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All in all a worthy collection of Steampunk tales
on March 18, 2009
I have to admit I was a little leery of picking up `Extraordinary Engines', one of two steampunk anthologies released in 2008. I had read the VanderMeers' `Steampunk' collection and came away from it a bit underwhelmed. But unlike the VanderMeer's anthology, which was a collection of previously published material, `Engines' features all new tales specifically commissioned for the book. So I decided to spend my $7.99 and see what editor Nick Gevers has wrought. It's rare to find an anthology that contains a preponderance of noteworthy entries, but I'm always willing to see what an editor new to the field can accomplish.
`Engines' contains 13 Steampunk and steam-fantasy entries; the authors are all well-published. Some, such as Ian MacLeod and Jay Lake, also are contributors to the VanderMeer's book.
The best stories are:
`Machine Maid', by Margo Lanagan, is at once amusing, and quietly vicious. The nameless first person narrator is a newlywed prim Victorian housewife, who joins her husband at his ranch in the Australian Outback. She discovers (to her shock and dismay) that the house's resident robotic maid `Clarissa' has been programmed to perform...rather Unique duties. Her loathing for her husband is redoubled, and this may have consequences for Clarissa's new domestic chores...
`Hannah', by Keith Brooke, provides a gaslight-inspired mix of murder mystery and horror. At the scene of a murder, a scientist embarks on a nascent Victorian version of C.S.I. by conducting forensic examinations on traces of blood and tissue. Will his findings bring him closer to the identity of the murderer, or will they tell him more than he wants to know about the identity of the victim ? Featuring some surprising plot twists and an offbeat ending, this is a gem of a Steampunk tale.
`Petrolpunk', by Adam Roberts, takes alternate worlds, eccentric Victorian regents, and conspiracies centered on oil, and churns them into an engaging story with a healthy leavening of humor.
Jay Lake's `The Lollygang Save the World on Accident' borrows a tried and true SF trope from John Crowley's 1975 novel `The Deep': a race of humans is ensconced in an enormous iron tube, the `Big Pipe', a mile in width and stuffed with all manner of decks, alcoves, speaking-tubes, and mysterious passageways. Much like Crowley's world, The Big Pipe, constructed ages ago by a race of Builders so advanced as to seem God-like, is suspended in a formless Void. The urchin Per is member of the Lollygang, one of many gangs infesting the lower levels of the Big Pipe. When he grows mistrustful of a technology left over by the Pipe's Builders, the rest of the gang are displeased, and that means trouble for Per...
Some of the other stories in `Extraordinary Engines' stay true to the Steampunk ethos; James Lovegrove's `Steampunch', MacLeod's `Elementals', Robert Reed's `American Cheetah', and Kage Baker's `Speed, Speed the Cable' are all worked around themes that devotees of the genre will find familiar and well-placed.
For me, the other entries in the anthology are less Steampunk and more `magic realism' or steam-fantasy. `Static' by Marly Youmans, `Fixing Hanover' by Jeff VanderMeer, and `The Dream of Reason' by Jeffrey Ford, are all prettily-written tales that sacrifice narrative momentum for atmosphere and a more poetic style of writing. The denouements of these stories are restrained, and as a consequence they seem rather insipid compared to the other entries in `Engines'.
All in all, `Engines' is a worthwhile collection for Steampunk fans and editor Gevers demonstrates he knows his stuff.
It's the first book I've read under the Solaris label, a new SF and fantasy imprint from the UK publisher The Black Library. US readers may recognize The Black Library as the very successful producer of the `Warhammer 40,000' novels that take up significant shelf space in the SF sections of many bookstores. With the considerable financial coffers of the Warhammer franchise providing needed financial underpinning, Solaris looks to be a real player in the SF publishing field, and I think SF fans will want to keep an eye out for this imprint, as well as other anthologies helmed by Nick Gevers.