The diversity of the sci-fi subgenre is amply demonstrated in this anthology of previously published stories, which are supported by a handful of new essays.
The essays are rather dull—mostly just rote lists—and not nearly as informative as just reading the stories, which define a nearly indescribable mode and milieu of storytelling both clearly and broadly. Put simply, steampunk is sci-fi either set in or extrapolated from the Victorian era, the “steam” part of the term referring to the source of technology in the various fictional worlds. But as the stories here demonstrate, even that basic framework is easily stretched, and the writers in this collection do so with creativity and verve. Ranging from big names (Neal Stephenson, Michael Chabon, Michael Moorcock) to small, the contributors bring in elements of alternate history, pulp adventure fiction, high fantasy, cyberpunk and drawing-room farce to their tales. There’s a wonderful deadpan humor to Molly Brown’s story of a ladies’ gardening society discovering how to terraform the moon; James Blaylock’s account of a rivalry between gentleman scientists; and Paul Di Filippo’s tale of an amphibian Queen Victoria impostor. Some stories do stray a little too far afield: Ian R. MacLeod’s impressionistic origin myth for a utopian society and Mary Gentle’s fable about the perils of progress are a long way from the dime-novel origins of steampunk described in one of the opening essays, and not really grounded in anything recognizably Victorian. At the same time, Ted Chiang’s haunting “Seventy-Two Letters” creates a nearly unrecognizable society based as much in magic as technology, but it still captures something essential about its Victorian setting. And even when a story’s inclusion is questionable, the writing is never less than compelling.
Both fans of steampunk and readers for whom it’s a foreign concept should find this collection rewarding.