused.

 

‘Gethsemane’, by Elizabeth Knox

Clearly inspired by the eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique in 1902 but set for some reason in the South Pacific, the only element that marks this out as steampunk is an airship, which really isn’t enough.  A young outcast woman is regarded as a witch, and is attended by a ‘zombie’ (she actually has cataracts)  There is also a boy sailor kept company by an elderly black man, love potions that are just placebos, and rather dim geologists who are drilling boreholes close to the mountain’s crater prospecting for steam to drive turbines.  Not a lot else happens until the volcano erupts and all hell breaks loose.

 

‘The Summer People’, by Kelly Link

A teenager, Fran, has a debilitating bout of ‘flu, which is a problem because she and her father make a living looking after ‘the summer people’ and he has got one of his periodic bouts of religion which has taken him off to a meeting in Florida.  It’s down to her to take care of them, ill or not.  Fortunately, she is cared for by a new friend, recently arrived in town after a lesbian scandal at her previous school, and Fran introduces her to the summer people.  Not to their faces though as they are reclusive and it quickly becomes apparent that they are strange, perhaps not of this earth.  Like faerie folk they give gifts, but expect something in return, and can be tricksters if in the mood.  They certainly have peculiar powers, not least the ability to communicate with Fran by telepathy, and it seems that the females in Fran’s family have taken care of them for generations.  Furthermore, once one is working for them it seems that the only way to stop is to pass on the responsibility to someone else.  Fran was dumped with it by her mother, who promptly left home, now she aches to see foreign parts herself.  It is easy to see where this is heading, drawing on elements of Let the Right One In and the curse in ‘Casting the Runes’.  It engages the attention but it’s hard to see that it qualifies as Steampunk, rather being an uncanny story, as its possible inspirations suggest.

 

‘Peace in Our Time’, by Gareth Nix

A short entry, qualifying as science fiction rather than Steampunk despite the references to ‘clockwerk’.  It’s the future, or another world, in which an old man living in retirement in a remote area receives an unexpected visitor.  He is accused of having committed genocide by employing a weapon of mass destruction, and is executed by his accuser after some chat about it.

 

‘Nowhere Fast’, by Christopher Rowe

An eco-warrior’s dream.  After some unspecified catastrophe in the future, America has run out of resources and gone back to what they can do with renewables and salvage.  The infrastructure has been destroyed so the population has broken up into small communities having virtually no contact with each other.  National government is represented by the ‘Federals,’ an outside force possessing limited powers at a local level.  Decisions affecting the town are made by a council whose members are drawn by lot.  Cycling is big, whereas anything run on fossil fuels is verboten.  So when a youth turns up in a car from distant parts you can bet a lot of the townsfolk are going to be pretty vexed.  Well the older ones are; some of the younger ones can see that there is more to life than the district in which they are destined to live and die.  The car, being illegal, is destroyed, but there is at least one person who sees that the verdict was unjust and offers to help rebuild the machine.  It’s a relatively positive view of a post-apocalyptic world – at least they aren’t eating each other – but the equation between small community and small mindedness is clearly drawn.  The irony is that the car is run on vegetable-derived oil while the mechanical horses ridden by the Feds are powered by coal, which is less environmentally friendly.  As with some of the other stories here, the Steampunk element is peripheral.

 

‘Finishing School: A Colonial Adventure’, by Kathleen Jennings

This is the second graphic short story in the volume.  Set in colonial Australia, two girls are pupils in a boarding school.  Considered charity cases and outsiders, they are banished to the top of the building.  Dirigibles rule, but the uncle of one, who had run the school, had been convinced that heavier-than-air flight is feasible, sadly dying in the attempt to demonstrate it.  The uncle’s gear is still in the loft and one of the girls is determined to prove that the aeroplane is achievable.  The setting is novel but the material feels thinly written.  Good punning title though.

 

‘Steam Girl’, by Dylan Horrocks

The new kid in a school with a lax dress code is an outsider sporting leather jacket, flying helmet and goggles.  She makes friends with a boy who is equally treated as an outsider, his main leisure occupation being computer games.  They bond, though he finds her difficult to read.  She spins adventures stories about Steam Girl who travels with her father around the solar system in an airship.  Inspired by her example, he produces a story about Rocket Boy.  Together they transcend the limitations of their dull town through the power of story telling, but are her stories yarns, or, despite the obvious borrowings from 1930s science fiction serials, autobiographical, the story of how she came to be trapped in a different dimension from her own through the machinations of her wicked mother?  She does have these gadgets, though they don’t work very well in this reality.  It transpires that her father is nothing like Steam Girl’s, and her fantasy is compensation for her difficult circumstances, but her story has given her, and Rocket Boy, the confidence to face adversity.  A heartening story for nerdy unpopular kids everywhere.

 

‘Everything Amiable and Obliging’, by Holly Black

This is a steampunk version of Victorian London (which makes the introduction’s claim that the stories are set in a variety of placed but definitely not Victorian London somewhat puzzling).  The daughter in an upper-middle class household, Amelia, falls in love with her dancing master; so far so clichéd, but the twist is that this one is a robot.  Father is furious because he needs her to marry well in order to rescue the family fortunes (damaged by his gambling debts of course) and a robot doesn’t cut it.  The philosophical issue is one that has been well rehearsed in Star Trek: The Next Generation with discussions of Data and emotion.  Can a robot’s feelings be sincere if it has been programmed to do what its owner desires?  Can a human really love a machine?  Amelia gets her way, but as the narrator (sometimes Sofia, sometimes Sofie) is fortunately an heiress and her feelings towards Amelia’s brother are reciprocated, it looks like dad won’t face social embarrassment after all.

 

‘The Oracle Machine’, by MT Anderson

The best story in the book, it tells a Steampunk version of Marcus Licinius Crassus and his ill-fated expedition against the Parthians, allegedly translated from Mendacius’s (a nice touch) True Histories of the Roman Inventors.  It shows how he achieved much of his staggering wealth, by extorting money from citizens whose houses are on fire by charging vast sums to put the conflagration out with his flying vessels.  Marcus Furius’s father refuses to accede to Crassus’s demand when his house is ablaze, and at the age of 10 Marcus Furius loses both parents and his sister in the inferno.  He becomes an engineer and two decades later builds a machine, the stochastikon, which is a proto-computer (not a million miles from Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in design but far more sophisticated) which can foretell the future accurately by interpreting information of past events, plus cultural and biographical information, fed into it.  This he offers to Crassus for his forthcoming military campaign in the Middle East.  Crassus is keen to gain an edge as he is in competition with Caesar and Pompey for popular acclaim and the portents from the conventional soothsayers he has consulted have not been promising.  But what is Marcus Furius’s motive and is it a subtle way of seeking his revenge for the loss of his family?  It transpires that Crassus is on to Marcus and makes a pre-emptive strike, but fails to realise that the inventor has included examples of irony from literature in the stochastikon’s programming, so when Crassus gets an affirmative answer to the question whether he should attack the enemy, things turn out precisely as the prediction said they would, but with a totally different outcome to that Crassus has assumed from his reading of the prophecy.

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