Steampunk Trails 1

I’ll be doing an actual review of the Steampunk Trails 2 in the future, so I thought I might as well put up this Retro Review.

From 2014 …

Retro Review: Steampunk Trails 1, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2013.515em6axcVL

“From the Editor”, J. A. Campbell — Brief statement by the editor stating how much she likes steampunk and the magazine’s commitment to articles and stories that capture the artistry and diversity of steampunk.

“From the Publisher”, David B. Riley — Publisher Riley’s brief statement that he had long seen steampunk stories of the western variety as editor and publisher of Science Fiction Trails and that he wanted to focus more on steampunk.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk Fashion”, Carrie Vaughn — An article by Vaughn about steampunk fashion in which she argues that, unlike most clothing we now wear, it is individualized and makes a statement about the character/persona of the wearer. I had no idea Vaughn was the author of a bestselling series until I looked her up. I’ve only read one thing by her.

Karl’s Korner, by Karl, the dinosaur sheriff”, David B. Riley — Karl, the dinosaur sheriff, is a running gag in Science Fiction Trails edited by Riley. Karl ruminates on their energy needs and fragile bodies relative to the pterosaurs he knew.

Fade of the Innocent”, O. M. Grey — I suppose the steampunk dressing here is the ethnicity of protagonist Fade Unthalit, the Royal Air Navy he served in, and the eyepiece he wears when shooting his scoped rifle in his assassin role. What this mainly is, though, is a crime story in which Fade kills, as hired, a husband and wife (and their butler) but can’t bring himself to kill their ten year old daughter. It violates what little code of honor he has. Instead, he takes her back to his house. After his employer’s henchman show up demanding her death – after they rape her, a fight ensues, and she kills them in the struggle thus saving Fade’s life. The girl, Alice, is then trained to become an assassin. Fade is honest with her and his role in the death of his parents. On her 16th birthday, he arranges it so she can kill the man who bought the death of her parents. She succeeds and the puts a knife to Fade’s throat. She doesn’t kill Fade nor leave him or her life as a new assassin. But she just wants him to know that he was involved in destroying her life – and giving her a new one. Since that, in her mind, makes her equal with Fade, a harm offset by a benefit, she spares his life. I’m not sure that end quite works for me emotionally. But Alice seems a bit of a sociopath in her emotional reserve.

“Kira Rocks Her Doggles”, J. A. Campbell — Review of goggles for dogs.

Family Heirloom”, Quincy Allen — I liked this rather simple steampunk story. On July 7, 1916, the black narrator’s Grandpa Billy picks her up in his autogyro (he’s an inventor and it’s our first clue this is a more technologically advanced history). He flies her from Indiania to southern Missouri where he tells her the remarkable story of Abigail Watson, a woman who inherited a vast planatation from her no-good gambling (but a successful one) husband. She frees her slaves, including Grandpa Billy, and runs her land with them in sort of a cooperative. Billy, even as a young man, was something of a mechanical genius, and developed ways to make the farm more efficient. Eventually, he develops a submersible boat using plans drawn up by Abigail’s brother. (He hopes to sell the idea to the southern states because he sees secession coming even in 1860.) I think the high point of the story is that the submersible is not an unrealistic bit of steampunk. It uses a periscope to navigate, hand cranks to run ballast pumps, and pedals for the air pumps. It travels at night due to the snorkel and periscope showing on the surface. Abigail uses it to run an underground railway operation to help slaves escape. On July 7, 1864, Bloody Bill Anderson and his men (guerillas in tanks in sort of a jarring bit of alternate steampunk technology – that bit seemed too advanced and logistically problematic) near the farm. The blacks flee. Abigail makes Grandpa Billy leave her and take the submarine away, and Abigail is burned to death in her home. Grandpa Billy wants the narrator to remember the tale of the remarkable Abigail.

The Company Men”, Vivian Caethe — Some steampunk stories insist (going back to some proto-steampunk by Michael Moorcock) as using the subgenre as a commentary on the trends of the 19th century, particularly industrialism and colonialism. This was an interesting story in that vein along with lesbianism (nothing explicit, just protagonist Margot taking up with her neighbor Willa after Margot’s husband abandons her). There are some tantalizing bits never fleshed out: Russian Flu and vampire spread tuberculosis. Margot has fled the literally shadowy Company Men and headed to California, sort of a feminist utopia where women are said to run things, and is on the lookout for Willa who has gone ahead. She finds Willa dying in a town. In keeping with the feminist, lesbian theme, Willa is cared for by a pretty barmaid who, it is hinted, is her new lover, and the town sheriff is a sort of butch dyke, heavily scarred, cyborg sheriff. The Company Men are those, to literalize a metaphor, whose souls have become tainted or possessed by their employers. In fact, Margot’s ex-husband turns out to be “Master of the Company Men, one of the very Sons of Industry, the Betrayers of Humanity”. He tells Margot she still has a marriage contract with him, an employment contract with the company that gave her her artificial legs after a mining accident. The Company Men are defeated, Willa healed, and the couple reunited and on their way to California at story’s end. Despite the anti-capitalist and feminist themes, I rather liked this story. But I wish the background would have been worked out more beyond the level of the crudely symbolic.

Lone Star Jackson-Outlaw”, Lyn McConchie — Well-done humorous tale about how an inventor’s creation of a clockwork thespian is actually intended to be a robot train robber. The investigating sheriff figures out a nifty way of destroying it and crippling/killing the train robbers using it. It only has crude pattern recognition ability so it thinks gold painted washers are money and carts them off – way overloading its capacity, as predicted by its inventor, and causing its boiler to explode in the midst of the gang.

The Scarlet Derby and Midnight Jay”, Mike Cervantes — A fun Victorian costumed crimefighter/steampunk in 1898 London. The central joke is that Scarlet Derby, the husband, is gently but firmly corrected and aided in his plan by his adoring wife, Midnight Jay, as she accompanies him. Here the villain is the appropriately named Silas Monstrosity.

Moshito Masquine”, Sam Knight and Rhye Manhatten — I liked this tale of a vampire hunter – survivor of a vampire attack and, as the result, accidentally figuring out that mosquito bites can stop the development of vampirism as he lay in a Louisiania swamp after the attack. He travels around selling mosquito traps – which work – but he really wants the mosquito bodies to make the antidote from. He encounters a boy who has been bitten in an attack aided by a local rancher. The rancher, eager for the land of the boy’s family, has vampires attack and kill the family. What follows is an engaging story though marred by a couple of things. There is the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold element of a local madam aiding the boy after the vampire hunter kills him and goes after the local nest of vampires. And the story, while logically reconciling multiple elements, seemed emotionally unsatisfying and improbable. The vampires used as slave miners are to be set free, and the rancher is killed. The female vampires (including the vampire hunter’s mother who, coincidentally, is amongst the slave vampires) will exchange sex for male blood – an idea improbably endorsed by the majority. The male vampires will be super miners, the characteristics of mining making them suited to the task. They’ll make money to buy blood. Child vampires will also be fed with bought blood. The vampire hunter will make the antidote to prevent the whore’s customers from turning vampire. One nice thing about the story is the ambivalence of the vampire hunter towards killing someone. Even though one begs him to do it, he couldn’t kill her.

  The problem with killing vampires is… they used to be people. They used to be someone’s mother, or brother,

he notes.

The Hatching of the Wolf Spider”, Henry Ram — Another one of Ram’s necromancer tales, this one more casually cruel than some. The local airship owner needs the brain to control a robot weapon, the “wolf spider” of the title. He picks the brain up of a local derelict, a drunk cowboy he kills. In revenge, the cowboy’s brain takes the robot on a rampage. The murder of the cowboy is much fussed over, and the story ends on a joke note of fried brains making the necromancer hungry for steak.

The Big Green Orb”, David B. Riley — I get the impression that this fun, steampunk MIB tale is a sequel to an early work. [Indeed it is: The Devil Draws Two.] Its narrator, an agent for the Secret Service (correctly depicted as America’s only real Federal investigative body in late 19th Century America) is a terrible agent by his own admission, and only there because he helped recover a mysterious airship built by the seditious Captain Nimrod. Elements in the US Navy have taken to using it to sink, via the new invention of torpedoes, casino ships off the Pacific Coast and blame it on “Canadian scum”. As you would expect, there is humor in this satirical tale of elements of the government going rogue. That partly includes the narrator, his female boss, and another agent, the unit’s secretary who asks, after watching a ship being destroyed by the airship, “Is this what being a field agent is like?” The three eventually blow up the airship and kill the Navy officer using it after he tries to stop them. Riley also gets some humor out of the sexual relationship between the narrator and reporter Molly Madison.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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