"The Steam Dancer (1896)" by Caitlín Kiernan

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

I was up this morning around 4 a.m. with a fevered little girl, and after I got her back to rest, I was wide awake. So I lay pondering what I'd suggest to my readers as the most romantic steampunk tale I've ever read, and was surprised at the rapidity with which the answer came to me. It's a wonderful short tale by Caitlín Kiernan in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, titled "The Steam Dancer (1896)." I'm a huge fan of Kiernan's 1998 novel, Silk, and was pleased to discover she hasn't lost her penchant for beautiful prose when I read this short story last fall.

It's difficult to talk about short prose without giving away all the spoilers, but in the case of "The Steam Dancer," the reading experience is less about plot than about character, relationship, and Kiernan's lovely weaving of words. It's the tale of Missouri, a steampunk cyborg, a mosaic of "muscle and skin, steel and artifice" (70), and her relationship with both her deceased father, a snake-oil salesman in life, and the mechanic, the man who rescued her from death, and literally rebuilt her. This is the heart of romance in this tale: to be rescued from the trash-heaps of a shanty town, and remade into something beautiful and graceful, the object not only of desire, but a strong and binding love, resonates with me. The themes of "The Steam Dancer" are love and identity seen as things we choose, and build - things we must be invested in the upkeep of, all tenets of amour I personally subscribe to. While Kiernan uses "What's past is prologue" from Shakespeare's The Tempest as one of her key ideas, the sentence that sums the story's themes up for me is "Other women are only whole ... Other women are only born, not made. I have been crafted" (68). Especially today, on Valentine's Day, as I reflect on 15 years of marriage, on five years of being a father, on turning forty in a month - at this point in my life, I can say with confidence that love is something we choose: while fate and blood play their part, we are the makers of our lives and loves.

I haven't finished wending my way through the tales in Steampunk Reloaded, but I can tell you the price is right if only for Kiernan's tale. The intro blurb gives my the impression Kiernan has plans to write more in this alternate steampunk world, and to that I say, "encore!"


  1. "The Steam Dancer (1896)" was one of my favorite stories in the anthology too, especially because it captured so much depth of feeling in so little space.


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