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BOOK REVIEW: The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures edited by Sean Wallace

REVIEW SUMMARY: A diverse, eclectic, and fascinating collection of steampunk stories.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Editor Sean Wallace has brought together stories from such writers as Cherie Priest, Ken Liu, Gord Sellar, and others, that push the boundaries of the steampunk genre in new and exciting ways.

PROS: A broad range of steampunk tales that range from fantasy to hard scifi, and folk-tale to alternate-history.
CONS: Grouping the stories into themed sections would have made the similarities and differences among the approaches more apparent.
BOTTOM LINE: A fascinating romp through the steampunk imagination. (And there are pterodactyls. Just sayin’.)

The twenty-five steampunk stories in Sean Wallace’s The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures reveal just how rich and varied the genre can be. From fantasy to hard scifi, historical fiction to diary entries, they show us a whole range of ways to conceptualize and understand our world and many of its alternatives. Included are stories about circuses and mechanical birds, shape-shifters and pterodactyls, “mechanika” uprisings and political intrigue. Oh, and lobsters and golems. You get the picture.

The sheer diversity of this volume comes from authors who’ve either written their story specifically for this book or offered a previously-published tale. From Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Jonathan Wood, and E. Catherine Tobler we get stories written specially for Steampunk Adventures; from A. C. Wise, Cherie Priest, Nisi Shawl, Ken Liu, Tobias S. Buckell, and many others, we have steampunk tales that previously appeared in Electric Velocipede, Subterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons, and other collections of steampunk fiction.

In all of these stories, we see the same basic tension between the human being and the mechanical being, and the different ways in which they love, fight, and merge into one another. Sometimes, a human builds a machine; sometimes, a machine builds another machine; and one time, a human transforms a human-turned-machine into something that can transform itself at will (“Good Hunting”). In this way, the contributors to Steampunk Adventures blur the boundaries between human and machine in unexpected and fascinating ways, drawing on steam technology, historical (or alternate-historical) events, folk tales, and the arts.

One of the most fascinating (to me) approaches to steampunk appears in the alternate-history tales, such as Wise’s “A Mouse Ran Up the Clock,” Priest’s “Tanglefoot,” and Chris Roberson’s “Edison’s Frankenstein.” In each, what we know of Nazi-era Europe or late-19th century America is blurred and shifted, such that we recognize many elements but are invited to consider what might have happened had this or that event turned-out differently. Wise imagines the Lodz Ghetto during WWII, but in her world it contains brilliant tinkerers who have figured out how to fuse living tissue with gears and wheels to produce partially-mechanical mice. These mice then spy on the ghetto’s Jewish inhabitants and report back to the German officers. Priest is similarly preoccupied with a brilliant tinkerer (in this case, a boy who creates his own mechanized version of Pinocchio), but this time we’re in the United States in 1880, where the Civil War has lasted not four years but nearly twenty. It is this twist to history that “driv[es] technology in strange and terrible directions.” In “Edison’s Frankenstein,” Roberson asks us to consider what might have happened had Edison not been successful in promoting his system of electric-power generation. In Roberson’s alternate world, electricity is ignored thanks to a discovery of potentially alien technology from which humans have synthesized “prometheum,” which they use to power their machines.

Other stories bring together elements that we don’t usually consider compatible: for instance, opera and pterodactyls; or mechanical lobsters and governesses (yes, you read that right). In “Green-eyed Monsters in the Valley of Sky, An Opera,” it was as if Tobler reached into my brain, figured out some of my favorite things, and put them all down on paper. You’ve got your dinosaurs, your Italian opera, and your floating cities, all wrapped up in an engaging steampunk package complete with blackmail, intrigue, and a mysterious biologico-mechanical process. Margaret Ronald’s “The Governess and the Lobster” is told in a series of letters between the matron of a school franchise and one of her student/teachers who looks into opening a branch of the school in another city. Yes, the guardian of the children she governs is a multi-limbed mechanical creature, and yes, this world is alien in other ways, but the tricks played on the governess by the children and the governess’s letters are just too classic to be completely strange. It’s like Dickens meets Charlotte Bronte meets steampunk.

While the stories in this anthology take us to alternate universes and other times, they also whisk us around the world. In “The Return of Cherie,” we find ourselves in the Belgian Congo; “The Clockworks of Hanyang” transports us to East Asia; and in “Terrain,” we see the western United States through the eyes of a Native American woman.

It is because of this vibrant eclecticism that I wish the stories had been grouped into thematic sections. This might have helped me more easily compare the ways in which writers exploring the same themes approached their creations from such different angles. And yet, never knowing what was around the corner was a tantalizing experience in itself.

Ultimately, I’d recommend Steampunk Adventures not just to readers interested in the genre, but to any reader fascinated by the threshold between human and machine, and anyone who likes contemplating alternate histories. This was a fascinating romp through the steampunk imagination.

1 Comment on BOOK REVIEW: The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures edited by Sean Wallace

  1. Maybe consider posting your review on amazon as well, it looks like it needs the help.

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