Reading an anthology of short fiction for this event turned out to be an interesting choice. A More Diverse Universe is about celebrating the voices of authors of color, specifically; inherent in that is the idea that their work will have more, or at least more authentic, characters of color as well. It was fascinating to see how this played out in the pieces in this anthology, The Steampowered Globe.
This anthology is from the Happy Smiley Writers Group, featuring authors from Singapore. The guidelines for the project specified steampunk and “No depressive ending, no preaching, no agendas, no angst-ridden misery.” According to the editorial notes, this is the tone that dominates fiction published in Singapore, and they wanted to get away from that. See? Fascinating cultural insight, and we haven’t even read the stories yet.
I thought that all seven stories were worthwhile. It’s unusual not to find at least one that’s not my cup of tea, but while I definitely had my favorites, I thought the overall quality of the writing was high and I liked every story. It’s interesting to see so many different takes on steampunk (I love that about anthologies).
Steampunk seems tailor-made for writers from post-colonial cultures; it is, after all, somewhat based in the Victorian era (if only at the point where the “steam” technology diverges), that great period of colonization, and the view from the descendants of those colonized is bound to be different than that of writers mostly descended from the European colonizers in the way it questions authority and dogma (the “punk” aspect of the genre). There’s quite a range in these stories as far as the feeling of Asian influence, as well as in the feeling of or departure from traditional steampunk, if one can posit such a thing.
The first story in this anthology, “Ascension,” by Leow Hui Min Annabeth, features Ada Lovelace and the Dowager Empress Ci Xi. Lovelace was a mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage on his mechanical computer, the analytical/difference engine; she is regarded as the first computer programmer. Ci Xi was the primary political power in China for the second half of the 19th century, ruling as regent or co-regent from 1861-1908. Lovelace died of uterine cancer in her 30s, but this lovely short piece has her living on and traveling to China to work with the Empress. It’s a powerful story, and it reminded me strongly of a piece by artist James Ng, whose Imperial Steamworks series is one of my favorite collections of steampunk art. His piece “The Duchess” immediately came to mind when I read Leow’s story, and through the rest of the anthology, I kept envisioning Ng’s work.
Claire Cheong is only 16 years old, but her story “No, They Dream of Mechanical Hearts” holds its own among the pieces in this collection. This story shows more subtle Asian influences, the result of that perspective being the author’s, and thus the story’s, default mode. I found that fascinating; indeed, I did one whole reread just looking for the little hints that the fantasy world in which the story was set was more Asian than western. The story is also good steampunk. Missy Largen, the main character, has discovered the formula for Aether, the “very essence of Life itself,” which can give the labori (machine people) human emotions and consciousness. Her passionate arguments for releasing the labori from slavery and treating them as equal, even though they are different, is the age-old argument against the subjugation of “lesser races.”
“Morrow’s Knight,” by Viki Chua, features clearly English characters in another story about automatons and inventors who believe they can become more than mindless machines. Jeremy Morrow is an automaton engineer, and when he dies under mysterious circumstances, his sister Helena is left to ty to figure out what he was working on, whether he was killed for it, and what she can do to keep his work from dying with him. It’s an engrossing mystery story, with a happier ending than I expected.
“Colours,” by Yuen Xiang Hao, is the moving tale of a military unit making a last stand against difficult odds and superior weapon technology. It’s a clever combination of strategy, action and reflection, as the characters confront probably death at the hands of their enemies while still working to find a way our of their seemingly impossible situation and determined to fight and die, if necessary, without disgrace or dishonor.
Mint Kang’s “How the Morning Glory Grows” is a much lighter piece, with a cast of interesting characters developed very well for such short fiction. It sucked me into its world right away, where the constables, engineers and mechas of Tsing Mui Shan Station work to keep the peace in a rather run-down part of a city in the Treaty Territories. Their new superintendant is a “Union Jacker,” big and light-skinned and blonde, and he is obsessed with “hackers” (manipulators of genetic code) and disdainful of local customs, beliefs and traditions. His overreaction to a simple problem, a rogue morning glory vine, leads to a conflict with his senior Inspector and a humorous uproar that makes him reconsider his priorities.
One of the shorter pieces in the collection is Ng Kum Hoon’s “Help! Same Angler Fish’s Been Gawking for Eight Minutes.” It is a clever piece that I can’t really describe without ruining it, so I’ll just say that it’s as much fun as the title suggests.
The final piece, “Captain Bells and the Sovereign State of Discordia,” by J Y Yang, is one of the longest and the only one written in first person. In some ways it is typical steampunk — the title character is a rogue airship captain (is there anything that says steampunk faster than a zeppelin?), whom the narrator, Amira, and her partner, Ying, are sent to neutralize on behalf of the Lord Overseer of the Malayan Colonies. That the partners are lesbians adds interest to the story. They navigate a difficult path as lovers, subjects of an authority that manipulates and would easily sacrifice them, as Amira is increasingly intrigued by the man they are expected to kill. Even though the events are somewhat predictable, the story is quite involving because of the characters, the detailed setting, and the fine writing — which is something I feel about quite a bit of the steampunk and adventure fiction that I enjoy reading.
Overall, this was a collection well worth reading; not just for someone specifically looking for more diversity in speculative fiction, but for any reader who enjoys well-written short steampunk. These stories are as good as or better than a lot of things I’ve read in the genre, plus a little bit more because of the atypical Asian elements.
Here is a link to the schedule of all the More Diverse Universe posts. There’s some exciting diversity out there!