There’s a lot of Lovecraftian fiction here, mostly using the Cthulhu Mythos paraphernalia of gods, places, and blasphemous books. Not all of it falls in that category though.
Sweetening the deal for your purchase of this book, even if you’ve encountered Gafford’s fiction before, several stories are original to this collection.
One is “The Adventure of the Prometheus Calculation”. As you would expect from the title, it involves Sherlock Holmes. Well, a Sherlock Holmes with a Babbage Engine for a brain and the world’s only “living, functional robot”. It proceeds roughly along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes tale “The Final Problem”, but Mycroft Holmes and Professor Moriarty have different roles. There are also elements of Frankenstein in the story. Ultimately, though, it’s nothing special as either a Holmes story or steampunk.
To be honest, this issue was a disappointment. It was shorter than usual and a higher percentage of stories were ho-hum though there were a couple of bright points from two of the magazine’s old reliables.
I’m afraid the two newcomers don’t distinguish themselves.
Cynthia Ward’s “Six Guns of the Sierra Nevada” is actually a reprint of a story that first appeared 20 years ago in Pulp Eternity Magazine #1. It belongs to a time travel theme running throughout this issue. Carl Rhein seems to have been sent back in time by a shadowy cabal from the future in order to poison future American race relations by wiping out the Robin Hood Gang composed of all blacks. You have to be really good to get me to care about yet another story centering on what I’m told is the cause of all evil – racism, and this story isn’t, and its ending is a trifle murky.
There’s some racism in Paul J. Carney’s “The Warden of Chaco Canyon”, but it’s main problem is just that it’s kind of bland. It takes place in an alternate American West where prospectors have been hunting meteors with “star iron” – sought because of its use in protective amulets and bullets that will penetrate anything. However, the strikes have petered out after five years and prospector Hewitt wants to know why. He falls in with an Indian shaman who has his own ideas about what to do with “star iron”, and there are the ghosts of the town wiped out in the first meteor strike. Continue reading →
In 2015, Science Fiction Trails publisher David B. Riley experimented again with the annual magazine he put out. The weird western tales of the defunct Science Fiction Trails and the steampunk of Steampunk Trails were combined into Story Emporium.
A lot of the usual contributors to Science Fiction Trails’ publications are here and a lot of those writers continue their long running series in the magazine.
But let’s start with the writers new to me.
Dan Thwaite’s “The Duel” is bit Sergio Leonish in its ever-slowing pace and repetition of details as the climax nears. But it’s not very effective. A gunfighter come to town. His high noon opponent is a clock in a tower. He shoots it but dies. I suppose this is some kind of metaphor about how time and death catch up to us all.
K. G. Anderson’s “Escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse” is a secret history and a good one at that. Jewish magic and the Kabbala are spliced into the conventional history of Billy the Kid. It’s narrator, a woman named Shulamit, flees her home to escape an arranged marriage to a man she never met. With her, in the trunk on the stagecoach, is a golem made by her grandfather. Others want the golem, and Billy the Kid intervenes to save Shulamit when an attempt is made to steal it. Continue reading →
Like its predecessor, it has an article, “Tumbleweeds: Western Icon or Martian Invaders” from editor Campbell. It looks at the hardy tumbleweed aka Russian thistle, an invasive species into the American West.
Beth Daniels, an author I’ve never read, offers an interview on writing steampunk, advice that can also be found in her Geared Up: Writing Steampunk.
This being a Science Fiction Trails publication, there’s a dog story. Here that’s Campbell’s “RCAF (Royal Canine Air Force)“, inspired by the cover illustration. It’s a slight story with dogs and cats dogfighting in the air, and the dogs blasting a factory. Airships, machine guns, and plasma cannon included.
More steampunkery is supplied by the heist/rescue story “Shell Games: A Hummingbird and Inazuma Con” from Peter J. Wacks. It, as the title implies, involves a couple of conmen and seems to be part of an intended series. Inazuma is a “brilliant swordsman” (though he’s not called a samurai). Hummingbird is a gunfighter. The story takes place in Canton, China, but, of course, a steampunk alternative. Here the technological divergence is the invention of the “airjunk” in 1890. There are the usual iconic sorts of things like “clockwork carriages”. Hummingbird herself is a cyborg with a “clockwork right arm”, specifically a smaller variant of the one used in the West. It uses acupuncture needles connected by steel threads to serve as musculature. Hummingbird is accomplished at tai chi. Our two con artists are sent on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of the police commissioner. There are some historical figures here. The villain is Grigori Rasputin. Winston Churchill shows up too as a lieutenant in the police force since this section of China is occupied by Britain. Hummingbird and Inazuma’s con is complicated and precisely timed. The bits with Churchill were nice. Rasputin is set up to be a running series villain, but I wished he was on stage more.
Another story that reads like part of a series is Jessica Brawner’s “Bad Altitude”. The story has a great opening with our naked heroine falling from an airship over Paris. The ending doesn’t entirely explain the villain’s motives for wanting her airship. Still, the stuff in between is entertaining enough. This is set in a 21st century world where Douglas Adams is a “great philosopher of the last century”.
And, speaking of clockwork, there’s O. M. Grey’s “The Clockwork Heart”, a nicely done story which metaphorically puts that imagery to use in something of a feminist tale. It’s told by one woman and relating the story of another “woman”, Eleanor. Eleanor is a clockwork woman, but she used to be a regular woman as evidenced by the scars around her wrists (a suicide attempt) and neck and chest. The latter seem to be surgical scars from her one-time lover, Dr. Clague. Another woman, Penelope, is Clague and Eleanor’s daughter though the two were never married. Eleanor has been revived after her suicide attempt to hang about the house as a governess for Penelope. Emotionless during her second round at life, she wants to feel again, and Clague helps her have emotion again. Just in time to experience them when another man enters her life.
Lyn McConchie does no harm to her reputation as a reliable contributor to Science Fiction Trails publications. Here it’s with “The Steam Powered Camera”. The fantastic element here is slight. Was it really necessary to have a steam powered (in effect, a movie camera) with a wide-angle lens instead of just standard Victorian-era photographic equipment? Probably not, but it’s a fairly clever horror story in which a photographer doing psychic investigations comes across an impetuous youth, also with a camera, who mocks his equipment.
Lesbian lovers seem to be (or, at least, were back in the heyday of steampunk and judging by Amazon browsing) something of a steampunk cliché. Jeffrey Cook’s and Katherine Perkins’ “Opening Night” features two. Cliché is doubled by making one a warrior babe. The story intercuts between Emily’s stage performance as a clockwork doll (her own body has damaged limbs encased in mechanisms and she’s missing an eye) and Luca foiling an assassination attempt in the opera house.
The rest of the stories are kind of amalgams of steampunk and weird western.
Henry Ram gives us another installment in the life of Potbury the Necromancer in “The Courtship of Miss Henrietta”. The rich and dying Mr. Seven has his airship Azincourt parked above Name Pending, Wyoming. He’s hallucinating from products of “advanced science” put in his body and brain, and he needs Potbury to do his resurrection thing on him. Potbury says that’s not possible. Seven’s already been resurrected once. Another time is going to be technically difficult. Seven, not taking no for an answer, starts to threaten Miss Henrietta, the former local prostitute Potbury is in love with. Another engaging entry in the series with appearances by regular characters like the rapacious and two-faced madam Mrs. Broadhurst and worthless town marshal Wainscot.
I liked Liam Hogan’s “Horse”, a first person tale about a 15-year old boy and his mechanical, steam-powered, intelligent horse inherited from a beloved professor killed in a faro game. What the boy finds in a town — a gunsmith interested in the horse, local bullies, and a prostitute — makes an interesting story, but it’s not a coming of age tale.
“The (Almost) Entirely Untrue Legend of John Henry”, from David Boop, starts in 1855 with John Henry being sold for a 20 year period to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad. The story then shifts to the end of the ballad – John Henry pounding away at the end of a mountain tunnel. However, the mountain collapses on him since they tunneled through to an unmapped mine. John Henry and several men are trapped. We then get a different version of the famous John Henry vs. the steam drill story with a lot of exotic machinery. A nice bit of steampunkery and secret history.
Eric Aren’s “A Cure for Boundary Pirates” is set in a vaguely defined Old West of airships (with helium no less) and electric rifles where trade seems to be prohibited between the natives of the west coast and the people of the plains. A portion of the Great Plains has been turned into “the Colony” for those suffering from tuberculosis. The Colony forbids alcohol and tobacco. Simon, a pharmacist, smuggles “airflower” (seemingly marijuana given its analgesic properties) to the Colony. He’s been blackmailed by a couple of airship pirates who live in the Boundary (aka Rocky) Mountains into helping their smuggling. But the relationship is getting troublesome, so Simon takes steps.
Of course, this being a Science Fiction Trails book, David B. Riley channels karl, the dinosaur sheriff to introduce a collection of flash fiction about fog making machines. Karl, in “Some Protection“, talks about meeting one H. G. back in the Cretaceous. H. G. thought his time machine’s fog generator would protect from the vicious local fauna.
Eric Aren’s entry “Victory!” is a rather confused entry about a war between Russia and Germany.
P. R. Morris’ “English Waters” is a grisly alternate version of the Boer War with the Boers trying to prevent Gordon from reaching Khartoum.
“Pressure” from Guy Anthony De Marco is just jokey and underdeveloped.
Sam Knight is a weird western writer I usually like, but his “A Pirate Fog” shows, at least here, flash fiction is not his thing with a slight piece of naval combat in the Gulf of Mexico.
“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. Continue reading →
Riley adds to the same universe that his Miles O’Malley stories are set in with four stories and an essay, “A Most Baffling Event”, on the Great 1897 Airship in western America.
Two stories involve the U.S. Navy’s first airship, the Wanderer: “Wandering About: The Adventures of the Airship Wanderer” and “The Toy Men”.
In the first, the airship gets involved into Russian incursions in America, both on the ground and in the air. It seems the Russians have been in contact with Martians and hope to use the alliance to get parts of California and all of Alaska back from the United States. Good, genial fun that even the frequent talk about food doesn’t slow down. (And neither does frequent mention of the port wine President Chester Arthur inherited from his successor and is trying to foist of on visitors.) It features Penelope Hudson who shows up in Riley’s The Devil Draws Two.
The second story is shorter, quirkier, and funnier when a rogue State Department decides to launch a real war on Christmas – or, at least, Santa Claus. Continue reading →
I read this book now for its chapter on H. P. Lovecraft. (I had read the chapter on Edgar Allan Poe years ago as research for an English paper.) There wasn’t a whole lot there that I didn’t know except for the letters from other writers about Lovecraft and the stories of others inspired by Lovecraft.
Moskowitz’s great strength is the uncovering of a lot of obscure stories and others. His particular interest is tracing the treatment of certain technological and scientific ideas which is a valid school of sf criticism though I think it’s a mistake to think, and I don’t think Moskowitz does, to think sf exists to prophesize.
Most of the chapters are titled with the name of a science fiction author and were originally published in sf magazines. However, most chapters end by connecting a particular author — as well as more obscure authors — to the subject of the next chapter.
As with most sf criticsm, it makes me want to read a lot of this stuff.
Moskowitz sums up a lot of work including non-English language stuff. However, describing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as combining the travel tale, utopia, and “science story” makes me wonder about the accurateness of those descriptions. I’ve read Frankenstein twice and recall no element of the utopian in it.
I found the chapters on Hugo Gernsback; M. P. Shiel; Lu Senarens aka Frank Reade, Jr; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Philip Wylie, and Olaf Stapledon of particular interest.
Moskowitz details Gernsback’s importance as an inventor as well as publisher.
M. P. Shiel’s work, especially The Purple Cloud, seems interesting. The plot descriptions seem to bear out Brian Aldiss’ remark, in his Billion Year Spree, that, “if ever there was a racist, it was M. P. Shiel.” Jewish Moskowitz simply lets Shiel’s work speak for itself in its anti-Semitism.
Frank Reade, Jr had an amazing career in its early start, prolificness, and financial success. Verne was an admirer. I never paid attention to the dates before, but Reade’s adventures started in 1876 with The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward F. Ellis, a dime novelist (Senarens continued the series to great success); therefore, its steam man and horse (imitated by Jules Verne in his The Steam House, which I have read) is sort of contemporary steampunk.
I was surprised to see how many of Burroughs novels were written to compete with his many imitators in setting and story.
Moskowitz’s covers the popularity of Wylie as both a fiction writer and, in his attack on “Momism”, a social critic.
Olaf Stapledon’s career as fiction writer and philosopher is nicely covered.
Reviews of more works touching on Lovecraft and his legacy are on the Lovecraft page.
Stirling thinks through the consequences of his alternate history. The point of divergence is a series of commentary impacts, mostly in the northern hemisphere, in 1878.
American civilization is wiped out. The British Isles are all but denuded of people. Prime Minister Disraeli marshals an exodus of the most important people, cultural knowledge, and technology and sends it to India. France is also wiped out but French culture lives on in Northern Africa. Islam is resurgent across the Middle East and Balkans. Russia has turned into a country of nominal Satan worshippers. Japan and China have combined. The Angrezi Raj, the cultural fusion of British and Indian culture, inherits the British empires (including new outposts in North America.)
The exposition is mostly in the first 60 pages of the book in which Stirling throws around a lot Indian/Hindu terms. He gets around to religious issues (basically the Anglican Church has accepted a lot of the Hindu gods and goddesses as versions of the Trinity) later on. To further show off his world building, he has five appendices with the background of the world. The culture is credible, and Stirling certainly makes this version of the British Empire seem noble and appealing with its personal ties of loyalty and honor and an intelligence run along informal lines.
Initially, I didn’t like my first exposure to seeress Yasmini, whose visions of the future, I thought, brought an unwelcome element of magic to this alternate history. Then Stirling got around to rationalizing using an obvious, if oblique, version of Roger Penrose’s idea that the brain is a quantum computer and thus (Penrose doesn’t say this) can see alternate timelines. The presence of a Kali cult was to be expected even if they were minor villains allied to the Satanic Peacock Throne.
The novel has two faults though neither was enough to disgust me. The reason — penetration of the Imperial intelligence services so vast that they can not be purged safely without first luring the traitors into the open –why Athelstane King and company have to sneak aboard the dirigible at the end seemed was a bit weak. I think Stirling, understandably, just wanted some scenes on a dirigible.
The end of the book descended into a wealth of clichés (presumably taken from the authors Stirling lists in the acknowledgements). There is not only a prince in disguise (the French envoy sent to arrange a marriage turns out to be the French prince who gets himself involved in a lot of combat during the book) but three marriages. The marriage of the French prince and Princess Sita was expected — after all, that’s why the envoy is there, to arrange it. But the marriage of Athelstane King and Yasmini, though hardly unexpected, was that old cliché of adventure plots. Worse was the convenient death of the Emperor and the marriage of scientist Cassandra King and the Crown Prince.
All three of the main women characters are of the same improbable action heroine mold beloved of modern authors. Stirling may have a thing for this sort of thing given the character of guerilla leader Skida Thibodeau in Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling’s Go Tell the Spartans. I think I was supposed to find the constant insults between King’s faithful Sikh Narayan Singh and would be Pathan assassin Ibrahim Khan (who also turns out to be a prince) funny. I didn’t mind them, but I usually didn’t find them funny.
I’ll admit I approached this book more out of duty than desire. I had already committed to reviewing it before I had even read the proceeding Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders.
I found this one more enjoyable and better paced since Preston had gotten the introduction of most of the main characters out of the way in the first book. We also got the long descriptions of the Pneumatic Zeppelin, center of most of the action, out of the way there. You will need that description, though, so the first book can’t really be skipped.
To be sure, Captain Romulus Buckle’s undergoing the expected romantic confusion of new attraction to his sisters Max and Sabrina. (No, there’s no creepy incest vibe here. All three are orphan adoptees of Balthazar Crankshaft but unrelated to each other by blood.) Max and Sabrina are also struggling with new feelings – and their unacknowledged expressions of them however – towards Romulus. And, yes, the Founder clan has been covertly instigating war between the other clans.
But Preston opens his world of the series in unexpected ways. To be sure, we get two nifty set piece battles with alien critters. We also get a very Age of Sail type naval battle between airships – complete with snipers in the rigging. An intriguing automaton character is revealed. New clans and their cities are introduced. Valkyrie Smelt, beautiful and haughty daughter of Katzenjammer Smelt (yes, Preston’s names are amusing at times), becomes an officer aboard Buckle’s ship. Max begins to be obsessed with the legendary Martian Equation of Immortality which she encounters in an unlikely place. Continue reading →