The Mammoth Book Of Steam Punk edited by Sean Wallace (book review)

It’s been a while since I had any steampunk to read, so the chunky 500-page ‘Mammoth Book Of Steampunk’ was, I decided, an excellent opportunity to catch up with a wide selection of authors and stories. The volume contains 30 stories, including a handful original to the collection, gathered together by regular Mammoth editor Sean Wallace. The scope and variety of stories is excellent, with stories set in many times and places and not all of them identifiable. I can’t possibly comment on all of the stories without writing a massively long review, so I’ll just tell you about some of my favourites.


The first to catch my attention was Genevieve Valentine’s mixed-format story ‘The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball’. The story mixes a first person account of what the life of a Zeppelin crewman is really like through a series of partially-linked accounts, interspersed with advertisements for airship-related products, public health warnings and other documents that don’t necessarily paint the same picture. I always enjoy an unusually formatted story and this one gates the balance of entrancing narrative and meaningful addenda just right.

‘The Mechanical Aviary Of Emperor Jala-ud-din Muhammed Akbar’ is Shwete Narayan’s Arabian Nights/Aesop’s Fables mash-up that tells of intricate clockwork creations and the even more intricate emotions that power them. With stories within stories and an air of the mystical, this is a wonderfully entertaining story.

M.K. Jemisin’s title ‘The Effluent Engine’ caught my eye because I used to work as a technician on an effluent treatment plant. Sadly, there was not enough technical detail in the story for me to compare my work with that of my theoretical Victorian forerunners, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless. The tale takes place in New Orleans and includes characters from Haiti. My knowledge of Haitian history is sadly lacking, so I have no idea how much the back story differs from actuality, but the beauty of a well-crafted steampunk story such as this one is that the alternative worlds they inhabit are thoroughly convincing in their plausibility.

I’ve enjoyed Cherie Priest’s ‘Clockwork Century’ series over the past few years, so her story ‘Reluctance’ was a welcome if brief return to that setting. It includes everything you’d expect – airships, echoes of the American civil war and zombies. It’s an atmospheric story, perhaps a little inexplicable if you’re not aware of the back story, but at least realistic. By contrast, many of this volume’s stories are highly fanciful and offer little in the way of plausibility.

More airships, this time accompanied by hybrid biomechanical flying serpents, feature in Margaret Ronalds’ story ‘A Serpent In The Gears’. The tale follows an expedition led by the Royal Society to re-establish contact with the isolationist valley of Aaris on board an airship full of interesting characters who are not all they seem. Full of intrigue and adventure, this one was great fun and one of the most enjoyable for me.

Similar in some ways is the story with the longest title, Benjamin Rosenbaum’s ‘Biographical Notes To “A Discourse On The Nature Of Causality, With Air-Planes” by Benjamin Rosenbaum’. This self-referential, metafictional story in which the protagonist may also be the author or possibly an alternatively historical version of himself, inserts paragraphs of analysis and philosophy into a crazily enjoyable adventure involving airships, pirates assassins and numerous alternative world powers. This kind of fun and wild adventure is definitely my favourite avenue of steampunk, rather than some of the romance or fantasy stories presented.

It’s a big book and does a grand job of presenting a wide and varied picture of steampunk – SF, romance, fantasy, fable, Victorian England, the Wild West, alternative empires and far future. There’s something for everyone who’s ever liked a spot of steampunk.

Gareth D. Jones

September 2015

(pub: Constable Robinson. 498 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84901-736-7)

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