I finally had some time over the past few days to do some casual reading. I have been collecting the Lady Mechanika comic book series created, written and drawn by Joe Benitez, but didn’t have an opportunity to read anything after No. 1. A few days ago I started readying through Steampunk II, Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer to see if it was a book I’d consider selling in the shop.
Yesterday, I read the short story, “The Steam Dancer (1896)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan from Steampunk II for the first time and finished reading Lady Mechanika Nos. 2 & 3.
In my opinion, The Lady Mechanika series and The Steam Dancer are for mature readers. Not just because of the subject matter and content (some of which is sexual or violent), but because the writing makes demands of the reader. What Lady Mechanika does visually, The Steam Dancer does with description. Both are good representations of the steampunk genre.
The Steam Dancer is about a young woman named Missouri Banks who finds herself an orphan after her mother dies of miner’s fever despite her father’s attempts to cure her mother with his own medicinal concoctions. The father commits suicide after the mother dies and Missouri is left alone. At nineteen, she is infected with bloat flies and is found by a man known to the reader only by his profession, mechanic. This is fortuitous because the bloat flies render her left leg, right hand and forearm gangrenous and must be removed. Her left eye is also infected. The mechanic fashions limbs for her and her lost eye is replaced with a glass one. She works as a dancer in the town where she and her now mechanic husband live, hence the name of the story. The mechanical limbs are steam powered and are subject to the same repair problems as other mechanical devices.
What to me is remarkable about the story is that it seems entirely plausible. Suspension of disbelief was complete and I didn’t question whether or not such limbs or such an environment was possible. The relationship with her husband was honest and touching. He doesn’t pity her and she doesn’t feel sorry for herself.
The Lady Mechanika series is about a young woman who, so far, is an avenger of sorts, on behalf of misunderstood beings. The reader learns that some limbs are mechanical, and that she is searching for her past. Her enemy is Lord Blackpool, a man who will stop at nothing in order to prevent Lady Mechanika from protecting the disadvantaged or any being who is “different.” She is also pursued by a woman named Commander Katherine Winter, who is working with Lord Blackpool. By No. 3 of the series, Lady Mechanika learns about a mechanical genius, named Mr. Cain, renowned for his contraptions as well as his human experimentation. She meets up with the Cirque due Romani in the most recent number and we learn more about the relationship between Blackpool and Mr. Cain.
This series is different from The Steam Dancer short story in many ways, but the similarities are much more interesting.
In the Steam Dancer, the reader is inclined to think that Missouri is beautiful in some way. So beautiful that she is paid to dance. She is an exotic dancer in a literal sense – there would be few women with steam-powered limbs, and even if there were any, she was well-known for the grace with which she dances. She is also a survivor.
Lady Mechanika is beautifully drawn. Steampunk fashion abounds, but is not ridiculous. She wears flat boots when she has to and is not overly exposed. Her gear appears practical and may actually be useful.
Both women are not objects of pity and yet they are beautiful – which is, to me, a rare combination. Missouri does rely on the mechanic to repair and maintain her limbs, but the relationship is reciprocal. She is a partner. Lady Mechanika is able to make friends and attain her goals not because she is weak, but because she is more successful when she has the cooperation of others.
I really enjoyed reading these works over the weekend. I think you would, too. Ask for them at Steam at Harper’s Ferry.