Like a Corset Undone is an anthology of steampunk erotica that has the undeniably lush, pungent, laciness of upper crust Victorian stroke fiction a la The Pearl. A fair number of quasi-feminist buckles are swashed as ladies in stays and bloomers get the upper hand over lubricious tumescent men. Male readers, however, will not feel either slighted or abused by their dainty victories. The sex here is as steamy as the era it represents, one in which the superhuman power of gargantuan machines still dazzled enough to make the mechanistic release of steam feel orgasmic.
Some of the ladies as in “Adventures Underground” by Cartmine Bligh connive prettily to suffer the lash, as is their secret wont, and there is a general sense of extremely naughty, if not piratical, fun about the entire book. These stories are to my mind more Edwardian than Victorian. They take place after the actual Industrial Revolution when people began to contemplate the larger meaning and possible refinement of machines, not just to create more of them. The prose style is universally suited to about the year 1900, and as such is usually a cut above our contemporary grunt and scratch style of the early 21st century. These writers know about gerundives and the complex sentence. So basically, the news for readers is good.
This is my first adventure in steampunk. The challenge of this new and rather unformed genre is that the author is obliged to create a double anachronism. Some concept of present or future technology has been displaced into the past prior to its actual creation or refinement. Thus airships (dirigibles?) may dominate the skies in the hands of cross-dressing pirates who use electric pistols, (which seem to be sort of hyper stun guns) as in “The Sky Dancer” by R. E. Bond and “Skyway Robbery” by Angelia Sparrow and Naomi Brooks.
This latter story has a Munchausen quality in that Robin Hood’s descendent has taken up piracy in an air ship as he battles the Edisonians, another corps of techno-pirates. Once a raid on the enemy airship is successfully completed, Robin hungrily falls to a lengthy and detailed rimming and buggering of Will (Scarlet?). That happy event is interrupted by the entrance of Robin’s girlfriend, Marian. She intrudes upon the scene in drag, nether parts still dripping from the excitement of the fray. Thus she is ready to join in celebrating the Captain’s captivating cock. It is reported in fact to be larger than Little John’s fighting staff – a likely story, eh, girls?
The trick of doing steampunk well is to make all these temporal collisions both necessary to the story, and exciting inclusions. Steam engines per se are pretty dull unless you get off on such things, no matter what they are attached to or whatever bizarre function they are set to perform. The danger lies in simply writing Victorian porn with some murky science fiction thrown in for effect or to meet the editors’ Call for Submissions. Good and bad examples appear in this volume.
Then too all these airships and sundry other machinery that populate these fictive skies must be belching massive quantities of carbon fuel exhaust, a problem that seems not to trouble these authors at all. In short, it is as though they find the Industrial Age a sort of divine intervention in human affairs, with none of the demonic effects we now know to be the case. They forget that it took half of the 20th century to clean up a fair portion of the soot left in Europe from the 19th.
One area that seems particularly irksome is the tendency to explain all sorts of anomalies by the fact that character X is from an alternate universe and thus able to do and think all sorts of things ordinary Victorians do not. Without some explanation of how or why this person is around, the effect is that of a bad deus ex machina, a simple cheat to get the problem off stage.
The other pitfall of steampunk is applying the mental habits of the late 20th Century to that of the late 19th. Few of these writers seem to have made it to the 21st. While I am perfectly willing to accept the post-modern dictum that history is not the study of group think, I am also aware that economic conditions and oppressions of empire impel people into certain point’s of view. I am all for the exception in such matters but the author has to justify his/her choices, not just post them like surprise counterindications about the past. It’s a tricky problem.
Some authors here solve the anamolies very well, like Roxy Katt, who describes her voluptuous female characters as the literal embodiment of the zeppelin in “The Zeppelin Raiders””
Ah, but the feature of the suit that had immediately arrested Constance’s attention was not the voluptuousness of breast and buttock, nor the claustrophobic cocooning of the suit’s design, but the tightly armored groin covering which was a kind of metal dome or codpiece – an enormous one – tightly fastened to the form fitting suit. “Mother ,”Constance had said, “if I may be so bold, “ she gestured between the legs of the suit not quite managing to suppress an involuntary giggle, “What on earth…?
Probably the best way to look at these stories is as outsized fantasy – erotic fairy tales -- with a nod to science fiction for the fun of it. I don’t see how anyone can go wrong with Like a Corset Undone as the title alone is an invitation to the most luscious fantasy. It just requires that the reader take it as that, and not demand too much in the way of actual history or science as its basis.