I had a package waiting for me the day I got back from punching evil in the dick. Lo and behold, it was my advance reader copy for Twit Publishing’s forthcoming newest Dieselpunk anthology: hold onto your butts, because we’re goin’ in.
If you’re not familiar with the dieselpunk genre, it’s very much related to those other “punks” out there. Much like steampunk, it involves outdated technology used in new and interesting ways, but it’s subtly different. The tone of a dieselpunk aesthetic is defined by early 20th century culture, most notably the Roaring 20s and pre-Atomic wartime, and can incorporate pretty much any other subgenre, from supernatural horror to alternate history to action-adventure: one of the best examples of this would be movies such as the first three Indiana Jones movies, The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and the opening scene of the first Hellboy movie. It’s a gin-soaked speakeasy packed with lizardmen in zoot suits and and flappers with eyestalks; it’s an intergalactic, dimension-hopping war fought with zeppelins and Fokker D.VIII’s over the skies of an alien world, and it is undeniably cool.
It’s also sadly under-represented in the current fiction landscape. Lucky for you and I, Twit has gone full-bore into the genre, twin Vickers machine-guns blazing, and has come out with an excellent collection of dieselpunk short stories.
Now, full disclosure time: yes, Twit is my publisher, but I don’t have a dog in this fight; none of my short stories are appearing in this anthology. While it’s true that Blowing Off Some Steam has some dieselpunk elements (it also has some steampunk elements as well), it’s more of a science fiction story than anything, and trying to include it in a strictly-dieselpunk anthology would be a bit of a stretch. While this means you’ll have to wait a bit longer to read more about Sarge and her screwball antics (hope you’re enjoying Landfall and A Stiff Drink!), this frees me up to give you an independent evaluation of the eight short stories within the Dieselpunk anthology, and in the spirit of giving each story an in-depth, yet spoiler-free review, I’ll be breaking up the review into two parts over today and tomorrow.
The anthology gets off to a great start with its first short story, “Charlie Shaw and the Belfast Terror,” by C S Nelson. A hard-boiled adventure yarn set in pre-war Los Angeles, the tale quickly grows to incorporate a great narrative twist that distinguishes itself from the pack. The mystery unfolds at a rollercoaster pace, with a long, slow buildup followed by nonstop action that’s over almost too fast, but leaves you wanting to get back on for another ride even before the dust settles. The entire aesthetic for the short story is highly cinematic, and I could easily imagine it as a slightly tongue-in-cheek “B movie” – and I mean the good kind like Troll Hunter or Santa’s Slay, not the so-bad-it’s-good kind like you see every Saturday on Syfy.
C S Nelson’s setting and plot is imaginative and clever, and his characters are well-developed. The only honest bit of criticism I have is minor, and is highly subjective: some of the character development seems too overt at times because of a lack of subtext. The status of one of the major character’s family life – an important and defining part of who he is as a character – is hammered home just a little bit too forcefully, and could have been pared back just the tiniest bit. Barring that, the only other gripe I have is that there is sometimes some muddiness with point-of-view, as it’s written in third person omniscient. I tend to prefer third person limited in order to promote clarity, but that’s a personal preference more than anything. Even with these very, very small imperfections, “Charlie Shaw and the Belfast Terror” is a fun, cinematic read, and it’s a great way to start the anthology.
The next short story in the anthology, “The Incident at Sycamore Ridge” by Gary Madden, is a fantastic supernatural horror tale set within an isolated and suddenly-abandoned coal mine during the Depression. Quite Lovecraftian in its tone, it reminded me of more than one Call of Cthulhu campaign adventure I’ve either participated in or run in the past, and the claustrophobic, otherworldly, creeping paranoia that settles in over the characters as they delve deeper into the mine, only to discover the horror that awaits them – and the fate of the missing miners – is both highly effective and definitely entertaining.
The only thing I have to say negative about “The Incident at Sycamore Ridge” is, again, a minor quibble. One of the main characters, a mining magnate that organizes the expedition into the mine, is just a shade too over-the-top and stereotypical for my tastes. Convinced that the miners have stopped working because they’re unionizing, the mine’s owner is a bit of a scenery-chewing robber baron – kind of an early 20th century version of a 1 percenter – and it is sometimes a little bit over the top. Other than that, the story is just about pitch-perfect, and the depiction of the character does nothing to detract from the overall effectiveness of the story.
Next we have Lara Ek’s “Missy Gin and the Trouble She was In,” one of the standouts in an already excellent field of dieselpunk stories. A pan-dimensional time-and-space hopping adventure story, it has the kind of highly-developed aesthetic that can only be described as BioShock on an airship. Told in a highly stylized and at times downright poetic style, the story made me immediately think of the type of language used in Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and it lends the entire story an exotic sheen.
Stylized language can be very hard to pull off, as anyone who’s tried to actually get through Riddley Walker can attest to; it can all too easily slip into becoming laborious and distracting to read, as it can occlude the story. However, Lara Ek does an excellent job of balancing stylistic narrative voice against clarity, resulting in a very readable – and very entertaining – short story that left me burning with curiosity about the alien, dreamlike setting of her short story.
Finally (at least for this post), we have “Yankee Diesel Dandy,” by Jeremy Simmons, an alternate reality tale set in Annapolis, Maryland in a United States that was ravaged by a Prussian invasion at the height of The Great War, only to push back and eventually win. An entertaining mash-up of crime noir and the kind of “we can rebuild him” aesthetic of The Six Million Dollar Man, it’s like a mid-20th century take on Robocop, if Alex Murphy was a former resistance fighter.
Unfortunately, there’s not much I can say about “Yankee Diesel Dandy” yet, as when I received the advance reader copy Craig Gabrysch warned me that the ending is getting a slight rewrite. Even though I technically don’t know how it ends, the majority of it is a great, gritty, urban noir tale, heavy on the action and violence – this may be a bit too much for some readers that prefer slightly gentler fare, but it’s not necessarily over-done.
So that’s it for now – tomorrow I’ll give a spoiler-free assessment of the last four stories in the anthology, so tune in then for the final scoop!