The Best of Spanish Steampunk
By James Womack (Editor), Marian Womack (Editor) with an introduction by Diana Pho.
I received this anthology as a gift and opened it with a great deal of anticipation. Short, speculative fiction has been my favorite genre for many years and reading an entire anthology of steampunk stories would be a treat on a cold winter day. But as I read, I found myself to be puzzled: there were ghost stories, gaslight romances, alternate histories, and references to Victorian authors and their creations, but very few elements that reflect the steampunk aesthetic.
Let me state first that these stories are very well-written speculative fiction short stories. If the anthology had been titled The Best of Spanish Speculative Fiction it would make sense. But steampunk is in the title, and the majority of the stories simply do not reflect this. The editors seem to realize this themselves. On their Goodreads page, they explain that the stories share “an engagement with the steampunk canon that, ultimately, moves them beyond their chosen setting.” This seems to be their way of saying that, sure, some of the stories have steampunk elements, but the rest don’t. And that should be OK with the readers because . . . Actually I’m not sure why that would be OK.
Be Warned: Spoilers Ahead
There are over 40 works in the anthology. I will be reviewing some of my favorites below. There will be spoilers, along with a discussion of the “steampunk” elements of each story.
“The Introduction” by Diana Pho is a wonderful philosophical look at the literature of countries that experienced “Victorianism without victory.” Pho expounds on elements of steampunk and retrofuturism and delves into the history that has inspired the genre in Spain. The introduction is one of my favorite sections in the anthology.
The first short story, “The Princess at the Centre of the Earth,” by Félix J. Palma, brings to mind Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It concerns an injured soldier who finds a tunnel leading to a kingdom hidden beneath the earth. Injured in battle, he awakes to find his wounds being tended by the Princess of the Milmorians, a race of people who had left the surface world to dwell away from the humans who have overrun the surface world. The soldier and the princess fall in love and his presence manages to spark a revolution with dissident Milmorians who want to defy the king and return to the surface. There are magic shoes that allow the wearer to fly and a large worm-like creature used by the Milmorians to execute prisoners. It is wonderful speculative fiction, but the elements of the narrative are not grounded in an overtly steampunk aesthetic.
“Icarus,” by Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel, is a wonderful story with steampunk themes. It concerns the life of an inventor named Altair and his desire to fly into space on a set of wings he designs. For me, this story has the most steampunk elements in the anthology.
“Prey’s Moon,” by Joseph. M. Remesar, is one of my favorite stories in the anthology, but it has only a small touch of steampunk elements in the narrative. Father Jesus O’Prey (a very interesting name) encounters a werewolf-type creature that has been captured by the police. He gives the creature, who can talk and begs to be killed, last rites. Later, in a pub, Father O’Prey encounters Dr. Moreau (of The Island of Doctor Moreau fame), who kidnaps him and injects him with a serum that turns the priest into a half-man, half-wolf creature. The setting is sort-of neo-Victorian, but the only nod to the steampunk genre seems to be a steam-powered carriage that appears once in the story and a steam-powered train.
Finally, “Mad,” by Santi Pagés, is a tale introduced by the editors as steam-feminist tale imagining how a suffragist movement might begin. Rosario, a married middle-aged woman, watches as a young woman dressed in a Victorian-style costume kills herself on a public transport. This death shocks her and she stays on the platform, only returning home when a porter tells her the last train is about to depart. When Rosario arrives at home, her husband, Arturo, berates her for inconveniencing him by not being home to care for the children or to prepare him dinner. When she tries to talk to him about what she saw, he cuts her off and tells her what is “really bothering her.” (Apparently, she doesn’t appreciate everything he has done for her.) He then orders her to prepare for bed. After Rosario bathes, Arturo hooks her up to a machine that provides an intoxicating gas and proceeds (we assume) to be intimate with her. The steampunk elements in the story seem to be the elevated transport where the girl kills herself and the gas-filled mask Arturo uses to incapacitate his wife prior to marital relations. When Rosario awakens, she finds herself wondering if she is pregnant. Other than hoping for a girl, Rosario does not seem to show any agency towards being a suffragist. She also does not seem to be bothered about being drugged by her husband prior to sex because being unconscious made the act “more tolerable.”
Overall the anthology has memorable, and sometimes disturbing, speculative fiction, but the steampunk title seems to be a misnomer. The stories themselves are powerful, but have very little steam.
The Best of Spanish Steampunk includes stories by Alfredo Álamo • Javi Argauz • Javier Calvo • Jesús Cañadas • Gloria T. Dauden • Francisco Miguel Espinosa • Santiago Eximeno • Cano Farragute • Laura Fernández • Rafael González • Luis Guallar • Isabel Hierro • Jorge Jaramillo • Cristina Jurado • Sergio Lifante • Ismael Manzanares • Rafael Marín • Oscar Mariscal • José Ángel Menédez Lucas • José María Merino • Pedro Moscatel • Oscar Navas • Félix J. Palma • Santi Pagés • Francisco J. Pérez • Paulo César Ramírez • Josué Ramos • Joseph Remesar • Sofía Rhei • Rocío Rincón • Paula Rivera • Leonardo Ropero • Luis Manuel Ruiz • Noemí Sabugal • Rubén Sánchez Trigos • Ángel Luis Sucasas • Rocío Tizón • Eduardo Vaquerizo • Marian Womack • Guillermo Zapata