5 Rated Books Book Reviews Steampunk Week

Steampunk Week – Book Review: Steampunk by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer


Author: edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer with contributions by Michael Chabon / Neal Stephenson / James P. Blaylock / Joe R. Lansdale / Mary Gentle / Ted Chiang / Michael Moorcock / Jay Lake / Molly Brown / Stepan Chapman / Ian R. MacLeod / Rachel E. Pollock / Paul Di Filippo / Rick Klaw / Jess Nevins / Bill Baker

Genre: Steampunk

Stand alone or series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: June 2008
Paperback: 432 pages

Steampunk is Victorian elegance and modern technology: steam-driven robots, souped-up stagecoaches, and space-faring dirigibles fueled by gaslight romance, mad scientists, and oh-so-trim waistcoats. It’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Wizard of Oz, and The Golden Compass. Replete with whimsical mechanical wonders and bold adventurers, this riveting anthology lovingly collects classic steampunk stories, pop-culture fueled discussions of steampunk, and essential recommended reading lists for the discerning steampunk fan.

From the editors of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases and The New Weird, this is steampunk. Hang on tight.

Why did I read the book: This one is considered THE definitive Steampunk anthology

How did I get the book: Bought


Steampunk is a collection of articles and stories pertaining to Steampunk. The three articles contained in the anthology seem to have been written specially for the collection whereas the stories have all been published before and are collected here as examples of “Best Of” that the genre has to offer.

I guess the question that needs to be asked is this: does the anthology succeed in its purpose to collect the best of the genre? I am….undecided.

I am not too sure that the unsuspecting reader, the one who never read Steampunk, would come away after reading this collection, wanting to read more. I rather think that the best public for the anthology are those who already enjoy Steampunk and want to know more by exploring the short story format or by reading one of the books that are considered an “Essential” reading. In that sense, I consider myself one of those and I am glad I did read it but I can’t really say I liked the majority of what I read.

The three articles for example are rather good. Introduction: The Nineteenth Century Roots of Steampunk by Jess Nevins is my favorite, an interesting essay about the roots of Steampunk going back to dime novels of the 19th century and the difference between a first “wave” of Steampunk fiction and a second “wave”. The other two are The Steam-Driven Time Machine: A Pop Culture Survey by Rick Claw which offers an insight about genre and its different format (books, movies, fashion, etc) and how the media has picked up on it and The Essential Sequential Steampunk: A Modest Survey of the Genre within the Comic Book Medium by Bill Baker takes a look at the genre within comics and graphic novel format. I do have to say though, as much as the articles are all good, they are not particularly insightful in a ”not to be missed” way. Any information provided and collected can easily be found by doing a simple Google search about the genre.

As for the stories themselves. This is where things get really complicated. Some of them are really, really good but amongst hose there are a couple I am not sure I would even consider Steampunk. Cyperpunk (such Neal Stephenson’s Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast) Gaslight Romance, yes. Steampunk? Perhaps not. In any case, admitting that all stories are a form of Steampunk – what do these stories say about the genre?

That there isn’t a clear definition, or a clear parameter to define it. Which is something I already knew but became set in stone after reading the anthology.

My favourite stories in the anthology are the lighter, more fun one ones like Victoria by Paul Di Filippo. Part of his Steampunk Trilogy of novella, this one was a delight to read. It tells the story of a how a scientist is able to genetically modify a newt into a woman with a tremendous sexual appetite. He calls her Victoria and she looks a bit like Queen Victoria. When the real Queen goes missing, the prime minister engages his help to substitute one woman for the other while they search for the queen. It is a great Victorian set story full of political intrigue and scandalous behaviour. The Selene Gardening Society is a whimsical comedy of manners in which a group of Victorian ladies decide to send the excess of garbage to the moon – which will, according to them eventually make the atmosphere habitable for humans. Another favourite but more in a darker streak was Seventy-Two Letters by Ted Chiang applying Kaballa and Gollems to a Steampunk setting. There is also a small except (3 pages or so long) of the very good Warlod of the Air by Michael Moorcock,a book considered to be proto-Steampunk. The excerpt is so small and so obviously part of a larger story that I don’t understand its inclusion in the anthology at all.

The other stories were a complete miss for me. Either because the concepts were not fully explored like Jay Lake’s The God-Clown is Near with the idea of “moral” Clowns and one being built to pass judgment lacks context – it seems to be part of one the author’s “world” but in here it just floats in space. Similarly, The Giving Mouth Ian R. MacLeod, a medieval Steampunk is beautifully written
but also lacking gravitas and a clear explanation for what the heck is going on. A Sun in the Attic by Mary Gentle on the other hand has some of the worst dialogue I ever read even if might have an interesting premise (positive and negative outcome of scientific discoveries in a polygamous society). And so on and so forth, cardboard characters, lack of a cohesive or interesting story afflict the remaining tales.

My least favourite (to put it very mildly) of them all is definitely The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel by Joe R. Lansdale. The premise is actually pretty good. The Time Traveller of from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine travelled so much that he disrupted the time-space continuum and somehow ended up a vampire. Sounds good right? Except the entire story is an excuse for gratuitous violence and an overwhelming obsession with … “ass”. To wit, in every single page there is a scene that contains either rape, impaling, haemorrhoids or ass fu**ing (including a scene where the titular character ass f**ks an ape) all in very graphic details. I am not a prude, I have no problem with the word itself nor am I averse to violence per se if it has a context or a point. But the entire story is completely pointless and by the end of it, I wanted to remove my eyes out of my skull and bleach them.

Ultimately the anthology made me reflect about what my greatest problem with the genre is. I have come to find that Steampunk is a mish-mash of good and bad (like any other genre, really) but above all the most important issue I have is that Steampunk is absolutely great in theory and with its premises but the majority of its execution misses the mark completely. Because it is a genre that lacks a clear definition, I find myself constantly finding stories and books that are defined as Steampunk but which are not. Or in the case of this particular anthology, find that the articles about Steampunk are far more interesting and better than the stories themselves.

This dichotomy between theory x execution and how the former seems to be more of a reality than the latter really is what keeps me going – I want to find more and more examples of good Steampunk execution and shall not rest until I do. Until then, I do not think this one is the “Definitive” Steampunk anthology although it is definitely a good representation of the genre as it currently stands. Take that as you will.

BUT IS IT STEAMPUNK: YES. Some stories do fit what I call Steampunk better but overall yes, definitely a Steampunk collection.

Notable Quotes/ Parts: If I had to pick one story to quote would have to be Victoria. I loved the inside joke the author played with one of most famous (or infamous) art critics of his time, John Ruskin (the man who “discovered” the Pre-Raphaelites) and how he supposedly had a problem with women’s pubic hair (seiro7slyt) and never consummated his marriage to Effie Gray (who later married one of my favourites painters, Millais). The source of his “problem” may well have been Victoria, the newt. Awesome. (yes, I am geek, I KNOW THAT).

Additional Thoughts: For another taste of Steampunk short stories, there is also another anthology currently published:

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology collects original stories by Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Paul Di Filippo, Hal Duncan, Jeffrey Ford, Jay Lake, Ian R. MacLeod, Michael Moorcock, Robert Reed, Lucius Shepard, Brian Stableford, Jeff VanderMeer and more.

It also seems that Ann and Jeff Vandermeer have another one in the works as we speak.

Verdict: A collection of stories that try to represent the genre, with some hits and a lot of misses. I would only recommended it to the more seasoned Steampunk reader.

Rating: 5 , meh, take it or leave it.

Reading Next: Here There Be Monsters by Meljean Brook

You Might Also Like


  • danielle
    April 13, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Holyshit I KNOW right? If I wanted to read about a vampire buttfucking an ape I would have gone on some fetish site. *shudder*

    Young eyes are not meant to view such atrocities.

    The Giving Mouth confused me.

  • Ana
    April 13, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    OMG Danielle – thank you. What the hell was THAT? *shudders*

    I thought the Giving Mouth had the most beautiful prose, I loved the narrative voice of the dude, but I still don’t know what it was about.

  • Jonathan D. Beer
    April 13, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I would agree completely with this. Back when I had only a passing understanding of steampunk I brought both of these anthologies, hoping for a nice dose of short stories to show me the potential of steampunk at what was already out there.

    Big mistake. While I agree that a few of them are excellent (I enjoyed The Giving Mouth even if, like you, I thought it was a bit unclear as to what the meaning of it was. I suspect that there is a book set in that world), the majority were mediocre bordering on the awful – unfortunately this is the case with Extraordinary Engines, I am sorry to say.

    I think your point at the end is extremely valid – barring one or two books, steampunk has yet to be truly used and gloried in (one of the closest for me was Perdido Street Station, and that had a whole lot of other stuff mixed in too). The theory of steampunk is magnificent – I only hope that some authors come along soon and give it the credit it is due.

  • TDF Pamela
    April 13, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Oof, I’m kind of glad I never picked up this anthology. I do have Extraordinary Engines, but the first couple of stories bored me to tears, so I haven’t made it through the whole book yet. I think you’re right, steampunk as a genre has a lot of potential, but writers often miss the mark with it.

  • Estara
    April 13, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Ana, maybe you’d enjoy the Book View Café Steampunk anthology ebook they released this year better. It has an overarching setting and the authors are all well-known sf&f writing authors (mostly women), which to me makes it more likely that a**-fucking won’t show up 🙄 .

    The Shadow Conspiracy…

    …is a collection of stories set on alternative earth, a place powered by steam and magic. This world of dreamers, experimenters and engineers, soulless humans and ensouled machines was born of most unlikely parents: four poets who gathered one cold summer on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816.

    All-new and never-before-seen, these stories explore the unfolding consequences of that gathering — and how it changed everything we thought we knew about science and ourselves.


    – The Accumulating Man … by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
    – The Persistence of Souls … by Sarah Zettel
    – The Soul Jar … by Steven Harper
    – Zombi … by Pati Nagle
    – A Princess of Wittgenstein … by Jennifer Stevenson
    – The Savage and the Monster … by Nancy Jane Moore
    – The Water Weapon … by Brenda Clough
    – The Sisters of Perpetual Adoration … by Judith Tarr
    – Shadow Dancer … by Irene Radford

    Available Formats: PDF, EPUB, Mobi, .prc, .lrf, .lit

    Read a Preview
    Kindle Edition
    Buy at BVC, but you have to register

  • Jeff VanderMeer
    April 13, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Yep, that is the story that tends to divide readers. To some, it’s the best story in the book. Regardless, it’s classic Lansdale. And certainly entertaining to see you grapple with it.

    The Stephenson is a transitional piece between steampunk and cyberpunk. Similarly, the sequel, Steampunk Reloaded, begins with a piece by William Gibson that was the inspiration for the “raygun gothic” Steampunk subgenre.

    I don’t think you’ll have any such problems with the material in the second one:


    Thanks for the review.


  • Ana
    April 13, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Thank you Jeff – I did read a few reviews that picked this one as their fave story.

    I will keep my eyes open for the second one!!

  • Erika (Jawas Read, Too)
    April 13, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I’m quite interested in this anthology and so glad you reviewed it! I’m curious about Jeff VanderMeer (I have Shriek and Finch on my desk and have been making myself NOT read them because of everything else I’ve got planned for the immediate future. I need to change that… 😉

    Lovely and honest review, though!

  • Paul Smith
    April 14, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Great review Ana.

    I’ve found the VanderMeers always tend to put at least one story in anthologies that divide readers by pushing the boundaries. In the New Weird, it was “The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines” which I hated, but I know people who liked (I couldn’t get past the guy who rapes people to death, but anyway).

    The second anthology looks great though, Tanith Lee, Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne M. Valente, and a new story from Jeff Ford. Will definately be picking myself up a copy.

  • Moonsanity (Brenda H.)
    April 14, 2010 at 4:11 am

    Wow, where to start. First, I am so glad I didn’t buy this. The butt action would have had me grossed out for awhile. Though the stories that were good sound very good. I wonder on the Giving Mouth if the author didn’t purposely make it hard to understand so everyone would talk about it. 😆 I’ll be looked for your review on the second one when it comes out.

  • Jesse
    April 21, 2015 at 3:46 am

    I think this review misses a lot. Besides admitting the classic “I didn’t understand it therefore it’s bad” (re: “The Giving Mouth”), it goes on to foist personal expectation on the review reader instead of describing what the anthology is or isn’t. In this case it appears the stories which did not meet the steampunk aesthetic are praised, while those which uphold the ideology are often disparaged.

    Like Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, it’s quite clear the VanderMeers’ Steampunk is intended to be a survey of a sub-genre – from aesthetic to ideology, proto to first wave to second wave. Another way of putting this is, in order to truly represent something, it’s best to include as many perspectives as possible. Just including stories which fit the steampunk aesthetic would be rather narrow. In the intro essay, Nevins offers a loose definition of what steampunk is, and the story introductions that follow (by the Vandermeers, I assume) are matched to it. It may be a broader spectrum of what the reviewer above would consider ‘steampunk’, but given the supporting knowledge and argumentation, I would credit Nevins and the Vandermeers’ selection choices as appropriate.

Leave a Reply