Thursday, 30 September 2010

Extraordinary Engines

edited by Nick Gevers
Solaris Books

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology brings together original stories by the foremost writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Edited by Nick Gevers, this collection includes Jeffrey Ford James Morrow, Robert Reed, James Lovegrove, Marly Youmans, Kage Baker, Ian R. MacLeod, Margo Lanagan, Keith Brooke, Adam Roberts, Jeff VanderMeer and Jay Lake.

Hmmm. 'Definitive' is a big word to live up to but we all know it was put there for marketing purposes only. You'd have to be a particularly arrogant sort of chap to label your own work as such (whether you're the writer or the editor). Let's be straight here, it isn't 'definitive' by a long way. It has it's moments certainly but on the whole it's a fairly mundane read. What follows is a story by story instant reaction review.

Steampunch - James Lovegrove
Short tale about the rise and fall of robot boxing. It's got a nice sense of time and place and rolls along nicely but is a little too concerned with getting the taste of the place and as such is lacking an edge. It's written as a monologue delivered (complete with asides) direct to the reader which has never been my favourite - no idea why but it's always struck me as a clunky format. A reasonably enjoyable start though.

Static - Marly Youmans
Not really sure what to make of this one. It reminded me strongly of Dianne Wynn Jones (she of Howl's Moving Castle fame) with a touch of Neil Gaiman in there too. It is essentially a wicked stepmother story, even to the point that the girl protagonist's (the princesses) room is called 'the tower'. It's got some nice characterisation (the old fella in the attic is terrific) and some real wit but for me the static riddled world created was just too awkward and unwieldy to settle.

Speed, Speed the Cable - Kage Baker
Baker is, according to the accompanying blurb, the author of the Company novels of a time travelling corporation and this tale fits into that universe. I like her writing style, it's easy and fluid but really her story about the laying of a trans-Atlantic communications cable and an attempt to sabotage it is fairly weak. I'm intrigued by the writer though and may well invest in some of her longer works at some point in the future.

Elementals - Ian R. Macleod
I didn't dig his one at all really. It had a kind of charm to it and Macleod has an easy style but his tale of science and elemental spirits seemed at odds with itself and I felt I was reading a story that was simultaneously striving to go in two directions of once and succeeded only in going nowhere particularly interesting.

Machine Maid - Margo Lanagan
A fun little jaunt into the dubious worlds of Australian mining towns, new marriage, loneliness, murder and robotic sex dolls. The end is a little loose but the rest of the tale had me smiling.

Lady Witherspoon's Solution - James Morrow
One of the more recognisable names in the anthology, Morrow is a writer of some note and this is shown in the style, panache and sheer gonzo humour that runs through his piece. I'm not even going to attempt to describe it but it's the definite high point so far.

Hannah - Keith BrookeA tiny little excursion into Frankenstein science. Too short and too unsophisticated to be truly satisfying but certainly not awful.

PetrolPunk - Adam Roberts
I've had a copy of Roberts' 'Swiftly' novel sat on my bookshelf for a year or so now. It does look like a fun read but I've not had chance to give it a go so this tale is a bit of a dry run for me.
Petrolpunk is a nifty, light-hearted affair with a novel little alternative reality story at it's heart. It's told with an innovative and engaging voice but is too brief for it's scope and suffers a little for it. That said though, i did thoroughly enjoy it.

American Cheetah - Robert Read
A strange little tale of a robotic Abe Lincoln and an equally metallic James / Younger gang. It had promise which it squandered in a muddled ending subsequently improved with an nice little coda.

Fixing Hanover - Jeff Vandermeer
Lots of style but very little substance.

The Lollygang Save The World On Accident - Jay Lake
Jay Lake is another author I have sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be be read (his Mainspring novel) so I've read this one with anticipation. To be perfectly honest it was way too obliquely sci-fi for my tastes. I prefer my sci-fi to be near or twisted future rather than the exoticism of pure sci-fi so not really my cup of tea this one.

The Dream of Reason - Jeffrey Ford
Not really quite sure what the point of this one was. It didn't particularly go anywhere and didn't even particularly fill the brief by being of a steampunk bent. A poor ending to a fairly slapdash book.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Difference Engine

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Gollancz S.F.

Publishers description:
The computer age has arrived a century ahead of time with Charles Babbage's perfection of his Analytical Engine. The Industrial Revolution, supercharged by the development of steam-driven cybernetic Engines, is in full and drastic swing. Great Britain, with her calculating-cannons, steam dreadnoughts, machine-guns and information technology, prepares to better the world's lot . . .

I've not read any Sterling before but for a brief period a few years back i read as much Gibson as i could possibly lay my hands on. As an author I find him to be the consummate world-builder with a nicely pulp sense of plot and pacing. You'll have to excuse me therefore if I over-egg Gibson's role in this collaboration as it's not in my power to be able to separate each participants contributions and role - and I think I probably wouldn't want to even if I could.

This collaborative steampunk novel (probably more correctly described as inter-connected novellas) was an absolute corker from start to almost finish. The picture they paint of a London (indeed a world) changed before it's time by the genius of Charles Babbage is simply awe-inspiring. You can taste the smog and feel the starched collars. The societal (and technological) changes seem purposefully organic. Change is everywhere and it's happening before our eyes - at an accelerated pace obviously as that is the premise of the novel - but it's happening within a logical framework. No leaps of fancy are needed here, there are no robot-police or trans-continental dirigibles, the new technology is transforming society at a pace that we living in the here and now would recognise but which is lightning fast when placed in the context of the novel's Victorian era.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the new technology is in it's embrace by the new government itself in it's pursuit of compiling statistical information regarding the population as a whole thereby firmly rooting the novel in the tradition of British bureaucratic dystopian novels a la 1984 & Brave New World an aspect that becomes increasingly apparent at the novels end.

Unlike much literature in this field the technology isn't the focus here it is to a great extent superfluous. It serves to place the plot in a world unlike our own but one that we can easily empathise and interact with. It is the lot of the people of this world that is - as it should be - the novels focus.
At it's heart there is a relatively straight forward spy / revolutionary / adventurer storyline but orbiting this is a bewildering array of subplots and narratives that occasionally impact upon the main in ways that are not always immediately apparent but have a pivotal role in the overall arc.

It isn't perfect. It's episodic nature leaves it feeling a little jarring at times and the placement of the climactic finale to the simplistic action-romp tale leaves the extended ending feeling a little like an afterthought which is a real shame. It is however a novel that I enjoyed immensely. Unusually for a steampunk novel it felt real, it felt familiar and it felt natural.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A Gentleman's Duel

I thought I'd launch this blog with a nifty little animation for your delectation.

Blur Studio's, A Gentleman's Duel, tells the tale of an Englishman and his French rival as they attempt to woo a buxom young lady. Things soon degenerate into one of the things we all love so much about the genre - giant robot battlesuits beating seven shades of oil out of each other!

It's beautifully animated and makes a valiant stab at that sort of 'Carry on...', 'Benny Hill', 'Seaside postcard' saucy British humour. It isn't 100% successful at that but does raise a few chuckles. The joy of it though is in the seamless and riotous brawl.

I'd love to see them take this tale further.


and welcome to The Steampunk Review.

As a small boy my tastes for anachronistic machinery and outmoded clothing was cemented with repeated viewings of The Time Machine (with Rod Taylor), any Doug McClure movie I could find and, of course, Doctor Who.

My intention here is to pull together as many threads of the steampunk diaspora as possible. I've no interest in pulling them apart and analysing - i leave that sort of thing for others - my intent is purely to document the many flavours of this genre and to add merely my tuppence worth on what I read and see.

I hope you enjoy what you read and find something new and of interest.