Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded

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Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded

Edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

(Tachyon Publications, October 2010)

“The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson
“Great Breakthroughs in Darkness” by Marc Laidlaw
“Dr. Lash Remembers” by Jeffrey Ford
“The Unblinking Eye” by Stephen Baxter
“The Steam Dancer (1896)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan
“The Cast Iron Kid” by Andrew Knighton
“Machine Maid” by Margo Lanagan
“The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe” by Ramset Shehadeh
“The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar” by Shweta Narayan
“O One” by Chris Roberson
“Wild Copper” by Samantha Henderson
“The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond” by David Erik Nelson
“Lost Pages from the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana” by Jess Nevins
“Tanglefoot” by Cherie Priest
“A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret Ronald
“The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday” by G.D. Falksen
“The Persecution Machine” by Tanith Lee
“Balfour and Meriwether in the Adventure of the Emperor’s Vengeance”  by Daniel Abraham
“As Recorded on Brass Cylinders: Adagio for Two Dancers” by Lisa Mantchev & James L. Grant
“Lovelace and Babbage: Origins with Salamander” by Sydney Padua
“Flying Fish (Prometheus)” by Vilhelm Bergsoe (translated from Danish)
“The Anachronist’s Cookbook” by Catherynne M. Valente
“The Mecha-Ostrich, ‘A Secret History of Steampunk’” by The Mecha-Ostrich

Reviewed by Joseph Giddings

On the heels of the successful Steampunk anthology published in 2008, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer return with yet another volume of great tales, artwork, and curiosities that fill the genre known as steampunk.  A beautiful tome with a “ray gun” on the cover beckons you closer, and upon opening the pages you find yourself engrossed in goggles, top hats, dusters, and airships.

Inside of this book you will encounter not only great stories from well-known authors of steampunk and speculative fiction, but also artwork, and in one case, a comic.  All serve to draw you into the genre and the time frame, immersing you in Victorian, Edwardian, or just plain fantastical realms of fiction.

Mostly a reprint collection, there are a few new pieces of fiction contained in these pages that warrant a close examination.

The first new story encountered is “Dr. Lash Remembers,” by Jeffrey Ford.  A chilling tale about a doctor who must administer to the people of London as a strange new plague overruns the city.  Stories of fanciful visions meet his ears, and he runs into someone who finally reveals to him what the new plague comes from.  The pages melt away as you read this story, racing through it as you wonder how the doctor will help administer to the people who have fallen to the dementia that comes along with it.

Overall, a good story, though the narrative does lose you from time to time and forces you to reread a few passages here and there.  This does not detract from the overall experience, though, and at the end you are wide-eyed in shock as you realize that the doctor walked right into what he hoped to avoid.

The next piece of new fiction is “The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe,” by Ramset Shehadeh.  We are immediately thrust into a world that seems like the nineteenth century, but we quickly find that it’s a strange alternate reality where cities exist in bubbles and steam trains travel between them through causalities and rifts in the space-time continuum.  Told from the perspective of several different people, we find that the protagonist is here only to live in someone else’s shoes for a while, hoping to gain his own goal in this strange and violent world.

Definitely a story for any steampunk fan. Though be warned that its strangeness may turn off those who prefer a more standard Victorian setting.  The story itself is well told and lacked anything to distract the reader from the story.  The protagonist, in his unusual state, can be a bit confusing, since it’s two people inside of one, but it comes across well and I feel adds to the strangeness of the story.  Also a good read for a general science-fiction fan, as the setting would work for any speculative fiction genre, not just steampunk.

Another new work enclosed in these pages is “Lost Pages from the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana” by Jess Nevins.  An interesting read in that it’s an excerpt of lost pages from her book.  The topic of interest here is “Steam Engines,” and the story goes into great detail about the creation, use, successes, and failures of many steam driven devices over the years.  All of it pertains to their function in war, and the bloody and brutal consequences of their usage.

Despite it being interesting and filled with a lot of technological goodness, I found it hard to keep my attention focused on it for too long.  If you are looking for a story with characters and a plot, then you will be disappointed.  Instead, you get exactly what it is, an encyclopedia entry.

The last piece of new fiction work in this book is the piece entitled “The Mecha-Ostrich, ‘A Secret History of Steampunk,’” penned by The Mecha-Ostrich.  A collection of copies, leaflets, and other varieties of pieces of text from various sources, all collected together and sent to Steampunk Magazine, all put together in narrative format, detailing first the creation of the first steam powered ostrich, along with its confiscation by the mysterious person known simply as S.  Despite its destruction, proof that it was made is contained herein, and despite its destruction, has been remade in today’s world, and it tells it own tale.  In addition, snippets of stories and press releases confirm or deny this story in great detail.  A portion of this collection of information relates back to Ford’s tale “Dr. Lash Remembers,” with references to “Dr. Lash” and the “Prisoner Queen.”

A brilliant piece of work, fascinating in its construction and its link to steampunk and the stories we have come to know in these pages.  A bit hard to follow in places and a bit disjointed at times, though.  I enjoyed this a great deal, but I had to stop reading through the collected items a few times to get my head clear enough to continue.  I consider this to be a fun ending to the stories in this book, not something to miss.

Pieces of this story were contributed by Matthew Cheney, John Coulthart, Rikki Ducornet, Fabio Fernandes, Felix Gilman, L.L. Hannett, Albert Robida, Ekaterina Sedia, Angela Slatter, Brian Stableford, Ivica Stevanovic, and others.

The other works within this book deserve mention as well, and many of them are fine pieces of steampunk fiction that excite the imagination and stir the senses.

“The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson starts this book off with a taste of his unique style, showing us where the style of ‘ray-gun gothic’ originated from.

“Great Breakthroughs in Darkness” by Marc Laidlaw.  A strange tale told like a section from a glossary of terms used in photography, but the author interjects a tale within its lines, following the mad quest of a scientist to capture pictures of that which hides in the dark.

“The Unblinking Eye” by Stephen Baxter.  I found this story to be one of the ones that really stuck with me, as even days after reading it, I could recall it from memory.  What if the earlier explorers on Earth had no stars to navigate by?  What would have happened to the world as we know it today?

“The Steam Dancer (1896)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan.  A topic of interest to me, the replacement of human limbs with those made of metal, clockworks, and steam, I was fascinated by the story, but felt rather unsatisfied with its ending.

“The Cast Iron Kid” by Andrew Knighton.  Old west style steampunk at its finest.  A gunfighter made from metal and clockworks, designed never to lose, may finally meet his match.  This story is a quick read and a fun tale to boot.

“Machine Maid” by Margo Lanagan.  Reaching into the realms of the disturbing, we find this story.  A woman, disgusted with her husband, discovers a secret about the robotic maid in her home.  After careful study, she makes some modifications, and we get to see its results.  Dark, macabre, and well worth reading.

“The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar” by Shweta Narayan.  This story is based on a South Indian tale, and tells us that greed can outshine form and function, and ruin that which we desire most.  A great story.

“O One” by Chris Roberson.  Not all stories are about people who welcome their new clockwork replacements.  In Roberson’s Chinese story, the head mathematician for the Emperor sees his possible future-being replaced by a machine.  How he deals with this challenge is a page turner, keeping the reader aching to know how he fares against a large, steam-driven calculator.

“Wild Copper” by Samantha Henderson.  An unexpected treasure.  Set in the displaced faerie court of Oberon and Tatiana, we follow a human girl as she attempts to barter her freedom, and then learns the awful truth about time in the realms of the fae.

“The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond” by David Erik Nelson.  This story didn’t appeal to me as much, since it involved some undersea creature in a land crawling shell being on land.  It is told by a drunk as he staggers the streets, and is heard by a boy hiding in the bushes.  Not really a story I could get into.

“Tanglefoot” by Cherie Priest.  True to her style, Ms. Priest brings us a tale of clockworks and terror, with the idea that even a machine can possess a soul, even a displaced one.  One of the better stories in the book, worth a read by fans of horror and steampunk.

“A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret Ronald.  Fantasy steampunk, telling us of the journey of an airship to an isolated land, where people and animals are merged with machines, and the grim realization that industrialization, in all forms, will spread despite efforts to stop it.

“The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday” by G.D. Falksen.  A fun story that pokes fun at our dependance on the internet, and introduces us to a new form of communication, called tit-tatting, which smacks highly of Twitter.  Except this is in print form.  Who is behind some of these anarchy-supporting messages, and can you handle the truth?

“The Persecution Machine” by Tanith Lee.  Dark, unusual, and interesting.  People only see what they want to believe, and if you tell your story to enough people, eventually someone else will see that large machine, too, and will understand why you are so twisted in your mind.

“Balfour and Meriwether in the Adventure of the Emperor’s Vengeance” by Daniel Abraham.  A grand adventure story, Balfour and Meriwether are employed to find out what happened to a Lord who opened a sarcophagus in a locked room in the British Museum.  We were the first mechanized society?  Far from it, they learn, as they must face a monster of clockwork proportions.

“As Recorded on Brass Cylinders: Adagio for Two Dancers” by Lisa Mantchev & James L. Grant.  This is a moving story about two people, one having given up their heart, the other still in possession of it, and the fateful day when they meet again, a hundred or more years later.  Can human emotion overcome clockwork parts and brass cylinders?

“Lovelace and Babbage: Origins with Salamander” by Sydney Padua.  An excerpt from the webcomic Lovelace and Babbage, it shows the creator’s intent and humor in turning Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage into crime fighters.  You can see more at

“Flying Fish (Prometheus)” by Vilhelm Bergsoe (translated from Danish).  The oldest story in the book, this comes from Danish author Vilhelm Bergsoe, translated into English for possibly the first time ever.  In this early example of steampunk (although when originally published in 1870, it was a clear piece of science-fiction, maybe even science-fantasy), we explore the concept of flight in a large airship modeled after a flying fish.  Hard to read in places, but well worth the time spent at the end.

“The Anachronist’s Cookbook” by Catherynne M. Valente.  Despite the author’s distaste for the genre, Ms. Valente manages to capture the spirit of steampunk, and turns it on its ear, following the tale of a Jane Sallow, someone who rails against the Machine and Steam and Men who Run the World.  A strange tale with a hint of space-faring to the Moon and Mars.  Hard to follow in places, but worth a read, nonetheless.

In addition to all of these fine fiction offerings are also two articles, one from Gail Carriger, titled “Which is Mightier, the Pen or the Parasol,” and another from Jake von Slatt, titled “At the Intersection of Technology and Romance.”

All in all, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is a great collection of stories, art, and non-fiction.  The VanderMeers have, once again, captured the essence of the genre and cast it into a book that is well worth the price paid at the bookstore.  This book is a must have collection for fans of steampunk and those who love a dark, rousing tale of what could have been.

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded
edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Tachyon Publications, October 2010, $14.95