-Reviewed by Tori Truslow-
If books are like airships, and let’s say they are (both being imaginative human constructs, soaring above the reliable quotidian and carrying their passengers off on adventures), steampunk books are reality-hopping, time-tampering airships – rollicking good stuff, right? And yet my reproachfully teetering to-review pile contains several steampunky tomes that I haven’t yet brought myself to pick up, knowing from past encounters with their ilk that they’ll contain all of the steam and none of the punk. That suffix should imply a subversion that is often all too lacking in Brit-centric gears-n-gaslamp offerings. Thankfully, the crew of authors assembled by editor JoSelle Vanderhooft for Steam-Powered II put some of the punk back in – and some of them take the steam away entirely.
This is the second volume in what looks like it will be a yearly series, and it builds impressively on the foundations laid by the first. For a good idea of the Steam-Powered ethos, it’s worth looking at Amal El-Mohtar’s afterword, ‘Winding Down the House: Taking the Steam out of Steampunk’. The argument is an important one: wanting steampunk to be all about steam robs much of the world, and many groups of people, of the chance to join in with everything that’s good about the genre – unless they corset their stories up in Victorian-style trappings. El-Mohtar talks about the writing of her own (excellent) story in the first volume of Steam-Powered, ‘To Follow the Waves’, set in Syria – where ‘there are better things to do with water than make steam’ – and how making the story’s technology steam-driven ‘would have meant my Damascus would be London with Arabic names tacked on, and that Syria could not participate in the exciting atmosphere of mystifying science that characterised Britain in the same period without developing precisely the same technology.’ She concludes: ‘I want a steampunk divorced from the necessity of steam’. Steam-Powered II, while not totally divorced from steam, offers various ways to question its necessity.
‘The Terracotta Bride’ by Zen Cho is a steamless story, set in a Chinese afterlife that seems part-traditional and part modelled on contemporary society, featuring a corrupt demon bureaucracy, paper hell-houses, and a living terracotta construct whose arrival changes everything. Is it steampunk? My first thought was, ‘who cares; it’s glorious!’ But what steampunk does (among other things) is to present worlds and eras changed by anachronistic technology – hopefully in a way that asks questions about those eras, and by extension about the present. Cho’s hell is an afterlife altered by technology in a way that also asks questions about the world of the living – steampunky in spirit, but no steam required.
Of the stories that do contain steam, several subvert the romanticisation of the steam age that characterises much of the genre. C.S.E. Cooney’s ‘The Canary of Candletown’ gives us the dark side of steam power with a harsh tale set in a Wild-Westy coal-mining settlement, where love blooms in cruel working conditions with heartbreaking results. Others point to the imperial overtones of steam power, as in Stephanie Lai’s ‘One Last Interruption Before We Begin’, set in an alternate Malaysia with water-driven technology. The British love-interest, an airship captain, quizzes the Chinese-Malay protagonist on their eschewal of steam:
“So what do you do with coal?”
“Don’t have,” Shun Ping says. “We don’t have it, so we had to not need it.”
“Surely we would have kept trading with you,” Elizabeth says. “The Queen would never have left anyone without sufficient resources!”
The story’s polemic comes out a little heavy in the dialogue, but the points are well made – not to mention that the setting is just really damn cool.
Stories like this one, and ‘The Terracotta Bride’, and Shveta Thakrar’s ‘Not the Moon but the Stars’ – set in a world where Siddhartha Gautama does not become the Buddha but a great king who employs wonder-working court engineers – make it clear that this anthology is not intended to cater to a homogenous readership. This cultural diversity is one of the anthology’s great strengths, as is the general diversity of the characters – ‘lesbian’ certainly doesn’t mean just one thing. Even more so than the first volume, this one presents a real range of protagonists and relationship structures. A few follow a fairly straightforward girl-meets-girl pattern, but there are also established relationships, some stable, some dysfunctional; all-woman love triangles; and other types of female relationship – familial or professional ties, rivalries, and even, in ‘Journey’s End’ by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall, a partnership between an engineer and a sentient ship. Two Western-style stories feature two beautifully drawn relationships: ‘Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues’ by Patty Templeton and ‘Deal’ by Nicole Kornher-Stace. The former pair make moonshine and give each other hell, and we only really meet one half of the latter, who spends the story spinning tall tales about her lover to throw detectives off her trail – both couples are totally believable, brilliantly voiced, and give a nice kicking in the teeth to the notion that the Western has to be a male genre.
Another highlight is Alex Dally Macfarlane’s ‘Selin That Has Grown in the Desert’. This one’s also low on the steam. As a whole it’s a brilliant, understated anti-steampunk tale – and structurally a kind of anti-romance – which manages to do all that and still be sweetly (but certainly not saccharinely) uplifting.
Of the stories where both romance and politics play out in parallel, some pay more attention to the complexity or their interplay than others; stories like ‘One Last Interruption Before We Begin’ and Nisi Shawl’s ‘The Return of Cherie’ – a tantalising extract from a novel set in the Belgian Congo with characters navigating postcolonial concerns, global politics, and old love – worked better for me than ones like Sean Holland’s ‘Playing Chess in New Persepolis’, which features some enjoyable political intrigue via larger-than-life steam-driven chess games, plus some romance, but without the two ever quite meshing to the interesting and difficult degree that it does in the Lai and Shawl stories.
While certain stories shone out for me above others, they were all strong – this anthology was a marvel to read, a real magical mystery airship tour crewed by rebel mechanics and guerrilla historians. If the first Steam-Powered was daring, the second is dazzling. Go on, let it take you for a spin.