Steampunk is producing some really interesting things at the moment. Not only do we have one of the legitimate creators of the genre, James P Blaylock, working again but there’s Cherie Priest, Guy Adams, the incomparable Professor Elemental of course and now, Resurrection Engines. An anthology of fifteen stories edited by Scott Harrison, it takes the usual tropes of steampunk and rivets them to classics of literature.
It’s an interesting, brave idea and it kicks off in fine style with The Soul-Eaters of Raveloe by Alison Littlewood. Based on Silas Marner, by George Eliot, it takes the basic concept of an old weaver caring for a child and turns it on its head. Here, Silas is mechanical, as is Eppie and whilst he makes beautiful, elaborate creatures, none of them last. The final pages are tragic, as the collision between meat and metal, love and greed rends Silas’s one moment of joy apart. The true horror is twofold, coming from Littlewood’s red-toothed imagery and the subversion of the original story. It’s a very smart, very nasty piece that gets the book started at a gallop.
Alan Baker, up next, changes the tone with A Journey to the Centre of the Moon. This sequel to, you guessed, it Journey to the Centre of the Earth is less urgent than the Littlewood and plays, very deliberately with self-deprecating humour and parody. However, the central concept is both fascinating and a little unsettling, leaving the story on a note which Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger would have quite approved of.
Juliet E.Mckenna’s She-Who-Thinks-For-Herself, an alternate take on H.Rider Haggard’s She, is faced with a daunting task. The original story embraces the social views of the time, crammed to the nines with noble savages and Ayesha, an immortal white queen who bewitches all around her and at the same time has almost no agency of her own. It’s aged very badly as a result and Mckenna pulls off a remarkable piece of narrative Aikido to make her story work. It takes place before, during and after Haggard’s and combines far more clear eyed approach to the Amahagger, the tribe presented in the original, with a very different, far more empowered female role model. The end result is a story which is clearly fond of the original and manages to honour it whilst rehabilitating the more dated elements and talking about a possible different start to the early stages of the women’s rights. Oh and it’s, being McKenna, often very funny too.
The Great Steam Time Machine based on the work of HG Wells and written by Brian Herbert and Bruce Taylor is next and has one of the best set ups I’ve read in quite a while. Percival Lowell and Hugh Gernsback walk into a room, and it’s not the room they expected…Simultaneously a joyous celebration of the adventurer-thinkers of early science fiction and a hymn to the wonders of exploration, it’s a hopeful, charming piece that will leave you smiling.
Philip Palmer has been quietly building a reputation for a while now as being one of the smartest authors working in genre fiction. That’s borne out by Silver Selene, his riff on the Wilkie Collins classic thriller The Woman in White. An apparently open and shut murder case, which involves one of the ambassadors from the intelligent race who live on the Moon, becomes ever more complicated as Palmer presents the testimony of various people involved with the case. The end is a real narrative flourish and this is one of the most ambiguous, and enjoyable, stories in the book.
Roland Moore’s Fangoria, based on Jack London’s White Fang is another standout. Combining a terrifyingly plausible reason for biomechanically enhanced wolves with a desperate and often unsuccessful fight for survival, it’s a bloody-knuckled counterpoint to the more genteel stories that come before it. Cutting between a funeral, and Gorton and Yamada, the two men struggling to transport the body it’s a piece which delights in throwing bad luck after bad luck at its characters, leading to a conclusion which is equal parts heroic and tragic and is another real standout.
The God of All Machines by Scott Harrison himself is up next and it’s remarkable. Harrison mixes elements of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde with alien invasion and high-tech weapons development to create a story about the things people do in war-time and the price everyone pays. This is one of the cleverest takes on Jekyll and Hyde I’ve ever seen and whilst it’s a complete, and very satisfying, story, there’s real meat on the bones of this world. I hope Harrison has more in the works here.
The Crime of the Ancient Mariner by Adam Roberts is next and there are, of course, no prizes for guessing what it’s based on. However, as is typical of Roberts, there’s remarkable linguistic elegance here which never seems obtuse or precious. Burnet is a time traveller, and not by choice. He’s been picked up by the Mariner and dropped back near his own time not long after. There are only two problems with this; firstly the Alba, the mysterious automatons that sail the ocean of time want to know how he was returned and, secondly, he’s from 1798, so when a female time traveller from further upstream turns up to try and explain what’s going on, he gets very confused. Roberts has a flair for wordplay and gentle humour and both are on display here. Where he really shines though is in the ability to explain complex ideas in a way which doesn’t seem patronising and also doesn’t seem like exposition. Burnet is a true innocent abroad and as a result the information he finds is less about exposition and more about survival. And survival, on the roiling seas of time Roberts describes, is clearly a commodity in demand. Constantly surprising, very clever and filled with haunting imagery, this is another real standout.
There Leviathan by Jonathan Green riffs on Moby Dick and does the one thing you all but have to do to make it work as a steampunk story. Reimagined as an aerial leviathan, bioengineered to survive in Earth’s ruined atmosphere, the white whale is a monstrous presence in the story and Green uses both it, and the freedom offered by flight rather than sail to create a tautly paced action story with some really well done, innovative set pieces. There’s a smart conceit involving the chapter numbers which only adds to the atmosphere and this is both a fun change of pace from the Roberts story and a taut thriller in its own right.
The Island of Peter Pandora by Kim Lakin-Smith combines Peter Pan with HG Wells’ The Isand of Doctor Moreau in a way which seems counter-intuitive for half a page. After that it’s both natural and increasingly disturbing as we explore a very different side of Peter Pan. A prodigy and son of Wendy and James, a pair of talented scientists, Peter refuses rescue when they die and vows to build his own friends. Some, the Lost Boys, are metal. Others are not…
Lakin-Smith constantly switches between the feral joy and amoral cruelty of an unbound child to create one of the most fascinating monsters you’ll meet this year. Peter’s hideous and the cruelties he enacts on his poor doomed robots and the creatures led by Hookie are as awful as they are compelling. This is a story that leaves a real mark. It’s also an example of just how impressive the stories here are, as it simultaneously completely subverts and remains absolutely faithful to the original work.
The Ghost of Christmas Sideways by Simon Bucher-Jones is, of course, a riff on A Christmas Carol. However, much like Adam Roberts uses The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to explore a form of temporal physics, Bucher-Jones explores alternate universes. Scrooge is shown the worlds around his own, and the single choice he made that both doomed and saved his own world. Bucher-Jones plays with one of the most traditional steampunk images to huge effect and this is a deceptively simple story that lingers long after the Ghost at its centre has faded.
Talented Witches by Paul Magrs is extraordinary. There’s really no other way to describe it. A semi-stream of conscious sprint through the history of the Bronte sisters, Haworth where they lived in Yorkshire and the Magrs family itself, it bounces and twirls around normal time and narrative structure in a way which will certainly frustrate some readers. Others will see echoes of the Brontes, Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire and James Joyce. Obtuse, beautiful, heart-breaking and one of the most profoundly bizarre short stories I’ve ever read.
Fairest of them All by Cavan Scott takes Snow White as its inspiration and, like Roberts, turns the established story completely around. Here, Sir Henry Prince is a classic Victorian villain, a man whose decadent wants lead to obsession, violence and horror. Like Mckenna, Scott plays with the concerns of the time, class in this case, to huge effect. Few stories in the collection have the visceral impact of this one and the consequences of Prince’s actions.
Tidewrack Medusa by Rachel Pollack takes Treasure Island as its basis. Wrapped in amazing, intricate language that’s still completely accessible to new readers, it’s a romance much like the Scott piece. However, unlike the Scott piece this one takes in witches of the sea, creatures both more and less than human and the magic inherent in mothers, daughters and hat-making. Eccentric, endearing and horrifying when it needs to be, Pollack’s story is playful and sweet without ever losing its edge.
Finally, Jim Mortimore’s Robin Hood and The Eater of Worlds brings the book into land with still another remarkable story. Combining the legend of Robin Hood with elements of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos gives the story it’s foundation but where Mortimore excels is in how he weaves the elements of those two stories together with some truly horrific extra ideas. The Knights, semi-sentient suits of armour people are grafted to are a truly horrifying concept and they’re just a small part of a story which walks the line between steampunk and flat out horror. This is still Robin Hood, still a heroic outlaw fighting impossible odds and winning. The only difference here is what he wins and who he may end up winning it for. Equal parts horrific, thrilling and desperately sad, it ends the book on a real high note.
Resurrection Engines is the perfect on ramp for anyone looking to try cyberpunk but unsure where to start. The stories here are all familiar and not only honour but build on the classics on which they’re based to create some very new, and yet not unfamiliar. A unique take on a sub-genre criticised for becoming staid, Resurrection Engines is a huge, and hugely impressive piece of work.
Resurrection Engines is out now priced £7.99.