Book review: Extraordinary Engines

>> Thursday, July 1, 2010

I got a lot of reading done on my six hour flight from Little Rock, Arkansas to Atlanta, Georgia, which was supposed to take 1.5 hours but instead circled over Rome, Georgia for a couple of hours while Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport was closed due to storms, then landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee where we were deplaned while it was refueled before taking us back to Atlanta. Luckily I had brought some good books with me, and the time flew, if you'll forgive the pun. One of the books I enjoyed on my extraordinarily long flight was Extraordinary Engines, a short story collection edited by Nick Gevers. 

Extraordinary Engines bills itself as "The Definitive Steampunk Anthology." Many other reviewers have already taken the collection to task for the ridiculous presumption of its subtitle, so I won't pile on it too much except to say that no, it's not definitive by any stretch. A "definitive" collection should include stories that define the genre, and thus authors who helped define the genre. But there are no stories here by Michael Moorcock, no stories by K.W. Jeter, or Tim Powers, or James Blaylock, all of whom are catalogued as pioneers of the genre in the valuable introduction to this anthology by editor Nick Gevers. And how can you call yourself definitive when there are no stories from H.G. Wells or Jules Verne!?

What's so disappointing about the over-confident tagline is that this anthology is not a definitive look at steampunk, but rather a brand new look, with all new stories from some of today's best speculative fiction writers. That's what the collection should have been touting, for that is worth a great deal. Here are twelve new, original stories that bring the world of steampunk to life in diverse and exciting ways, rather than merely repeating the stories and works that have, collectively, been called steampunk in retrospect.

I run into a lot of people outside the F/SF community who have heard the term "steampunk" bandied about but don't understand the reference. Steampunk is the idea of a world where there is little or no electrical power. Everything runs on steam, but the world is far more advanced than how far steam got in reality. It's kind of an alternate history, although it can also be set in the future. The key thing here, I think, is that steampunk isn't a plot. Not like epic fantasy, where there are specific plot tropes. I think steampunk is best defined as an aesthetic. It's brass goggles, long coats, Victorian clothes, airships, steam powered machine men, rayguns (sometimes), science heroes, mad scientists. It's the clothing, the setting, the atmosphere of a story.

The "punk" in steampunk, often throws people off too. The "punk" derives from an original use in the term "cyberpunk." Cyberpunk is just a technological aesthetic, like some of William Gibson's early novels, but the punk was amended to help demonstrate its outsider status within traditional sci-fi. The term stuck, and now anything with its own peculiar kind of aesthetic within traditional sci-fi/fantasy tends to get -punk added to it. (Dieselpunk, atompunk, clockpunk, biopunk, elfpunk, etc.)

Sometimes these subgenres live up to the "punk" in their names (elfpunk, for example, is just what many would call urban fantasy, but it's fantasy with a darker edge to it) but most of the time there's nothing really counterculture about them. Purists, if you'll allow the term to be used here, deride books labeled -punk of any kind that don't have a counterculture edge to them, but the suffix has become so common now most people don't balk at it. In a way, all these subgenres are just marketing terms--better ways to separate books out on the shelf and group like things together.

So, back to Extraordinary Engines, a steampunk anthology. As I've said before, it's hard to give an overall rating to an anthology, as the works can sometimes vary so much in taste and appeal, but here I think editor Nick Gevers has done a brilliant job of corralling twelve stories where if you like one you're going to like them all. And I did like them all. Unlike some anthologies, there wasn't a stinker in the bunch--not one I gave up on half way through to move on to the next--which I see as high marks for an anthology.

Among the best in the anthology are the first two stories: James Lovegrove's "Steampunch," a light, fun narrative about the career of the famous steam-driven "mechano-boxer" of the same name; and "Static" by Marly Youmans. In "Static," electricity inhabits the world. It crackles everywhere outside, it lives beneath sheets and in long hair, it leaps between fingers rubbed together. Civilization survives by pumping warm, moist air into the atmosphere through flutes, or tubes, and has done so now, we gather, for centuries, worshiping the rain and the mist and the snow that come all too infrequently to relieve the dry world of its electrical charge. Against this wonderful backdrop is set a story of liberation and escape that left me wanting to read more.

"American Cheetah" by Robert Reed was perhaps my favorite story, following the exploits of one of twelve steam-driven replicas of Abraham Lincoln. Originally built to stump for the president's re-election across the country, this honest Abe now lives on as the sheriff of a small town in Minnesota, contemplating eternity even as he faces down the town's biggest threat yet--the machine-man James-Younger gang. What any of this has to do with the title "American Cheetah" I have no idea. (Something about parallel evolution, perhaps?)

Margo Lanagan's "Machine Maid" is another strong story in the collection, though in many ways disquieting for me to read. (Which I think was kind of the point.) In it, a young woman is brought to a remote ranch in the Australian outback where she suffers the humiliations of her new husband's sexual desires and the isolation of the prairies. Her attentions soon turn to the inner workings of their electronic maid, who appears to suffer the very same indignities as the new Mrs. Goverman, and who may hold the key to her escape from this life.

Among the worth-reading but not-particularly-exceptional stories in the anthology are "Speed, Speed the Cable" by Kage Baker, a perfunctory steampunk adventure set in the world of her Company novels that suffers from her heroes--23rd century cyborgs--being entirely too powerful and well-equipped to suffer any real challenge from the 17th century Luddites trying to thwart their efforts to lay the trans-Atlantic cable, and Ian R. MacLeod's "Elementals," which supposes that a kind of living energy pervades human progress, and in this story is given human form to boot.

Jeff Vandermeer's "Fixing Hanover" has a slower, life on the edges of civilization feel to it, and tells the story of a visionary engineer on the run after building the steampunk airships that his homeland has used to subjugate the world. The characters are intriguing, as is the world, but this is the end of a story, not the beginning, and little happens beyond the resolution, which the main character brings about but otherwise merely suffers. Meanwhile, Adam Roberts' "Petrolpunk" starts off gangbusters, and manages to roll steam-driven vehicles, secret tunnels, immortal royalty, greedy oil companies, environmental terrorists, multiverse theory, intelligent single-celled organisms, even the author and editor themselves, into the narrative, before succumbing to the impossible weight of so many ideas thrown together.

Among the weakest stories in the collection are Keith Brooke's "Hannah," an anachronistic cloning story, "Lady Witherspoon's Solution," a satirical but silly Jekyll and Hyde story involving ladies' societies and Neaderthals by James Morrow, and "The Dream of Reason" by Jeffrey Ford, an age-of-alchemy story about a scientist who attempts to distill diamond dust from starlight by trapping the energy inside a human subject.

Most disappointing, perhaps, was Jay Lake's "The Lollygang Save the World on Accident." The premise is terrific: human civilization lives inside a great world-sized pipe filled with chambers and corridors through which smaller pipes pass carrying all manner of liquids and gases. There are no nations here, only social gatherings like clans or gangs, and among these is the Lollygang, who have been carrying out various secret repairs and sabotages to the Big Pipe according to the wishes of the sentient Gloves they wear. All right! Good stuff! But then...the story just ends. The hero makes a groundless supposition and acts on it. It works, and the Big Pipe is saved before we ever really understand the threat, and just as the title promises: "on accident." It's a wonderful, delightful fantasy world that Jay Lake builds, but there is no story here--the same problem I had, alas, with his novel Mainspring. The man has a first-class, nonpareil imagination, but his plots are left wanting. This story should have been so much more!

Criticisms aside, Extraordinary Engines is a fun, diverting collection of steampunk stories, and one I'll be keeping in our library.


marly youmans July 1, 2010 at 8:33 PM  

Hi Alan--
Found your spanking new review while searching to see if an article of mine had popped up. Glad you liked the story.

And I see you're in Bakersville. I went to high school in Cullowhee and still get back there a few times a year. Grand part of the world that I miss...

Alan Gratz July 1, 2010 at 9:40 PM  

Hi Marly!

Thanks for dropping by. I was so happy with your story that I looked you up as well. I got excited when I saw you had grown up in the Carolinas, thinking I might get in touch with you, and then was disappointed (mildly) to find out that you lived in Cooperstown, NY.

I'm definitely going to look for your other work. Any thoughts about expanding the world of "Static" to novel length? I'll be first in line to buy one. I was going to offer to introduce your story to my editor at Penguin, but then I saw you had plenty of people you could show it to, and I was a tad embarrassed at my hubris. :-)

Congrats on all your success, and thanks again for leaving the note!

marly July 3, 2010 at 1:19 AM  

Who is your editor at Penguin? I just hung around with Sharyn N. at her office a couple of weeks ago. And she came to "The Beastly Bride" reading as well (Datlow/Windling antho).

And I never object to anybody saying anything nice to an editor! The dratted people move around so much, one needs as much good word spread as possible.

I, too, was disappointed (but not mildly) to learn that I lived in Cooperstown, NY in a blasted snow bank. I once said I would have to live on the East Coast but never north of . . . Cooperstown. Famous last etc. It's beautiful, and it's still on the Appalachian spine. But it's cold. Sometimes all summer.

You're not the first one to suggest a novel for that one. Hmm. Who knows? It was fun to write. I'd always wanted to combust somebody.

Right now I'm in Roanoke (writer-in-residence at Hollins for a couple of weeks.) I'm also going to be in Chapel Hill, Cullowhee, Spartanburg, and Mars Hill at various points in the reasonably near future, so I will be somewhat near you.

Congrats to you too--hope your new book does splendidly! Oh, and your wife does events at Penland. That must be marvelous.

Alan Gratz July 5, 2010 at 2:37 PM  

Hey Marly -

My editor is Liz Waniewski at Dial. She's a fan of F/SF too. I'll definitely drop your name, though, again, you're far better connected than I am!

We considered moving to Ithaca a few years ago, but the weather was the thing that kept us away. We opted for the WNC mountains instead, so we could get cool summers and real (though not harsh) winters. What we're missing, of course, is everything else the Northeast has to offer in the way of culture. We do have Penland and Asheville, but there's a lot we miss out on. It's a tough trade off, but as I sit in my house with all the windows open and a gentle breeze wafting in from outside, I am reminded again why it's nice to be here.

Will you be doing public events in Mars Hill and/or Cullowhee? I'm about 45 minutes from Mars Hill in particular, and would love to attend. I'm jealous of your involvement with Shared Worlds too. (Is that the Spartanburg one?) I wish I were a teenager to be able to attend that--every year it looks so great!

marly July 6, 2010 at 5:16 PM  

Hi Alan--

I'll put your name in the SW pot if you like--not that I have any influence! It's my first year there.

No events this time--or just in Roanoke (on campus at Hollins) and Spartanburg. Maybe some time. I do often read at City Lights in Sylva. Two of my children will be in college this fall, one at Mars Hill College and one at Bard College. Hence the Mars Hill connection.

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