Back to the Future with Steampunk

SteampunkThe publication of Steampunk, an anthology of reprinted stories and excerpts, provides a great opportunity for adventurous book groups looking to explore an unusual theme.

“Steampunk” derives its name from its mixture of steam-driven 19th century technologies and a punk attitudes that subvert the staid social and political conventions of those times. Stories and novels in this style feature intrepid inventors, genteel lady adventurers and social activists, frontier dandies, and other period characters using airships, mechanical robots, and other contraptions in science fiction and fantasy settings. This hot subgenre is spawning books, films, music, fashion, and even lifestyles. Even the NY Times has noticed the trend: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/08/fashion/08PUNK.html
 

The anthology Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer is a collection of stories originally published between 1971 and 2007 by the likes of Michael Moorcock, Michael Chabon, Mary Gentle, and Neal Stephenson. Combined with brief essays that define the subgenre’s scope and history, it makes a fine introduction.

But a book group would be well-served by handling this subject as a theme, encouraging members to read other superb steampunk such as Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels (such as The Scar), Jane Lindskold’s The Buried Pyramid, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass) or Sally Lockhart (The Ruby in the Smoke) series. Michael Chabon has edited two collections for McSweeney’s (Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories and Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales) with all-star casts of writers that largely fit within the steampunk framework.

Other readers might choose speculative fiction classics by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, or H.P. Lovecraft originally written in or near the period to which contemporary steampunk hearkens back. The visually-oriented might choose to review Alan Moore’s graphic novels about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, films like The Illusionist or The Prestige, or a season of The Wild Wild West on DVD. Those with a less speculative bent could read historical fiction or nonfiction that reflects the era and provide comparison or contrast.

Steampunk provides a fine blend of fun, alternate history, and social engineering that will please many readers. Let your book group join the ranks of those who are finding it can be good to get steamed!

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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