Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: Steampunk'd, ed. Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg

I'm not really certain how to write a review for a compilation of stories, but I figure it's at least worth a try. There were a few different reasons I bought Steampunk'd when I saw it in the comic shop a few weekends ago, and I'll admit that they were mostly self-interested. I try and keep abreast of what's going on in the steampunk genre, so that I can make sure my own stories stay compelling and original. I did a massive double take then, of course, when I saw a story by William C. Dietz in the collection, entitled "The Battle of Cumberland Gap". For those who don't know, Cumberland Gap is an area of the Appalachian mountains, one that lends itself so wonderfully to names that I still have every intention of writing a collection of short stories about the Wizard of Cumberland Gap. I had to have this book, to see if anyone else was writing Appalachian steampunk, but sadly, it was a story that simply took place in the Appalachians, and didn't have anything to do with the people or the traditions of the area. Not that it wasn't good anyway!

As is no doubt the case with every collection of short stories, I did feel that this book was a little hit and miss. A couple of the stories suffered from editing deficiencies, which I'm not sure whether to blame on the authors or the compilers, seeing as they really were concentrated in just two of the stories. Some of the stories felt a little too short, and the steampunk element strained. I'm really not a fan of stories that mix steampunk and magic, or that explain steampunk technology via magic, as in "Opals from Sydney" by Mary Louise Eklund but I'm aware that that's a personal opinion. That story in particular, as well as "Foggy Goggles" by Donald J. Bingle, felt as though the world-building was not very complete, and that the author decided the story could be classified as steampunk simply because there were dirigibles or brass robots involved. "Foggy Goggles" in particular annoyed me, because it was a short gimmick story intended only to grind a political ax of the author. Nevermind that I agree with the sentiment that "Climate change is bad, mkay?", I just don't feel that heavy-handed messages like that have much of a place in entertainment.

Other stories in the collection were quite good, however, and bode well for the future development of the field. In particular I was very impressed with "Chance Corrigan and the Tick-tock King of the Nile" by Micheal A. Stackpole and "The Nubian Queen" by Paul Genesse, both of which showed a real appreciation for history and the genre, as well as a dedication to world-building that bested even some of the novels I've read. Well-written stories really are the norm rather than the exception in this collection, and I consider it well worth the money I spent. It does raise some interesting questions about the genre that I feel like we should address as authors at some point, though.

-Should steampunk be primarily written as alternate history or as a new blend of fantasy and sci-fi?
-Does it matter if we face the same Hard/Soft dichotomy in steampunk as we do in sci-fi, or should we try to encourage the genre in one direction or the other?
-Can we please get some character tropes other than "Victorian Adventuress Inventor", "Dapper Industrialist", and "Myopic Tinkerer"?
-How much magic is allowed in technology before it simply becomes magic, period?
-How ingrained does the technology need to be with the world before it's called steampunk? Does "x period of history with zepplins" count, or do we need a more wholeist approach?

Please feel free to discuss your opinions in the comments, or link to other places where discussions like this are going on. I know we all have individual approaches as authors, but I'd love to hear what people think the answers to some of these questions are or should be!

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