May 30, 2011

Bustlepunk: the softer cousin of steampunk

Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition
Photo by Lois Buhalis, used by permission

A few weeks back, Tor.com published an article called "The Bustlepunk Apocalypse Continues," in which writer Alyx Dellamonica defined the term Bustlepunk as "the softer cousin of steampunk." Bustlepunk was coined by writer M.K. Hobson back in '09, and while I'd heard the term before, I hadn't given it much thought. However, Dellamonica's article went on to conflate the writing of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest with this soft cousin of steampunk, which bothered me (It should be noted that Alyx Dellamonica has retracted her use of Priest in relation to Bustlepunk - she readily admits she was simply quoting Hobson's Bustlepunk Manifesto).

Hobson's original coinage of the "Bustlepunk" was a clever marketing strategy. Bustlepunk has a nice ring to it, and for an author looking to carve out a niche in the larger pool of SFF, serves the purpose of creating a buzz. Nevertheless, words take on a life of their own, beyond authorial intent. My concern with Dellamonica's article is that it lumped Carriger and Priest into a 'soft' category, a space reserved for women in Science Fiction and Fantasy for decades, most famously with Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. This isn't "real" science fiction, it's "soft" science fiction. My concern is shared by Deborah of  The Bookish Dame, who wrote in December of last year, "By singling ourselves out, we destroy the ideal that authors are all equal in their intelligence and capabilities to confir[sp] and express their imaginations and knowledge.  It's a battle women have fought for ages." Despite this critique, Deborah walks a gracious middle-path with Bustlepunk, excited by "a story written by a woman, about a woman, for a woman," but equally concerned at the ramifications of the potential for signifiers like Bustlepunk to mark women as "second best to the male author."

The outright pairing of Priest and Carriger as representative of anything other than the use of the steampunk aesthetic ignores the diversity demonstrated in their writing. None of Priest's steampunk to date features any romance. This omission of romance has angered some readers, some going so far as to perceive Priest's heroines as lesbians, simply because they don't find every man they meet (while escaping near death adventure)attractive. Priest writes hard-edged alternate history adventures with drug-crazed revenants who will chew your face off. In Clementine, one scene prominently features the removal of a bustle to accommodate firing a Gatling gun in an airship cockpit. Priest's heroines are best understood by Maria Isabella Boyd's request in that same scene: "Put me where I can make the most trouble." When Priest writes "soft," as in the moving opening chapters of Dreadnought, it's in stark contrast to the hard edges she utilizes later. It is a dynamic technique, not a uniform style. 

Gail Carriger is often perceived as "soft:" in addition to being called Bustlepunk, her work has also been categorized as Mannerpunk, excluding her from unreservedly being considered steampunk. Again, this is why I've suggested the understanding of steampunk as aesthetic, not genre: it's a more inclusive approach. We don't get into arguments over whether a book is steampunk, but rather how much and what aspects of the aesthetic it utilizes. But I digress: Soulless and its sequels contain all the elements I've identified in numerous steampunk works. I don't think I need to argue the Neo-Victorian aspects of Carriger's work, but some may find the retrofuturism and technofantasy lacking. Carriger's retrofuturism is more often of the subtle, socio-political variety. Carriger has taken the New Woman mentioned in Stoker's Dracula, and realized it in Alexia Tarabotti in a way Mina Harker never achieves. Alexia is effectively a 21st century woman with a 19th century voice. Carriger's society of humans and supernaturals is predicated on a hierarchy of soul, and when you get into the particulars of those with an excess of soul, Carriger is seen to be making further social commentary on current issues surrounding marginalized groups. One need only read the conversation between Alexia and American scientist McDougall regarding his brother, who was hunted down by his Puritan family after becoming a vampire, to glean resonances with current discourse in North America concerning homosexuals: "I loved my older brother,you see? I saw him once after he'd changed. He was still the same person: stronger, paler, night born, yes, but essentially the same. He probably still would have voted conservative, if they'd let him vote" (141). Anyone who argues the absence of technofantasy in Carriger is either working with a narrow concept of steampunk technology, or hasn't read the books: from the clockwork golem VIXI to Lyall's glassicals, to parasol gadgetry, to airship highjinks: if Carriger isn't working with steampunk tech, then not even K.W. Jeter is. Further, her understanding of steampunk technology goes beyond industrial tech: her hierarchy of souls repeatedly references other sciences in bloom in the nineteenth century: spiritualism and medicine. In short, Carriger uses the steampunk aesthetic in spades, and doesn't need a sub-category to describe what she's doing. As for soft, where Priest has zombies chewing on necks, Carriger has a werewolf-transformation sequence explicitly describing a very gory neck-chewing at the end of Changeless that gives Stephen King a run for his money. Carriger can write the gross-out, the knock-down, and the thrilling chase as well as she writes the make-out, the knocked-up, and the romantic chase.

My concern is simply this: I don't want to see two of the premiere writers of the new wave of steampunk sidelined as anything other than masters of the aesthetic. While there are many who wouldn't see Bustlepunk or Mannerpunk as pejorative, there are many readers who will dismiss Carriger and Priest outright because they are women, and moreso if connections are drawn to a term like Bustlepunk. I have no issue with the term as something fun to further clarify a distinction within the larger classification of steampunk. But I do have issue with the blanket assumption that Priest and Carriger are involved in creating the "softer cousin of steampunk" just because they're women. Not all soft steampunk is written by women. For proof, try Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio, a lovely story of love, loss, and nostalgia. Or as SF author J.M. Frey contests in this final word on the subject (at least so far as this post is concerned), ""Bustlepunk" has the potential to become pejorative, and without rigorous definitions of what makes Steampunk Steampunk, and makes Bustlepunk Bustlepunk (both of which are impossible as they are sliding definitions of an aesthetic that is still organically evolving), then there is the danger of separating the professional writing men from the little girls playing dress up."

May 27, 2011

The Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition

Three years of research, and I’ve never attended a steampunk convention in my homeland. That is partially due to Canada picking steampunk up like last year’s fashions: we’re often behind the Stateside curve on what’s cool at a subculture level. We got Bieber same time as everyone else, but steampunk took a while to filter across the International Boundary. Our first steampunk con was arguably the Victoria Steam Exposition, a small con with the amazing distinction of being housed in the opulent Fairmont Empress. That hotel, along with the rest of the Fairmont hotels and resorts are easily the most steampunk a setting one could ask for in Canada. I was unable to attend, having just returned from the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in California.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the last steampunk con in the Great White North. Last fall, I was invited to present at The Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition (CNSE) in Toronto by Canada’s Queen of the Geeks, Liana K. I knew Lee Ann Faruga, aka Countess Lenora of Steampunk Canada (steampunkcanada.ca) was also involved in the planning for the event, and the persistence of both these lovely ladies proved too much. Plus, there was a seat sale on flights with WestJet that decided where my meager travel funds would take me in 2011. Futurecon helped sponsor my journey, and with my tickets booked and bags packed, I was bound for Toronto.

Canada is a massive nation, geographically speaking. I’ve lived in Alberta my whole life, but never traveled to Toronto, save to switch flights on my way to Jamaica. So while I knew I wouldn’t see much more than the hotel the CNSE was in, I was excited to add Toronto to the list of places my steampunk research has taken me.

I won’t bore you with descriptions of the Great Lakes from my window seat vantage points, or gloat over the exceedingly comfortable town car I took from the airport (save to say that my driver may have been the inspiration for Jason Statham’s character in The Transporter). Instead, we’ll fast forward to me stepping out of my twelfth floor room-with-a-view in my steampunk threads to get registered before my first presentation.

I’m dressed in a Mark Ecko pin-striped brown blazer with an ornate pattern embroidered on the chest and pocket. Underneath the jacket is a light brown vest, a checked tie, and white dress shirt I picked up at a Le Chateau outlet store only days earlier (Le Chateau outlet is one of the best ways to put together steampunk fashion on a budget in Canada). I have eschewed long pants for clam-diggers (standing in for the plus fours/Tintin pants I can’t find anywhere!), and have knee-high socks to give a somewhat highland-hiker feel to the ensemble. It’s topped off with a newsboys cap my mom bought for me at Heritage Park last year (Heritage Park, along with Fort Edmonton, are spaces of historical re-creation in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, respectively).

I’ve itemized my threads to underscore how different my first Canadian steampunk convention was from my first American one: when I attended Steam Powered in the fall of ’08, it was with a cobbled together assortment of items from my days as an indie musician (again, notably, a Le Chateau suit with mandarin collar being the center piece). Now, I have options.

I took the elevator, the first of many such trips this weekend, down to the main floor and registration. Unlike many other cons, the CNSE was not the only group in the Markham Holiday Inn. We shared the space and most significantly, elevator with many mundanes: hockey and lacrosse teams, school groups, and their parents. I’ll spare you the joys of riding the elevator with a hockey dad in full redneck mode commenting on our steampunk attire.

Check out the rest of the report here, in the new issue of Exhibition Hall. Also included in this issue is Chris Garcia's report on The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition, along with photos of folks wishing me happy birthday from the Con!

Photos from the Con:
 My first outfit of the weekend: my own take on being a Browncoat, I guess.
Second session of the weekend: Presenting on "Steam Wars"
photo by Chris Harmouzis
Two Professors: Hanging in the Green Room with Professor Elemental
Made Green by Lex Machina
Two Professors, Take Two: Professor Elemental is a Very Funny Fellow
Photo by Jeff Long
Liana K, Queen of the Geeks, with husband Steven, Envy of the Geeks
Kicking off Saturday in Jha Goh's Roundtable, Taking Notes
photo by Chris Hourmouzis
Jha (Jaymee) Goh running the roundtable
J.M. Frey weighing in at the roundtable
Me and Jha, post-roundtable - finally, we meet in person!
How to get photographed at a Steampunk Con: stand with people wearing cooler outfits than you.
Photo by Paul Neale
 Joe Giammarco's excellent steampunk bardic rig.
Kenneth Shelley, designer of cool clothes, including my forthcoming plus fours!
Lloyd Penney and his Mafioso wife. They look happier in the Exhibition Hall photo. This is right before Lloyd draws iron and starts shooting.
Steampunk Scholar with Countess Lenora, the powerhouse behind steampunkcanada.ca
 Adam Smith, one of the organizers of CNSE. A man I literally look up to.
Finally got to meet Thadeus Tinker in the flesh, pictured here with "Naked Dave," and J.M. Frey
 Lex Machina finally gets to "shoot me in the face." Cross one off the steampunk bucket list!
Photo by Lex Machina
 J.M. Frey and the Steampunk Scholar
Photo by Lex Machina
 Behind the scenes: Lex Machina works her magic with J.M. Frey
The lovely ladies of Sadistic Vanity and their storefront - great fashion!
Hanging out with Stuart Long and his longsuffering companions.
 Sitting on the "Steampunk Literature" panel with Rob St. Martin, J.M. Frey, and Adrienne Kress
photo by Chris Hourmouzis
Portable antique typewriter like Mina Harker's from the collection of Martin Howard
 Antique letter-press style typewriter from the collection of Martin Howard
Slipped in to the game room at the end-of-day to witness near end-of-world Arkham Horror session!
 More discussion with Stuart Long (off camera) and his still-longsuffering companions
Photo by Emily Dunlop
 This is the jacket and the goggles that have been with me at every steampunk convention since the beginning of my research. The jacket is from Le Chateau, from when I played in a band in the '90s; my wife sewed on the three levels of cogs, which stand for B.A., M.A., and PhD (although to be fair, I shouldn't have that third cog yet!). The goggles were given to me by Natalie Ratanen and the crew of Legion Fantastique!) This is the last photo of me before I discover the Kraken Rum.
photo by Jeff Long

May 23, 2011

Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter (1979)

If you know anything about steampunk, you should know who K.W. Jeter is. He's the man who coined the label "steampunk" in a nigh-legendary letter to Locus magazine in 1987. While many have rightly noted that Jeter did not invent steampunk per se: he ironically (in every sense of the word) provided us with a term to describe those gonzo Victorian fantasies he and Californian writing mates Tim Powers and James Blaylock were creating. Arguably, Blaylock retains the distinction of having written the first of these tales among the California trio with "The Ape Box Affair," but steampunk scholars differ on who really wrote the first true steampunk work. Some would say Moorcock, writing Warlord of the Air across the Atlantic pond nearly a decade before Blaylock or Jeter. What is less ambiguous is Jeter being the man who first used the term steampunk, and so ostensibly coined the term.

Accordingly, newer readers of steampunk have a high bar of expectation when it comes to read K.W. Jeter's first steampunk work, Morlock Night (1979). They expect it to be a work derivative of cyberpunk in some way, since Jeter had written some cyberpunk. They mistakenly assume it to be serious and political like Moorcock. My most recent run-in with this flawed perception of seminal steampunk came at the Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition (CNSE) in Toronto, April 29-May1, when someone made the offhand comment that newer steampunk writing isn't as serious as the original works were. It wasn't the first time I've heard this statement, and it certainly wasn't the last. Following that session, Thadeus Tinker of UK steampunk fame and I had a chuckle at this, both citing Jeter's Morlock Night as a perfect example of how steampunk has always been a mix of the gravitas and levitas.

Readers of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine have further reason to raise the bar of expectation, since Morlock Night purported on the original cover, to explain "what happened when the Time Machine returned." Fans of Wells' serious social commentary are bound to be disappointed when they discover that Jeter's novel is pure page-turning fun. One of his characters self-reflexively warns the Wellsian faithful not to take things too seriously here: after all, it's only a story: "My good fellow, don't get so excited over a mere story! Divert yourself with whatever sequels you care to imagine, but save such passion for reality" (9). The conversation surrounding this statement should give the attentive reader the indication that this isn't Wells' agenda anymore -- this is going in a new direction.

Further, as Blaylock chronicles in "Parenthetically Speaking," his afterword to The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, Morlock Night was written not only as a sequel to The Time Machine, but also as part of a series "that would involve the reincarnation of King Arthur throughout history" (469). Although the series was scrapped, Jeter found a home for Morlock Night with DAW paperbacks. In short, Morlock Night is a sequel to The Time Machine in story, but not in spirit, as well as a mashup with Arthurian legend. 

I didn't know this when I first read Morlock Night last spring, and was accordingly surprised when Merlin himself walked into the story, when magic was used unabashedly, and ultimately, the goal was to save Christendom. I balanced this against forum discussion where I'd been told steampunk was intrinsically political, and likely of an anarchic stripe, because that's the way original steampunk literature was. And yet, here I was, reading original steampunk that shared greater affinities with C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength than anything by Moorcock. I've glibly stated that the psudeo-Judeo-Christian influences outweigh the secular political ones in early steampunk, though I have no interest in seeing any ideology conflated a priori with steampunk.

I wondered if Jeter wasn't trying to be ironic with Merlin's early speech about the call of adventure to the hero:
"King Arthur is reborn every generation in time to intercede against the direst threat facing the cherished Christian and human ideals that are embodied in England more than any other place. It's a commentary on humanity's penchant for mischief, inasmuch as there's always a threat to Christendom." (41)
But this is delivered with deadpan seriousness, despite the lead character's incredulity. There is even a moment near the end when it seems a more cynical conclusion will be delivered, when Excalibur hasn't manifested, but by the end of the book, all will have been set right in a fictional universe where there is right and wrong, without ambiguous shades of gray muddying the waters. 

Angry Robot books has released a lovely new edition of Morlock Night in an omnibus with Jeter's other steampunk classic, Infernal Devices. As with the re-release of Joe Lansdale's steampunk works, this omnibus features cover art by John Coulthart, one for each story: Infernal Devices, arguably the superior work on the front, and, despite being chronologically first in publication date, Morlock Night on the back. What's fascinating about Coulthart's beautiful cover is that it continues to promulgate a horizon of expectation for Morlock Night as pure science fiction. There is no explicit indication of  the magical elements in the novel; one might construe the eyes as those of the evil Merdenne Ibrahim, nemesis to Merlin, but they could just as easily be Morlock eyes. While the Arthurian elements are crucial to the narrative, they are as absent on the re-release as they were in Josh Kirby's art for the DAW edition. While I love Coulthart's approach, I wish Kirby had still been alive to produce one of his crowded, overpopulated covers in the style he is famous for with Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. It certainly would have indicated the tone of Morlock Night better: unlike many of Jeter's other books, Morlock Night does not contain dark themes: it is a romantic adventure story filled with nineteenth century tech and medieval magic.



Yet I suspect that many steampunk fans will pick up Angry Robot's re-release, and finding Merlin lurking in the pages of Morlock Night, be as disappointed as several reviewers on Amazon have been. "Magic doesn't belong in my steampunk," they'll cry. "Where's all the industrial retrofuturistic tech?" And while there is some, there won't be enough to salve the presence of the Magician of all Magicians, nor of the goal of fighting for Christendom and Old Brittania. To scrub the filth of such ethnocentrism from their palate, they'll need to turn to something darker, grittier, and laced with political subtext. Yet ignoring Jeter's contribution to the steampunk canon (and yes, I'm going to use that contentious term, because steampunk reading lists have been including Jeter for years, while it was abundantly clear most of these list-makers have never read Morlock Night, being as it was out of print and expensive to track down before Angry Robot's re-release), is like excising The Anubis Gates on the grounds Powers himself says he doesn't really think it's steampunk.

Jeter coined the term steampunk as a tongue-in-cheek response to the an inquiry of what Blaylock was doing in his Langdon St. Ives short stories and novels, what Powers was doing in Anubis Gates, and what Jeter himself was doing in Morlock Night and Infernal Devices. Current steampunks might not like their steampunk featuring reincarnated Kings and immortal wizards, but a serious study of steampunk literature must include these seminal works.

My recommendation to those who have never had the fun of reading Morlock Night is to adjust their horizon of expectation accordingly. This is only Jeter's third novel. It was written effectively on spec for a series idea. Knowing it isn't going to deal with Wells' social issues helps. Knowing there will be magic ahead of time may assist in reading and enjoying it as well. The bottom line? Steampunk has always been about the application of the aesthetic to many different approaches involving different themes and ideologies. This isn't Moorcock's political Warlord of the Air, nor is it the pure whimsy of Blaylock. It is a short adventurous romp using the plot devices of The Time Machine combined with a reincarnated King Arthur storyline. If you're expecting more, you're going to be disappointed. Go in with the same brain that enjoyed Saturday matinees of Doug McClure movies, and you'll likely have a good time. This isn't high-literature, it's high adventure based on high literature.

May 10, 2011

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder (2011)


We interrupt your regularly scheduled Seminal Steampunk theme to bring you this teaser to the full review over at Tor. com

I put off reading my copy of Mark Hodder’s debut novel, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack until the review copy of its sequel, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, arrived. We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but the covers of many PYR releases, and those by Jon Sullivan in particular, challenge our ability to reserve judgment. The image of a brassy looking automaton drawing a sword-cane to square off against a massive, patchwork-looking figure (a seemingly steampunk Kingpin), surrounded by spectral figures (steam wraiths!) in flight was too much to resist. Accordingly I set to work devouring Spring Heeled Jack, a phenomenal first novel deserving of the recently won Philip K. Dick award. As I said in my review of Spring Heeled Jack, if this is what the “punk” Hodder wants to see steampunk look like, then I say with Oliver Twist, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

And more there is. The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is a worthy successor to Spring Heeled Jack, combining a number of seemingly clichéd steampunk elements in ways that shatter and rebuild them: the combination of industrial and biological sciences ala Westerfeld’s Leviathan; the filthy London of Gibson and Sterling’s Difference Engine, filled with anachronistic innovations; recursive fantasy blending both historical and literary figures as in Newman’s Anno Dracula; the Agent of the Crown, seen in Green’s Pax Britannia series; the labyrinthine schemes of secret societies in Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and Tidhar’s Camera Obscura; multi-threaded plots akin to Powers’ Anubis Gates; and the quirky humor of Blaylock’s Adventures of Langdon St. Ives. Where these predecessors and contemporaries are inferior, Hodder elevates his material, and where they are masters of narrative, he matches them.
The story defies summary, but the narrative centers upon Sir Richard Francis Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne’s investigation into a theft of black diamonds, ultimately embroiling them in the affairs of a dubious claimant, supposedly the heir of a cursed estate. As with Anubis Gates, this only scratches the surface of Hodder’s tale, as his secondary world-building is delightfully dense. Readers familiar with nineteenth century will enjoy the numerous changes Hodder has wrought, which take this simple plotline and render it complex. The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man clearly demontrates Hodder’s ability for making the vast elements of his secondary world cohere, live, and breathe, and to do it in a way that is deliciously entertaining.

Read the whole review at Tor.com!

May 3, 2011

Steampunk Prime edited by Mark Ashley (2010)

To kick off the May to June theme of Seminal Steampunk here at Steampunk Scholar, I begin with a book I do not consider steampunk, to clearly delineate what I mean by seminal steampunk from steampunk antecedents.

One of my recurring bones of contention is the tacit assumption that nineteenth century speculative fiction is steampunk. Lists of steampunk fiction regularly include Verne and Wells without any caveat to their works being inspirations or antecedents to steampunk. And while I understand the marketing strategy involved, Steampunk Prime is guilty of picking at this bone of contention.

In his introduction, "When Steampunk was Real," editor Mark Ashley makes several statements to the effect that Victorian and Edwardian science fiction is steampunk. While he concedes Edward Ellis's Steam Man of the Prairies as a "progenitor" of steampunk, he is not using this term in a grandfathering sense that many use Verne or Wells when constructing a lineage of science fiction writing. Rather, Ashley asserts this is where steampunk began. Avoiding all ambiguity, he boldly claims that "steampunk was well under way by the 1880s, but came into its own in the 1890s."  

Those who frequent my blog will know I argue for steampunk's genesis in the 1970s with Moorcock in the UK, and Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter in the 1980s in the U.S. I'm open to a "blast radius" (in both directions - Wild, Wild West in the '60s and the increase in steampunk publications in the '90s) inclusion of other works within that period, such as Richard Lupoff's Into the Aether, but I firmly contend that steampunk is a postmodern phenomenon. Nevertheless, in the interest of keeping the debate open, I was willing to agree to disagree with Ashley, until I read his introduction to the very first short story in Steampunk Prime, where he makes a distinction of terminology:
We should not call these steam men or automata by the name robots. That word did not pass into the English language until the translation of Karel Capek's 1920 play Rossum's Universal Robots in 1923 ... For the steampunk period they were automata and, as the essence of steampunk, they feature in our first two stories. (12)
Ashley establishes and transgresses his rules of nomenclature, all in one paragraph. We ought to avoid  anachronistic terms for these nineteenth century artificial beings: don't call them robots--call them automata. I hate to be the nitpicker, but by the same standard, shouldn't we call it Scientific Romance Prime, as the term steampunk "did not pass into the English language" until K.W. Jeter coined the term, tongue-in-cheek, in 1987?

I can hear the protests already: I'm being anal retentive. Can't we retroactively subsume works which fall under the steampunk header, regardless of when they were written? To me, it's like saying The Eddas and Beowulf are high fantasy, which they are not. Tolkien used these as inspiration to write The Lord of the Rings, but that does not make them high fantasy. That is a twentieth century innovation. You might say I'm being restrictive, and you'd be right. I'm a guardian of precision in language, because too often I see the discussion getting inclusive to the point of insignificance.

What Steampunk Prime laudably collects under one cover are fourteen short works of speculative fiction. There is nothing retrofuturistic or neo-Victorian about it. Mark Hodder has a wonderful moment in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, when the enigmatic Jack names Sir Richard Burton one of the great Victorians, to which Burton replies, "What the hell is a Victorian?" (126). In Hodder's London, Victoria was assassinated: accordingly, there are no Victorians. But I had to laugh at this passage as a commentary on steampunk at large: we consider nineteenth century Brits to be Victorians, but they would not have. This is the perspective of the backward gaze, which is intrinsic to steampunk: literary or popular, political or frivolous, steampunk is commentary on some facet of the nineteenth century, even when it doesn't take place there.

What Ashley has collected in Steampunk Prime isn't retrofuturistic: it's futuristic. George Parsons Lathrop's "In the Deep of Time" an excellent example of what I mean, since the Time Traveler, sent forward by the Society of Futurity finds a world decidedly un-Victorian, and furthermore, un-steampunk. Where steampunk nostalgically revisits the fashion of the nineteenth century, Lathrop's Time Traveler summarily rejects it. In a comparison between Eva Pryor, his love interest from the nineteenth century, and Electra, a modern woman, the Time Traveler is decidedly attracted towards the Electra's costume, which seems pulled from the set of Logan's Run:
Charming though Eva was in her way, she had perhaps placed herself at a disadvantage by having insisted on keeping her nineteenth century costume. The angular slope and spread of her skirt, her unnatural wasp waist, the swollen sleeves, and the stiff, ungainly bulge of her corsage had a grotesque and even offensive effect. The extraordinary tangle, also, of artificial flowers, wings, and other rubbish that she had carried on her head-for she still wore her hat-was as barbaric or savage as the head-dress, of some early Norse warrior or Red Indian chief.
To all this Electra presented a refreshing contrast of harmony, with grace and dignity and style of dress modern, yet classic, womanly, yet suggesting the robes of a goddess. (99)
This is only one of several such rejections of the very style and aesthetic steampunk embraces. Admittedly, this cannot be restricted to corsets (and yes, all puns are intended), since other fashion choices abound in steampunk writing. Maria Boyd, the heroine of Cherie Priest's Clementine, finds herself needing to shed her undergarments in order to properly handle a bubble-turreted gatling gun; Matt Cruse finds Nadira's lack of corset alluring in Kenneth Oppel's Skybreaker; Gail Carriger's Madame Lefoux wears men's clothing. But these divergences from fashion norms still evoke the neo-Victorian retrofuture of steampunk. Lathrop's proclivities, do not - even the technology of the future dismisses the dreams of the nineteenth century: "They are on an entirely different plan from the flying machines which were announced but had not yet come into use when I was last alive" (104).

Even when the stories seem reminiscent of steampunk, we must remember they are antecedents to steampunk, and remain futuristic, not retrofuturistic. They are the science fiction of their day, not the nostalgic recreation of a romanticized past. There is a difference, and I think it is wrong-headed to claim them as steampunk: effective marketing, yes, but not accurate taxonomy. Steampunk is, at the earliest, a mid-20th century innovation.

All this said, people who like steampunk will enjoy a number of the stories collected in Ashley's anthology, as well as Paul di Filippo's excellent foreword. There is a wonderful mix, including adventure ("The Gibraltar Tunnel," my favorite of the lot), horror ("What the Rats Brought"), apocalyptic ("The Great Catastrophe"), and more. I applaud Ashley for unearthing these stories from the vaults they were in. Where I had expected an anthology of short stories by Verne, Poe, Wells, and other oft-cited steampunk antecedents, I found a collection of artifacts of what we should likely consider science fiction antecedents as well. This is speculative literature from the days before it had a proper name firmly affixed to it, providing us with a window into the birth of SF ideas that have become cliched: the very first story, "Mr Broadbent's Information," contains ideas possibly borrowed from Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau, prefiguring the four year life span of androids in Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and "automata like prize-fighters" such as the one in James Lovegrove's steampunk short story, "Steampunch."

So even as I refuse to call Steampunk Prime steampunk--in much the same manner I refuse Verne, Wells, and other Victorian and Edwardian era writers as such--I cannot help but recommend it for those who enjoy genuine windows into the past. As artifact of bygone speculative fiction, Steampunk Prime is worth a read. My hat's off to the marketing strategists who decided to capitalize on steampunk's popularity to get this collection out there -- while it might offend my more pedantic sensibilities, the mercenary in me is glad this collection has not only seen the light of day, but might end up in more hands than it would have if it had been labeled Dusty Old Speculative Fiction primarily from the Edwardian Period.
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