Alessandra's Reviews > Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader

Steampunk Prime by Mike Ashley
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Feb 06, 2012

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bookshelves: steampunk, 1900-1910, 1910s, science-fiction, 1890s

Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader is an interesting and peculiar collection of futuristic science stories originally published between 1897 and 1914. The science is thoroughly Victorian, and the gazing into the future is startling in what it predicts and what it presumes.

I guess the first thing I have to say is that what the stories have in common is that ... well, they're not very good, mostly. The characters are generally thin, overblown Victorian stereotypes, the prose tends to be florid, and few of the stories have much in the way of plot. There are good bits here and there, but overall it's not first quality.

However, the stories are fun reading for their insights into what people were thinking about and expecting a hundred years ago, and for musing on what sorts of things we might be missing in our thinking about our future.

In the future as foreseen in these stories there is no radio apart from one story's reference to reflected Marconi waves (can't remember which one because, darn it, I didn't make a note of it). In George Parsons Lathrop's "In the Deep of Time," people use the ingenious arrangement of hundreds of miles of copper cable wound around a massive iron deposit in Wisconsin to make a giant interplanetary telegraph with which they communicate with Mars!

There aren't computers in any of these stories; those are a later dream.

A couple of stories involve making artificial food out of nitrogen (vitamins were unknown at the time). In "Within an Ace of the End of the World" by Robert Barr, extraction of nitrogen from the atmosphere to make food depletes the atmosphere enough that everyone gets oxygen-drunk and silly, and civilization burns up. The idea that even with massive food production humans could make a dent in the Earth's atmospheric nitrogen content, let alone reverse its ratio to oxygen within five years, provoked giggles in my scientific friends.

In one of the better stories, "The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings," by L. T. Meade (really Elizabeth Thomasina Meade) and Robert Eustace, an x-ray machine is used as a secret attempted murder weapon, set up next door and pointed at a man's bedroom, giving him massive doses of radiation. Owing to the lack of knowledge of the time, this makes him deadly ill but not anyone else, and he recovers afterwards, neither of which is very likely.

And all of the characters are as Victorian as can be (the author Lathrop cites an African inventor, to his credit).

All of which gets me musing about what casual assumptions we are making about what people of the future will be like, what they will be interested in, how they will live, what will be important and what will be disregarded. What will they, looking back at us, see clearly that we are blind to?

These stories were obviously transcribed using an optical scanner, as the typographical errors are the sort which occur with that method -- long dashes for short, and vice-versa and the odd very strange misspelling, such as "tire" instead of "the" and the surreal "" for "made." A little more copy-editing would do this book some good.
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Estott It seems that Barnes & Noble reprinted this under an altered title. Like you I found these enjoyable but lightweight, though I very much enjoyed the thoroughly tongue in cheek "Abduction of Alexandra Seine"

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