What is it about the Victorian era that we modern readers/writers find so compelling? For me, some of its allure is that it wasn't so long ago that it seems inaccessible. Victorians lived essentially as we do, with more restrictive social customs and a less evolved understanding of technological possibilities. They had some knowledge of electricity, but homes were still lit with gaslights. They rode in horse-drawn carriages, wore crinolines and waistcoats and had to hold perfectly still for long stretches to be photographed. Still, the inkling that there were brave new worlds to be explored using technology inspired the great early speculative fiction writers, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to H.G. Wells, and that newly uncovered mindset of being on the cusp of innovation seems to drive the steampunk writers of today.
The writers in this collection are also inspired by Victorian society's collective sexual repression, a great reserve of innocence, shame and untapped energies that had yet to produce Sigmund Freud to explain it. The juxtaposition of innocence and experience, of caution and desire, of social mores versus human needs create most of the tension in these tales.
Honestly, this isn't my favorite Cleis Press anthology. In any anthology, there are bound to be some short stories the reader responds to better than others. In the other 5-6 Cleis titles I've read, I've been delighted by almost everything. I actually thought a few of these stories were ho-hum. You wouldn't think a story about a steam-powered vibrator could be uninteresting, but once you read a few of them, you realize there are ways to write acceptable steampunk erotica, and then there are ways to write exceptional steampunk erotica.
The opener, Teresa Noelle Roberts' "Human Powered," is a rousing start, with a sympathetic heroine and sex that arises organically from the story. "Mutiny on the Danika Blue" by Poe Von Page, the only story in the anthology that takes its characters into space, is a wonderful meditation on power play. "Deviant Devices" by Kannan Feng has a rather nice male-female dynamic as well. Lisabet Sarai's "Her Own Devices," with its Chinese setting, is one of the nicest, and most sensually detailed, of the bunch. The other bookend, Elizabeth Schechter's "The Succubus," closes nicely by flipping the typical point of view on its head.
My true favorite is the collection's lone m/m piece, "Infernal Machine" by Elias A. St. James. Its begoggled tinkerer is Elijah Saloman, the son of a French rabbi. The young inventor's lover is Sasha, a Russian noble. At the exact moment Sasha is called away to perform the duties of his station, Elijah is entrapped by one of his machines, a helpless prisoner to exquisitely pleasurable mechanical torture. Pleasurable mechanical torture is the theme of many of these stories, but this one manages a certain stylish romance and charm among the clockwork and steam engines. It's like red velvet marred, or rather decorated, with Elijah's greasy thumbprints.
1. If you enjoy this book, you will also like the novella 'Hysteria' by Rushmore Judd, which you can find on Smashwords.
2. My husband thinks the woman on the cover looks like Lady Gaga.
3. I received a copy of this book at no charge from the publisher. I was not otherwise compensated for this review.