The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo
The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo is a reprint collection from Open Road Media, 2014. It was originally published in 1995 by Four Walls Eight Windows, and contains three novellas: “Victoria” (1991), “Hottentots” (1995) shortlisted for the 1996 Locus Award for Best Novella, and “Walt and Emily” (1993) published in two parts by Interzone and shortlisted for the 1994 Locus Award for Best Novella. Ignore the title: recognise that these novellas are not about great airships and mechanical inventiveness on a large scale. Rather this is steampunk as a state of mind. As emotionally repressed people, the Victorians feared they would lose control if their inner passions were allowed free rein. Think Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with a beast lurking inside the sack of skin, just waiting for the chance to take over and cause mayhem. Although it may make us feel more comfortable to restrict this historical trait to sexual behaviour and the threat of men being overtaken by their lust, the reality was a more general exuberance of greed and selfishness, cruelty and ambition — build an empire before tea, exploit it to the maximum possible, and then lose it all as night falls and the downtrodden refuse to accept the continuing abuse.
We start off in the same style as The Importance of Being a Nest by Wilde Birds with The Importance of Being a Newt. Yes, this is the story of Cosmo Cowperthwait who, having expunged Letchworth from the map (those of you interested in this phenomenon should read the excellent Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W Clark), turned his attention to genetic engineering, hoping to satisfy his scientific curiosity by scaling up a newt to human size. Coincidentally, because books like this thrive on the comic effect generated by coincidences, he names his life-sized newt Victoria so, when the Queen of the same name goes walkabout, who else should the prime minister think of putting on the throne as a temporary replacement but the newt? As you will gather from these few sentences, this novella begins with a certain level of absurdity and then elevates the absurdity to previously undreamed of levels. It’s a masterpiece as our heroic inventor and genetic manipulatist ransacks London in search of the missing queen, fighting off temptation from an early suffragette whose self-appointed task is to relieve the suffering of women at the hands of men, only to end up where he started out albeit on a more private basis. Di Filippo’s take on the half-human, half-newt is as a sex toy for the rich that may, in the long term, prove to have a mind of her own. It’s simply an ironic commentary on the science that the combination of the animal and the human produces a more naturally sexual “animal” save that the human Queen Victoria is also discovering the diversity of sexual experience in an upmarket brothel. It seems newt genes and leadership pressures make sexual champions of us all. Although some of the humour is a little “obvious”, this remains great fun to read.
“Hottentots” is high quality satire that begins by skewering some of the prejudices that would have been prevalent in Victorian times. Fortunately, in our current post-racial times, we could not possibly hold such bigoted views or, if we did, we would carefully avoid expressing them in public. From our position of enlightenment, it gives us a chance to consider the basis of the beliefs that produced ideas of Übermensch, racial supremacism, eugenics, and so on. Our hero, Louis Agassiz, for want of a better way of describing the man, is a Swiss national working to establish a scientific centre in America. Apart from the intellectually elite to be found in places of learning such as Harvard, he considers America a dire melting pot in which miscegenation has run riot, irrecoverably polluting the gene pool and producing a potentially subhuman underclass of simple-minded people. You can therefore imagine his horror when his calm progress through life is disturbed by the arrival of a white man and his Hottentot bride who are intent upon recovering a lost fetish. There’s much tooing and froing as Agassiz attempts to reconcile his desire for a rational view of the world with the somewhat irrational occurrences around him. All this would have been more successful if the character of the man had been more likeable. But, from the outset, we’re shown how ghastly he is (by modern standards) and so have no sympathy for him at all.
“Walt and Emily” is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson who are involved in that most Victorian of pastimes: the pursuit of the supernatural through the séance and other mechanisms for interacting with the spirit world. Emily’s brother, Austin, seeks a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He hopes the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy is the real deal and engages Walt and Emily to investigate the medium’s claims not only to communicate with the dead, but also transport the living into the spirit world. This involves us trying to reconcile science and the supernatural as the medium discharges ideoplasm from her breasts and transports our poets to an encounter with Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. There’s a general sense of fun as literary sensibilities are explored across the ages but, as with the other stories, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As in the other novellas, there’s also a sexual component to the story.
Although there are monsters on display, some more Lovecraftian than others, and there are some beautifully rendered mechanical ideas to satisfy those who want their steampunk to be about machines rather than ideas, full enjoyment of these three stories is somewhat dependent on being familiar with the more general Victorian writing styles and the particular literary flourishes of the poets in the last novella. This is not to say the modern reader will not enjoy these stories, but they will deliver more enjoyment if you have some background in the history and literature of Victorian times. With that caveat, I recommend The Steampunk Trilogy as producing a nicely balanced and occasionally humorous set of alternate histories for us to explore.
For a review of another work by Paul Di Filippo, see Cosmocopia.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.