Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded

Jeff and Ann Vandermeer Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded anthologySteampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSteampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is the second steampunk anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, following 2008’s first installment. It contains about twice as many stories as its predecessor, but unlike the first collection the quality is more uneven here, resulting in a less impressive but still fascinating anthology that should please fans of the genre.

While the first anthology only contained one story I was less than happy with, there are at least four or five in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded that I could have done without. There are also a few stories here that are at best marginally connected to steampunk, although that probably depends more on how you define steampunk. After all, there are probably as many definitions of steampunk as there are readers. Maybe the best way to define the genre is simply not to, instead following the famous old “definition” of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

Still, even if you go by that rule, “The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson, while a brilliant story that everyone should read, hardly feels like steampunk, unless you consider “any story that imposes science fiction tropes on an earlier period of history” a valid definition. Regardless, it’s hard to complain about a story that’s so famous and so excellent. Another example of a great story that seems to be at best peripheral to steampunk is Stephen Baxter’s “The Unblinking Eye,” which feels more like an elaborate alternate history that happens to have airships in it. Similarly, “The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe” by Ramsey Shehadeh is a quirky and highly entertaining story that mixes Murder on the Orient Express with trans-dimensional aliens, but if it didn’t happen to be set on a steam train, I doubt anyone would even consider it as steampunk. Still, all three of these stories are excellent, whatever subgenre you stick them in.

Other highlights of the collection that feel more authentically steampunk are Jeffrey Ford’s “Dr. Lash Remembers,” about a steam-borne plague affecting the sufferers’ perception of reality, and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “The Steam Dancer (1896),” a beautifully written, melancholy tale about a dancer made whole by steam-driven technology.

My single favorite story in this collection is Margo Lanagan’s “Machine Maid,” a steampunk story that feels like a true period piece aside from the steam-powered automata. It features an awkward but unforgettable protagonist and some of the best writing in the collection.

Another excellent story is “As Recorded on Brass Cylinders: Adagio for Two Dancers” by James L. Grant and Lisa Mantchev, describing the meeting of two relics of the steam age in a modern mall. It almost feels like a steampunk version of Kage Baker’s COMPANY universe. While it lays on the emotion a bit too heavily at times, it’s a gorgeous, touching story that employs many of the standard themes and devices of the genre but still comes out looking and feeling original.

A true gem, appearing towards the end of the collection, is Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Anachronist’s Cookbook.” Its protagonist — who puts the “punk” back in steampunk in a big way — resembles a Victorian version of Richard K. Morgan’s Quellcrist Falconer. Also riffing on the political side of steampunk, but entirely on the opposite end of the scale in terms of seriousness, is G.D. Falksen’s “The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday,” a fun story about a steampunk version of the blogosphere and an intrepid detective trying to catch a suspected socialist dissident.

Cherie Priest contributes “Tanglefoot,” a story set in the same world as her CLOCKWORK CENTURY books, but despite its charm, the story unfortunately goes on a bit too long for my taste. More successfully, Daniel Abraham delivers “The Adventure of the Emperor’s Vengeance”, a solid and entertaining story about Balfour and Meriwether, two agents of the British Empire attempting to stop a curse from the past.

Closing out the fiction portion of the anthology is one of the strangest stories I’ve read in years, “A Secret History of Steampunk” by a collection of writers and artists working under the pseudonym “The Mecha-Ostrich.” It reads somewhat as if Jeff VanderMeer were being remixed by a handful of authors, or possibly vice versa. It cleverly connects to several other stories in the collection, and while it’s not entirely successful, it’s definitely innovative and unique.

The final section of the collection offers two non-fiction pieces about the non-literary side of steampunk (about fashion and the DIY/Maker culture, respectively) and a brief “Roundtable” interview about the future of steampunk. This section makes the anthology relevant not just as collection of stories but as a snapshot of an entire subculture, as does the artwork, which is one of the only aspects where Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded has the upper hand over its otherwise stronger predecessor. There are a few neat Terry Gilliam-circa-1970-style illustrations mixed into the book, and the Mecha-Ostrich story features some especially gorgeous artwork.

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is another strong collection of stories from a subgenre that seems to be gaining in popularity every single day. If not for a handful of entries that bring the overall quality of the collection down, this would be another unqualified winner. If you’re new to the genre, I’d still recommend picking up the earlier Steampunk anthology first, but this second collection contains enough excellent stories to make it worth your time if you want to dig a little deeper.

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded — (2010) Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Publisher: Blending the romantic elegance of the Victorian era with modern scientific advances, the popular Steampunk genre spotlighted in this collection is innovative and stimulates the imagination. This artfully assembled anthology of original fiction, nonfiction, and art can serve as an introduction to the Steampunk culture or provide dedicated fans with more fuel. Stories of outlandishly imaginative technologies, clockwork contraptions, eccentric heroines, and mad scientists are complemented by canon-defining nonfiction and an array of original illustrations. This collection showcases the most sensational Steampunk talents of the last decade, including Daniel Abraham, John Coulthart, William Gibson, and Margo Lanagan, and demonstrates exactly why the future of the past is so excitingly new.

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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  1. it’s really too bad. I was so dissapointed with the first Steampunk anthology that I returned it to the store. I don’t know if my personal definition of steampunk is really narrow, or if anthologies just aren’t my thing, or if the Vandermeer’s just aren’t the greatest editors.

    I love Vandermeer’s fiction. I love him and Ann’s “evil monkey” stuff. but their anthologies? not so much.

  2. I did like the first anthology a lot. The second one is good too, but a handful of stories weren’t worth it for me. However, if the first one didn’t work for you, I doubt the second one will go down any better.

  3. People sometimes refer to a recording artist’s second album as a “sophomore slump.” I wonder if anyone has ever applied this to short story collections…

  4. Ha :) That would have made a nice alliterative title “Steampunk’s Sophomore Slump”. Then again, the VanderMeers aren’t new to anthologies, so it’s probably not correct in the larger scheme of things. I still want to read their anthology of pirate fiction, which has been on my TBR stack for a while.

  5. jeff vandermeer /

    Stefan: I don’t say this with any heat, but WTF? New to anthos? Do you ever do any research before doing a review or making a comment? I’ve been editing anthologies since the late 1980s and have won a World Fantasy Award, among others, for doing so. Second, this second antho is clearly superior to the first one (which was itself a World Fantasy finalist) and has received a starred review from PW among others. Third, you for some reason decided to apply *your own* rather narrow and antequated definition of Steampunk to our antho rather than the definitions we set out after careful research and observation of the actual field–not your vague idea of it, but what it actually *is*. Try re-reading the intro sometime, and the story notes. It’s very clear why the Gibson is included, for example. I don’t have any problem with negative reviews. But counter-factual or careless reviews are corrosive.

    Redhead–as I said on Tan’s thread, buy it. If you hate it, I’ll give you your money back. I don’t know how you can do any better than that.



  6. Hi Jeff,

    I hardly think my review qualifies as negative. I listed, in detail, a large number of stories I consider very good or excellent. I do stand by my opinion that there are a few stories that could have been cut, but 3.5 stars overall is (for me at least) a very positive grade, and in my eyes the overall tone of the review is positive, despite some criticism.

    I’m definitely not new to anthologies, no. I’ve actually reviewed your first Steampunk anthology here too – you can find the review if you scroll down a bit further on the main page, and I’d welcome your comments on that review if you want to take a look. Whether the second antho is “clearly superior to the first one” is your opinion, but I respectfully disagree. The first one contained almost uniformly excellent stories and only one I didn’t love. The second one has a lot of excellent stories (as I mentioned in great detail in the review) but a few I didn’t care for. Nothing wrong with that – there are very few antho’s I’ve read that don’t have a few stories I don’t like. I also enjoyed the non-fiction pieces in the first antho more, especially Jess Nevins’ essay. Whether the first one or the second one is better is, I think, a matter of personal taste. I feel that I gave both anthologies a fair review with enough detail to allow people to make up their own minds.

    As for research – I obviously don’t claim to be an expert, but yes, I did read the intro to both anthologies as well as the story notes, and have been following the hubbub on the web lately with the posts by Catherynne Valente and Charles Stross among others. As I mentioned in the review, I think there are many definitions of the genre, some more broad than others. The stories in the first anthology are much closer to my (maybe antiquated) opinion of what’s steampunk, but I still feel that the few I singled out from the second one are further removed from that.

    I’m sorry you feel the review is “counter-factual or careless” – I would definitely dispute the second claim, and as for the first one, please note that my suggestion that some stories may not be pure steampunk was qualified with “depends on your definition of steampunk”, and I don’t claim to have the final definition at all.

  7. Addendum: I just got what you meant by “new to anthos” in your comment – I thought you were asking me if I was new to reviewing anthos, rather than quoting my earlier comment here! *face-palm* From the rest of that sentence, it should be painfully clear that it was a typo and should have read you “aren’t new to anthos” – I even mentioned an earlier anthology by you and Ann I have on the shelf, and said that “sophomore” was incorrect in this context. So, that was an unfortunate typo and now corrected. Sorry!

  8. Mr. Vandermeer, I’m genuinely surprised by you. You say that you were speaking “without heat” but I think your actual words prove otherwise.

    No matter what notes or intros you put in your books, the fact is this: You do not control the readers’ perceptions or feelings. You don’t get to dictate their tastes to them. Stefan felt that some of the stories did not work as steampunk for him and there is nothing “counter-factual” about that.

    Genres are flexible. They mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and when we (whether we are writer, reader, or both) decide what a genre is supposed to be to everyone we risk stagnating it. Stefan clearly stated YMMV in the review, more than once. So I have to wonder what you’re really taking offense to.

    What I find corrosive is authors coming around to tell reviewers that they got their own opinions wrong, somehow. We might review, but we’re still readers. You don’t get to control our perceptions either.

  9. In Jeff’s defense, I believe he short-circuited at the word “are” before it was corrected and followed by the “n’t” bit. I probably would too if I had spent the better part of 30 years working on a particular craft, then perceive to have it so casually tossed aside…but that didn’t happen, it was a typo. The Anthology is good, widely appealing, and pushes the casual definitions of steampunk. So whose buying the beer? I know who…Valente can! That Steampunk poo-pooer owes all a round or two. Another problem solved.

  10. I’ll buy the beer. I’m a total steampunk Switzerland. :D

  11. I would like to add that referring to Stefan’s review as “But counter-factual or careless reviews are corrosive.” made me choke on my cereal. Seriously? Is that before or after the corrected typo? If you mean that sincerely after Stefan made his correction, then you are off the cart..and you’re buying the beer.

  12. Did I hear someone was buying a round of beer?
    I’m in.

  13. Considering that he also went after Stefan’s Amazon review, which didn’t have the unfortunate typo, I’m not quite sure your theory holds up, Justin.

    Am I the only one kinda digging the whole irony of seriously calling someone’s review of something steampunk “counter-factual”?

    I’m not a beer drinking gal, but I’ll take a frozen chocolate monkey. (S’drink, just FYI.)

  14. I don’t like beer. May I have a margarita, a mojito, or a cosmo, please?

    I don’t blame Mr. VanderMeer for being annoyed at a reviewer who seemed to not know his history (of the VanderMeers), but I hope that’s cleared up now. I read that comment yesterday and didn’t even notice the typo, probably because I know that Stefan’s been a long-time fan of his work. Clearly Stefan enjoyed the anthology. 3.5 stars is pretty high for STingy STefan.

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