The first thing to notice about Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories, out now from Candlewick Press, is that it's edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. If you're unfamiliar with those names, or know them only as authors, take a look at their Small Beer Press, which consistently publishes some of the finest speculative fiction around. Their names on the cover guarantee we are in for genre-bending work and high-quality writing. Sure enough, this anthology plays with the notion of steampunk, stretches it beyond the limits of what that word typically means, and uses it as a springboard for assembling a terrific assortment of great reads. The main title of this book may be the eye-catcher, what with the exclamation point attached and all, but it's the subtitle that clues you in to what you can expect: Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories.
The book is described as "the first major steampunk anthology for young adults" and it definitely works as a primer for young readers new to the concept, but there's plenty in here to surprise even us jaded types who are well steeped in the genre. The term has become popularized in recent years, but steampunk by any other name has been going strong for a long, long time. Over that time, many derivative cliches have built up around this category of fiction. Steampunk! strips them away and dips straight into the well of true magic that's inspired creators for decades to imagine worlds of fanciful gadgetry and retrofuturist style. It is both an introduction and a deconstruction. Link and Grant have wisely chosen not to fuss over any rigid definitions of what steampunk is — come on, you know it when you see it — and instead have taken a fresh approach to exploring and expanding our ideas of what steampunk can be. The results are fourteen original "visions of the past, the future, and the not-quite-today."
There are new stories by Holly Black, Libba Bray, Shawn Cheng, Cassandra Clare, Elizabeth Knox, Kelly Link, Garth Nix, and Ysabeau S. Wilce, all names that should ring happy bells. Plus here are just a few of my favorites:
"Clockwork Fagin" begins with an Oliver Twist scenario and then turns it inside out. The author of this excellent piece is Cory Doctorow, whom I used to think of as primarily a scientific ideas-driven writer, but who is emerging as a really juicy storyteller, too. As in the Dickens novel, a group of crippled orphans are dominated by a cruel tyrant; but here a plucky new orphan is brought into the mix who quickly turns the tables and empowers the entire crew of kids. The key to their empowerment is the realization that they all have skills as "artificers, machinists, engineers, cunning shapers and makers," and can use those skills to restructure their relationship to society. The story is written in a charmingly stylized voice of yesteryear, but the DIY community ethos it reflects is of cutting-edge relevance to shapers and makers today. (On a side note: the hero's name is Monty Goldfarb, and this positive Jewish marker in a story that references a novel known for its antisemitic stereotypes is a neatly understated extra touch of subversion.)
With humor and spirit, Delia Sherman's "The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor" tweaks the grand romantic tradition of Victorian novels set in ruined, haunted mansions. There is indeed a ghost in this manor, and there are also villains — and wind-up automatons. The narrator is a servant girl whose circumstances will be changed by her encounters with both the supernatural and the mechanical. It's a lovely, funny story with just the right blend of antique milieu and modern savvy.
Another really satisfying read is Christopher Rowe's story "Nowhere Fast." Set in a future post-ecological-disaster Kentucky, it sketches a complex society in conflict with itself. The young protagonists run into oppressive governing forces who are recognizably dystopian authorities; but there are subtler layers of oppression to be found among the good guys, too. The fears that can cause reasonable people to try and hold back progress are given some sympathy here, but the narrative comes down on the side of the younger generation's urge to break free of those limitations, to create and explore exhilarating new possibilities.
"Finishing School," a comic written and illustrated by Kathleen Jennings, takes place in an alternate-history, 19th century Australia where steampunk technology is the machinery of the empire, controlled by the colonial establishment. The main characters are two schoolgirls, both descended from experimental aviators whose challenges to the dirigible's monopoly on the skies were sabotaged or (literally) shot down. The narrator, a wealthy white girl who chafes under the restrictions of a young lady's role, tries to move beyond the domestic sphere while remaining within the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. Her friend, and the heroine of this tale, has stronger impetus to question the status quo; she's the half-Chinese daughter of an Irish outlaw who was killed by the country's most decorated war hero. Following in her father's footsteps, she sets out to prove a functional biplane can be built. It's a welcome anti-nostalgic spin to consider a steampunk story in which airships are the norm, and our world's technology is the fantastic dream that may help move society forward to a better future.
Dylan Horrocks, best known as an Eisner-winning graphic novelist, slips gracefully into the text-only medium with "Steam Girl" — for me, the most heartbreaking story in the bunch. Set in a modern high school, it slowly unfolds the mysterious truths around a girl whose painful history may or may not originate in an alternate universe. If you have any doubts about why steampunk fiction might appeal to a real-world teen with serious real-world problems: read this beautiful story.
Finally, M.T. Anderson pares down the steampunkery to its essence by taking us to ancient Rome, where another empire is flexing its muscles; and he jazzes up some real-life history with a marvelous, terrible invention: "The Oracle Engine."
Look, I've always been partial to a good neo-Victorian aesthetic but I'll be honest, in recent years I've grown pretty burnt out on all those brass gears hot-glued onto hats. Well, bring on the crafty hats, because reading this book has revived my love for steampunk. The stories in here tap all the way down to the source elements that make the genre genuinely exciting: the alternate histories, the weird science, the stylish eccentricity. The action and adventure! The dream of fantastic machines we wouldn't just consume as prefab commodities, but could learn to build for ourselves. And most of all, the idea that inventing something new can change our world.
Steampunk can be, among other things, an ongoing creative historical revision that allows us to dream up scenarios where people find ways, through magical science, to buck the system and assert more power over their own lives. Inherent in the classic Victorian-steampunk model is a certain engagement with imperialist colonialism, and an era of massive social inequalities, facts which steampunk fiction and fashion don't always address. In this anthology, hardly any stories are actually set in Victorian England (which is refreshing). And yet an awareness of empire seems to pervade the book. Many of these characters, wherever and whenever they are, continue to question and challenge problems of entrenched power and class, even if only in their own lives. I would have liked to see these challenges taken even further into marginalized landscapes — more exploration of race, in particular, would have rounded out the anthology with greater depth. As long as one is deconstructing Victoriana, there's room for a lot of work to be done. But the stories in Steampunk! do cover a remarkable range of time and territory, not to mention atmospheres and writing styles. Each of them brings something different to the table. Taken as a whole, it's a hugely fun, smart, energetic read.
A few themes emerge over the course of the book. We see the young and powerless finding their way to self-determination through acts of creation, of building, of developing skills and discovering vocations. If there is any nostalgia here, it is mainly for a moment when the magical and mechanical together might seem within reach. Societies in these stories are rarely idealized; they are broken, imperfect, evolving toward better days. There is a tremendous sense of forward motion and hope for the future. I think readers of all ages can enjoy this book, and I hope it inspires them to go out and create wondrous things.
PIck up Steampunk! via Amazon