Often as not, Steampunk is defined by its gadgets, the Heath Robinson machinery that runs on (predictably) steam, but also clockwork and gaslight and various other mechanistic means. It's also airships and infernal weaponry and mechanical men (robots to you and I) and it's the dress, the buttoned-down Victorian fashions, long skirts and stiff suits, tops hats and sideburns, leather aprons, pith helmets and a decent pair of boots. But beyond all that frippery - and there's a lot of frippery - it's about adventurers, men and women pushing the boundaries of what is known, about new discoveries and about living at the edge of science and technology and in this way it's not dissimilar to the world we live in which, I think, is what makes it so appealing. It's demure dotcom, it's mobile with manners.
I say this because one of things that this anthology does is try to define exactly what Steampunk is through a collection of stories and excerpts, all of which are available elsewhere, and three essays, none of which really hits the nail on the head in any meaningful way. I say this now because it may be that the genre has moved on and become much more mainstream in the last couple of years and I may be missing something but more likely it's because, even now, no-one is really sure how to define this most appealing of subgenres.
I won't go over every story in the book but I'll mention a few specifics; we start the collection with 'Benediction' an excerpt from Michael Moorcock's 'The Warlord Of The Air' who's pitched aerial battle between huge airships is about as in-your-face as steampunk gets. Unfortunately, being a snippet of a much larger work, it does nothing beyond the action of the piece and so doesn't serve as much of an introduction to the collection, begging the question why bother?
I'll admit I found some of the stories hard to read, not that they were badly written, far from it, but they are a product of their time and the writing style is more stilted and flows less than a contemporary reader may be used to. This is probably why the lighter entries, the ones that bring the fun, are the ones I enjoyed the most like Paul Di Filippo's 'Victoria' in which a scientist genetically engineers a newt into a woman with the Queen's likeness but with a voracious and willingly experimental sexual appetite. Following the disappearance of the monarch, the Prime Minister utilises the stand-in while a search is conducted and wild shenanigans ensue that shed wonderful new light on the conduct of Queen Victoria just before taking up the throne. Another delightful tale is 'The Selene Gardening Society' by Molly Brown which has a group of Victorian gentlewomen pushing their husbands in pursuit of making the moon habitable in order that one of their number can reclaim her garden from her inventor husbands' experiments that are ruining the landscape. It has all the hallmarks of a Wildean comedy of manners and the ending is fabulous.
On the slightly darker side I enjoyed Jay Lake's 'The God Clown Is Near' about a flesh sculptor that takes a high paying job that both intrigues and terrifies him in equal measure and has to find a path between keeping the money and unleashing his creation. I also enjoyed 'A Sun In The Attic' by Mary Gentle which is set in a matriarchal society and poses questions about the worth of progress with a very feminist slant and also 'Seventy-Two Letters' by Ted Chiang which uniquely melds Kaballistic magic and steampunk science to look at the moral and ethical dilemma of the use of Golems.
The rest was a bit hit and miss for me. Some of them were okay like 'The Giving Mouth' by Ian R. MacLeod, a rich fantasy about the effects of industrialisation on rich and poor alike that read okay but left me empty, and others were just not very good like the improbably named 'The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel' by Joe R. Lansdale, a gratuitous mishmash of sadistic violence and anal rape completely devoid of any reason to waste ink.
The final story, Neal Stephenson's "Excerpt From The Third And Last Volume Of Tribes Of The Pacific Coast" features a battle in a shopping mall and some nanotechnology that seems descended from steampunk. While it loudly proclaims itself as a fine introduction to the publishers cyberpunk anthology 'Rewired' it actually does a pretty good job of pointing out the similarities of the two subgenres of steampunk and cyberpunk but whetehr it truly fits i this anthology is questionable.
As for the three essays, it's fair to say that they turn up nothing that couldn't be found on numerous websites or via Wikipedia, which is disappointing, but of the three 'Introduction: The Nineteenth Century Roots of Steampunk' by Jess Nevins which tells of the rise of the genre is perhaps the most interesting. Nevins begins with the 1970's rise of steampunk then charts the oft overlooked roots that can be found in 19th century dime novels and goes on to cite elements which can be found in Edgar Allen Poe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne amongst many others, deliberating over the very American 'Edisonade' adventures and the English 'Steampunk' stories. 'The Steam-Driven Time Machine: A Pop Culture Survey' by Rick Claw offers some insight into the steampunk aesthetic and its infiltration across multiple entertainment formats away from just books and into movies, music, fashion, TV and technology, while 'The Essential Sequential Steampunk: A Modest Survey Of The Genre Within The Comic Book Medium' by Bill Baker does exactly what it says on the tin. A lack of comic book knowledge precludes me from commenting further.
Having reached the end I'm not sure that this anthology really defines steampunk for newcomers to the subgenre and for me, it's too disparate, lacking in a common theme or thread to make that happen. I suspect it would find a much happier home for those already familiar with steampunk's quirks and looking for a kind of 'greatest hits' that they can dip in and out of at will, and I think it serves that purpose admirably. Having said that, when it shines, it really shines, and for that reason I'll make a point of giving the new volume a try - probably in another eighteen months.
Steampunk is published by Tachyon Publications and is availale from Amazon, Blackwell and all good book stores.
Jeff Vandermeer has a website.