Thursday, September 11, 2008


The two things I admire most about (Little) Professor Miriam E. Burstein are her omnivorous reading appetite and her consequently impressive wit about any and all things literary and Victorian. Can you be Casaubon and not take yourself seriously? Who knows? But let's give it a shot.

Burstein's review of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk anthology shows off both her erudition and her humor equally well:

The VanderMeers admit up front that they've omitted several Big Names from the anthology because they write novels rather than short fiction; readers may understandably be a bit puzzled, then, to find that the anthology's first selection is...a brief excerpt from Michael Moorcock's The Warlords of the Air (1971).  If Moorcock, why not something from Gibson's and Sterling's The Difference Engine? In any event, the anthology offers one entry from the 1970s, two from the 1980s, five from the 1990s, and five from the 2000s, without explaining the rationale behind this particular chronological distribution.  Was steampunk all novel-length in the 70s and 80s? No interesting examples? A fad suddenly took off? I also note that only one of the 2000-era stories was originally published electronically, and that in the dual print/online SteamPunk Magazine, which is an interesting contrast to the more extensive online presence in the annual Dozois anthologies.

In some ways, The Warlords of the Air and James P. Blaylock's "Lord Kelvin's Machine" (1985; basis for the novel of the same name) were the least effective selections in the anthology, although for different reasons.  The Moorcock entry was just too short and out of context to work effectively as an excerpt.  Beyond that, though, and despite the actual subject matter, its use of dialogue shares a certain...tweeness...with "Lord Kelvin's Machine": both stories want to parody Victorian earnestness, but the resulting archness cloys quickly.  There's only so much of "Certainly, sir.  Steady-on, sir" (19) that a story can bear.
I love it when academics can bring both their scholarly and writerly chops to bear on contemporary creative work. I can only hope that in twenty years, there will be an explosion of fiction of nostalgia for the early twentieth century, where my knowledge of modernist fiction, silent film, and the electroplate printing process will pay off.


JeffV said...

Yes, I especially love all of her factual errors.


Tim said...

JeffV, I haven't read the book -- do you care to share?

Unknown said...

My original (poor) phrasing implied that I thought that Moorcock wrote The Difference Engine (which, no, on both counts); I called something a "Western" (which I agreed, when called on it, was too restrictive); I called the two closing essays critical essays (apparently they...aren't?); and I asked for an explanation of the chronological distribution (justified, according to VM, because "steampunk" didn't exist until X date). Off the top of my head, I think that covers my errors/queries. Beyond that, there are philosophical disagreements, plus my sense that "Lord Kelvin's Machine" hasn't held up especially well (which has nothing to do with its importance to the genre), but I think that covers it.

Actually, I quite enjoyed the anthology.

Unknown said...

Er, "steampunk" qua term, according to Mr. VanderMeer. Hit preview a little too quickly there.

Tim said...

Yeah, I wasn't at all aware that there was such a firm generic distinction between a "critical essay" and "a survey."

I didn't see your call for better contextual notes for newbies as a demand for full scholarly apparatus, either.

You'd fixed the Moorcock/Difference Engine phrase before I quoted it, so there's nothing to go on there.

So, I can understand if Jeff is grumbly, defensive of turf, or eager to contest your interpretation of a story or two, but I don't really see what
"factual errors" he's talking about.