BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An appetizing anthology of 12 steampunk stories.
PROS: 10 good stories; 3 of them outstanding.
CONS: Two stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: A good anthology and the perfect scratch for your retro itch.
Steampunk is sexy. Call me silly (OK, call me deranged) but there’s something I love about it. It tickles a retro itch like nothing else can. Enter Extraordinary Engines, an anthology of twelve steampunk stories to scratch that itch.
Like many themed anthologies, there’s a certain amount of personal awe at how each author approaches the topic. Besides the obvious differences in plot, each author tweaks the stories by varying the dials to language, setting, and scope. What results is a fresh set of stories that does not overdose the reader. Because of this variance, some stories feel more like steampunk than others, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not enjoyable anyway. Extraordinary Engines is a good anthology and the perfect scratch for your retro itch.
The standout stories in this anthology were:
- “Elementals” by Ian R. MacLeod
- “Machine Maid” by Margo Lanagan
- “Fixing Hanover” by Jeff VanderMeer
Individual story reviews follow…
James Lovegrove’s “Steampunch” is a second-person narrative by Starkey, a long-time resident of a penal colony planet who recounts to a new arrival the glorious days of Steampunch, a giant steam-powered robot. Steampunch successfully fought battles with other robots and Starkey, one of his handlers, gives the new arrival not only the rise and fall of Steampunch, but an interesting glimpse into a cool, steampunk future. Lovegrove’s conversational prose lends much to a story built mainly, and successfully, on coolness factor.
“Static” by Marly Youmans depicts an alternate world where static electricity permeates the air, kept at bay by steam pipes. Some people can foresee future events in the static, including a young girl named Estelle, who is sequestered away in the home she will one day inherit. When her great-Aunt (an Evil Stepmother) dies, Estelle is under suspicion by the authorities and hopes to be cleared by a member of the Static Society. It seems like there is some interesting world building going on here, yet is it never clearly explained. Without knowing exactly how this world worked (which would have added so much), all that is left is a minor murder mystery without any real sense of importance since the victim was evil and the investigation is only marginally pursued.
Kage Baker’s Victorian steampunk story “Speed, Speed, the Cable“ fits into her milieu of Company stories, though in a minor way. It shares a character, Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax, and a clandestine society to ensure the proper course of history – in this case, the laying of a Transatlantic Cable. What would otherwise be a standard story of spies, ulterior motives and double agents (if such a thing could be considered to have a standard, that is) turns into something much more substantial as Baker uses the event as a parallel to the effect of the Internet on copyright infringement.
Ian R. Macleod’s “Elementals” is equal parts science fiction and fantasy. He presents a Victorian era in which an enterprising young man (James Woolfendon) harnesses the intangible energies of city life into creating elemental spirits. One of the required ingredients is belief and Woolfendon finds it in the story’s narrator. Macleod perfectly captures the Victorian flavor with this story as we follow the narrator’s association with Woolfendon and particularly his journey through decline and resurrection — which not only asserts the existence of Elementals, but serves as a metaphor for the important things in life. Well done.
“Machine Maid” by Margo Lanagan is something Isaac Asimov’s evil twin would have written if he lived at the turn of the century. In this daring and edgy story, an Australian rancher’s wife discovers that her husband’s mechanical maid is capable of far less cleanly acts. Despite some occasional cumbersome verbiage, there’s no denying the wonderfully creepy mood of the story, the complex portrayal of the wife (who abhors not only women’s secondary place in society but the “beastly” marital relations that it dictates), and the final comeuppance-with-a-twist. Good stuff.
James Morrow’s “Lady Witherspoon’s Solution” is somewhat burdened by the language it uses, no doubt owing to its accuracy depicting 1899 writing. The diary-within-a-diary story deals with lost worlds, uplifting and a group of ladies who act as vigilantes against the most vile of men. The introduction labels this as satire, and it is, but I couldn’t help wishing it held my attention better.
Keith Brooke manages to create a believable turn-of-the-century forensic medicine mystery with his story “Hannah,” in which a Doctor manages to clone someone from blood and skin samples found at a murder scene. As enjoyable as this story was, I could not help but think that this “Steampunk: CSI” crime could have used a little more mystery; but was glad to see the author approach the quandary of medical ethics.
“Petrolpunk” by Adam Roberts is a satirical steampunk story that is at once a response to the viability of steam power, a commentary on environmentalism and the evils of oil conglomerates and, as a sometimes-bonus, meta-fiction. The protagonist (a writer named Adam Roberts) lives in a steam-powered London where mining (and especially the drilling for oil) is strictly prohibited by the Queen, whose immortality may be more than just a label. (In another stroke of met-fiction genius, Roberts is joined by his editor, Nick G., as in Gevers – the editor of this very anthology – who is also constantly referred to as the editor of The Nineteenth Century and After, a real world anthology edited by Gevers. Got all that?) Roberts and his editor meet a mysterious figure named Sir Cheech Pettison who challenges the benefit of steam power when the compound required to make it energy efficient is poisonous. (Take that, steampunk!) Pettison’s leads the party (which also includes a Lord) underground to a feisty finish about halfway through the story, whereupon a science fictional twist throws the story in an entirely new direction. Roberts (our author, that is) manages to successfully juggle all of these story elements admirably, at least until the end when additional meta-fiction predilections don’t quite deliver on the greatness that came before it.
The simplest way to explain “American Cheetah” by Robert Reed is to say: Robot Abraham Lincoln vs. the Jesse James gang in the Old West”, but to do so would be to trivialize the characterization of Lincoln. The automaton is one of many built to help Lincoln hit the campaign trail and who subsequently became the sheriff of a small town. In this alternate history, Sherriff Lincoln experiences dreams and, through a largely-unexplained Dream Catcher device, maintains the memories of the real Abraham Lincoln. The main dramatic thrust comes from a bank holdup, in which Lincoln goes up against a robotic gang of thieves. It sounds corny, perhaps, but is nonetheless lots of fun.
Jeff VanderMeer’s “Fixing Hanover” is about a man hiding from his past in the community of Sandhaven. He finds the remains of a mechanical man washed up on the beach that may be a link to his mysterious past, and is ordered to fix it by Blake, the community’s leader. Blake harbors ill-will towards our esteemed handyman narrator, since his mate, a sea captain named Lady Salt, was once with Blake. The beauty of this story is not only the dramatic tension caused by this triangle, but also by the way details emerge about the world; about the dangerous Hill People and the Empire from which they all hide. This is one of those stories that reveals different layers of enjoyment and leaves you wanting more. Well done.
In “The Lollygang Save the World on Accident,” Jay Lake paints a steam-driven world in which the residents live in a huge, one-mile-diameter pipe divided into many different levels. The protagonist, Per, is a member of the Lollygang, a group of youngsters that use automated, mechanized gloves attached to their arms through needles. The gloves cannot be controlled; they act according to their programming, presumably created by the unseen builders of the pipe. Lake’s “Big Pipe” world, built as a world experiment, is intriguing despite going largely unexplained. It’s a setting that has potential for many more adventures beyond this one, in which Per must assert himself to the other members of the gang.
In Jeffrey Ford’s “The Dream of Reason,” a truly mad scientist named Amanitas Perul believes that stars are made of diamonds and that matter is light slowed to a standstill. He embarks on a years-long experiment to prove that he can slow down starlight enough that it becomes diamond dust. Although Perul’s final discovery leaves a little to be desired, his inevitable and obsessive descent into madness is fascinating to watch.