Review: Steampunk Fairy Tales

Steampunk Fairy Tales is pretty much what it says on the tin: a collection of seven stories, all versions of fairy tales with a steampunk twist. Most are Western stories of various origin, and there are two Japanese stories – although neither of them are by a Japanese author. Which is fine, but a bit awkward when the preface to the book specifically flags up its cultural diversity:

…the authors represented three continents and were retelling myths from Germany, England, France, Italy and Japan.

Anyway. I’m still trying to come up with a personal Working Theory of Steampunk, so what I found most interesting in thinking about the book was its approach to the genre. What makes these stories steampunk, according to the preface, is that they are “set in an advanced Victorian society powered by steam” – which is interesting, because it suggests that steampunk here is not defined by its politics (in spite of the “punk” part of the name) but by its technology: steam power. (In context, I think what the writer of the preface means by “advanced” is “technologically advanced”.)

That’s borne out by what the writers have done to make the stories steampunk. Most of the stories turns not on character or circumstance but technology, a steampunk novum, to steal a term from SF criticism. “The Clockwork People” retells “Pinocchio” with living dolls made of clockwork – and the end of the story sees a young doll made spontaneously from the wreckage of its parents. “Perfection”, a retelling of “Bluebeard” and not coincidentally the best story in the book, turns on the fact that its heroine is herself a clockwork automaton. “The Copper Eyes” features an evil inventor mother who turns her children into machines and is herself defeated by a machine. “Strawberry Sins” is a version of “Beauty and the Beast” in which a soldier tries to work out a cure to his increasing beastliness by tinkering with a scientific formula (although this story felt more dieselpunk to me). And “Aubrey in the World Above” features a beanstalk, apparently activated by electricity, that swallows people up to take them to the land of the Giants. Also a mechanical hen.

Interestingly, it’s the two Japanese stories – “The Mech Oni and the Three Inch Tinkerer” and “The Yellow Butterfly” – that are most focused on their characters; and even they are set against a background in which technology and materialism is a looming threat. “The Mech Oni and the Three Inch Tinkerer” features a vast steam-powered robot monster which its three-inch samurai is rewarded for defeating, and the hero of “The Yellow Butterfly” is grieving the loss of his family in a submersible accident, working in a factory for a tyrannical ex-samurai capitalist. (This would be the second-best story in the collection if it weren’t creepily male-gaze-y.)

So, materialism and mass production is at the heart of what the book sees as steampunk. If each of these stories hinges in some way on technology, each of them also enacts a highly specific anxiety about technology: the subsumation of the human into the mechanical. Clockwork dolls turning into people; mechanical monsters consuming frail human bodies; a scientific formula robbing someone of their humanity. Central to the book’s idea of steampunk is this tension between human and machine, this questioning of where the borderline is. Siting that tension in an “advanced Victorian society” ideologically enacts a return to an era in which modern capitalism is just about to get started properly; when factories are treating humans like machines, when human labour is being replaced by this explosion of new kinds of machine: a tipping point, an edge-moment.

(I’m distinguishing here between the “real” Victorian period and the Victorian period that lives in our cultural imagination. “Victorian” is almost unique in that it can be considered as both a historical moment and as an aesthetic – Ancient Rome is the only other such cultural signifier I can think of.)

And it’s also, ideologically speaking, the last moment when humans have tangible, Newtonian control over their machines. You can look at steam engines and clockwork and see how they work, how the piston over here spins to make this happen so the wheels move like this – a tangible, instinctual grasp of how machinery works that we’ve lost with the advent of computer chips. These stories feature characters who, despite their fears of being consumed by machinery, also exercise their power over it, through invention, or fine-tune destruction that depends on knowing how machines work. They are exercising control, even as the machines push back against that control.

And it’s here, I think, that the book displays the bourgeois bias that steampunk can be prone to. Invention – the exercise of power over machinery – is throughout most of these stories the preserve of upper-class inventors with rambling Gothic mansions and time to spare; or it’s supplemented by magic, which is by its very definition exclusive. The two best stories in the collection – “Perfection” and “The Yellow Butterfly” – are those that recognise that there are people other than these privileged inventors; people who have no power over machinery and cannot stop the dehumanising march of capitalism by invention.

I don’t actually think this is a very successful collection: the stories mostly feel very old-fashioned in their concerns, and (with the exception of “Perfection”) don’t engage very extensively with the politics of their originals. I’ve had more fun thinking about it than I did reading it.

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