Review: Mechanical Tales

mechanical small

  • Mechanical Tales
  • Brandon Black
  • File Size: 2715 KB
  • Print Length: 90 pages
  • Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
  • Publisher: Black Tome Books (August 27, 2015)
  • Publication Date: August 27, 2015
  • Kindle: .99

What is the proper length of a story?

Consider: a hero and a villain battle for control of a world. The Villain wins. Is this a story? It certainly has the elements of a story: there is a protagonist and an antagonist who have different goals, which leads to conflict. There is even resolution to the conflict. Yet, most of us would intuitively understand that this is not a story in any meaningful sense.

One idea of what makes for a satisfying story is finding the universal within the specific. Human nature changes very slowly, but human society changes very quickly; every generation must, therefore, adapt the old stories to its specific circumstances. What makes Shakespeare unique is that his themes are so universal that every generation does just that, whether its West Side Story imagining Romeo and Juliet playing out on the streets of a 1950s American city or 10 Things I Hate About You recreating The Taming of the Shrew in a high school in the 1990s.

My original formulation of a hero and villain battling is a statement of a universal conflict, but it has no specifics to make it a real story. Such specifics would include character (starting with simple names: “Moishe Goldberg and Alex ‘Geronimo’ Astarte battle for control of the world” is a very different story than “Regina Thistlewhite and Roger Moore battle for control of the world”), setting and description of the conflict itself (is it a physical battle in the real world, or an intellectual battle fought on computer networks, for example).

A story needs to be long enough to contain all of the information necessary for a reader to make sense of the events, of course. Beyond that, though, I would argue that a story has to be long enough that the specifics of it make sense to the reader, that the reader must be able to recognize the reality underlying the conflict at the heart of a story.

This is seemingly complicated by the nature of speculative fiction, which might take place in other times or on other planets, or feature characters who are not human. I’m not sure that this complication is all that important, though. On the one hand, a story set in an alien world would have to have enough information that the reader would believe that it could work (so, for example, if you’re setting a story in a prison on a moon, you have to explain where it gets its food; where characters in medieval settings get their swords and other weapons; and so on). On the other hand, I have long maintained that, no matter when and where it is set, science fiction is always about life in the time period in which it was written; if this is the case, writers need to be clear about how details of the alien world reflect the world they live in. It has also been my experience that non-human characters in fantastic fiction reflect human experience: when I was writing scripts for an original vampire series, for instance, I quickly realized that writing about characters with a potentially infinite lifespan puts into relief how ordinary people live within our limited lifespan).

I thought a lot about the issue of proper story length while reading Brandon Black’s Mechanical Tales: A Steampunk Anthology. This was largely because I felt the first two of the five stories in the collection were, in different ways, the wrong length.

“Blood, Steam and Iron,” the first story in Mechanical Tales, is about an encounter between a soldier and Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War in an alternate timeline where the north has created steam-propelled 13 foot tall robots to fight against the steel tanks developed by the south. Lincoln has qualms about the robots, calling them “mechanical monsters.” While the premise was interesting, I found the story too short (only three pages) to do it justice.

How would the steampunk technology actually change the tactics employed by either side in the conflict? Would it change the outcome of the war, or, if not, would it shorten the war or prolong it? In addition to these questions, although his views are explored, I would have liked to have heard more of Lincoln’s thoughts about steampunk technologies more generally, about how they would remake the entire world, not just the prosecution of the Civil War. As written, the story feels incomplete.

The following story, “Songs of the Divine Pulsation,” has the opposite problem: there’s a little too much of it. A story should be long enough that the reader is satisfied with its completeness. This doesn’t mean that all questions about what happened, or what will happen as a result of what happened, need to be answered; it does mean, though, that there shouldn’t be elements in the story that leave key plot points unresolved.

“Songs of the Divine Pulsation” is about Vespers, a street criminal in Victorian New Orleans, who is taken under the wing of Sabine, a mysterious older woman who teaches her about new forms of magic (based on eastern mysticism). This budding relationship will also affect Evan, Vespers’ partner in crime. The story moves slowly, deliberately, like a cat slinking down an alley on a hot New Orleans night, and reaches a reasonable ending, with Sabine taking Evan in as a student to please Sabine.


Towards the end of the story there is a scene where Evan is confronted by Marie, who we were led to believe early on was Sabine’s enemy. Their encounter is left open-ended, suggesting more conflict to come, conflict which may be satisfactorily dealt with in a novel-length version of the story, but just leaves a hole in the story at its length in this volume. An unnecessary hole; I think the story would have worked if this scene had been omitted.

The other stories in the volume feel more complete. “Time and the Wrinkled Prostitute” is a clever steampunk time travel story with an amusing ending. “All Aboard the Transcontinental Express” is a story about a young man whose guardian expects him to lose his virginity on a cross-country train voyage. “The Sublimity Chair” has the most creative premise of the stories in the collection: in 1883, a man builds a machine that is supposed to be able to “cure criminals with beauty.” It is tried on a mass murderer with horrific results.

Each of these stories has a simple conflict that builds to a satisfying resolution, with just enough detail to make the reader believe in the concrete reality the author is trying to convey in them.

Steampunk is not my thing (although I do seem to be reading a lot of it for Amazing Stories), but Brandon Black is a reasonably good storyteller, so, my qualms about his story’s lengths notwithstanding, fans of the genre should find a lot to enjoy in this slim collection.

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