I have mixed feelings about steampunk fiction. I’ve read some really good steampunk, but it’s mostly been anti-modernist nostalgia, boilerplate fantasy with magic replaced with sufficiently un-advanced technology. But I really like short story master Cat Rambo, arguably the truest living successor to genre doyen Damon Knight. So when a beloved author undertook a subgenre I distrust, I had my doubts. The resulting hybrid product truly could go either way.
On balance, Rambo does pretty well. Her work isn’t immune from cliché, sometimes falling into the trap George Orwell called “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” But she owns those clichés boldly, coöpting shopworn phrases to tell superior stories. Sure, she relies on period nostalgia, as paperback readers frequently expect. But she retunes and subverts nostalgia formulae to tell the story she needs, regardless of expectation.
Rambo’s ten stories pinch a medley of influences, and spread across time, from the late 18th to the early 20th Centuries. A mysterious nobleman courts an unconventional inventor from under her judgemental fiancé’s nose. A hospital for Civil War veterans harbors dark secrets, as human soldiers are recycled for parts. A werewolf motorcar enthusiast races a vampire’s train for the ultimate prize: a human woman’s heart. The stories mix recklessly.
Together, Rambo’s stories create a history familiar enough to evoke wistful sentimentality, but distorted enough to challenge preconceptions. By inverting readers’ historical reminiscences, she questions our received narrative. American forces fight an unnamed enemy Out West for control of a powerful fuel, phlogistion. Which isn’t really petroleum, stop saying that. Aristocrats vie to control a deeply class-ridden Europe, but those aristocrats are werewolves and vampires, literally feeding on their people.
By her own admission, Rambo began this collection without realizing she’d commenced a unified alternate history. Thus, some early stories disagree about their timeline: “Memphis BBQ,” about self-propelled mechanical men chasing a zeppelin, offers a different, less dark post-Civil War America than later stories, like “Snakes on a Train” and “Rappaccini’s Crow.” Later stories show greater continuity. Throughout the second half, Rambo’s appallingly grim history develops its own internal equilibrium.
Not that it becomes uniformly bleak. “Snakes on a Train,” which Rambo admits began with its title pun, retains a playful, sexy humor even when emphasis shifts onto monsters. “Rappaccini’s Crow,” by contrast, takes its cues, as you’d expect, from Nathaniel Hawthorne, with distinct hints of Poe. But its “horrors of war” theme arguably shows equal influence from Ernest Hemingway and Dalton Trumbo. This is science fiction consciously as literature.
Rambo doesn’t limit herself to just one form. Despite the Altered America title, her alternate history begins and ends in Europe. She opens with a Regency romance, then spills straight into a Dickensian protest tale. She has two Elspeth and Artemus mysteries, Western thrillers featuring twin outcasts, a clockwork man and a Jewish psychic. From there, she caroms through straight-up Western adventure, train heists, fairy tales, and more sprawling genres.
One theme permeates the entire book. Of ten stories, only two, “Web of Blood and Iron” and “Seven Clockwork Angels, All Dancing On a Pin,” don’t feature a female protagonist rejecting the romantic ingenue role. Not that they’re opposed to love: Pinkerton agent Elspeth Sorehs, female lead in two stories, openly embraces it, and other heroines fight for love they’re doomed never to receive. But they don’t define themselves romantically.
On one level, like much steampunk, Rambo exhibits flip sentiment and corny nostalgia. Admittedly, readers like that. But Rambo doesn’t make a nest in old history textbooks, she uses history to question readers. Frequently, especially in war-related stories, she threatens our understanding of the present. Thus she rises above a highly stereotyped subgenre to present tales ranging from the merely mawkish, to the downright dangerous, often in the same story.
At this writing, this book is available only in digital format. It has some visible scars from its manuscript formatting, including some editorial notations, that should’ve been removed earlier. These mistakes are few, and pretty widely spaced, so patient readers can simply read around them. But it does take patience.
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