Victoriana, Steampunk, and unconventional characters in ‘Machines of Another Era’


Machines of Another Era

Bess Winter, 170 pgs, Gold Wake Press,, $17

A gorilla with an unusual fixation. A model ship made from human bones. An old woman with an appetite for paper. These and more peculiar tales can be found in Machines of Another Era, a selection of strange slice-of-life fragments largely set in the past.

Many of the quirky stories in Machines are entirely fictional, some are inspired by little-known historical events and characters. These tales are particularly intriguing, unearthing bizarre curiosities such as Toronto’s fly-catching contest of 1912. Be warned, though. Many of the details have been changed or re-interpreted.

However embellished or imagined they may be, Winter’s renditions are enthralling and imaginative. They are also far from uplifting, often focusing on poverty, lost memories, and characters with unusual or downright criminal behavior. I’d hesitate to label the collection’s focus on history and memory as an exercise in nostalgia, as the stories rarely give off that comforting, if melancholic feeling. Instead, I’d say their real purpose can be found in “Talking Dolls”; “Scan and colorize a Civil War photo and, suddenly, here is a boy — full of breath and blood, as real as a neighbor or a person on the street — too small for his Union coat.” Just like scanning technology, literature brings the past back to life. It also works inversely, restoring emotion to photographs of nameless figures or newspaper clippings of distant events, investing modern interpretation and importance into the otherwise near-forgotten. Even largely fictional storytelling can give a voice to discarded and disdained people, objects, and events from distant times.

Personally, I loved this book. It’s a brisk read with less than 200 pages, every one of them fascinating and piquing my curiosity for the facts behind them. If you have any interest in Victoriana, Steampunk, or even just appreciate unconventional characters, I highly recommend Machines of Another Era.