Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction, usually set in the Victorian era, which imagines an alternate reality of steam-powered technology. Beyond the specific literary definition, it’s also a more general term used to describe a certain aesthetic: a futuristic and romanticized vision of the 1800s—almost always revolving around Europe, Victorian England specifically.
Book-It Repertory Theatre’s audio play adaptation of The Effluent Engine, originally a short story by N.K. Jemisin, is a refreshing exception to the overwhelmingly European genre. The Effluent Engine follows the story of Jessaline Dumonde, a spy trying to stop France from recapturing Haiti in the aftermath of the Haitian revolution.
Jessaline meets Eugenie Rilleux, the sister of a renowned scientist, who helps her make her newest invention a reality: an engine that runs on the effluent produced as a byproduct of rum distillation. “The unavoidable price to be paid for your pleasant afternoons,” she calls it. Her mission is easier said than done, however, as a mysterious organization is determined to stop her. The Effluent Engine takes a step back from the idealized Eurocentric glamour that dominates a majority of the steampunk genre by recognizing racism and colonization even in a world of fantasy. Its ability to tell engaging historical fiction while also touching on the less pleasant realities of history is an insightful touch.
The story itself can be hard to follow at times but is overall well written and fast-paced enough to stay engaging. The characters are strongly written and feel real. There’s no doubt you’ll be rooting for Jessaline, and the fact that she’s written like a real person instead of an idealized sci fi-hero only adds to her likability. Suspense, romance, and drama with a caper edge all blend together in a compelling spy thriller.
Naa Akua is fantastic as the spirited and charismatic Jessaline. Taece Defillo, who plays Eugenie, is equally strong in her role. With just her voice, she is able to convey a compelling character with a personality entirely different from our main character. The two have excellent chemistry and voice their characters so naturally that it’s easy to forget they’re reciting lines. It’s Akua’s lively delivery and inflections that make even the narration feel like a casual chat with the audience, rather than an exposition-drop. The voice acting, score, and soundtrack create a highly immersive experience.
Erin Bednarz’s sound design creates a stunning auditory ‘set’ for the play, evoking an atmospheric New Orleans with a steampunk twist even before the narration starts. The dialogue itself, however, doesn’t feel like a play, and it’s not hard to see why. The Effluent Engine was directly adapted by Jéhan Òsanyín from a short story of the same name by Jemisin. It’s an incredibly faithful adaptation, leaving almost all of the original text intact, and it’s the adherence to the original that makes it feel less like a play and more like a high-budget audiobook with edited-out dialogue tags. Because of this, the story is hard to follow at times, and it can be difficult to keep track of what Jessaline is saying versus what is narration to the audience. I recommend reading the original story beforehand to get a sense of what’s going on.
Either way, Book-it Repertory Theatre manages to take a short story and adapt it into a one-and-a-half-hour-long, highly immersive, and well-paced tale, as well as a creative way to take advantage of the online format. With its skillful combination of elements of steampunk, caper film, historical fiction, and spy thriller, The Effluent Engine is well worth a listen.
The Effluent Engine presented by Book-It Repertory Theatre is available to listen to from April 15 to June 30, 2021. For more information see here.