If my old Times column was a burning house, and I could only escape with one of the columns in my arms, it wouldn’t be hard for me. I’m proud of them all, but one of the earliest pieces – about a wonderful steampunk anthology – is the equivalent, for me, of grabbing your sleeping child and rushing through a smoky doorway.
From June 29, 2008
Despite the obvious danger, a determined postman climbed to the top of Mt. Etna to complete a delivery. Once there, he took a small parcel from his satchel. He stared at the label again, just to be sure. It read:
The summit, Mt. Etna
And underneath that, the following:
Special instructions: Drop it in
That’s what he did. If some publicity office wanted to waste its money, he thought, then let them. His job was done. He turned, his thoughts already on the descent.
The little package fell for what seemed like days and, impossibly, resisted the fires inside the volcano until it wound up in the hands of a very old man with a limp. He carried it to a table deep inside a cavern and, by the light of a naphtha lamp, opened the package to find a book: “Steampunk,” edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Tachyon Publications: 400 pp., $14.95 paper).
“What is this, now?” said the fellow, who happened to be the divine craftsman himself. Nothing ever came down the volcano’s throat, so he was pleasantly surprised. Lately, Hephaestus had been feeling especially lonely. The many automata he created, beautiful though they were, just didn’t satisfy the yearning for companionship that had gripped him ever since the Greek gods were vanquished by the modern world’s arrival. He could use some good reading to lighten his mood. . . .
The publication of “Steampunk” — along with the recent attention that the eponymous science-fiction genre has received in the New York Times and elsewhere — has presented an opportunity to reintroduce readers to a brand that has been around for at least 30 years now. Steampunk writers create fantasies that combine a Victorian-era mise-en-scène with advanced technologies. Machines are made of antique brass, glass and wood, leather and cast iron, powered by steam and full of lethal possibility. It is as if a mad scientist had done all his shopping at Victoriana instead of Sharper Image.
Why send such a package to the mythic blacksmith?
For a simple reason — in the stories of “Steampunk,” there are unavoidable echoes of Greek myth and artifice. The steampunks are clearly descended from the ancient makers of myth, and the one figure recalled many times in the course of reading the VanderMeers’ excellent anthology is Hephaestus, the patriarch of steampunk engineers. In Homer and elsewhere, we learn that he built brazen bulls that puffed fire, a golden bed for the Sun, the automata that helped him in his workshop, a guardian made of bronze who fought the Argonauts, and golden chairs and beds rigged with traps to catch the other gods in their lust.
Who else, then, deserved this recognition? Forget that other artificer, the maker of mazes — better not to mention his name around the grouchy smith, for it angers Hephaestus to hear the name of any rivals.
“Steam . . . punk?” Hephaestus chortled, opening the book.
The anthology offers three essays establishing the context of the steampunk genre, before moving into the stories and excerpts. Jess Nevins’ essay lays out the origins of steampunk and the writers whose work has defined it — among them, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (co-authors of “The Difference Engine”) — along withthe 19th and early 20th century writers who anticipated it: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edward S. Ellis, Harry Enton and Garrett Serviss, to name just a few. Rick Klaw’s survey, “The Steam-Driven Time Machine,” points readers to sites to help them comphrehend this expansive genre that, as Steampunk Magazine says sternly, is “more than a sub-category of fiction.” Bill Baker’s essay lists and describes the genre’s influence in comic books and graphic novels.
These are followed by an excerpt from “The Warlord of the Air,” a 1971 novel by the stunningly prolific Michael Moorcock in which the menacing approach of a zeppelin army at first seems “a massive bank of black cloud moving over the horizon of the hills” and evokes the Achaean ships approaching Troy to begin their nine-year siege. In James Blaylock’s story “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” (later expanded into a novel), secret agents battle a nefarious scientist who holds the Earth hostage: An approaching comet will collide with the planet if his demands aren’t met. Good eventually triumphs, as the heroes tap into the sole source capable of pushing the Earth out of the comet’s path — the power generated by the Earth’s molten core.
Hephaestus heartily approved of Blaylock’s story. “Of course!” he exclaimed.
In Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down,” the space-time continuum has been torn by the Time Traveller from H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” With the universe in chaos, four villains encased in a giant, steam-powered cowboy stomp through the wilderness seeking to find and destroy the Time Traveller, who is now called the Dark Rider. As the mechanical giant strides across rivers and up hills, its inhabitants swivel in their hammock-chairs, operating levers and pulleys and peering out through the stained-glass windows that are the giant’s eyes.
“I wonder what Epeirus would say,” the old god mused, thinking of the builder of the horse that fooled the Trojans.
The stories in “Steampunk” are about the romance of technology: They present a picture of formidable but fragile machines whose wires and clockwork innards are exposed for all to see. In Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters,” for instance, scientists create human life by imprinting names on unfertilized ova, recalling a rabbi’s insertion of a scroll containing God’s name into the mouth of a golem. Chiang’s story crosses microbiology with the Kabbalah and uses improbably crude instruments: A long glass needle “could be clamped into the brass framework with its tip approaching the slide beneath the microscope; the knurled wheels presumably were used to bring the needle into contact with an ovum.”
In Michael Chabon’s “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance,” there’s a menacing war machine called a land sloop — a giant, steam-powered wagon — that pursues and captures a rebel against the British Crown in an alternative world in which the American Revolution never happened. The sloop is described thus: “She was a Model 3 Terror, long and canine, a steel greyhound powered by a hundred-horsepower Bucephalus engine. The relative frailty of her armor-plating was more than compensated for by her maneuverability . . . riveted leather treads clattering against the gangway of pine planking. . . . ” The appeal of such a contraption seems to be in its combining of undeniable power with obvious design flaws — something not unlike that glorious pair of wings, powerful but, fastened by wax, fatally flawed for the young Icarus
“You’d never find me using wax,” Hephaestus muttered. He looked over at the mechanical women as they worked the forge’s bellows. They were beautiful. They made his isolation easier to bear. He turned to Jay Lake’s “The God-Clown Is Near,” in which Cosimo Ferrante, a “flesh sculptor,” is commissioned to build a god-clown. “A creator like myself,” he thought. Ferrante’s creation, however, is built for menacing reasons, not for companionship. Lake’s story refers to the Dark Towns — strange, twilight communities existing alongside those of Earth, though they are somehow obscured from our view and go unnoticed. The creation of this clown is part of a secret plan to begin a war with our world (called the Cities of the Map). The clown is to be the first of an army, and its circus-y, cheerful exterior conceals “something else entirely, a steel-armatured horror of biological toxins, chemical hells and radically overdesigned muscles.”
At this point, a sultry young woman approached and interrupted the smith. She was covered entirely in gold; she looked quite a bit like Jill Masterson, in the James Bond film “Goldfinger.”
“What is that, Hef?” she asked.
He held the open book out to her.
“Here, darling. This, I think, is for you,” he said.
She took it up and glanced at the description of the clown creature without its festive appearance: “It resembled an enormous garden slug in its pale nakedness, folds of flesh rolling along the rib cage and gut, massive thighs, yet with narrow, long-fingered hands like a strangler. There were no genitals, just a little dimpled mound for urination…”
“Disgusting,” she said.
He smiled. “There’s no creation more cunning than you,” he said. “But the creature described here is built for military reasons, not beauty. And don’t be too quick to judge Ferrante or to call him sadistic. Remember” — and here he was thinking of Talos, the bronze guardian he made for Minos — “that I dabbled once in similar horrors.”
After Hef had delved into the rest of the anthology — stories by Paul Di Filippo, Neal Stephenson, Mary Gentle and many others — he felt a good deal more cheerful. For here, in this group of writers, he sensed a connection to the ancient makers of myth. Both told stories in which contrivances, willful humans and divine influences all merge. The VanderMeers’ anthology (would that it were longer) effectively captures what the steampunk genre is all about.