Steampunk 101

Steampunk is one of the hottest markets in popular fiction today. Walk in to a Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention and you’re likely to see the fandom strutting around in Victorian era garb, accessorized with timepieces and aviator goggles. You may even see a few buttons proclaiming “Steampunk is the new Renaissance Faire.”

Despite its strong following, steampunk is still somewhat of a secret. Ask your librarian where the steampunk section is and you will likely get the response, “Huh? Wha?”

So, just what is steampunk? Typically, steampunk is defined as a subgenre of historical science fiction and fantasy where futuristic inventions are created using Victorian era technology. K.W. Jeter jokingly coined the term “steampunk” in 1987 in a letter to Locus Magazine as a way to classify the work being written by himself, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock.

“Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term…Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps.”

Over the last twenty years, the body of steampunk work has become vast. As a new reader of the genre, it can be difficult to no where to start. If you search for a seminal work on sites such as Wikipedia, you may be referred to the book “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This work lays out an important concept in steampunk. Namely, what might have happened if Charles Babbage’s proposed steam-powered mechanical computer (the difference engine) was actually built, leading to the dawn of the information age more than a century ahead of time?

While the concepts in “The Difference Engine” are the foundation for many authors that came later to the genre, the book can drag in places. The work reads more like “real” history than fiction, which can irritate some readers. At the books conclusion, there are still many loose ends, unresolved mysteries, and characters that are introduced, never to reappear.

Here are a few suggestions to get you into the genre. If you typically read fantasy set in other words, you might want to start with China Miéville’s “Perdido Street Station.” Miéville’s work is beautifully complex and will likely leave you unable to put the book down until it’s well past your bedtime. It’s thought provoking and strong narrative generates more than enough interest to justify its length.

If you are crossing over from the horror genre, you might like Cherie Priest’s zombie steampunk mash-up “Boneshaker.” It’s a fast-paced adventure story with fascinating characters.

Regardless of where you start, you won’t be able to stop. Steampunk is the “new” genre you don’t want to miss.

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