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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Monday, March 02, 2009

Steampunk edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

Steampunk edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-892391-75-9

This sub-genre-driven collection contains a brief preface by the editors, a more detailed introduction by Jess Nevins, in which he traces the roots of the genre in areas that are probably relatively unfamiliar even to most modern practitioners, and concludes with two bibliographical essays, the first of which lists instances of steampunk in modern culture, including online on the Internet, in gaming, especially role playing games of the D&D variety, on TV and in film, and the second of which surveys “the genre within the comic book medium.”

In between are 13 steampunk stories, the first and last of which are excerpts from larger works. Their copyright dates range from 1971 to 2007. So what is steampunk, exactly? Basically, it's science fiction set in the Victorian age, with marvelous machines, often (but not nearly always) steam driven, and frequently alternate universes or worlds in which such advanced technologies existed in an earlier era than in ours.

The Jess Nevins introduction describes The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling as “still the finest expression of the genre yet written,” an assessment with which I must sincerely agree. The Difference Engine is a must read for anyone interested in science fiction at all, and is canonical within the sub-genre. It's quite simply a wonderful book, not to be missed.

As to the rest of the examples provided here, well, I could live without many of them. They offer sometimes intriguing, sometimes less than intriguing views of various steampunk universes. There were many entertaining moments along the way as I read my way through this collection, but no epiphanies, no discoveries of writers or stories so amazing or wonderful that I felt compelled to seek out more of the same.

If, on the other hand, steampunk is your thing, you'll find much to admire here. I think my favorite stories were Michael Chabon's “The Martian Agent, a Planetary Romance” and Stepan Chapman's “Minutes of the Last Meeting,” although the both had (in my view) unsatisfactory endings. The first just sort of trickles off (one charitably assumes it's just the first part of a much larger saga), and the second ends altogether too dramatically, in a denouement that makes the entire story up to that point an exercise in futility.

Still, this collection is recommended for anyone interested in exploring this fascinating, albeit (in my view) ultimately dead-end sub-genre within the larger science fiction universe.

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