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Steampunk Literature for the Anachronistic Soul

Steampunk Literature for the Anachronistic Soul


If there’s one joke you’ve heard about steampunk it’s the one that’s been trotted out for so long that no one alive remembers when it was actually funny (if ever it was): “Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover brown.”

I couldn’t even finish typing that moldy saying without yawning. It’s not only long in the tooth, but oh, so very narrow in focus. Maybe it’s funny to people who think the steampunk movement begins and ends with people wearing brown overcoats with fogged over welding goggles? Which is tantamount to thinking that all crossdressers look like (or aspire to be) RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, that Goths ever sit around watching the movie, “The Crow,” or that furries regularly walk around wishing people would see them as an anthropomorphic cat or dog. [That last one might be true. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.]

So wait, there’s more to steampunk than hot gluing broken watch parts to large felt hats? Yes, dear readers, there’s a whole world in here – and it lives both in and out of the steampunkers’ heads. We could get the gears rolling by talking comic conventions, music, and TV shows, but where it all started – literature – is where we’re fixing our gaze today. You will be pleased to find out: it’s a rich and still-growing world with appeal stretching well beyond the be-goggled stereotype.

Where to begin, where to begin… Oh, I know – the 19th century, of course. Steampunk (arguably) may not have been born there, but much of its inspiration is born from the fantastical works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and even Mary Shelley. Whereas these authors weaved tales of far-fetched technologies dreamt from a 19th century perspective, contemporary steampunk often looks back to that same era – moving back in time – to then look forward with those Victorian glasses into worlds full of a pioneering spirit of experimentation and discovery…. with a bolt of electricity not unlike the one that gave Shelley’s patchwork meatbag life in Frankenstein. It’s this spark that is the most constant aspect of the steampunk world.

Though the term “steampunk” didn’t see print until 1987 (and then in a magazine article attempting to describe the works of a couple of authors), its modern-day conceptual roots go back to the 1970s. The work that brought steampunk to the world is The Difference Engine, by William Gibson (the author of Neuromancer – the book that spawned cyberpunk in the early 80s, sooo good) and Bruce Sterling (another early and heavy hitter in cyberpunk’s infancy). The Difference Engine saw the world of the 19th century as the home of a steam and spring-fueled computer and information age – a century before it hit in the real world.

Once upon a time, a reader could easily own – and fit onto a small shelf nestled between their VHS of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and a hand-painted model of the famous contraption from the movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine -- all the legit steampunk books. Now (much to the rabid steampunk reader’s delight) one would need to move back to their parents’ basement and devote their life to reading if they had any hopes of reading it all in a lifetime. What many expected to be a flash in a pan has roots too deep and wide to die – and it’s ever-growing and changing like a mad scientist’s mutant strain of weed.

If you’re new steampunk works, one of the modern titles I’d recommend is a comic book. You should totally take it seriously (even though many of you will suddenly feel better when I refer to it as a “graphic novel”). Alan Moore (the comics’ god who is most know as the author of the cult classic, The Watchmen), penned an excellent series entitled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which was made in to quite a mediocre and forgettable film, which I recommend you simply avoid). Characters from classic literature like Jekyll and Hyde and Captain Nemo come together in (wait for it) 19th century England to battle an enemy in an intelligent and often tongue-in-cheek twist on superhero tales.

On the other hand, Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan has World War I battled by great steam machines and mutant beings if that sort of thing trips your fancy. Not enough dirigibles (or zombies) in your reading? Look no further than The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann. But if you really want to have your fun romp while tipping your silken top hat to steampunk history, do consider Infernal Devices, by K.W. Jeter – none other than the very man responsible for coining the term “steampunk.” Infernal Devices is a clockwork device-fueled (arguably one of the first) novel with a Douglas Adams-esque feel that hits the funny bone while turning the steampunk gear.

So I do hope, dear readers, that you follow these suggestions if you’re looking to delve into the steampunk genre. While pocket watches and top hats have their place in steampunk, let us not forget the richness found in its literature.

floi Journal author