Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader

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Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader
Edited by Mike Ashley
Foreword by Paul di Filippo
Nonstop Press, Tpb, Oct. 2010, $15.95

“Mr. Broadbent’s Information” by Henry A. Hering
“The Automaton” by Reginald Bacchus and Ranger Gull
“The Abduction of Alexandra Seine” by Fred C. Smale
“The Gibraltar Tunnel” by Jean Jaubert
“From Pole To Pole” by George Griffith
“In The Deep Of Time” by George Parsons Lathrop
“The Brotherhood of Seven Kings” by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace
“The Plague of Lights” by Owen Oliver
“What The Rats Brought” by Ernest Favenc
“The Great Catastrophe” by George Davey
“Within An Ace Of The End Of The World” by Robert Barr
“An Interplanetary Rupture” by Frank L. Packard
“The Last Days of Earth” by George C. Wallis
“The Plunge” by George Allen England

Reviewed by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Nonstop Press’ Steampunk Prime is the best anthology I’ve read so far this year.  Ironically, all of its stories were written in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century and saw print in various pulp magazines of the time.  Marred only by bad copyediting, Steampunk Prime is worthy of a read by anyone who’s a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and especially the steampunk genre. Disclaimer:  I am a huge H. G. Wells and Jules Verne fan, which these stories reminded me of.

The majority of the fourteen stories in this volume are rich, with great color and characterizations.  Not all of them engaged me as much as the others, but together they provide a fascinating reminder of what our ancestors anticipated from the future and of a style of storytelling rarely seen today.

“Mister Broadbent’s Information” by Henry A. Hering is the tale of a metal man who escapes its owners’ home and seeks refuge with a successful author named Broadbent in early 20th century London.  Weaving tales of horror, including tortures and abuses by its former owner’s assistant, the metal man has chosen to flee and avoid a similar fate.  When the owner, Baxter, comes looking for his lost property, Broadbent defends and protects the metal man.

The tale provides an interesting early imagining of mechanical men as they might exist in Victorian England.  A great opening salvo, so to speak, for the anthology. Hering does an excellent job at building the tension and evoking a sense of urgency in readers as well as developing well defined characters with a minimum of words.  Recommended.

In “The Automaton” by Reginald Bacchus and Ranger Gull, we get the tale of a conman named Greet, who arrives in London with his automated Chess-playing machine.  Stuart Dryden, England’s leading chess player, is urged to challenge the automaton and a match arranged.  As Dryden prepares for the match, he learns information about the automaton and Greet which throw their claims in doubt and raise his suspicions.  He determines to reveal the players for what they really are.

With a surprising ending, the story unfolds at a good clip and keeps the reader interested from start to finish.  Again, well drawn characters, although likely to seem to many readers now as familiar stereotypes (they weren’t then), and good plotting.  Recommended.

“The Abduction of Alexandra Seine” by Fred C. Smale is the tale off Bowden Snell, newspaper photographer, who is involved in the case of a girl’s abduction by a young man named Arbuthnot, an acquaintance.  As he learns the details, he begins to suspect the girl has a special relationship to himself and the two set about to rescue her.

Well written, I still found this one a little rushed.  I thought the story reached its conclusion a little quickly, wrapping complicated matters up a bit too neatly with too little effort.  Still, an enjoyable read.

“The Gibraltar Tunnel” by Jean Jaubert is the tale of James Harward, who finds himself on a train through a tunnel linking Europe with Africa when his warnings of problems with said tunnel go unheeded by the company leadership.  Also on board is a woman he loves. When his fears become realized and the train is put in danger, Harward acts heroically to save the train and his love.

Well written, compelling, the story reminds me of many action movies, including the recent Unstoppable. It’s a race against time and ignorance to save people from imminent disaster which results from a company’s emphasis of image and profit over soundness of design.  Thoroughly enjoyable.  Recommended.

“From Pole To Pole” by George Griffith tells the story of Arthur Princeps, a successful business man, whose mentor, Professor Haffkin, enlists him to fund a journey to Antartica, where they will ride a special ship through the center of the Earth from South to North Pole.  As they prepare for the journey, despite the incredulous reactions of friends and colleagues, Haffkin’s niece, on whom Princeps has long had a crush, determines she must go along and reveals her own passion for Princeps.  The three together embark on a harrowing adventure.

Well paced, with interesting science and characters, this story is a good read and entertaining.  It’s style reminded me in some ways of Princess Bride, although it is not a comedy, because it contains such memorable lines as “And so was said the most momentous ‘Good Night’ that man and woman had ever said to each other since Adam kissed ‘Good Night’ to Eve in Eden.”  Cheesy, yes, but entertaining nonetheless.  Recommended.

“In The Deep of Time” by George Parsons Lathrop was a weaker entry.  Lathrop, the son-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne, spins the tale of Gerald Bemis, a young 19th Century man, who is frozen inside a cylinder coated with collodion and hermetically sealed, preserved until his extraction in the 22nd Century.  Upon his arrival, he discovers that the girl he pined after was also preserved and has fallen for him.  Unfortunately, he takes more of an interest in Electra, ward of one of the Three, leaders of the experiment.  Soon thereafter, the first visitor from Mars arrives, and they embark together on a journey to rediscover the Earth.  In the process, a love triangle develops which brings danger from Electra’s jealous suitor and Gerald finds his life at risk.

This story, although certainly ambitious and interesting with its future view, felt a bit unfocused to me.  It seemed to wander around with its plot, as if it didn’t know what it was trying to be.  It seemed to start out as a story about one thing and wind up a story about another.  It was also long and could have benefited, in my view, from tightening as well as focus.

“The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings” by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace is the story of the kidnapping of a widowed artists’ daughter by a wealthy Englishwoman  under the influence of a dangerous cabal leader known to the protagonist, Head, an investigator who sets out to find the child and solve the crime.  

In many ways reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who also found himself dealing with a secret world-controlling society in many stories, the story is told in the first person so effective for these kinds of mysteries, with elements unfolding in pieces and leading to a surprising scientific conclusion. Recommended.

Owen Oliver’s “The Plague of Lights” is one story which didn’t seem particularly steampunk to me.  The story of a plague of alien lights in 1906 which attach themselves to victims and induce panicked attempts at removal. Our unnamed protagonist finds himself trying to avoid a similar fate while also seeking to rescue his lover.

Good sense of tension and mystery here.  There weren’t really any typical steampunk elements, other than a Victorian setting, and no major science is presented inappropriate to that setting.  The ending was a bit unsatisfactory with no real effort by the protagonist to bring it about.  But enjoyable and an interesting view of alien invasion from early last century.

Ernest Favene’s “What The Rats Brought” is a depressing tale about a 1919 plague in Australia often spread by rats.  The steamer Niagara is found in perfect condition but abandoned by her crew and brought into port by the unsuspecting captain of another ship.  When journals are discovered mentioning a plague and the ship’s embarkation point is identified as Southern Asia where a devastating plague is known to be occurring, both ships are quarantined, while an investigation occurs.  Then the rats on the Niagara are seen headed for shore, and soon Port Jackson’s inhabits find themselves fighting the plague.

A depressing story with no real satisfying conclusion, the story is well written and fascinating for getting inside the mindset of a writer who lived during that time as to how such events were regarded, but offers not much more reward than that.   The weakest story in the anthology by far.

One of the shortest stories in the anthology, “The Great Catastrophe” by George Davey is a tale of a great disaster in London caused by electricity. Written at a time when pessimism about such technology ran rampant, it’s the tale of a green fire which besieges the world’s cities to tragic consequences.  It ends with a  bit of a cliffhanger, rather an indictment of the dangers of electricity.

Well written and certainly a compelling story which pulls you inside the experience of survivors during such a disaster, it still left me unsatisfied, because events seemed to unfurl and carry the characters along at their mercy with no ability of the characters to stop them. 

Robert Barr’s “Within An Age At The End of The World” is the tale of an effort by a coalition of wealthy investors to create a Great Food Corporation and manufacture the world’s food supply using the free nitrogen of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Set in 1899, the plan unfurls despite the skepticism of some in the population and leads to bad consequences for the planet as the nitrogen supply is affected.  

The story presents an interesting science, and asks important questions about scientists tampering with natural elements without much forethought to future consequences.  It’s short but well-paced and ultimately satisfying, despite serving almost as an object lesson or warning.  Recommended.

“An Interplanetary Rupture” by Frank L. Packard tells the story of a colonized solar system wherein Earth and Mercury find themselves in dispute and go to war.  Set in 3102, this short narrates the tale of how the war began and how it ends with the defense forces of the other planets combining against the rebellious Mercury.  Interesting in its absurdity, due to complete lack of any science, the story is almost too short to be truly effective and reads more like a news report than a dramatic tale.  As such it left me unsatisfied and I found it one of the weaker entries here.

“The Last Days of Earth” by George C. Wallis is the tale of a man and a woman chosen as the last survivors of a holocaust on Earth.  Set in 13,000085 A.D., a new Ice Age has decimated the Earth’s population with the man and woman chosen as the ideal specimens to find a new planetary home and repopulate the Earth, preparing pods of a special Red Metal developed as their vehicles to sail off into the Universe on their mission.   

A pessimistic story telling of how man’s ambition and greed had led to the destruction of man’s planetary habitat, the story is bleak and depressing and the characters are not particularly well developed.  I found the story less satisfying than many of the others, despite its richness in steampunk elements.  Interestingly, Wallis is the only author featured here who was a regular contributor to the speculative fiction magazines of the 1930s and 1940s.

The anthology ends with the solid “The Plunge” by George Allen England, an action adventure tale of an airship which finds itself in trouble after a storm. As people fall to their deaths around them, author Norford Hale and heiress Jeanne Hargraves cling to each other for dear life.  Hale devises the idea of jumping off wearing life preservers to save them from the depths of the Pacific Ocean waiting below.

With lush descriptions of the airship, and two well-developed protagonists, the tale moves at a fast pace and really captures the experience well, involving the reader in the experience of our heroes.  Dramatic and compelling, this fine story ends the anthology on a high note, with a literal bang.  Recommended.  

Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader, Edited  by Mike Ashley
Nonstop Press, Tpb, Oct. 2010, $15.95