Monday, November 01, 2010

Book Review: Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

I’ll be upfront: I’m not a big fan of steampunk. Which isn’t to say that I dislike it, but rather it’s a concept that’s foreign and never piqued my interest. So an anthology like Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded doesn’t automatically impress me due to its subject matter or its editors.

Having said that, I find this book to be a strange beast. First is that this is a sequel. I didn’t get to read the original Steampunk so I have no idea what was covered there, but this anthology seems to pick up from what was supposed to be tackled there so the basics on the definition/history of steampunk isn’t thorough here, although it still touched upon for unfamiliar readers like myself. Because of this, the fiction more than the non-fiction (neatly located at the end of the book) speaks for the sub-genre.

The second point I want to highlight is the book design. Now the books of Tachyon, while elegantly laid out, has a certain uniformity that’s evident to anyone who’s bought more than a few of their titles. Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded remains (edit:) is not faithful to the house style, although there is some deviation, which is more than welcomed in this instance. Scattered throughout the book are fictional tidbits that elicit the steampunk mood: ads, notes, and portraits.

When it comes to the stories themselves, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer does a combination of reprint and original stories. The editors succeed in delivering steampunk-themed stories that are quite diverse in their subject matter. For example, if I encountered “The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson or “Wild Copper” by Samantha Henderson elsewhere, I wouldn’t immediately peg them as steampunk, although in restropect, there are steampunk elements in those stories if you assess them with a careful eye. This gives me hope that steampunk has flexibility without being overt when it comes to its sensibilities. Another memorable piece that’s reprinted here is “The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar” by Shweta Narayan. Now what made this story stand out is that initially, it seems to be an Arabian Nights-esque piece peppered with steampunk elements as just an aesthetic. For some readers, a good science fiction story is wherein the science fictional aspect is integral to the narrative and in Narayan’s story, the steampunk element is essential. Which again goes to show the diversity of steampunk, not simply fantasy or science fiction with a different look but a genre with its own unique tropes.

That’s not to say every story here is impressive. There are choices here that while enjoyable, are honestly forgettable or have weaknesses that are evident. “O One” by Chris Roberson for example has a terrific start but the ending, while workable, seems abrupt and I wish the author could have develop this point more. Still, for the most part, I think the editors did a good job. In the original fiction front, “Dr. Lash Remembers” by Jeffrey Ford is an atmospheric and bizarre piece that could easily have found a place in other genre anthologies like New Weird or Horror. “The Mecha-Ostrich, ‘A Secret History of Steampunk’” by various authors is very different but at the same time what I’d come to expect from the VanderMeers. I give it props for ambition and delivery, but those looking for a more straight-forward narrative might be lost. When it comes to reprints, “Machine Maid” by Margo Lanagan is a story I encountered in the past in Extraordinary Engines and it was a great story back then and it’s still a terrific story now. Sydney Padua’s comic, “Ada Lovelace: The Origin!”, is popular and rightfully so.

The non-fiction isn’t to be ignored. “Which Is Mightier, the Pen or the Parasol?” by Gail Carriger and “At the Intersection of Technology and Romance” by Jake von Slatt are accessible essays. I wouldn’t label them as critical and essential must-reads in the history of steampunk, but they provide breathing room from what came before it. Rounding up the non-fiction is a roundtable interview and this is the real gem of the anthology and while it’s short, gives voice to the possible trajectories of the genre.

I’m still not a convert of the genre, but Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded showcases diverse fiction that I never realized was possible when it comes to steampunk. In that sense, the anthology is a success. There’s enough material here, whether it’s the selections or the design, for the book to be memorable, although those looking for a more formal 101 education about steampunk might fare better with the anthology’s predecessor.


redhead said...

I wasn't much impressed with the first STeampunk anthology, there was too much forgettable fiction in it. This one does sound like an improvement, and I think I'd find the non-fiction articles interesting as well. and I AM a fan of steampunk!

I love Jeff Vandermeer's fiction to peices, but the anthologies he and his wife put together rarely do a thing for me.

Anonymous said...

Eeek! In this case, given that history, if you buy it and you don't like it, ping me and I'll refund your money or give you another book. I say that because I think those who didn't like the first one *will* like this one.



Anonymous said...

Hey, Charles! Thanks for the review. (I should note that the antho is *not* in Tachyon's house style and copiously illustrated to boot, including amazing art from Russian and Serbian artists.)

Redhead--how about if you buy it and don't like it, I refund your money or give you another book. Just ping me if so. (I say this because I do think you'll like this one! Very different from the first one.)


Charles said...

Edited Jeff. Although I did mean to imply that it's different from the norm due to everything you added in it: illustrations and all.