If, like me, you’ve bounced hard off a lot of steampunk writing because of its un-questioning promotion of Victorian England or a male-dominated, entirely white Wild West With Gears; if you’ve read Amal El-Mohtar’s article Winding Down the House and nodded from start to finish; if you like the potential in steampunk to take apart our conception of the 19th Century and put it back together in new, thoughtful ways – JoSelle Vanderhooft’s anthologies Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories and Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories go some way to providing steampunk with brain and heart (as well as some damn good fun).
For starters, they put the focus thoroughly on the female – and not just the white, straight female, but the queer female and, reasonably often, the queer female of colour.
Amal El-Mohtar herself has a story in the first volume, “To Follow The Waves”, set in a Damascus where dreams are crafted in gems for wealthy buyers. Struggling to create a dream of the sea, which she has never seen, Hessa is suddenly inspired by a beautiful woman she glimpses in a café – and, for the first time, crafts a dream for herself. “To Follow The Waves” is a rare story for showing negative consequences to one person’s fixation on another, as well as the passion and confusion felt by both people; El-Mohtar’s prose is beautiful and shot through with that passion. This is one of the first volume’s finest and most memorable stories, and demands a sequel.
My other favourites of the first volume are Shweta Narayan’s “The Padishah Begum’s Reflections” and Rachel Manija Brown’s “Steel Rider”. The former is set in Mughal India and carries a strong anti-colonial note to its story of relationships both inter-imperial and inter-personal. The latter, set in America, is about women who have been temporarily pushed by trauma into another world, where they acquired what basically amount to mecha, and how two of these women interact with one another. Both stories are striking and beautiful and strongly recommended. (Narayan’s is part of a wider set of stories featuring the Artificer Bird, which based on this one I need to track down.)
The second volume widens the scope even further, with stories taking place in Malaysia, Istanbul, the Chinese Hell, the Iberian peninsula, India, Persia, North America, Central Africa and Central Asia, and featuring protagonists of many backgrounds. Having read this one more recently, I can talk about it at more length; I also feel that it is the much stronger volume.
Nicole Kornher-Stace’s “Deal” takes Tall Tales and adds something you never knew they were missing: steampunk!
Well I’ll be, says Miz Prentiss, as this machine starts in a-chewin on er sleeve.
Miz Prentiss thinks on this a piece. Then she shrugs.
Best she can shrug, anyway, with a big old metal jaw wrappin its lips round er shoulder.
Let it have me, she says.
Believe me, them workers are in conniptions now. All no, ma’am an but yer arm. ma’am an you don’t
wanna die like this ma’am, really, now do you?
Who said anythin ’bout dyin? says Miz Prentiss. I’m just tryin to hitch a ride.
An through she goes. The way the paper tells it, she was last spotted makin twenty knots down the Yukon River on her way to Dawson City, burnin gold instead o coal.
(In case the work of Nicole Kornher-Stace is new to you, let me tell you: she works voice like some sculptors work clay. Deft.) Meanwhile Patty Templeton’s “Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues”, also set in North America, tells of two brewers whose love-feud turns the nearby town almost dry – and gets them in a bit more trouble besides.
Both stories are as full of fun as a barrel is of beer (at least until someone starts drinking), with larger-than-life women who drink, make more drink, mine for gold, work as midwifes and, at the heart of it all, seek out the lives they want, on their terms – and get them. HELL. YES.
Setting a striking contrast is Zen Cho’s melancholy “The Terracotta Bride”, about a very young wife in Hell who has been married to a rich man and must now adapt again to the arrival of a new wife, the eponymous bride. This story perfectly captures the very real helplessness that many of us – if not all – feel at certain points in our lives: things would have turned out better, if only we’d be smarter, quicker, bolder, but we weren’t. Arguably this story is not steampunk at all, but I don’t care. It’s lovely and sad and one of the best in the anthology.
I also loved Jeannelle Ferreira’s “A Thousand Mill Lofts Gray”, about the relationship between a wealthy Boston reformer and a poor Jewish seamstress in New York. Both women are so full of verve and life, and their story touches on several issues: the vast gap in their privilege (which is negotiated around rather than swept away), the death and mutilation caused by industrial machines, and the ways in which lesbian women of the era negotiated around the heterosexual majority. The story mentions Boston marriages and has the characters go to a lesbian play (and oh, that moment when Polly realises this play is about women like her) – it is difficult to be a lesbian, but there are ways and means. Actually, let’s see that moment:
Rachel sketched the play’s plot, in English, for Polly as the first act hurtled onward. It was an upstairsdownstairs romance, almost like any other to fill an evening for fifty cents, but the lovers were women. The virtuous brothel owner’s daughter loved a woman of ill repute, and they made plans to run away together, father, mother, marriage, the world be damned. None of the audience hissed or heckled, and nobody walked out; they might have seen leading ladies combing pretty ingénues’ hair every day. Polly leant out without knowing she did, and her hand clasped in Rachel’s was not quite hidden by the loge railing.
“Rachel, will they—can they…”
“Shh.” Rachel drew Polly back and kissed her, as the scene below them went to black.
“A Thousand Mill Lofts Gray” is only let down by its ending, which cranks up the angst but never explains Polly’s temporary absence. Still, it is 95% awesome, and that’s more than enough to make it one of my favourites.
Some stories were quite not as rich or complex as those discussed above, but I enjoyed them on their own terms. S.L. Knapp’s “Amphitrite” is a playful piece about a Cuban submarine engineer and the mermaid she encounters while stealing her sub from the Americans to give to the Cubans. Like many of the stories, it carries a bit of a bite amidst the fun: pointing to the ongoing problem of intellectual theft by powerful nations from less powerful ones. Jaymee Goh’s “In the Heart of Yellow Mountain” is mostly the recounting of an adventure shared by two women when they were younger – with the complex, un-equal relationship between them bringing heft to its action-focused narrative. A.M. Tuomala’s “Dark Horse” is a fun – and, briefly, quite sexy – piece about two competent, tough women, although it leaves a bit too much of its politics and motivations un-explained.
There were stories I wish I’d liked more, in both volumes. Nisi Shawl’s “The Return of Cherie” was a bit of a jumbled mess, although it did make me curious about the novel it’s excerpted from. Shveta Thakrar’s “Not the Moon but the Stars” has a lot of great ideas, but doesn’t quite succeed in tackling the tricky issues of mechanisation that it tentatively raises. In the first volume, there are quite a few that I’ve completely forgotten about. Others, like Mike Allen’s “Sleepless, Burning Life”, Matthew Kressel’s “The Hands That Feed” and Mikki Kendall’s “Copper for Trickster”, were cool but didn’t cling.
The anthologies are, sadly, not always without problems. NK Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine” ends on a troubling note:
In the silence that fell, Eugenie turned to Jessaline.
“Marriage,” she said, “and a house together. I believe you mentioned that?”
“Er,” said Jessaline, blinking. “Well, yes, I suppose, but I rather thought that first we would — ”
“Good,” Eugenie replied, “because I’m not fond of you keeping up this dangerous line of work. My inventions should certainly earn enough for the both of us, don’t you think?”
“Um,” said Jessaline.
“Yes. So there’s no reason for you to work when I can keep you in comfort for the rest of our days.” Taking Jessaline’s hands, she stepped closer, her eyes going soft again. “And I am so very much looking forward to those days, Jessaline.”
“Yes,” said Jessaline, who had been wondering just which of her many sins had earned her this mad fortune. But as Eugenie’s warm breast pressed against hers, and the thick perfume of the magnolia trees wafted around them, and some clockwork contraption within the workshop ticked in time with her heart… Jessaline stopped worrying. And she wondered why she had ever bothered with plans and papers and gadgetry, because it was clear she had just stolen the greatest prize of all.
Bolding mine. Eurgh.
The trope of the kept woman, who gives up her exciting career in order to be a safe little wife, is no less squicky when it’s about lesbians. It troubles me that this story is to be reprinted in an anthology of lesbian speculative fiction; I do not think such endings should be lauded.
I wish I could say that the majority of the stories in these anthologies are excellent. They’re not. Some suffer from trying to fit the arc of romance into a story of 10,000 words or fewer; quick proclamations of love are a common phenomenon. Others suffer from hasty endings of a more general nature. Especially in the first volume, there are stories that I simply found boring, as well as ones that I lightly enjoyed but quickly forgot.
But these anthologies are fun and, one or two problematic bits aside, they are something else that I have come to value immensely after reading them: they are safe. They are full of lesbians being awesome and doing their best to shape their own futures and having adventures and having sex and leading all sorts of lives. And, yes, some of them suffer, but these anthologies are so full of lesbians that there is no overarching trend in which lesbians must be killed, raped or made invisible, as exists elsewhere in SFF. This is such a beautiful breath of fresh air. The Steam-Powered anthologies aspire to be that moment when Polly leans over the railing; in that, they succeed. Though I wish that they were even better, that every story was as passionate as “To Follow The Waves” or “A Thousand Mill Lofts Gray”, as larger-than-life as “Deal” and “Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues”, as thoughtful as “The Padishah Begum’s Reflections” and “The Terracotta Bride”, I nonetheless enjoyed them greatly and look forward to future volumes. Steampunk is made that little bit better by their existence. May other writers take up this baton and tear steampunk apart some more.