Peter Tupper wrote "Koenigsberg's Model", probably the most remarkable story in the already-remarkable Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica, which I reviewed here. I was pleased to get my hands on his anthology shortly after that, and once I read it I was really sorry that I didn't get to reading it sooner. It's an excellent book and one that I recommend picking up if steampunk erotica is your thing.
It's been said that steampunk is more of an aesthetic than a literary genre, that aside from "machines and mad science are awesome; also, it's brown" it has no underlying ethic, nothing to say. I disagree, and books like this are why. Tupper reaches for something more than atmospheric and sexy, and comes away with a handful of exceptional tales that illustrate what steampunk as an evolving genre is all about.It is theme, not merely set dressing, that makes something steampunk. The expected accoutrements – distant airships, strange devices, rare manuscripts, goggles – are present here, sometimes centrally and sometimes only peripherally, but what really makes these stories a part of the genre is the pervasive feel of a world on the brink of massive social and technological change.
Without respect for history, any steampunk setting lacks depth. The love Tupper has for the history and literature of the time comes through, even though (with one exception) these are not real-world stories. The alternate world of The Innocent's Progress is populated with homages to figures, both prominent and obscure, from the history of art, exploration, and scholarship.
Five of the six stories in The Innocent's Progress are set in the Victorian era of the same not-quite-earth. Tupper vividly evokes the disparities inherent in the setting – differences in social status, between the lives of the very rich and very poor, the rigid boundaries of race and social standing – and uses them as a backdrop for his nuanced and interesting characters.
Any setting based on the Victorian era has some pretty thorny problems to wrestle with. Many writers gloss over these (hey, guilty) or, in fantasy that does not take place in the real world, they simply write it away. Tupper doesn't ignore these issues. He uses them: the racism that leads to both exotification and oppression; the rigidly-stratified society that requires the presence of an oppressed underclass to function; the barriers presented by race, gender, social class. He's never tiresome about it, but the narratives function as a commentary on the Victorian era as a time of both great repression and great possibility, and also as a commentary on our own time.
The gem of the setting is the Commedia (indeed, inspired by the historical Commedia dell'Arte), a form of erotic theater in which the players assume certain roles. Most of the interconnected stories deal with the Commedia in some way, and it is central to a couple of them. It's an imaginative, beautiful metaphor, and the parallels with modern BDSM subculture are obvious but not overstated.
These are challenging stories; the guy is smart as hell, and several times I came away from a story not sure if I actually understood it. He doesn't patronize readers by leading them around by the nose, which I appreciate.
His characters are appealing and nuanced, and exist in wonderful variety, especially the women. It's rare to find a man who writes stories about women that speak so clearly to the female experience, but Tupper's obvious understanding does my feminist heart good. Though he often writes with a slightly detached tone, he's not just a respectful voyeur observing his characters through the narrative keyhole; the characters' viewpoints are all distinct and fully-realized.
Several of the stories do raise the issue of race – one he worked with in "Koenigsberg's Model" – and while I admit that I am speaking from a position of privilege here, I think he handled the potentially volatile combination of era and place with good taste, using the inherent attitudes and prejudices to good effect, and at no point did I feel that he was being gross or othering. He never uses the nastiness of the era as an excuse for ugliness and offensive characterization. He uses it to explore the attitudes of the time, which are far from extinct today. The most vivid character in the collection is Miss Ccri, a mixed-race demimondaine with brains and nerve . . . a genuinely strong female character.
Most of the stories are built around sexual themes rather than around sex scenes. There's plenty of sex, really good sex, but it's all there to drive the story, not vice-versa. He doesn't linger, and someone who is fond of very long sex scenes should know this, but I don't see it as a flaw. He's direct, he uses appropriate period language without being absurd, and knows how to pick out critical sexy details.
The sex is BDSM/kink-oriented, but not exclusively so. This aspect is very well-rendered. He covers discipline, spanking, submission, some light bondage, a birching, some caning. It varies from light and playful to moderate, but Tupper's writing has an essential darkness about it, even in its sweetness, which makes everything much more intense, so the stories come across as being a little harsher than they are.
I can't pick a favorite from the alternate-setting stories. They are all exceptional and I am sure my preferences will shift as I reread them. "The Pretty Horsebreaker" requires "The Spirit of the Future", in my opinion, and "The Spirit of the Future" requires all the others, so reading them in the order presented is strongly recommended. I do want to single out "Delicate Work" as a good stand-alone example of what steampunk erotica can be. It isn't the most pleasant story, or the prettiest, or even my favorite, but it is sharp, smart, and socially relevant. I also want to say that "The Slave" struck me as the most erotic, simply because the viewpoint character's longing was so professionally conveyed. "The Spirit of the Future" was the most satisfying – a really beautiful story in every way – but it relies heavily on the others to set up the world and characters.
And, finally, I do want to single out "The Impurity" – not related to the other stories – as absolutely incredible. It's a re-imagining of Jekyll and Hyde, of all things, and it is by turns disturbing, sweet, pitiful, sad, funny, and scary as all hell, and it has one of the best "I am going to fucking kill you" quotes in it that I have ever read. It knocked me off my feet. This story is unabashedly badass, and viscerally satisfying. I wish I had written it.
I really cannot recommend this anthology enough. If you are a fan of steampunk and like your erotica smart and challenging, you really need this book. Circlet tends to be good in general, but if this doesn't become a classic in its sub-genre, that's because people aren't paying attention.