Extraordinary Engines : the definitive Steampunk Anthology, ed Nick Gevers pub Solaris 2008

‘The Definitive Steampunk Anthology’ according to the front cover and title page. Being a bit pedantic, you can’t really call an anthology of new stories a ‘definitive collection’ as that phrase would generally be held to be only approriate to a collection of previously published stories which, brought together, could claim to be a definitive collection (such as the VanderMeer’s ‘Steampunk’ collection). The back cover states that ‘this anthology collects a vibrant and electic range of Steampunk-inspired stories…’ : so are they Steampunk stories? Or Steampunk-inspired?

Gevers provides a short introduction to the sub-genre (you can imagine him wanting to write much more!), touching on the Victorian era literature on which a lot of steampunk draws, and more recent milestones such as ‘The Difference Engine’ by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.

James Lovegrove. Steampunch.

Lovegrove gets the story off to a great start in the telling of a story to a young man recently disembarked from his long journey to a penal colony. He is taken under his wing by a gentleman who relays his own story and fall from grace. Steam-driven robotic boxers no less, and the legend known as Steampunch who became undisputed champion in the London of his day. It’s a well-told tale, moves smoothly and with authenticity. The twist in the tale, as the pair stand on the red dust of the penal colony, is an added pleasure.

Marly Youmans. Static.

Youmans provides an altogether different setting, a vivid description of a Victorian society dominated by that all-pervasive static electricity that can threaten death through lightning even on a trip to the vegetable plot. With a touch of the Gormenghasts about it, we follow a young girl, whose inheritance is threatened by a singularly unpleasant elderly relative.

Kage Baker. Speed, Speed the Cable.

In contrast, Baker’s story does little to provide a setting that is much different to Victorian society and technology – a transatlantic telegraph cable is to be laid : that is, if those who oppose it can be prevented from sabotaging the work. The story certainly has the feel of a Victorian story in terms of pacing (slow) and dialogue (lots of it), and as Baker has done before, the climax is built partly through actions being described by one of the characters, rather than being seen. There’s a surprising revelation in the closing paragraph as to the identify of one opponent of the technological advances.

Ian R. MacLeod. Elementals.

A Wellsian tale in which a young gentleman propounds his discovery of a new Theory of Elementals. His friend watches him descend into a downwards spiral as his obsession with these new forces cause him to build ever-greater scientific contraptions in his basement, and to lose track with his friends and family. The story builds to a climax when the forces he has discovered come to the aid of his friend in an unexpected manner.

Margo Lanagan. Machine Maid.

In the outback of Australia a new wife is discomfited by her husband’s -ahem- demands and depredations. She remains tight-lipped of course, but finds that she is not alone in being subject to his carnal desires. The robotic domestic servant is a very human-like creature – certainly more lifelike and attractive than a domestic appliance would need to be. But there is a reason for this, as she finds out when her husband is away on a business trip. The maidservant, Clarissa, has some programmes which very are very much aimed at meeting the needs of the master of the house. With growing horror, the wife investigates the extent of her functions, and decides that with a bit of tweaking of code and hardware, her husband will learn the errors of his ways and find that he has bitten off more than he can chew (or to be more precise, to find that he has had bitten off more than the maid can chew).

A treat to see the way Lanagan cleverly and subtly infers, rather than details.

James Morrow. Lady Witherspoon’s Solution.

Victorian morals are explored in a nicely structured story which starts with the discovery of a journal and a tribe of seemingly prehistoric males. It transpires that a certain secret society of ladies are endeavouring to rid men of their more beastly traits, and are in fact despatching those who have been through their processes to the remote isle. One young woman is unable to resist that which appears to be on offer, but having temporarily tasted the benefits, is reduced, with her lover, to a more base level of existence.

Keith Brooke. Hannah.

A scientific discovery that it is possible to grow from a small amount of DNA, a larger volume of the person from whom the sample was taken, appears to be a boon to forensic policy work. However, there are of course tempations beyond the pursuit of criminals.

Adam Roberts. Petrolpunk.

Roberts gives even fuller-rein to his imagination than most, in creating an alternate London, ruled over by a seemingly immortal Victoria. She has called a halt to all underground working in her Empire, but it is whilst escaping a stamped in central London by means of a warren of tunnels, that the protagonist begins a journey that takes him into the Palace, to find out the truth about his Empress. Confronted by an alter-ego, a series of quantum-alternate Earths are brought clashing together, with the pursuit of petroleum in one realm being a major issue.

Robert Reed. American Cheetah.

Reed transposes steampunk to the American West, and has an unlikely showdown between an automaton with the brain of Abraham Lincoln, standing up for, and alongside, townsfolk bearing down on whom are similar automata, metallic hosts to the James and Younger boys.

Jeff VanderMeer. Fixing Hanover.

Somewhat less steampunky than most stories in the volume. In a coastal village a man with a hidden history is perturbed when the head of an automaton washes up on the shore. The ex-partner of his lover wants him to fix it, and he is in no position to refuse, even though he suspects that by re-animating the robot he may be jeopardising his new identity and his new life. True enough, the robot is indeed the herald of his undoing, as once operational, it can fulfil its role as a beacon to draw those from whom he has escaped back into their fold.

Jay Lake. The Lollygang Save the World on Accident.

A vast mechanical, steampowered tube, created by engineers from bgyone years, is home to a vast number of people, living out their lives in their part of the colossal structure. The Lollygang are one group of ne’e’r-do-wells, living on the fringes of society. When some old technology comes into/onto their hands, they have an opportunity to use it as leverage for their group. Amongst the adventure there’s some intriguing background and neat touches that give the world that is created a substantial feel to it.

Jeffrey Ford. The Dream of Reason.

The volume closes with a story more marginal to the theme than most. Fortunately, it’s a Jeffrey Ford story, and it’s a good one. A chalk-faced coiffured scientist believes that the stars may be diamons, and that matter may simply be light slown down, and on that basis begins experiments to prove his theory. He travels far and wide, and begins one experiment which attempts to harness the power of the brain to slow down light – an experiment that goes tragically wrong for his associate, and which results in his own melancholy downfall. It’s an inventive and rich story, but at best only steampunk-inspired.

Conclusion.

An excellent collection, with only a couple of weaker contributions. A couple are more fantasy than steampunk, but there is high quality writing throughout and a couple of stories that linger (Youmans, Lanagan and Lake) for some time.

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