Review: Clockwork Canada, ed. Dominik Parisien

This review is a few years old, and was originally posted on my Tumblr blog. It’s being reposted here with no modification, but my feelings towards the book remain the same.

Steampunk is one of those aesthetics and settings I’ve always loved, but never quite been in love with. It wasn’t steampunk itself – it was the sheer repetitiveness of it. Sure, the dresses were glorious and the inventions looked cool, but nobody ever made anything that worked, and every year I went to con, the steampunk community got smaller and whiter and less queer. In fact, it’s a wonder it still has ‘punk’ in the name at all, with all the glorification of the British Empire at its height. Steampunk fiction has always avoided the worst pitfalls of the cosplay and design communities (Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy is a fond memory of mine) but the need for something different has always been an underlying drive in my reading quest.

Clockwork Canada, then, is not just a beautiful, dazzling surprise. It feels, actually, a lot like coming home. Edited by Dominik Parisien and published by Exile Editions, Clockwork Canada’s mission is simple – Canadian steampunk, representing Canada in all its flawed, diverse, sometimes gory glory. There are stories here featuring First Nations characters and inventions; Chinese immigrants; explicitly queer women existing within historical confines with no apology offered; disabled characters with prosthetics that aren’t perfect replacements, trans characters whose transness is an aside to the drive of the story, and more. It’s a dizzying quilt of representation, and well-written representation at that.

Another thing I really enjoy about this collection is that it ventures out of the standard science fiction/steampunk setting and into the realm of gaslamp fantasy. The first story, ‘La Clochemar’ (Charlotte Ashley) brings Native myth to life through the giant spirits that wander their own paths through the great Canadian expanse, and ‘The Seven O’ Clock Man’ has a terrible device implied to run more on magic than science. It’s another way in which Clockwork Canada subverts the common steampunk tropes in its stories, while still being clearly, absolutely steampunk.

Of course, the collection isn’t without its flaws. While the racial representation is amazing, and there is more LGBT+ and disabled representation than I’ve come to expect when picking up any book, I would have liked to have seen a little more of it. There’s certainly a rich queer history in Canada, and it’s saddening that only one of the stories included is explicitly about LGBT+ characters. (As wonderfully as it does it.) There’s no shortage of romance and romantic asides, but it seems to be exclusively heterosexual. The disabled representation is a similar issue – ‘Crew 255′ by Claire Humphrey engages directly with disability, but it isn’t casually included, despite the opportunities of steampunk. (Although I feel a little like a kid in a candy shop – any disabled representation that isn’t condescending or created for the ‘abled gaze’ is an absolute gift.)

In addition, some stories fall a little flat. Many of the last few stories – ‘Equus’, ‘Gold Mountain’ and ‘Bones like Bronze, Limbs like Iron’ have excellent ideas behind them that don’t quite get fleshed out or given the room to breathe. (’Bones like Bronze, Limbs like Iron’ especially feels like a story that should be a novel, but as a short story it doesn’t engage emotionally.)

Favourite Story: Ahhhhh, choosing is so hard! I think my personal favourite is ‘Let Slip the Sluicegates of War, Hydro-Girl’ by Terri Favro. It has everything – an interesting framing device, a retelling of a historical event (and it only becomes completely clear which near the end), a genuinely sweet if tragic love story, and raw, unflinching depictions of abuse and institutional racism. It’s excellently balanced, and the narrator’s voice brings it all together into a narrative that doesn’t whitewash its serious topics while still being immensely entertaining.

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