Getting Steamed

I met with the Science Fiction/Fantasy group at Williamsburg Regional Library last week to discuss steampunk. There’s a real surge of popularity for steampunk in fandom and among designers lately, driven by retro-future romanticism and the fact that steampunk, with its mix of Victorian high style and gleaming gears, glistening clockwork men, blimps, and goggles, looks fantastic on film but is relatively easy for the home costumer or designer to re-create.

The question for our book group was whether or not this aesthetic phenomenon translates to successful literature. Steampunk should be set in a Victorian or Edwardian era past (though not necessarily England), but an alternate history that featured advanced technologies (still usually driven by steam power, intricate mechanics, or some other juiced-up version of science available at the time.) That’s the “steam” part of the name. The “punk” portion of the moniker comes from anti-authoritarian attitudes and individualist aesthetics: Victorian amateur scientists or Wild West adventurers taken to new extremes. Books that aren’t set in the Victorian era, but evoke the same styles and attitudes in another world or time period may also be called steampunk.

The genre’s roots are in works originally published in the Victorian era, particularly those of Jules Verne, whose advanced science in works like Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea presuppose the steampunk aesthetic. Later, works published in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s would inspire and inform the current explosion. These writers include James P. Blaylock (The Digging Leviathan), Paul Di Filippo (The Steampunk Trilogy), Alan Moore (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates), Christopher Priest (The Prestige), Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass), Neal Stephenson (The Diamond Age), S. M. Stirling (The Peshawar Lancers), Paula Volsky (The Grand Ellipse), Martha Wells (The Death of the Necromancer), and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (The Difference Engine).

The readers in our group found that the works that inspired the steampunk phenomenon (a nice selection can be found in the two Steampunk anthologies edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer) are worth reading. The current crop of steampunk fiction is a more mixed bag. As with any hot subgenre, some of the work is inspired, but much is derivative. In this case, there’s also the problem that clever technological advances and plucky spirit are only an authorial misstep away from unbelievable pseudo-scientific hand-waving or jarring anachronistic behavior.

Some of the recent authors found advocates in our group. Gail Carriger writes funny romantic urban fantasies about the Parasol Protectorate starting with Soulless. Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne adventures start with The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack and George Mann’s Newbury and Hobbes investigations begin with The Affinity Bridge). China Miéville’s New Crobuzon-set books–Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council aren’t pure steampunk but they have the right aesthetic. Scott Westerfeld, one of many young adult authors exploring steampunk, has found success in the trilogy of Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath.

Our group first explored this topic a couple of years ago, but we revisited it because since then, steampunk has been taken up by a slew of new writers. Other authors that those interested in sampling recent steampunk might try include Tim Akers, Meljean Brook, Andrew P. Mayer, Felix J. Palma, Cherie Priest, Lev AC Rosen and Lavie Tidhar. Is it back to the future or forward to the past? I’m not sure, but it certainly stirs something in the creative mind and the romantic spirit.

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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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