The Second Coming of Steampunk: An Interview with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

It’s fair to say that steampunk is enjoying an odd sort of second coming these days. Originally a literary movement that mashed cyberpunk-style themes with speculative rewritings of Victorian culture, steampunk is now equally a subculture devoted to repurposing mass-market consumer products into gloriously obsessive idiosyncratic designs. Scarcely a day — some days, scarcely an hour — goes by without a BoingBoing post devoted to some lovingly crafted steampunk mod.

As Ann and Jeff VanderMeer discuss below, however, that DIY culture is frequently unaware of its own literary roots. Their new anthology, Steampunk, from Tachyon Publications, should help that situation: Collecting together stories by such writers as Neal Stephenson, James Blaylock, Michael Chabon, Paul Di Filippo, Joe Lansdale, Ted Chiang, and others, as well as an excerpt from Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, as well as helpful essays by Jess Nevins, Rick Klaw, and Bill Baker, Steampunk is a thoroughly engaging read.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have collaborated on many editing projects, most recently The New Weird anthology, also with Tachyon Publications. Ann VanderMeer is the fiction editor for Weird Tales, and is the founder of Buzzcity Press. Jeff VanderMeer is the author of such novels as Shriek: An Afterword and Veniss Underground, as well as collections such as The City of Saints and Madmen.

Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer will be appearing at Steam Powered: The California Steampunk Convention 2008.

How did Steampunk come into existence?

JV: We’d already taken on The New Weird anthology, and we thought that, for a follow up, we’d do something that wasn’t as likely to get us both beat to death on the street…. But seriously, Tachyon came to us afterwards and said that they were trying to do a steampunk anthology, and would we be interested. Steampunk felt to us like The New Weird‘s nicer, more escapist cousin.

Given your focus on short stories, was there a difficulty about choosing which texts to represent?

AV: Definitely, that was a tricky thing, because a lot of the more recognizable steampunk fiction that you’re going to see out there is at novel-length, and of course there’s not as much short fiction that’s recognized that way. We did spend quite a lot of time doing research and reading everything that we possibly could in order to get a nice variety, because we didn’t want a lot of stories that were just like each other.

JV: Let’s make a distinction, too: There’s not that much classic steampunk short fiction, as in short stories, but there’s plenty of it in a medium length — a novelette length. One of the challenges in doing this anthology was really finding the short story pieces. We have recognizably classic novelettes/novellas like James Blaylock’s novelette [“Lord Kelvin’s Machine”], but then you don’t want a book that’s all just 10,000-15,0000-word stories. For the reader who reads it from beginning to end it would become — although there’s change in tone from piece to piece, a little too much. The challenge was really to find those other pieces at the shorter length, and we were able to find quite a few, in a lot of different steampunk modes.

As someone who frequently teaches this material, I was glad to see an anthology that represents the full range of steampunk possibilities.

JV: I think there’s a couple of things we tried to cover: There’s the Victoriana mode, and then, as Jess Nevins says in his introductory essay, there’s also this whole “Edisonade” thing from the mid-19th century, where there was this idea of the protagonist being a heroic inventor who invented some type of steampunk thing and then went off exploring. And we do have that represented, in addition to the more English, more Wells/Verne-type derivative. It’s funny that the most subversive story we have in there is the Joe Lansdale [“The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel”], which takes Wells, and then combines it with this Edisonade, which is a kind of innocent form, and deconstructs it by violating every taboo you can think of.

AV: Yeah, he throws everything in there. He’s got aliens, he’s got the wild west, he’s got vampires — it’s just…

JV: He’s got a lot of other things in there, too! But then it’s funny —

AV: Amazing. It’s just brilliant.

JV: It is. And then, on the other hand, we have the riff on Verne from Molly Brown [“The Selene Gardening Society”], which is almost a comedy of manners, and which couldn’t be more harmless. And I don’t mean that in a bad way! It does show the length and breadth of what you can do within this thing called steampunk.

Since you bring up the Edisonade, I wonder if you see a split between what Nevins sees as the Englishness of steampunk as a literary movement and steampunk culture, where the DIY ethic seems aligned with taking legitimate pride in one’s abilities.

AV: I definitely see a distinction between the steampunk community and the steampunk literature. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know how many people involved in the steampunk community were aware of the literature from the 1980s. They might know a few things here and there. That was one of the things that was really fantastic about doing this anthology is that we got to connect with those communities and spread it out much more. What I saw, from working with them, is more that they were getting back to a DIY / take charge / I want to make something with my own hands kind of thing — that’s where they came from. Some people take it — they even have conventions, where they get together and they compare notes: “this is what I did, and this is how it works,” and it’s really kind of neat!

JV: There’re two things that we’ve seen, and of course we’re not in that culture, so we’re looking at it from the outside and seeing just parts of it, but there are two things I find really interesting. One is the idea of the steampunk aesthetic applied to art, whether it’s making a steampunk radio that is functional but that also has all these baroque gears and levers to it, which is that idea that even something functional should have an artistic purpose as well. And then on the other hand, there are things that are actually functional and are trying to get back to an idea of technology at the point at which most of us where able to, you know, go underneath the hood of our car and maybe fix something in there. Whereas now, you look inside there and it’s not like you could possibly fix anything.

AV: You can’t do anything with your car unless you can hook it up to a computer now.

JV: And so there are two, not really opposing, but actually complementary in a way, strands: this aesthetic art thing and then also this functional, practical aspect within the subculture.

With that in mind, can I ask whether you’ve tried Merlin Mann’s steampunk penis pump?

JV: [Wild laughter.]

AV: I loved it. Especially the seriousness with which he describes it… it’s just awesome. And the thing that’s so neat about the way that he did that is that it’s really not all that different from the stuff that you see on the Home Shopping Network. They really take that stuff seriously. I thought that was fantastic.

JV: Actually, one thing that I wish would have happened with the anthology is if we’d encountered the subculture before we’d done the anthology — we could also have had an essay in there about that.

I was wondering, too, if there had been a discussion about incorporating either some foreign-language stuff or some of the comic-book material that Bill Baker talks about in his essay.

AV: I think that that would’ve made it a totally different project.

JV: Also, the other thing is that we know there’s a Re/Search book — they’re doing a steampunk book, and we’re fairly sure they’re going to include that kind of stuff. It also came up with The New Weird, because initially I’d wanted to include some stuff by Alexandro Jodorowsky from Humanoids Publishing, and other examples of graphica and art that could be considered New Weird whether the practitioners had thought of it that way or not, and that had been influences on the people in that anthology. I think we always do think in dual literature/art terms, given the backgrounds we come from, and so it’s always tempting. The problem then is, how do you do that without losing focus in the anthology.

Can you talk about your process for co-editing this anthology?

AV: We actually work differently depending on what the project is, because every project is different. But essentially, we each have our own strengths and weaknesses, so I do the tasks that I do best, and Jeff does what he does best, and then some things we share. Certain tasks we separate, but others we share.

JV: This was interesting, because it came at a time when I was working on some other projects, too, so Ann thought of some of the stories, but I actually didn’t read a lot of the stuff until after she’d read it and weeded some stuff out.

AV: Yes, I slogged through a lot of stuff and searched for a lot of stuff, and brought it to Jeff. I had rated things — “I like this, I don’t like this, what do you think about this?” Jeff was responsible for contacting and contracting the nonfiction pieces that are in here. He worked with Jess Nevins and Bill Baker and Rick Klaw.

JV: And also, I think I had a better bead initially, just because I’d been immersed in it back in the 1980s and whatnot, on what some of the iconic steampunk stories were. I had a shortlist of stuff that we had to have in the anthology as far as I was concerned. Then when we branched out from that, that’s where Ann was most responsible for bringing in the other stuff. So that’s the way it worked — but this was a pretty simple anthology in many ways. It’s a much more clearly defined thing than the new weird, simply because it’s been around longer. So it was a lot easier to know that, well, this stuff just has to go in.

AV: One of the things that we do, Jason, is that Jeff and I do a lot of hiking, and we usually use that time to brainstorm different ideas for how we’re going to work certain projects. Typically when we’re’ doing that Jeff always brings some paper and a pen, and jots down ideas as we’re going. Somehow, for some reason, being outside in nature just makes all these ideas come to the surface.

JV: And also, I think on this one we were very cautious after knowing what the initial core stories were that we wanted to coalesce in our minds. When she talks about those hikes it’s almost like what happens when you go from the first to the 12th draft of a novel or something. You have to do that without committing to too many stories when you’re doing an anthology so you can get the balance and the mix right. It’s funny because our idea, as we worked together, of our strengths and weaknesses has changed. It used to be that I would responsible for doing very close line edits and things like that, and Ann’s always been great about two things: number one, not caring who a story is by, not being influenced at all by whether it’s by Stephen King or by someone you’ve never heard of, and also, on a macro level, being able to dissect a story and say, “This just doesn’t make sense here” — all these kinds of structural things. Since we taught at Clarion last year, and we wound up switching roles a bit, we’ve found, for one thing, that Ann’s really good at the specific edits: she just hadn’t done as much of that before. In collaboration, it’s become much less clear what a “strength” is and what a “weakness” is. We shore each other up, and have been learning from each other the more closely we’ve worked together.

AV: And of course with a project like this one, where they’re all reprints, we didn’t do a whole lot of editing work.

JV: No, no. The worst one was in The New Weird when there was a typo we didn’t know about in Clive Barker’s story. It was supposed to say something and “opinions,” and it says “onions” instead. It wasn’t actually clear from the context whether it was opinions or onions, and it turned out to be a typo he’d been trying to track down for 18 years. We’re going to correct it in the second edition, but it was funny because I got a phone call from him saying, “Jeff, it’s not onions.” And I was like, “yes, sir, no problem!”

Is it ok to ask what the “core stories” were? I assume that Moorcock and Di Filippo and Blaylock…

AV: The Blaylock, and the Ted Chiang [“Seventy-Two Letters”], the Chabon [“The Martian Agent, a Planetary Romance”], and the Chapman [“Minutes of the Last Meeting”] for sure.

JV: I would say that we would consider that, but I don’t think anyone else would. I think it’s just a brilliant story, and it is underappreciated.

AV: But that was one of the ones that we first thought of.

JV: Yes, it is.

AV: The Lansdale was actually an early pick, too.

JV: It was, but we had three different Lansdale stories that we could have picked, and the other two are actually better known, but we thought this one was much stronger, and much more interesting in the context of the anthology because of all of the different things it was subverting.

AV: I also think it was a lot more dangerous, and that appealed to me.

JV: Absolutely. The Ted Chiang to some extent. We did look for K. W. Jeter and Tim Powers, but they didn’t really have anything in the short story form. I don’t think that’s really a weakness in this anthology. I think it’s also true that in almost every form that the novel — being an ocean liner rather than a tugboat — is going to get more attention.

It was great to see the Chabon piece in there — to build that bridge out there to more mainstream literary uses of steampunk such as Pynchon’s, which might not be excerptable.

JV: I think we would have excerpted Pynchon if it hadn’t been so recent, and if we’d had the opportunity. (And then, of course, you never want to have too many novel excerpts, unless you can find something that’s really self-contained.)

It’s helped my credibility on campus to be able to point to a mainstream writer like Chabon.

JV: [Laughs.] It’s something we always do, because we kind of have a foot in each camp. I mean, we hate the idea that there’s this divide, but we are very aware of what’s happening in what’s amorphously described as “literary mainstream”, as much as in genre. In every anthology we do, and sometimes it’s more or less possible depending on the focus, we try to combine different writers who are appropriate to include thematically but who normally don’t appear in the same anthologies together. What happens that we really love is that — especially in some of the past anthologies — we have readings that bring these writers together, so you not only get the cross-pollination in the anthology itself, but you also get writers talking to each other who otherwise might never have met, and they find they have much more in common than they though they did.

AV: And sometimes it sparks collaborations that are really amazing.

On the topic of getting writers together, there’s a perception, or perhaps a cliché, that all of the punk variants are boys’ clubs, and I was wondering if there was any difficulty with that in assembling the volume — was it harder to find stories by women?

AV: Well, I did have a hard time finding more — you can tell by looking at the table of contents. We did try to seek that out as much as we could, but there’s only so much research, and going through dusty used bookstores you can do to find everything you possibly can. And I don’t know if that’s because there weren’t as many women writing steampunk over the past twenty years. I think you see a lot more of it now. One of the stories that you see in there that’s from a relatively new writer, “Reflected Light” [by Rachel E. Pollack], is actually from a magazine called Steampunk Magazine, and a lot of the writers in that magazine are women. You see a lot more of that now, than I think you did in the 1980s.

JV: Definitely the iconic stories are all by men. We were very happy to be able to find the Mary Gentle story [“A Sun in the Attic”], because we already knew that she dealt with alternate history a bit, and so we figured there had to be story close to steampunk. Hers is actually a feminist steampunk story.

I think more and more it’s breaking wide open because people are not seeing steampunk as a movement, in a way. They’re seeing it as a series of tools you can deploy whatever way you want to. Purists are going to be upset about that, but the fact of the matter is that, on some level, what’s considered steampunk today is what’s considered steampunk by readers. Once it gets to the point where it’s a cultural thing, and readers identify it in more than one way, it’s kind of a losing battle to insist on purity. It also doesn’t help the writers who are coming next because they’re not actually doing pastiches, they’re trying to take these elements and do something different with them. In fact, I have an anti-steampunk story in Nick Gevers’s Extraordinary Engines coming out later this year.

Where there surprises while you were doing the reading? I was exhausted after reading Rick Klaw’s essay inventorying all the material that’s out there, so I can only imagine…

AV: I definitely learned a lot. I just had no idea that there was that much behind it, and the history. It just didn’t really occur to me. That’s another thing that’s really great about doing these projects, and I wouldn’t want to do a project that I couldn’t learn from, or take something out of.

JV: Although I was very familiar with steampunk as a writer, using some of the tropes and whatnot, and knowing some of the iconic novels, I was not aware of the full history of it until Jess Nevins sent in his piece. And that’s specifically why — as opposed to The New Weird anthology where I did the introduction, since I was there, I knew all the stuff — we had experts come in to write the essays, and we just provided a preface. That’s another important thing about editing an anthology is to know when you need to find someone else to do something.

Nevins is just a wonder…

JV: He’s a wonderful, wonderful writer… it’s a great piece. It’s also great because it sets up something we also like in anthologies, which is that it sets up a discussion. If you read his essay, there are pieces in our anthology that violate what he thinks of as steampunk. And that’s fine, because it sets up a dialogue with the reader, which is something that we like.

That brings up something I wanted to ask, since Nevins seems convinced that steampunk has lost its critical perspective on late capitalism, whereas you seem more comfortable with seeing it as a series of tropes, which might well sometimes be lighthearted or escapist.

AV: We might say that, but if you look at the stories, they’re not really like that.

Fair enough.

JV: I’m comfortable with the range. This will sound funny from someone who’s edited two “movement” anthologies, but: I don’t really care much about the labels. As a writer, I just want to pick out the cool stuff and recombine them in ways that haven’t been done before. And sometimes those ways are reactionary and escapist, depending on the needs of the story, and sometimes they’re not. I hate to keep going back to the Joe Lansdale, but there’s nothing escapist about that story, and as Ann says, there are quite a few stories in here that aren’t that way. Whether they fit Nevins’s strict interpretation or not — I think there are so many perspectives when you put together something like this: You’re an anthologist, but, on the other hand, you’re also a writer at some level, and then the critical element comes in via someone like Nevins, and so there are so many perspectives from which you can look at it. I’m sure there are some perspectives from which steampunk has become debased or different than it was, but on another level, it seems to me to be rejuvenated and set free from some of the things politically that made it reactionary.

AV: You also have to keep in mind that Jess turned that in before he’d read all of the stories we selected. So he had not read “Reflected Light,” by Rachel E. Pollack, which definitely holds true to the punk attitude and the politics. And the Stepan Chapman…

JV: Did you have any personal favorites in the anthology?

I had not read the Lansdale before, and so that was a lot of fun, and the Chapman and Pollack stories were also new to me. I happened to have read the Moorcock recently, and the Stephenson I knew because I teach him a lot. The anthology has hits from soup to nuts, but the Lansdale I was very glad to know.

AV: Good!