My relationship with steampunk is, well, complicated. I'm drawn to the retro-futurism, the cool steam-driven technology, and the pre-first-world-war setting. But, because I'm so fond of the setting, steampunk stories sometimes drive me crazy. There are so, so many tales where the characters don't act like the Victorians and Edwardians they purport to be – and while this is okay in small quantities, it can get to be annoying. That's one of the reasons why SteveTurnbull's short story South African Steam, 1900, is so refreshing.
This story is not a romp from airship to airship to rescue Queen Victoria's jewels from a pantomime villain. South African Steam, 1900 is told from the point of view of Maarten de Vries, a Boer farmer-cum-soldier fighting in the steampunk equivalent of the Second Boer War. Maarten loves his family; Maarten struggles to be a good person; Maarten is so incredibly racist that he thinks his black neighbours don't have souls. Maarten's personality seems contradictory, almost topsy-turvy – but it makes perfect sense for a man of his place and time. Fortunately, SteveTurnbull has the skill to keep the reader tightly in Maarten's mind, even when Maarten is expressing something the modern reader might find repugnant.
SteveTurnbull's skills don't end there; the writing in this very short piece is tight throughout. The story moves quickly, and the steampunk elements are handled impeccably. The horrors of warfare play an important role, but so do Maarten's preconceived notions of the world. We get to watch a man in a terrible situation face a technology beyond anything of which he has ever dreamed – except that it is only a few steps further developed than what really existed in his time and is therefore utterly, terribly plausible.
South African Steam, 1900 is both beautifully written and darkly compelling. I definitely recommend it – so check it out!