Thursday, June 16, 2011


By Meghan B.

A wise man

A wise Spaniard once explained the proper use of a word to a friend of his who often misused it. "You keep using that word," he'd say. "I do not think it means what you think it means." It's a nugget of wisdom I refer back to time and time again. It's hard to deny the simplicity of the statement. Lately, I've been muttering the phrase under my breath as I scan the shelves of my local bookstore.

"Steampunk!" I'd say. "You keep using that word! I do not think it means what you think it means!".

Recently, I purchased two steampunk anthologies that were less than stellar and left me shaking my head in disappointment. There's nothing worse than trying to cash in on a trend by adding gears to a story. I think the most major problem is that each collection was saddled with the term "romance", which seems to be almost a code word for "hey, we have no idea what this hot new thing is, but let's exploit it anyway!".

The first anthology was called Hot and Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg. I picked the anthology up because these two had edited a steampunk collection, Steampunk'd, that I really enjoyed. I thought they understood steampunk relatively well and I counted on them to put out a decent anthology.

While some of the stories were fun and interesting, some seemed to have been retrofitted with gears. For a cheap paperback to read on the train it wasn't bad, but it kept annoying me with tales that really didn't have a place in the book.

A worse example would be the deeply uneven collection called Corsets and Clockwork, edited by Trisha Telep, a woman who apparently has zero idea what "steampunk" means.

The anthology contained stories that I thought were lovely, with interesting characters in steampunk words. Other stories were glaringly edited add in little steampunk nods. I still have no idea how a story about homicidal kidnapped mermaids is steampunk (the bizarre "Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe" by Frewin Jones). For that matter, the mere inclusion of a female heroine in Victorian undergarments does not make a story steampunk either. The collection felt incredibly shoddy and quickly slapped together, hoping to entice people to purchase it by emblazoning "steampunk" on the appropriately sepia cover.

I will admit, I tend to be distracted by objects that are both shiny and have gears on them. I love me a good steampunk tale. I fell victim to the ploy of catching people interested in the new genre and bought both novels. I know most anthologies tend to be rather uneven in terms of quality, but I must admit I was shocked by how loosely the term "steampunk" was used.

These are only two examples of steampunk gone wrong, and I think the term "romance" is what did them in. Despite being stocked in the sci-fi and YA sections respectfully, both suffer from the idea that romance stories don't have to really follow any rules where genre or historical accuracy is concerned. It makes one wonder if there are any decent steampunk collections out there.

Fear not! Hope is not all lost, fair readers! There are still many worthwhile steampunk anthologies out there which are full to the brim with industrial strength awesome. I would wholeheartedly suggest the anthologies written by unstoppable sci-fi duo, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Simply called Steampunk and Steampunk II, these two books exemplify everything that is strange and glorious and wonderful about characters who glue gears to their top hats and the people who love them.

Gathering what amounts to the steampunk Justice League, the VanderMeers have published short stories and essays from the likes of William Gibson, Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest and Caitilin R Kiernan. Thoughtfully pluming the depths of "what is steampunk?", they have also helpfully released a glossy and beautiful The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature. It is chocked full of drop dead stunning pictures, thoughtful articles and amazing interviews.

Where steampunk is concerned, it seems we must take the good with the bad. Halfhearted anthologies get shelved next to detailed studies on the subject. Such is life and publishing, I suppose. I just wish some publishers would stop using the term "steampunk", because they keep using it and it doesn't mean what they think it means.

On a completely unrelated note, has anyone seen a six-fingered man recently?
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the warnings and recommendations! But I will say for the record that authors writing quality romance novels concern themselves very much with historical accuracy as much as possible. Just like any genre, some don't, but the good ones do.