Friday, August 3, 2012

Steampunk Shakespeare!

Review: The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes
and the Magnificent Ionic Pentatetrameter:
A Steampunk's Shakespeare Anthology
Edited by Matthew Delman and Jaymee Goh
(Doctor Fantastique Books)

Cover from 

     I hadn't planned to review this anthology because -- full disclosure -- I submitted a story to it that was rejected, and because I've taken issue with co-editor Jaymee Goh's vituperative criticism of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (see “All Wound Up”).
     The problem is that nearly three months after the book's release, I haven't found any reviews of it anywhere, in print or on the web. There aren't even any reader reviews on or Barnes and
     Since no one else has stepped up, I have. Just bear in mind that while I think I'm being honest and fair, I'm also a rejected contributor.
     As the title post suggests, the curiously titled Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes is a steampunk Shakespeare anthology, that is stories that are steampunk versions of (or at least inspired by) the works of William Shakespeare, plays and sonnets. According to the guidelines for submissions:

     This is not intended to be a series of mash-ups, like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, but rather re-inventions of the classic Shakespearean stories and sonnets. You are free to adapt Shakespeare’s language and themes to a Neo-Victorian setting as you will, but unlike the typical mash-up, you don’t have to include every line of original text from your chosen play or sonnet.

     The title is interesting, but it doesn't immediately suggest “steampunk Shakespeare,” and that may be part of the reason the steampunk blogosphere hasn't latched onto it. While it shows up in an search for “steampunk Shakespeare,” it doesn't on Barnes and Even on, a search for “steampunk” alone buries it on page 24 by “publication date,” and deeper still by “relevance.” As it has a very limited print run (it's mainly e-book and print-on-demand; my copy looks like it may have been made by the Espresso Book Machine), it's not likely to be encountered in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, so a more steampunky title might have helped.
     The cover is equally nondescript, depicting a (I suppose) Victorian-clad William Shakespeare, but one wearing a monocle (it's refreshing that it eschewed the steampunk cliche of goggles, but a monocle doesn't seem steampunky).
     If you get past the cover, the interior has more errors than I would expect (although that's a problem shared by most books these days, small press and major publisher), such as backward apostrophes, dashes that impale the two words they are meant to separate, and occasional missing words or words running together. In steampunk scholar Mike Perschon's introduction, the citation for one of his two sources -- of which he was the author -- gets the source's publication citation wrong (he says it was from the Sept. 2011 Locus magazine; it was actually Sept. 2010, a “steampunk” special issue).
     These are errors of carelessness, of inexperience (this is Doctor Fantastique's first book), of encroaching deadlines, but not insignificant for a 250-page paperback which retails for $20.
        As for the prose content, the anthology contains 10 stories (also nine sonnets, but I won't be reviewing them). The guidelines said of the story titles:

     We’d prefer inclusion of Steampunk elements in the title of each story, i.e. “Othello, The Half-Machine Moor of Venice” or something similar. 

     I took that to mean that the titles of the stories were not only supposed to incorporate a steampunk element but also a variation on the title of its source, so it would be immediately clear upon which work each was based. Most do, but some don't:
  1. “The Tragic Tale of King Lear’s Wonders” by Jennifer Castello
  2. “Measure for Steel-Sprung Measure” by Rebecca Fraimow
  3. “The Malefaction of Tybalt’s Mechanical Armature” by Tim Kane (based on Romeo and Juliet)
  4. “Julius C-ZR” by Bret Jones
  5. “Much Ado About Steam Presses: A Scandal of Minor Importance” by Ruth Booth
  6. “Leo’s Mechanical Queen” by Claudia Alexander (based on The Winter's Tale)
  7. “The Misfiring Love Piston of Sir John Autumnrod” by Larry C. Kay (based on Henry IV, Part Two
  8. “What You Fuel” by Jaymee Goh (based on Twelfth Night, or What You Will
  9. “A Midsummer Night’s Steam” by Scott Farrell
  10. “Richard, Dismantled” by Jess Hyslop (based on Richard II)
      The guidelines also address the issue of what the steampunk additions to the stories should do:

     We prefer stories where Steampunk elements and themes are thoughtfully applied to Shakespeare’s works. Do not simply throw automatons into Hamlet or Steampunk technology into Richard III; consider how such technological changes may reinterpret the original stories. Saying it another way: What new insight will your Steampunk version of Shakespeare bring to the Bard’s original works?

     So I'm disappointed that some of the stories just seem to ape Shakespeare's plots and dialogue with a little bit of steampunk thrown in. In most of The Omnibus of Bill Shakes, apparently nothing changes but the props.
     Another problem I have is that most of the stories are not complete stories in and of themselves. I didn't expect each story to retell the entire play, but if they are only partial adaptations, then shouldn't they be self-contained segments? Too many of them just ... stop.
     The guidelines for the anthology also included this suggestion:  

     We also welcome interpretations with queer characters, characters of color, non-heteronormative relationships, characters with disabilities, non-Eurocentric settings and other traditionally marginalized narratives in mainstream fiction.

    That guideline could have been written by Goh. It's certainly in harmony with her desires for steampunk. Her own story, however, doesn't take advantage of that suggestion (although a couple of the others do). Why?
     My favorite story by far was “A Midsummer Night’s Steam” by Scott Farrell, because it used steampunk to retell Shakespeare's basic plot in an entertaining way that was steampunk science fiction and told a complete story (almost the complete story).
    In second place, “Much Ado About Steam Presses” retold that play from the point of view of Don John who, in this version, has a reason beyond malice for his actions. It's not the whole story, leaving off before John's machinations are undone (if they are undone in this version, although he seems to think they will be), but it's a satisfying chunk.
     “Leo’s Mechanical Queen” by Claudia Alexander is almost as successful, and one of the multicultural stories (set in an alternate Louisiana that was never sold to the U.S. by Napoleon, and with a Creole/voodoo culture), with almost but not quite enough of the play to make a satisfying stand-alone story.
     “The Malefaction of Tybalt’s Mechanical Armature” by Tim Kane also almost works, setting the duel scene from Romeo and Juliet amid the post-American Civil War and recasting the reason for Tybalt's hatred of Romeo. I liked what there was of it, but it seemed too chopped off. I wish Kane would retell the whole play in this setting at length.
    The other six stories have their moments, but are ultimately more disappointing than successful. “The Tragic Tale of King Lear’s Wonders” by Jennifer Castello had a good idea: Lear as a steam inventor and ruler, whose daughters Regan and Goneril wage steampunk war over his kingdom with their own inventions (airships and tanks). I think Cordelia is a steampunk creation herself. But the story isn't effective at this length, or perhaps the writing isn't as good as the steampunk concept.
      “Measure for Steel-Sprung Measure” had an intriguing deviation from the original -- instead of death, Claudio is faced with being turned into a steam android, his brain condemned to exist without  food, sleep, touch or most other human experiences, while his sister, Isabella, is voluntarily doing something similar as a variation on entering the convent -- but it's only a scene and has no payoff. 
     “Julius C-ZR” features a slightly cyborgized Cassius seducing Brutus to kill an almost completely roboticized Caesar, but aside from the introduction of these prosthetics and steam powered chariots, nothing else seems to have changed. 
     I had high hopes for “What You Fuel” by Jaymee Goh, despite the lame title. Goh does come up with an intriguing, if underdeveloped steampunk idea: men get steampunk augmentation that is coal-fired and are thus independent, while women get clockworks that need to be rewound. But after that, the plot seems a random collection of scenes from the play.
     “The Misfiring Love Piston of Sir John Autumnrod” by Larry C. Kay, set aster the American Civil War,  features a thinly veiled Falstaff surrogate named Autumrod (Fall-Staff, Autumn-Rod -- get it?) opposite Grant's Prince Hal. But Grant is not an anointed crown prince upon whom Lincoln can bestow the presidency, so the conceit doesn't really work. And, despite the jokey title, it's a deadly serious story.
     Finally, “Richard, Dismantled” by Jess Hyslop is more of a character study than a story. It's chief difference from Shakespeare is that the king not only wears a crown, but an exoskeleton that is screwed and bolted into flesh and bone, so abdicating takes a bit more time and is physically painful. Interesting, but I'd have preferred the concept in a story not constrained by its tenuous connection to Shakespeare.
     To my mind, this anthology is a less successful steampunk version of Shakespeare than a stage production that adds steampunk props and costumes but doesn't change the text at all. At least that is fun and maintains the integrity of Shakespeare's language.
     The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes is an interesting experiment and attempt to do something new with steampunk and Shakespeare, but it mostly fails.


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