#999 Reading Challenge Reviews: 01 “Steampunk!: An Anthology…” by Kelly Link, Gavin J. Grant & many others

April 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

What most people know about “Steampunk”, myself included, comes from those fiercely dedicated people who have chosen to adopt “steam” personas, and dress in a manner dictated in the unofficial rules. We’re talking the cosplayers who you will not see with shred of plastic (or any other synthetic material), whose lives seem to revolve around tall hats, large goggles and mixtures of oil, metal, leather and wood. It’s a weird subgenre of people to be sure – it’s spawned music, art, architecture – but most importantly a “new” field within science fiction. And that’s where my excitement for the genre lays.

I’m not one to dress up or dedicate my life to fantasy, but I’m a sucker for a well-defined, creative story and “Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories” is a book that just really worked for me.

Right off the bat, the things that make this anthology work so great are also the things that somewhat bring about it’s downfall. In an effort to appeal to a wide range of Young Adult Fiction readers, the locations and the “rules” of what is and isn’t “steampunk” differs from story to story – with the promise that none of these stories are taking place in the usual location: Victorian England. We get stories in Australia, Appalachia, Rome, California…and all provide a different time frame and a different point of view. All the stories in the book work to the degree that they’re creative and engaging, though some obviously feature much stronger writing than others. Since it’s aimed at all ages, none of the stories fall into the hole of trying to be so high-concept that the story is lost. Everything moves along, there are no HUGE twists that will make your mind-numb. Much of these would work great as 1940′s radio dramas and that’s why it’s fantastic.

But as I finished the book and was reflecting and trying to rank the stories in order of preference, the thought came into my head that isn’t what it’s about. It’s about pushing the limits and the boundaries of this new genre, of expanding it ever so slightly so that people can see that there are genres of science fiction that seem dead and dull, but with a few slight tweaks and only a passing mention of the technology available from story to story, it’s our characters and resolutions that are always most important. Stop trying so hard to blow minds – we fall in love with characters using technology, not the technology itself.

Which is why the story “Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks near the end of the book is maybe the most memorable of all the stories present. While reading that particular story, I couldn’t help but think that Horrocks was playing into the stereotypes of “steampunk” more than any of the other authors and furthermore – his writing wasn’t as strong. It’s written from the point of view of an awkward teenage boy, terribly shy and bullied – a protagonist that stars in just about every book ever. But the “steam girl” in question is a “reality” created by a new girl to school who has a passing resemblance to this fictitious character, leaving us guessing that through some technology, she really is the hero she writes about. There is stories of traveling to Mars, fighting monsters and robots, all-new weapons and ships, and all of it is told convincingly, as an escape for these two teens who don’t have much else. And as the story wraps up, everything points to our new girl proving that she really is “Steam Girl” and she’ll show the big bully. Only she’s not, her made up “reality” truly is made up – something that isn’t done often enough.

What that provides in invaluable to someone like me, someone who enjoys speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, comic books and the like more than any other type of storytelling. I love being lost in these created worlds – but I don’t want to surrender myself. Too often authors and creators go out and tell kids, its ok to be who you are, to lose yourself – to be weird, and while I partially agree – I still believe in some footing in reality. Horrocks is able to tell us, “yeah, it’s ok to be weird, it’s ok to live in these worlds – but they aren’t real.” – And that is a powerful lesson.

And I feel it will also bring about stronger stories in the future.

But that’s just one example, and it’s probably the most conventional story in the collection. All in all, I definitely recommend the book to anyone with a passing interest in an odd subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. It reads pretty quick (though I took a long time with it), and leaves me wanting to seek out more.

I’m not going to start wearing goggles, but maybe I’ll keep reading about people who do.

4/5.

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