Steampunk’d by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg
Steampunk’d is an anthology edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg. The most common premise of steampunk is an idea that technology — steam-driven technology — went in a different direction during the Victorian era. The best steampunk stories create a sense of otherness, a truly different world, while some tales just dangle steampunk tropes like jewelry or fashion accessories.
I’m a cautious consumer of themed anthologies because the work can be uneven, and that certainly is the case with Steampunk’d.
“Foretold,” by Bradley Beaulieu, does create a different world. In Russia, Maks, a seer, uses his orrery and acute observational skills to predict where asteroids will land. The crew of his hydraulic walker, the Braga, mine asteroids for iron, which Russia sells to other countries. Since taking on Yevgeniy as his apprentice, Maks has been failing at prognostication. He blames his apprentice. His readings become more confusing to him, until, in the nature of most auguries, in retrospect they become clear. Maks must then choose between self-preservation and honor. Maks is a real, complicated character with a believable problem in a believable world. The ending of the story is sad and touching.
“The Nubian Queen” by Paul Genesse postulates two changes in the history of our world. The first is that, 2,000 years ago, Cleopatra and Mark Antony defeated Octavian. Secondly, Europe’s “little ice age” is not so little. These political and environmental changes have left the continent of Africa in the ascendancy. Sadhi, the queen of Nubia, is pledged in an arranged marriage she does not want by an Emperor she does not trust, but cannot defeat on her own. There is plenty of action here, even if Sadhi, a proud and resourceful character, does not drive enough of it. Things wrap up a little too neatly, but it’s a treat to read a story where steamboats, the Lighthouse at Alexandria and the Library of Alexandria all co-exist.
Sometimes, steampunk is just about fun. “Of a Feather” by Stephen D. Sullivan has the feel of a Doc Savage story. Kit Chapman-Challenger and her team steam their way up the Amazon, pursing a rare pterosaur, the ranodon. Kit captures and tags an adult female and finds its nest, taking photos of the hatchlings as they emerge. All too soon, her evil rival Pavlina Invanova moves in on the ranodon. Feats of derring-do abound, and the “twist” ending, although not too surprising, is pleasing. “Echoer,” by Dean Leggett, gives us a funny first-person narrator and a charming vignette about inventiveness and love that misses being a story by a hairsbreadth. “The Transmogrification Ray,” by Robert E. Vardeman, contains no real surprises, but its absent-minded main character is appealing.
A few stories involve magic. In “The Whisperer,” by Marc Tassin, certain people have the ability to converse with machines; to whisper instructions to them, programming them. These people are kept at an asylum in London. At first it seems that this might be for their own good, but the reader soon realizes that they are enslaved. Avery, a whisperer, has fallen in love with one of the girls who brought his meals, and she with him. She is sick and hospitalized. Though he begs to see her, his jailers won’t let him. Avery’s love for Lily drives him to desperation, and opens up his abilities to levels he never knew existed. This is a frightening story about the power of love.
In “Imperial Changeling” by Skip and Penny Williams, clockwork technology takes on fairytale magic in Austria-Hungary. The writing is lovely even if the magic didn’t completely work for me.
“Foggy Goggles” by Donald J. Bingle is an example of what happens when a message story is too long on message and too short on story. “Edison Kinetic Light and Steam Power,” by C.A. Verstaete, has great promise; the Puritan Party has won an election and Thomas Edison and his sister Alva must hide his experiments, which are illegal. This could have created a powerful and suspenseful story, but soon there’s an election — offstage — and the inventors take power. The story fails to develop conflict, although the character of Alva is very moving, and the last image of the story is whimsical. “Portrait of a Lady in a Monocle,” by Jody Lynn Nye, is well written, but the test and the antagonist that the main character faces are not worthy of her abilities. In “Scourge of the Spoils,” Matthew P. Mayo gives us a dystopian western with steampunk fashion accents.
The widowed Lady Sydney Espear, main character in Mary Louise Eklund’s “Opals from Sydney,” must decide whether she can trust potential business partner Johnny Plebeman. Plebeman is a clever inventor with a five-star chef and dedicated enemies. Descriptions are lush, but the story moves slowly until the last few pages, with the action happening offstage. This story also suffered from inconsistent punctuation, particularly with commas. I found that jarring.
Military SF fans may enjoy “The Battle of Cumberland Gap,” in which William C. Deitz posits that the French had steam-tech since the time of Napoleon. A small historical inaccuracy early in this story distracted me, and I was never able to completely enjoy it. Michael Stackpole gives us “Chance Corrigan and the Tick-Tock King of the Nile,” in which an embittered American engineer is recruited to work on a dam in Egypt. There is a double-cross and the beautiful girl shows up on schedule, but a man in blue that only Chance can see adds a pleasant bit of strangeness to this tale.
Short-story writing is like ballet. The people who are really good at it make it look easy, but it is not. The best steampunk short stories, like all stories, have the steampunk elements growing organically from the background, but character and conflict must also grow naturally from the story. This collection showcases many creative talents with lots to offer, but too few of them achieve the necessary melding of those key elements. I would not recommend this book to someone who wanted an introduction to the steampunk sub-genre.