Fiction Reviews

The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures

(2014) Sean Wallace (ed), Robinson, £8.99, pbk, ix + 518pp, ISBN 978-1-472-11061-9


An anthology of mostly excellent tales in the young but highly popular sub-genre of Steampunk.

As expected, there are dirigibles, and or automatons in most of the stories, which work best when they stop trying to be a Victorian / Edwardian James Bond or Lara Croft mission, of which Jay Lakeís 'Benedice Te', and the over-titled 'Green Eyed Monsters In The Valley Of Sky, An Opera'by E Catherine Tobler are guilty.

>Lake has a super-spy sent on a mission to recover a missing cypher, which involves being shot at by his boss (before he has even left the office on receiving his orders), finding an old friend is a double or even triple agent and getting thrown from a South American Monorail. Tobler goes further, retelling Verdiís take on Shakespeareís Othello with additional airships, two robot diva Desdemonas and pterodactyls. Iím sure Verdi would have added those too if he had thought of it first.

Another such highly incredulous saga is 'Harry And Marlowe And The Talisman Of The Cult Of Egil'. Here, an Indiana Jones style adventurer is chased by Icelandic cultic hordes as he liberates their Talisman and escapes with his pilot friend by airship. This is then caught in a slow dogfight with German zeppelins as they struggle to break through enemy lines to bring the Talisman to our shores. However we are never told what the Talisman can actually do, if anything. It is a series of adventures, chases and stunts as a hurrah for the British Empire in a strange alternate history. I found myself wondering what the point might be here.

The effect on such stories is that of a cake with too many ingredients. We get incidents rather than story. The better stories go for simplicity, as with Cat Ramboís 'Ticktock Girl', with its clockwork Suffragette throwing the vilest of men through the doors of a police station.

Ken Liuís 'Good Hunting' shows how Steampunk is often closer to fantasy than science fiction, as a young fairy-folk hunter assigned to destroying them to make a new mechanical World, falls in love with his prey and protects the last of her kind instead.

'Terrain' by Genevieve Valentine, similarly attacks colonialism and the threat imposed by advanced invading civilizations on native peoples. Here it is the Native Americans, aided by Mormons, who have the Steampunk tech, mainly in the form of the Dogs, (actually a kind of robot horse able to climb canyon walls and cope with most prairie terrain). Their invention has come too late though as the railroads are changing the landscape to lay down level tracks and driving out the peoples in their paths. The heroes make a last valiant stand for their own vanishing way of life here and the story actually shines a mirror at genuine history in all its ugliness.

Another story with a political point to drive home is 'The Canary Of Candletown' by C S E Mooney, with its Zola-esque mining community kept going with cyborg-add ons after each crippling, limb removing coal-face accident, ensuring the company loses fewer workers, but the workers lose more humanity as they go. Into the mix comes the human canary girl, for a very dangerous taboo love affair and with her revolutionary spirit unbroken.

Chris Robertson offers the most consciously Steampunk story with 'Edisonís Frankenstein'. When a new miracle liquid renders electricity redundant, Tesla quits science for science fiction, while Edison goes rather more Mary Shelley about his own future.

Caitlin R. Kiernan offers 'The Collierís Venus' (1893) where a woman is found alive in coal rock that has been buried deep for millions of years. Those who touch her tend to die, but the hero boffin just has to see her for himself to believe she is real. The titular Venus is more siren than Goddess but it is a terrific work anyway.

The best story for me by far here is Tony Piís 'The Curse Of Chimerie', about silent movies in colour causing audiences to cry blood due to a demonic curse on the celluloid Ė the trio of heroes, cop, gumshoe and leading actress, make a great team deserving of more adventures.

Some stories rework well known fairy tales and myths, as with A C Wiseís 'A Mouse Ran Up The Clock', which is a superb take on the Jewish Golem legend.

Another wonderful story is Cherie Priestís 'Tanglefoot', where a lonely orphaned boy in a sanatorium builds his own best friend from spare parts left by a dementia suffering professor who forgets what he was trying to invent next. When the mechanoid turns evil, it is up to the boy, Professor and lady so crazy she is locked up separately to everyone else to save the day, but who will believe their wild claims?

I also loved Margaret Ronaldís 'The Governess And The Lobster' about a liberal minded Governess sent to find out if children she is to supervise, Mary Poppins style, will require a school education, given that robots do most of the work anyway. Her discoveries and the real importance of the barely mentioned in asides mechanical lobster is a great surprise awaiting the reader.

There is great diversity here, and though a few stories fall flat for me, the ones that work are often exceptional.

Arthur Chappell

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