And underneath that, the following:
Special instructions: Drop it in
That's what he did. If some publicity office wanted to waste its money, he thought, then let them. His job was done. He turned, his thoughts already on the descent.
The little package fell for what seemed like days and, impossibly, resisted the fires inside the volcano until it wound up in the hands of a very old man with a limp. He carried it to a table deep inside a cavern and, by the light of a naphtha lamp, opened the package to find a book: "Steampunk," edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Tachyon Publications: 400 pp., $14.95 paper).
"What is this, now?" said the fellow, who happened to be the divine craftsman himself. Nothing ever came down the volcano's throat, so he was pleasantly surprised. Lately, Hephaestus had been feeling especially lonely. The many automata he created, beautiful though they were, just didn't satisfy the yearning for companionship that had gripped him ever since the Greek gods were vanquished by the modern world's arrival. He could use some good reading to lighten his mood. . . .
The publication of "Steampunk" -- along with the recent attention that the eponymous science-fiction genre has received in the New York Times and elsewhere -- has presented an opportunity to reintroduce readers to a brand that has been around for at least 30 years now. Steampunk writers create fantasies that combine a Victorian-era mise-en-scène with advanced technologies. Machines are made of antique brass, glass and wood, leather and cast iron, powered by steam and full of lethal possibility. It is as if a mad scientist had done all his shopping at Victoriana instead of Sharper Image.
Why send such a package to the mythic blacksmith? For a simple reason -- in the stories of "Steampunk," there are unavoidable echoes of Greek myth and artifice. The steampunks are clearly descended from the ancient makers of myth, and the one figure recalled many times in the course of reading the VanderMeers' excellent anthology is Hephaestus, the patriarch of steampunk engineers. In Homer and elsewhere, we learn that he built brazen bulls that puffed fire, a golden bed for the Sun, the automata that helped him in his workshop, a guardian made of bronze who fought the Argonauts, and golden chairs and beds rigged with traps to catch the other gods in their lust. Who else, then, deserved this recognition? Forget that other artificer, the maker of mazes -- better not to mention his name around the grouchy smith, for it angers Hephaestus to hear the name of any rivals.
"Steam . . . punk?" Hephaestus chortled, opening the book.
The anthology offers three essays establishing the context of the steampunk genre, before moving into the stories and excerpts. Jess Nevins' essay lays out the origins of steampunk and the writers whose work has defined it -- among them, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (co-authors of "The Difference Engine") -- along withthe 19th and early 20th century writers who anticipated it: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edward S. Ellis, Harry Enton and Garrett Serviss, to name just a few. Rick Klaw's survey, "The Steam-Driven Time Machine," points readers to sites to help them comphrehend this expansive genre that, as Steampunk Magazine says sternly, is "more than a sub-category of fiction." Bill Baker's essay lists and describes the genre's influence in comic books and graphic novels.
These are followed by an excerpt from "The Warlord of the Air," a 1971 novel by the stunningly prolific Michael Moorcock in which the menacing approach of a zeppelin army at first seems "a massive bank of black cloud moving over the horizon of the hills" and evokes the Achaean ships approaching Troy to begin their nine-year siege. In James Blaylock's story "Lord Kelvin's Machine" (later expanded into a novel), secret agents battle a nefarious scientist who holds the Earth hostage: An approaching comet will collide with the planet if his demands aren't met. Good eventually triumphs, as the heroes tap into the sole source capable of pushing the Earth out of the comet's path -- the power generated by the Earth's molten core.
Hephaestus heartily approved of Blaylock's story. "Of course!" he exclaimed.
In Joe R. Lansdale's "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down," the space-time continuum has been torn by the Time Traveller from H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine." With the universe in chaos, four villains encased in a giant, steam-powered cowboy stomp through the wilderness seeking to find and destroy the Time Traveller, who is now called the Dark Rider. As the mechanical giant strides across rivers and up hills, its inhabitants swivel in their hammock-chairs, operating levers and pulleys and peering out through the stained-glass windows that are the giant's eyes.
"I wonder what Epeirus would say," the old god mused, thinking of the builder of the horse that fooled the Trojans.
The stories in "Steampunk" are about the romance of technology: They present a picture of formidable but fragile machines whose wires and clockwork innards are exposed for all to see. In Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters," for instance, scientists create human life by imprinting names on unfertilized ova, recalling a rabbi's insertion of a scroll containing God's name into the mouth of a golem. Chiang's story crosses microbiology with the Kabbalah and uses improbably crude instruments: A long glass needle "could be clamped into the brass framework with its tip approaching the slide beneath the microscope; the knurled wheels presumably were used to bring the needle into contact with an ovum."
In Michael Chabon's "The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance," there's a menacing war machine called a land sloop -- a giant, steam-powered wagon -- that pursues and captures a rebel against the British Crown in an alternative world in which the American Revolution never happened. The sloop is described thus: "She was a Model 3 Terror, long and canine, a steel greyhound powered by a hundred-horsepower Bucephalus engine. The relative frailty of her armor-plating was more than compensated for by her maneuverability . . . riveted leather treads clattering against the gangway of pine planking. . . . " The appeal of such a contraption seems to be in its combining of undeniable power with obvious design flaws -- something not unlike that glorious pair of wings, powerful but, fastened by wax, fatally flawed for the young Icarus.