Steampunk Prime provides a collection of fourteen British “proto-steamwork” short stories from the late Victorian and Edwardian era that include a number of science fictional elements that we have come to describe as characteristic of steampunk fiction. Though all the works now reside in the public domain, I suspect that most readers – like me – will not have previously encountered many (or any) of these stories. This anthology does exactly what I like anthologies to do: provide a decent-sized (usually a solid page) essay preceding each story that introduces both the author and the story, providing some context and an initial foray at dissecting the major themes of the story (while not spoiling the story, of course). Mike Ashley, our fearless editor, has graciously provided such essays here and I very much appreciate them, never having encountered any of the stories or authors before picking up this collection.
Please note that the below short discussions may contain spoilers.
Foreword by Paul di Filippo and Introduction by Mike Ashley: Both were short essays (perhaps too short) that set the stage for the stories that follow but not much else unfortunately.
Mr. Broadbent’s Information by Henry A. Hering (1909): A short tale about a mad scientist who creates automatons and animals with enhanced intelligence. Of course, he’s a proper Victorian gentleman. A nice little story, despite the fact that the mad science mostly happens off-stage.
The Automaton by Reginald Bacchus and Ranger Gull (1900): Another tale about an automaton, one remarkably similar to the real chess-playing “Turk.” This one has a surprise twist ending that I found to be reminiscent of Poe. A good piece.
The Abduction of Alexandra Seine by Fred C. Smale (1900): The story opens with a Victorian nonchalantly popping a cocaine lozenge into his mouth, so you know it’s going to be a good period piece. It’s an alternate steampunk future, set sometime after 1930 when there’s apparently been a huge siege of Paris. Everyone has an aircar, there’s constant real-time aerial surveillance imagery of all of England, and they’ve got access to long-distance telepathic communications devices. The actual adventure is melodramatic to the Nth degree, but I enjoyed this alternate future presented.
The Gibraltar Tunnel by Jean Jaubert (1914): Posits the creation of both the Chunnel and its successor, another undersea tunnel connecting Spain with Morocco and what happens to the inaugural train through the Gibraltar tunnel. Action-adventure story with minimal characterization, but not bad.
From Pole to Pole by George Griffith (1904): Poignant tale about the first expedition to reach the South Pole. They aren’t particularly interested in doing that just for the heck of it, however. They’re venturing there because they plan to travel through the tunnel that goes through the center of the Earth and pop out through the other side at the North Pole. Some interesting, utterly impractical science is involved. Fun.
In the Deep of Time by George Parsons Lathrop (1897): This was a rather long work that involves a Victorian man being placed in suspended animation and awoken three hundred years later (one would think the first test run of such a technology would involve animals and probably a much shorter period of time than three hundred years, but I won’t quibble too much with the story set-up). The Victorian then travels around the world of 2200 AD and sees all the amazing technologies that have been adopted and the effects of them on society. Some are surprisingly prescient, others risible (e.g., they never discovered refrigeration and send up liquid water in balloons to high altitude where it freezes and is then brought down as ice). They’ve also just made contact with the sapient race that lives on Mars, and as it turns out, the Martians are superior to humans in every way. Some interesting ideas here, but might have been more engaging had it been about half the length, and I’m not sure that we needed the plot with the technically and morally superior Martians.
The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace (1899): Not all that “steampunk-y” of a tale (save that the villain uses a piece of technology to commit a crime), but nevertheless a very good Victorian mystery. This is actually the sixth chapter of The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings, a novel composed of stories that seem to work well independently, so the title of it really should be “The Star Shaped Marks.” It was interesting enough that I plan to seek out the rest of that collection (it’s available online).
The Plague of Lights by Owen Oliver (1904): An extremely creepy “end of the world” kind of scenario involving inexplicable alien forces and a complete breakdown of British society. I liked it.
What the Rats Brought by Ernest Favenc (1903-04): The only dud in the book. Some strange plague is brought to the shores of Australia via rats (and bats?) on a derelict ship with no one aboard (very reminiscent of the Russian ship, the Demeter, in Dracula). Sadly, though, the plague comes and goes and it’s not really even particularly clear what’s going on or why the reader should care.
The Great Catastrophe by George Davey (1910): In some ways this is more a vignette than a true story, as it is an account of what happened when a “future” (from the perspective of 1910) London that increasingly relied on electricity experienced when some unknown problem caused massive death and destruction, killing almost the entire population of the city. The cause is left unknown, and it provides a cautionary tale about over-reliance on poorly-understood technologies. I found it to be pretty riveting.
Within an Ace of the End of the World by Robert Barr (1900): This is an odd little story. Malthus was right and the Earth starts running out of food, so we learn how to create synthetic food using the nitrogen in the atmosphere. Just one problem: we then deplete the nitrogen and a massive conflagration kills all but sixteen humans (eight British scientists and eight Vassar students – ha!). Interesting because it posits some of the same concerns we have today about genetically-modified foodstuffs. Also provides a shot aside on how the rest of the world didn’t respect the patents on this technology, which also resonates with concerns about the protection of intellectual property abroad.
An Interplanetary Rupture by Frank L. Packard (1906): A war between the great space fleets of Earth and Mercury (which has been settled by humans). Utterly predictable. I was definitely hoping for more with this one.
The Last Days of Earth by George C. Wallis (1901): The final hours of the last two humans on Earth in the far, far future. This turned out to be a far more poignant tale than I had expected.
The Plunge by George Allan England (1916): The year is 1940 AD or so, and life has become peaceful and boring. The protagonists are lamenting his drearily placid state of existence when their airship has a freak accident and they are thrust into a fight for survival. The purest action/adventure story in the collection.
I always find anthologies to be very hit-or-miss propositions, but this one was more “hit” than “miss.” I was exposed to a lot of fascinating stories I otherwise never would have come across and the editor’s introductory essays for each story were excellent. I liked almost every one of the stories in this collection, and found some of them to be excellent. Keep in mind that these are period pieces, and not generally as “action-packed” as we have come to expect of our science fiction. If you require complete character studies or psychological nuance, you will also likely be disappointed – these tales are very much products of the era in which they were created. Highly recommended if you enjoy the work of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, however. I give it 4 stars out of 5.
Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review. This has not influenced my review in any way.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers