Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: Extraordinary Engines, by Nick Gevers (editor)

Steampuk is a movement that has been generating more and more buzz over the last years. What started out as a literary genre had now branched out into other arts, crafts and lifestyle in general. For those not in the know: steampunk is basically Victorian science fiction by modern authors, much in the vein of 19th century authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, i.e. authors of what was then called scientific romances.

Michael Moorcock is generally credited with having written the first modern steampunk with his A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy of books. The movement gained momentum, and its name, when cyberpunk icons like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (authors of the defining The Difference Engine) and K.W. Jeter (credited with coining the term) started turning to the 19th century.

These pioneer steampunk authors not only picked up on the gimmicks invented by their 19th century counterparts (airships, submarines, steamdriven automatons, early computers as the one thought up in real-life by Charles Babbage), but also continued the themes dear to the likes of H.G. Wells: the ever-growing chasm between the classes, the colonisation of pretty much the rest of the world by a few European superpowers, the arms race and the extreme nationalism prevalent at the time, as well as the nascent feminist movement; the underlying message generally being that science mostly serves those in power.

2008 saw the publication of two comprehensive anthologies of steampunk fiction: Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers; and Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I will review the latter work at a later date, this article concerns therefore only Extraordinary Engines.

Nick Gevers has assembled in his collection a series of original fiction by some of the genre's most renowned authors, showcasing what the genre has evolved to over the years. The plots have branched out into adventure, swashbuckling yarns and detective fiction; the social message is not necessarily as prevalent as it one was (i.e. the punk ingredient has somewhat left steampunk). All this is reflected in the stories at hand. The most poignant one, Fixing Hanover, by Jeff VanderMeer still picks up on the themes of H.G. Wells as he shows the effects that the arms race and colonisation has on individuals involved in it and those who fall victim to it. Other works include espionage stories on submarines (Speed, Speed the Cable, by Kage Baker), a steam-driven boxing automaton who becomes a working-class hero (in the strong opening story, Steampunch, by James Lovegrove), a satirical take on early feminism (Lady Witherspoon's Solution, by James Morrow); as well as stories set in the future where steam still reigns; the latter sub-genre providing the only true steam-meets-cyberpunk story, The Lollygang Save the World on Accident by Jay Lake. Not all stories are set in Great Britain: Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan is set in Australia and a couple off stories are set in the USA.

Overall, the stories range from good to very good; not one is disappointing; and the collection certainly works as a stepping stone in exploring the steampunk in the works of the authors assembled in this anthology.

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers, is published by Solaris.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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