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“Steampunk is a genre for thinkers, and this book proves the point. The stories inside are beautiful, often lyrical, frequently disturbing, always exciting, and occasionally even funny, but they’re also dense, literary, and trusting of the reader to be smart enough to ‘get’ it.”
—New York Journal of Books
“Steampunk fans will want to add this to their personal collections; libraries owning the first volume should round out their holdings.”
“The VanderMeers have, once again, captured the essence of the genre.... This book is a must-have collection for fans of steampunk and those who love a dark, rousing tale of what could have been.”
"This new collection of previously published stories spotlights some of the best short work in the subgenre."
—San Francisco Chronicle
What Is Steampunk?
Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
BY NOW, "STEAMPUNK" has become a somewhat ubiquitous term in the media. Every week, it's the subject of Internet debates. Is steampunk "in" or "out," in good health or staggering toward the junkyard? Is steampunk progressive or reactionary, a movement or "just" an aesthetic tool kit used by a variety of creators in different media? Every week, too, writers for websites and blogs grapple with defining the term, often armed with second- or third-hand knowledge of the facts or the history.
Here are those facts, and that history. Modern steampunk fiction derives at least in part from works by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the 1800s and early twentieth century that featured steam-powered inventions, airships, and (sometimes) mad inventors. These books tended to be somewhat cautionary in nature, with a healthy unwillingness to accept "progress" as always inevitable and good. Some scholars, like Jess Nevins, also believe that the American Edisonades of the 1800s can be viewed as a form of proto-steampunk, although it's unlikely that modern steampunk writers much influenced by these long-out-of-print works, which used steam inventions as a way of visualizing Manifest Destiny through simplistic, optimistic "cowboys-versus-indians" adventures. These adventures sometimes contained the racist overtones common to the times and have not dated well.
How long did it take proto-steampunk to become "steampunk"? Despite several Verne or Wells homages in the early part of the twentieth century, it wasn't until the 1970s that a true Godfather of modern steampunk would emerge: Michael Moorcock, who wrote his Nomads of the Air series over a period from 1971 to 1981. These books feature amazing battles between opposing fleets of airships, along with complex political and military intrigue. The novels were, Moorcock says, "intended as an intervention, if you like, into certain Edwardian views of Empire ... They were intended to show that there was no such thing as a benign empire and that even if it seemed benign it wasn't. The stories were as much addressed to an emergent American empire as to the declining British." In a political sense, then, Moorcock's novels supported Verne's cautionary posture toward the role of technology in the world. They were also intensely progressive, a blistering critique of Victorian Imperialism, and hugely sympathetic to those peoples subjugated by the British.
However, the term "steampunk" was not invented until 1987, when K. W. Jeter coined it to describe his new novel Infernal Devices and previous novel Morlock Nights. In the pages of Locus magazine (#315, April 1987), Jeter wrote, with no little amount of mischief in his tone, "I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term ... like 'steampunks,' perhaps." Jeter along with fellow writers Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (the novella "Lord Kelvin's Machine," featured in our first anthology) spearheaded the steampunk literary movement.
Three years after Jeter's letter to the editor, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published The Difference Engine (1990), which is most often cited as the seminal steampunk novel. It also had more in common with Moorcock's work, in terms of its undisguised insertion of social and political commentary, than novels by Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter. Set primarily in 1855, The Difference Engine posits an alternate reality in which Charles Babbage successfully built a mechanical computer, thus ushering in the Information Age at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. Juxtaposing Lord Byron, airships, and commentary on the unsavory aspects of the Victorian era, the novel's many steampunk pleasures include a vast and somewhat clunky mechanical AI housed in a fake Egyptian pyramid. Sterling and Gibson, like Moorcock, also comment on the role of technology in building empires.
Although other steampunk works were written during this time, the "movement," such as it was, died out or became part of the mainstream of science fiction. Throughout the 1990s and early parts of the aughts, steampunk mostly took the form of comics and movies (for a discussion of such works, refer to the essays in volume one)—and found expression through the nascent steampunk subculture. The subculture riffed off of those movies and comics, the works of Verne and Wells, and the Victorian era itself to create a vibrant fashion, arts, maker, and DIY community. While parts of this community might pay too little attention to the dark underpinnings of true Victorian society, in general it is progressive, inquisitive, and inclusive.
Mostly because of the spark and inspiration provided by the existence of this subculture, more and more writers are once again writing steampunk fiction. However, it's very different from what came before. The books that form the core of the canon from the first wave of steampunk—Moorcock, Jeter, Powers, Sterling, Gibson—are generally a small part of the influence on this next wave of steampunk. This next wave is also largely dominated by women, including Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest, Karin Lowachee and Ekaterina Sedia, and has begun to move away from being purely Victorian or English in setting or culture. In another generation, the true energy behind steampunk may have moved away from Anglo settings and perspectives altogether.
More importantly for the health of this anthology, perhaps, much more steampunk short fiction is being written than ever before in the history of the subgenre. Inspiration for this fiction is as likely to include the novels of manners as Verne and the growing influence of non-Western cultures. The influence of the maker movement is also apparent in what we would call a burgeoning of "steampunk tinker" stories that also speak to the themes of self-sufficiency and DIY aesthetics that permeate the subculture. In short, steampunk has indeed become an aesthetic toolbox useful for a range of approaches.
Within this anthology, you'll find a rich sampling of that toolbox, from the mixing of Indian legend and the maker movement in Shweta Narayan's "The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar" to G. D. Falksen's use of steampunk to satirize our current fixation on the Internet, from Margo Lanagan's brilliant feminist take on automatons, "Machine Maid," to Samantha Henderson's original mash-up of faery and trickster stories in "Wild Copper."
We've also been careful to provide some historically relevant material from before the last decade, including Marc Laidlaw's cautionary tale about the beginnings of photography, and "The Gernsback Continuum," the story by William Gibson that not only presaged the steampunk maker movement but also inspired the steampunk offshoot of "Raygun Gothic." (From Wikipedia: "a visual style that incorporates various aspects of the Googie, Streamline Moderne and Art Deco architectural styles when applied to retro-futuristic science fiction environments.")
Adding additional context to all of these great stories is a delightful and unexpected find: Vilhelm Bergsoe's "Flying Fish," translated here for the first time from the original Danish. "Flying Fish" isn't just an interesting story in its own right, but a great example of protosteampunk from Verne's day and, in its progressive politics, a generally progressive stance, an antidote to the reactionary approaches taken by the Edisonades of that time period.
"Flying Fish" isn't the only original material included herein—there's the 17,000-word "A Secret History of Steampunk" featuring contributions from the likes of Rikki Ducornet, Angela Slatter, L. L. Hannett, Fábio Fernandes, and Felix Gilman. We're also proud to present new fiction from rising star Ramsey Shehadeh's "The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe" and multiple World Fantasy Award winner Jeffrey Ford's "Dr. Lash Remembers."
Finally, essays in the back of the book by Gail Carriger and Jake von Slatt provide more context on the steampunk subculture, with a closing "The Future of Steampunk" roundtable interview giving some glimpse of what steampunk might be like in the next decade.
In short, steampunk is alive and well and manifesting in a myriad of ways. We feel that this anthology provides an essential snapshot of that variety and that energy. Enjoy!CHAPTER 2
"OBADIAH THEREMIN, MD": Say what you will about Dr. Theremin, but there can be no question that the man was a dedicated clinician. Most psychiatrists rely on pills and talk to treat their patients, but since Obadiah saw the most hopeless of cases, he saw no harm in going that extra mile. Postulating that disturbed thoughts, like hot air, tend to rise only to precipitate misery upon their hosts, the good Dr. Theremin fitted himself with a device of his own invention that funneled the offending thoughts through a mysterious centrifuge and directly into his own cerebral cortex where he could process them thoroughly with his own unimpeachable sanity. Offending byproducts would pass harmlessly, he theorized, out of the handy faucet he implanted in his left ear, or could be simply exhaled with his pipe smoke—simple! In addition, those plagued by tortuous indecision could present their quandary to him at which point one or the other side of his forked beard would curl slightly at the tip, providing the querent with a definitive response. Meanwhile, his patented MoodO-Meter hummed eerily on his desk, its needle spinning wildly to indicate his patient's current state. Okay, it's true that he was eventually committed himself, the protective goggles he swore by notwithstanding, but among the seriously deranged, he remains a legendary favorite.
Art & text by Ramona Szczerba.CHAPTER 3
The Gernsback Continuum
WILLIAM GIBSON is the author of several iconic works of fiction, including the novel Neuromancer and the short story collection Burning Chrome. He also co-authored the classic steampunk novel The Difference Engine with Bruce Sterling. More recent works include Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History. "The Gernsback Continuum" first appeared in Universe 11 in 1981. Gibson's use of the term "raygun gothic" has been used to describe an offshoot of the steampunk aesthetic exemplified by such movies as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! The term has also been used by maker Sean Orlando and his crew, creators of the Steampunk Treehouse, to describe their latest installation, a retro-futuristic rocketship.
MERCIFULLY, THE WHOLE thing is starting to fade, to become an episode. When I do still catch the odd glimpse, it's peripheral; mere fragments of mad-doctor chrome, confining themselves to the corner of the eye. There was that flying-wing liner over San Francisco last week, but it was almost translucent. And the shark-fin roadsters have gotten scarcer, and freeways discreetly avoid unfolding themselves into the gleaming eighty-lane monsters I was forced to drive last month in my rented Toyota. And I know that none of it will follow me to New York; my vision is narrowing to a single wavelength of probability. I've worked hard for that. Television helped a lot.
I suppose it started in London, in that bogus Greek taverna in Battersea Park Road, with lunch on Cohen's corporate tab. Dead steam-table food and it took them thirty minutes to find an ice bucket for the retsina. Cohen works for Barris-Watford, who publish big, trendy "trade" paperbacks: illustrated histories of the neon sign, the pinball machine, the windup toys of Occupied Japan. I'd gone over to shoot a series of shoe ads; California girls with tanned legs and frisky Day-Glo jogging shoes had capered for me down the escalators of St. John's Wood and across the platforms of Tooting Bec. A lean and hungry young agency had decided that the mystery of London Transport would sell waffle-tread nylon runners. They decide; I shoot. And Cohen, whom I knew vaguely from the old days in New York, had invited me to lunch the day before I was due out of Heathrow. He brought along a very fashionably dressed young woman named Dialta Downes, who was virtually chinless and evidently a noted pop-art historian. In retrospect, I see her walking in beside Cohen under a floating neon sign that flashes THIS WAY LIES MADNESS in huge sansserif capitals.
Cohen introduced us and explained that Dialta was the prime mover behind the latest Barris-Watford project, an illustrated history of what she called "American Streamlined Moderne." Cohen called it "raygun Gothic." Their working title was The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.
There's a British obsession with the more baroque elements of American pop culture, something like the weird cowboys-and-Indians fetish of the West Germans or the aberrant French hunger for old Jerry Lewis films. In Dialta Downes this manifested itself in a mania for a uniquely American form of architecture that most Americans are scarcely aware of. At first I wasn't sure what she was talking about, but gradually it began to dawn on me. I found myself remembering Sunday morning television in the Fifties.
Sometimes they'd run old eroded newsreels as filler on the local station. You'd sit there with a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk, and a static-ridden Hollywood baritone would tell you that there was A Flying Car in Your Future. And three Detroit engineers would putter around with this big old Nash with wings, and you'd see it rumbling furiously down some deserted Michigan runway. You never actually saw it take off, but it flew away to Dialta Downes's never-never land, true home of a generation of completely uninhibited technophiles. She was talking about those odds and ends of "futuristic" Thirties and Forties architecture you pass daily in American cities without noticing: the movie marquees ribbed to radiate some mysterious energy, the dime stores faced with fluted aluminum, the chrome-tube chairs gathering dust in the lobbies of transient hotels. She saw these things as segments of a dreamworld, abandoned in the uncaring present; she wanted me to photograph them for her.
The Thirties had seen the first generation of American industrial designers; until the Thirties, all pencil sharpeners had looked like pencil sharpeners—your basic Victorian mechanism, perhaps with a curlicue of decorative trim. After the advent of the designers, some pencil sharpeners looked as though they'd been put together in wind tunnels. For the most part, the change was only skin-deep; under the streamlined chrome shell, you'd find the same Victorian mechanism. Which made a certain kind of sense, because the most successful American designers had been recruited from the ranks of Broadway theater designers. It was all a stage set, a series of elaborate props for playing at living in the future.
Over coffee, Cohen produced a fat manila envelope full of glossies. I saw the winged statues that guard the Hoover Dam, forty-foot concrete hood ornaments leaning steadfastly into an imaginary hurricane. I saw a dozen shots of Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax Building, juxtaposed with the covers of old Amazing Stories pulps, by an artist named Frank R. Paul; the employees of Johnson Wax must have felt as though they were walking into one of Paul's spray-paint pulp Utopias. Wright's building looked as though it had been designed for people who wore white togas and Lucite sandals. I hesitated over one sketch of a particularly grandiose prop-driven airliner, all wing, like a fat, symmetrical boomerang with windows in unlikely places. Labeled arrows indicated the locations of the grand ballroom and two squash courts. It was dated 1936.
"This thing couldn't have flown ...?" I looked at Dialta Downes.
"Oh, no, quite impossible, even with those twelve giant props; but they loved the look, don't you see? New York to London in less than two days, first-class dining rooms, private cabins, sun decks, dancing to jazz in the evening.... The designers were populists, you see; they were trying to give the public what it wanted. What the public wanted was the future."
I'd been in Burbank for three days, trying to suffuse a really dull-looking rocker with charisma, when I got the package from Cohen. It is possible to photograph what isn't there; it's damned hard to do, and consequently a very marketable talent. While I'm not bad at it, I'm not exactly the best, either, and this poor guy strained my Nikon's credibility. I got out depressed because I do like to do a good job, but not totally depressed, because I did make sure I'd gotten the check for the job, and I decided to restore myself with the sublime artiness of the Barris-Watford assignment. Cohen had sent me some books on Thirties design, more photos of streamlined buildings, and a list of Dialta Downes's fifty favorite examples of the style in California.
Excerpted from Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded by Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer. Copyright © 2010 Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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Posted December 30, 2011
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