In his introduction to Clockwork Canada, editor Dominik Parisien calls this country “the perfect setting for steampunk.” He cites the country’s “absurdly large” mass and the fact that it was founded on a railroad, surely one of the more potent and ruthless emblems of steam power.
The fifteen stories in this anthology, the twelfth in a series published by Exile Editions, more or less back up Parisien’s assertion by actively questioning the subgenre and bringing it to some interesting new places.
At its core, steampunk is a celebration of artfully clumsy retro-tech bolted to a love of all things Victorian. Since becoming a literary and fashion phenomenon after the publication of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine in 1990, the subgenre has expanded but also, some would say, dulled itself by dwelling too much on its beguiling cosmetics.
Parisien, wisely, has selected stories that ignore flash and instead focus on “the spirit of the thing.” That spirit as he sees it reveals itself one tale at a time, although some tackle their themes more successfully than others.
Holly Schofield’s “East Wind in Carrall Street” blends steampunk very neatly with the typically Canadian identity struggle of Wong Shin, a teenager living in the Chinatown of a nascent Vancouver. In the name of family duty, Shin must perform a dance in a sham clockwork lion suit to impress his father’s fellow Chinatown businessmen during an opening good-fortune ceremony. Although necessary, the deception is a source of shame for Shin’s father. Shin, the questioning but obedient son, does his best to see it through. He happens to be a crafty tinkerer himself, perpetually prying apart what he considers the crude machinery of white man culture. He also harbours a preoccupation with the “yin and yang synergy” between the elegance of Chinese clockworks and the wax cylinders that, thanks to his young friend Margie, he discovers hidden in the machinery all around him. When his father’s entire scheme is thrown into jeopardy, Shin is forced to come up with his own solution.
The story’s ending is a little too tidy but ingeniously features the core qualities of steampunk while challenging the classic mosaic image of Canadian culture as, in Shin’s words, “like the many colours of vegetable-fried noodles — a mixture of everything but a blend of nothing.” Shin is a classic steampunk character — the irrepressible maker — re-imagined as the fourteen-year-old son of a Chinese immigrant.
Most of the stories in Clockwork Canada follow a similar approach, taking recognizable steampunk archetypes and recasting them from perspectives not usually featured in rip-roaring tales of Empire, sometimes with wild results.
Terri Favro’s “Let Slip the Sluice-Gates of War, Hydro-Girl!” features Niagara Falls used as a source of power for brutal electric cannons. The cannons are the offensive linchpin in an alternate War of 1812 that has lasted eighty wearying years. Not only is this a fitting manifestation of Victorianesque nationalism (because, as any Canadian patriot will be quick to mention, the Horseshoe Falls are so much nicer than the American ones), it also grants Favro the chance to truly twist around not just historical events but the common perception of Canadian history as staid and lifeless.
Again, the protagonist of Favro’s story is typical steampunk, a picaresque adventurer, yet presented from an atypical, even anti-colonial perspective. “Lady Laura” is a near-destitute resident of “Voltagetown,” home to immigrants and “outsiders who clung to the edge of the British Empire by their dirty fingernails.” Naturally, it’s also a place where the boys are press-ganged into service at the municipal turbine stations and the girls, like Laura, are recruited as “camp followers” (i.e., comfort girls for the local militia).
Laura seems doomed to suffer the unkind attentions of “Sir Manager,” overseeing the digging of an important new hydro tunnel, until her ability to “fingerspell” attracts the interest of Isaac, a general with the Princess Priscillas. Ultimately, Laura’s journey follows a familiar, if deeply warped, path into the history books. The character’s coarse yet sly voice, raunchy humour and the pace of the action add up to a near-perfect steampunk tale.
The anthology’s stories generally fall along this spectrum, ranging from low-key character pieces, like “East Wind,” to more raucous, even madcap, adventures. Some are so solidly steampunk, the sentences practically clank off the page. Others, like Karin Lowachee’s “Gold Mountain,” explore the premise of steampunk by reaching to its very limits where the wilderness of the Rockies is still being cleared to make way for railroad ties. The only steam in Lowachee’s affecting story of loss and grief are wisps floating off a cup of tea.
Railroad construction continues at an equally high cost in “Equus” by Kate Story, who seamlessly incorporates the supernatural into her tale of a surveying crew who make use of a fantastic invention to bring the railroad to Newfoundland so that it can serve as a bridge between Europe and the mainland. The Empire marches proudly on but, as the crew discovers, not everyone (or everything) is happy about it.
Inevitably, airships drift here and there, though they’re only featured prominently in two stories, both very different in tone. “The Curlicue Seahorse,” by Chantal Boudreau, has its sails set firmly on high adventure featuring an airship designed in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and crewed entirely by women. Meanwhile, Claire Humphrey’s “Crew 255” tells a very different story exploring a Toronto blasted hollow by an airship disaster. A crew of Azoreans tasked with clearing the rubble find the ruin of industry to be fertile ground.
Not all of these stories will satisfy steampunk enthusiasts, but that’s probably the point. With so much material published in recent years, steampunk can become shorthand for clichéd Victorian characters plugged into action stories featuring inventive devices and lots of gears. For the most part, Clockwork Canada retains the gears and action while disregarding the clichés and greatly amplifying the spirit.