Steampunk started out as a sub-genre of Science Fiction in the 80s, and has since expanded to include other genre elements, such as Fantasy and Romance, for example. According to the Steampunk Wikipedia entry:
The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of “the path not taken” of such technology as dirigibles, analog computers, or digital mechanical computers (such as Charles Babbage’s Analytical engine); these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or with a presumption of functionality.
With several now classic, widely respected and heralded novels already published in the Steampunk sub-genre, and with many more in the works from various publishing houses and well-established authors from different background (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Romance, Adult, YA, Erotica, etc), it is impossible to deny Steampunk is a growing trend – and it is here to stay, at least in the foreseeable future.
If you are a blogger, or an internetian (someone who reads the blogs) especially of the Fantasy and Sci-Fi variety, over the past two years, chances are that you have noticed a significant increase in the number of books published under this enigmatic umbrella called “Steampunk.” You will have seen an increase in the number of articles, events, and essentials lists preoccupied with this compelling and strange sub-genre.
In fact, Steampunk has become so popular that it extends beyond the realm of fiction and film, as to have been accepted and established as a culture lifestyle via fashion, décor and music. In the UK for example, The Victorian Steampunk Society organize a whole range of events throughout the year. According to their definition, Steampunk started out as a joke:
There was a movement in science fiction to write in a genre known as “Cyberpunk”. When various writers began exploring similar concepts and ideas but setting them in a pseudo Victorian world the term steampunk was jokingly coined.
But in spite of Steampunk’s incredible popularity, we have noticed that there is no clear definition of Steampunk as a genre. For the past few weeks, we have been searching for an established, conclusive definition of what Steampunk is – and across the blogs, forums, and websites we have visited in our quest, we’ve noticed that there exist a vast, disparate array of definitions. Books that are mentioned in some essential Steampunk lists are not mentioned in others, and we’ve some argument as to the limits and parameters of what indeed constitutes “Steampunk.” In fact, in the process of getting reading for the week, we’ve already read a couple of books published and marketed as Steampunk, but which we hardly think fit within the subgenre! But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We plan to come back to the question of “What is Steampunk?” in a special post tomorrow.
For now, the important thing is: Steampunk. We love it. We wholeheartedly embrace the idea of a sub-genre which proposes to fuse imaginative, fantastic ideas with complex social structures in a historical setting and making it fun. This was the impetus behind this two-part Appreciation Week – the we too, get to read and learn more about the genre.
With that in mind, here is a list of 10 titles that we Smugglers consider to be essential Steampunk reading (note, this list contains prose books only – we will have a separate list of comics/manga and films in our second Steampunk Week, next month!):
The computer age has arrived a century ahead of time – in the High Victorian age. The Industrial Revolution, supercharged by the development of steam-driven cybernetic engines, is in full swing. Great Britain, with the benefit of this new technology, prepares to better the world.
The Difference Engine from William Gibson and Bruce Sterling is considered as THE definitive Steampunk novel. And wouldn’t you know it, Ana has a review for this book later in the week.
It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.
Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.
This is one of Ana’s favorites, which she reviewed last year, and marks YA SF/Dystopian author Scott Westerfeld’s first stab at Steampunk.
A steampunkish romantic fantasy set in Ondinium, a city that beats to the ticking of a clockwork heart. Taya, a metal-winged courier, can travel freely across the city’s sectors and mingle indiscriminately among its castes. A daring mid-air rescue leads to involvement with two scions of an upperclass family and entanglement in a web of terrorism, loyalty, murder, and secrets.
Mixing Steampunk with fantasy and romance, Clockwork Heart remains one of Thea’s absolute favorite novels of the subgenre (reviewed by her HERE). Absolutely essential!
Replete with whimsical mechanical wonders and charmingly anachronistic settings, this pioneering anthology gathers a brilliant blend of fantastical stories. Steampunk originates in the romantic elegance of the Victorian era and blends in modern scientific advances—synthesizing imaginative technologies such as steam-driven robots, analog supercomputers, and ultramodern dirigibles. The elegant allure of this popular new genre is represented in this rich collection by distinctively talented authors, including Neal Stephenson, Michael Chabon, James Blaylock, Michael Moorcock, and Joe R. Lansdale.
This is an anthology with one heckuva lineup with some of the best and brightest voices in SF/F and Steampunk.
Jacob Burn: pilot, criminal and disgraced son of one of the founding families of the ancient city of Veridon.
When an old friend delivers to him a strange artifact, Jacob’s world crashes down around him as he runs not only from the law but also from those who were once friends. But even as the array of machines and strange creatures stalk him through the streets of Veridon, something even more sinister and dangerous makes its move against him, an entity that will make Jacob question everything he thought he knew about himself and the city.
Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers is a new book to the Steampunk consortium, published late last year – but it is already referred to as a classic work by many afficionados. Thea will be reviewing this bad boy in our second Steampunk Week, next month.
Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets – secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. This doesn’t sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart – literally.
Another title that both Thea & Ana will be reviewing in our second Steampunk Week, next month.
It all began when the Brown Leather Man, a mysterious being with a secret older than humankind, asked proper Victorian London gentleman George Dower to repair a weird device. How coud George have know that this was but one of the many infernal devices his genius father had build, and that he himself would soon be pursued by former clients of his father? For George had always been the unsuspecting key to his father’s incredible plans, a key that others would like to possess – from the automaton who wore George’s own face to the mad Lord Bendray, bent on using George to destroy the entire Earth. A romp through Victorian England by an author said to have “the brain-burned intensity of his mentor, Philip K. Dick.”
Another book considered as a classic – in fact, K.W. Jeter has been called the “grandfather of steampunk.” While Infernal Engines (and Morlock Night) have been out of print since the 1980s, Harper Collins imprint Angry Robot has signed K.W. Jeter and will be republishing these titles later this year!
The action follows 11-year-old protagonist Lyra Belacqua, accompanied by her daemon, from her home at Oxford University to the frozen wastes of the North, on a quest to save kidnapped children from the evil ‘Gobblers,’ who are using them as part of a sinister experiment. Lyra also must rescue her father from the Panserbjorne, a race of talking, armored, mercenary polar bears holding him captive. Joining Lyra are a vagabond troop of gyptians (gypsies), witches, an outcast bear, and a Texan in a hot air balloon.
We know, you are probably thinking – wait, The Golden Compass (actually, the entirety of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series) is Steampunk? And, if you can put the movie out of your mind, you’ll realize, just as we did, that it is. Not only is this recognized as one of the best steampunk works out there (it’s on nearly every top 10 list), but it’s one of Ana’s and Thea’s favorite series’ PERIOD.
Suppose that a few of our present inventions had been made earlier, and others not discovered at all? How would the last century have evolved differently? This is the story of Oswald Bastable, a Victorian captain who found himself in such alternate worlds. It is based on notes handed down to Michael Moorcock from his great-grandfather. It’s a story of a world of empires secured by airships, and a Chinese genius who invented the means of overthrowing the West’s power!
Another classic, and another book that Ana will be looking at and reviewing later this week!
Aboard a vast seafaring vessel, a band of prisoners and slaves, their bodies remade into grotesque biological oddities, is being transported to the fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. But the journey is not theirs alone. They are joined by a handful of travelers, each with a reason for fleeing the city. Among them is Bellis Coldwine, a renowned linguist whose services as an interpreter grant her passage—and escape from horrific punishment. For she is linked to Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the brilliant renegade scientist who has unwittingly unleashed a nightmare upon New Crobuzon.
For Bellis, the plan is clear: live among the new frontiersmen of the colony until it is safe to return home. But when the ship is besieged by pirates on the Swollen Ocean, the senior officers are summarily executed. The surviving passengers are brought to Armada, a city constructed from the hulls of pirated ships, a floating, landless mass ruled by the bizarre duality called the Lovers. On Armada, everyone is given work, and even Remades live as equals to humans, Cactae, and Cray. Yet no one may ever leave.
Lonely and embittered in her captivity, Bellis knows that to show dissent is a death sentence. Instead, she must furtively seek information about Armada’s agenda. The answer lies in the dark, amorphous shapes that float undetected miles below the waters—terrifying entities with a singular, chilling mission. . . .
China Mieville is a literary SF writer, and his novel The Scar will be reviewed by Thea in Steampunk Week part deux.
Further reading and articles:
The awesome articles by Dru Pagliassotti:
A Great article by Joshua Pfeiffer about the Socio Political side of Steampunk .
AuthorCherie Priest‘s article on Steampunk: What it is, why I came to like it, and why I think it’ll stick around
Galaxy Express’ Heather Massey’s article: The Case for Steampunk Romance.
Blogs and Websites:
Steampunk Scholar – A blog devoted to the PhD research of Mike Perschon, as he researches for his dissertation on the Steampunk as aesthetic.
Brass Goggles – A UK Blog (and a forum – beware, you can spend HOURS here.). Devoted to the light side of all things Steampunk, with news about the genre and the scene. For their definition of Steampunk, go here.
Steampunk Magazine – A Publication dedicated to promote Steampunk in all of its forms and free to download online. Their homepage contains links to all sort of Steampunk news and is updated regularly.
The Victorian Steampunk Society Website – With links to events, concerts, etc.
The Oxford Museum of the History of Science held the world’s first exhibition of Steampunk art in February. In their website you can find all sorts of links, including the programme, videos, photos and a blog of the event.
Weekend at the Asylum – the Website of the UK’s leading Steampunk event. This year’s event will take place in Lincoln over the weekend September 10th, 11th and 12th.
Speaking of festivals, The Steampunk’s World Fair, the first Steampunk Festival in the US is taking place this year on May 14th-16th , at the Radisson of Piscataway, New Jersey.