'Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution'
edited by Ann
It's taken me a few months to get around to reading the third steampunk anthology edited by Ann VanderMeer and published by Tachyon Publications -- apparently I'm not the only one; after more than six months, it has yet to receive a single reader’s review on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com -- but it was worth the wait (mostly).
For the first time, Ann VanderMeer is solo editor of the project. (Her husband and frequent collaborative editor Jeff VanderMeer is represented by a short story, “Fixing Hanover,” reprinted from Extraordinary Engines, the anthology that reintroduced me to steampunk.)
The premise of this anthology is to show the breadth of steampunk, both conceptually and geo-politically. It's a shame that it decides to open with one of its worse stories, Carrie Vaughn's “Harry and Marlowe and the Talisman of the Cult of Egil,” which would have been right at home in the Hot & Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance anthology; it has little plot and some stereotypical airship romance. It's an interlude, not a story, and not terribly interesting unless you're into Harlequin romance novels.
It improves greatly from there, and -- with only a few exceptions -- I thoroughly enjoyed the vast majority of its more than two dozen stories. “The Effluent Engine” by N. K. Jemisin could also have easily appeared in Hot & Steamy -- and would have been by far the best story in the anthology if it had (it originally appeared in Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories) -- except that it is good. It has actual steampunk/alternate history elements that are pertinent to the story and a romance.
Among the stories that I didn't like were Catherynne Valente’s “Mother Is a Machine” (maybe it’s me; I can’t make head or tale of what the story is about) and “The Stoker Memorandum” by Lavie Tidhar (not as incomprehensible as Valente's story, but also needlessly obtuse; Les Lezards do not grow more tolerable or appealing to me upon further acquaintance).
The anthology also attempts to stretch the definition of steampunk, sometimes in ways of which I don't approve.
“To Follow the Waves” by Amal El-Mohtar is a fine story, but I’m not sure it is steampunk. El-Mohtar defends the story against such charges in “Winding Down the House: Towards a Steampunk Without Steam,” one of four nonfiction articles in the book, but it isn't what the story lacks (as she points out, there are better uses for water in the desert than making steam) that makes me question its inclusion, but what it possesses.
The technology and fulcrum about which the story revolves are crystals that capture a dreamer's dreams, allowing others to re-experience those dream compositions a few times. It’s an interesting concept, but it doesn't approach the alternate technology that steampunk represents to me. It’s more like a fantasy, and a good one. (Longtime readers of this blog know I don't usually approve of supernatural elements in steampunk.)
Perhaps it has alternate history elements that made the author feel it qualified as steampunk -- at least two editors have agreed with her -- but in the essay she makes a telling admission: she wanted it to be steampunk because steampunk is/was popular. That’s not a good enough reason.
Other standouts include “Study, for Solo Piano” by Genevieve Valentine (set in the universe of her novel Mechanique); “An Exhortation to Young Writers (Advice Tendered by Poor Mojo’s Giant Squid)” by David Erik Nelson, Morgan Johnson, and Fritz Swanson; “Beatrice” by Karin Tidbeck; “Fixing Hanover” by Jeff VanderMeer; and “Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix.