Not Your Father’s Steampunk: Reviewing “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities”

I didn’t set out to become an expert in Steampunk – and in that regard I suppose I’m not in any real danger of becoming one – nor did I have an specific desire to write Steampunk, per se.  It was just another reflection in the funhouse mirror that is the greater Speculative Fiction genre umbrella: a little bit sci-fi, an little bit fantasy, and a little bit something different.  I liked it, the same way I liked Fantasy and Sci-fi.  Heck… I liked it before I knew what to call it.  (The word “steampunk” dates back to the late 80s, but the genre didn’t seem to enter the popular consciousness until the late 90s and 2000s.  When I first discovered steampunk I had no word for it, and thought of it as “retro-futurism” and except for the fact that there’s now a significant fantasy cross-over segment of steampunk, I still think of it that way.)  But my first love was the classic Epic and High Fantasy.

But then I started this blog.  In the years before I started blogging Steampunk as a community – one part cosplay and one part literary movement – started gaining… um… steam.  So by this time I was aware both of the genre and its attendant aesthetic and of the now-accepted term itself.

The first time I mentioned Steampunk on this blog was in response to a Flash Fiction challenge that I completed as a Friday Flash.  This particular challenge asked us to use the word “zeppelin” somewhere in the story.  So, naturally, steampunk.  And this was the result.  After that, I discussed Steampunk once or twice with other bloggers in comments on their posts, throwing in my own two cents on the ins and outs of the genre.  Somehow, as a result of all that, I ended up writing one of my most popular posts on this blog: “A Steampunk Society“, which still gets hits today from people who apparently want to understand what values and mores would be present in a steampunk-inspired, pseudo-early industrial society.  I guess there was a small hole in the internet concerning that particular sub-topic of the genre, because writing that piece made me into something of a second- or third-string “expert” on the Steampunk genre.  And I’ve enjoyed digging deeper into the genre.  I’ve promised myself someday to return to that article and rewrite it with a more scholarly and exegetical focus.  I believe the popularity of that post lead indirectly to my first professional publication, here.  And those two things together likely combined to lead to this post.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

The Curious Cover of The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

All of this was a long way of saying I was somehow identified as a member of the Steampunk literary fan community – possibly even someone of some influence, although I might have a hard time believing that – and that as someone of this type I might be interested in reviewing Ann and Jeff VanderMeer‘s latest steampunk-themed anthology, The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

Well… indeed I was interested in reviewing it – so when I was contacted to ask if I was, I responded in the affirmative.  A few days later, a shiny new review copy of the Cabinet arrived on my doorstop.  So now, allow me to introduce you, if you have not already made the acquaintance, to The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

What is the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities?

A fine question, my dear friend.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is, quite naturally, a curious specimen.  It’s an anthology, sure – but it’s unlike pretty much any anthology you’re likely to have picked up.  A typical short story anthology has a theme and a bunch of stories from different authors that fit that theme.  But that’s not exactly what you’ll find in the Cabinet of Curiosities.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is, more than anything, a sort of artistic experiment with a steampunk flavor.  Rather than a mere themed anthology, it is a collection of stories and vignettes paired with art.  It is built around what might be called a frame story: famous Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead (whose name I was uncertain whether should be pronounced “Lamb-shead” or “Lamb’s-head”, though a joke in one of the vignettes suggests it is the latter) recently passed away, leaving behind a house-filling “Cabinet of Curiosities” full of artifacts which he has accumulated over a lifetime.  While the full extent of his cabinet had never before been documented, a lifetime of friends and acquaintances – the authors and artists whose work is featured in the book – have come together to assemble what appears to be a coffee-table style book commemorating and honoring the good doctor by telling stories and showing artistic renditions of some of the various artifacts in the doctor’s collection.  Many of these artifacts, quite naturally, hail from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and have histories that suggest a “steampunk” provenance.  It’s hard to find where, in the book, any concession is made to the idea that the stories and depictions included are works of fiction, so far does it go to maintain the illusion of suspension of disbelief.

Inside the Cabinet

Inside the Cabinet of curiosities

As an artistic endeavour, I find this admirable.  It’s a kind of slick, high-concept achievement that wraps itself in its own mythology, which makes it fun to explore.  Virtually all of the authors and artists whose work appears in the book are represented in introductory notes as friends and acquaintances of Dr. Lambshead or researchers studying his cabinet – people who had the opportunity to see parts of the cabinet first-hand.

I’m not as in-tune with the artistic world, but the authors represented comprise a fairly illustrious bunch.  The table of contents includes works by the likes of Cherie Priest, Jay Lake, China Miéville, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, N.K. Jemisin, Rachel Swirsky, Lev Grossman, and many others.  Some of those names are no doubt familiar to many of you.  The art is almost invariably impressive, ranging from actual photographs to detailed technical drawings, to stark high-contrast paintings, and any number of other media.  The writing, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag, depending on what your are looking for.  If what you want is something like a traditional story: a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end, with identifiable characters, a protagonist, and a conflict – well… sometimes the Cabinet delivers, and sometimes not so much.

Each of the stories and vignettes in the book are centered around one artifact from the late doctor’s cabinet.  Some of those stories tell of the creation or discovery of the artifact.  Others tell about historical events surrounding the object.  Others simply describe the object in question.

A sectional title page in the Cabinet of Curiosities

A sectional title page in the Cabinet of Curiosities

Some of the stories are enjoyable romps in a steampunk world, such as Cherie Priest’s “Addison Howell and the Clockroach” or Moorcock’s “Shamalung: The Diminutions”.  These gems have the joy of a real story – character and plot and meaning – and were fun to read.  Some hint at an underlying narrative of Dr. Lambshead’s secretive work, such as Miéville’s “Pulvadmonitor: the Dust’s Warning”, “The Singular Taffy Puller” by N.K. Jemisin, or “A Brief Note Pertaining to the Absence of One Olivaceous Cormorant, Stuffed” by Rachel Swirsky.  These make up a part of the curious backdrop of the book, and were interesting to explore.  A few were more peculiar specimens – mostly artificial exegeses of imaginary works and artifacts, such as “Taking the Rats to Riga” by Jay Lake (ed: about which, more here; also, welcome all ye linked her by Jay Lake).  A very small number of works included were virtually unintelligible (most notably “Objects Discovered in a Novel Under Construction ” by Alan Moore, which apparently was an attempt at some sort of psychedelic fiction that reimagines a novel as a physical structure or building, devoid of characters or plot but all bizarre imagery).

I’ve yet to read every story in the book, but tried to sample widely to get a feel for the book as a whole.  Overall, my impression is positive: one of a satisfying and enjoyable work of art.  As a medium for delivery of stories it is sometimes lacking, but as an experiment in metafiction it is a resounding success.

If you have an interest in metafiction, or steampunk, or revisionary history, then this book is right for you, and you’ll find a lot to appreciate in the Cabinet.

16 thoughts on “Not Your Father’s Steampunk: Reviewing “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities”

  1. I had the book in my hands when I visited the bookstore last I was very tempted to pick it up. I might do it for the artwork alone. I’ve always had a thing the style of scientific illustrations. It is a gorgeous book. I didn’t have time to peruse the writing, however. It’s a bit of a curious book: not quite a collection of short stories, but neither is it non-fiction. More like an object of art? (not sure)

    • Yes, I think it is exactly like an object of art (or is that better as an “objet d’art”?) It does contain stories, but more importantly it is itself a story – not a novel, and not a traditional narrative, but something a little more post-modern, so-to-speak, where the story of the book is revealed in the interstitials. It’s pretty strange, and it won’t be for everyone’s tastes, to be sure.

  2. That looks really fascinating. I’m definitely going to have to read it.

    This is exactly the sort of thing that I think traditional publishing should try to explore more to help them survive the ebook revolution. It’s sooo easy for people to publish books, even physical books, themselves now and it’s probably only a matter of time until that becomes a norm. Traditional publishing should use its resources to create something greater out of the standard book, works of story-art like this. I think it could be a great thing for the world of literature.

    • I agree. In my fantasies (fantasies as in my dreams, not my fantasy genre stories) the ideal novel is accompanied by fantastic art. But that’s something that logistically and technically is difficult for a lone author to put together. Publishing houses have a lot more experience in this regard, but often don’t put that experience to excellent use. When they do, the results can be pretty fantasic. This is part of what has me so excited about stuff like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series and Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. High-quality art can add so much, and make a book more than just a story, and more than just the sum of its words.

  3. the whole thing is very meta, isn’t it? I too was lucky enough to get a copy of this book, and let me tell you, I squee’d around for about an hour when I got that first e-mail (which was answered in a very affirmative) and when the book came I ran around the house with it blabbering like crazy for about a half hour.

    I think part of the genius behind this sort-of-anthology is the concept behind it. No one was told “write a steampunkish type thing that’s super weird”, I think people were asked to write something about their dearly deceased friend Thackery and something strange of his that they remembered. the whole history of the book is on VanderMeer’s blog, and it’s just as fun to read as the book itself.

    • It is pretty amazing how they were able to assemble such a thematically consistent anthology based on such non-specific detail. I suspect, though, that some certain ars priori affected that consistency, by which I mean The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, which I suspect provided a certain guiding influence. Howbeit, however, I’m not directly familiar with the Pocket Guide, so I can’t really comment directly on how it might have influenced the Cabinet, except to speculate.

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  5. Go you – Mr Steampunk Expert! That actually looks a pretty interesting read – I do like these books that present with a window (or series of windows) into an invented world but which you can dip in and out of rather than having to slog through from beginning to end.

    I have mixed feelings about steampunk myself. Despite writing a “steampunk” novel I’m actually kind of hesitant of the genre. It’s in real danger of falling into a series of tropes – zeppelins, robots, men in top hats with double-barreled surnames, power armour, corsets. Ray Bradbury once drew a distinction between “science-fiction” (where the fictional science was fundamental to the story being told) and “sci-fi” where the setting was there for the sake of it. He used Star Wars as an example of sci-fi – you replace light-sabers with swords, the force with magic, speeders with horses and the story still works. My fear is that steampunk is going this way and that’ll it just be a cookie cutter setting for people to use. Sci-fi with cogs painted on.

    • Oh, I don’t claim the title of expert for myself. I’m no true expert – only an enthusiast. But I have had several opportunities, of late, to go beyond mere awareness of and appreciation for the genre to some actual level of knowledge and understanding of the genre, however humble that knowledge may yet be. The reservations you express about Steampunk, I can say, is part of an ongoing conversation within the Steampunk and greater SF&F community. Some have advanced the argument that Steampunk is nothing more than an aesthetic device that can be imprinted on stories of a general nature – exactly the situation you express concern over. And some see that as a negative, suggisting that Steampunk is ultimately shallow and empty. (I’ve a few links in an older blog post, here, about one small volley in that ongoing debate.) Others, however, argue that Steampunk can be and frequently is much more than that, and that there are more than just tropes and aesthetic regalia, but consistent themes. I fall mostly in the latter camp, in that I recognize that Steampunk can be used in the former sense – merely as window-dressing – but that it is best when employed in the latter – as a thematic device. I don’t worry for the future of the genre because it is my impression that the majority of those engaging in Steampunk are moving more toward adhering to an appreciation for its thematic potential.

      • Aware that I’m rapidly becoming in danger of “always harping on about My Nearly Finished Novel” – it’s steampunk but I’ve toiled to make the technology as integral to the story as possible. Without technology the main character’s journey would never begin and although the way he witnesses sights and wonders not too far removed from our own industrial revolution. Also he never fights his way out of situation or just gets lucky, the hero always has to use his understanding of science to invent something – MacGuyver style – to escape.

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