Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
In May of 2008, the New York Times, the bastion of the stodgy East Coast intelligencia, ran an article on steampunk. To many, myself included, the article seemed a death knell for an artistic movement that began in the late 1980s with the literature of James Blaylock, K. W. Jeter (who actually coined the term), and Tim Powers.
This is because, today, in 2014, steampunk has broken the boundaries of genre literature to influence all manner of artistic expression, whether it be fashion, film, art, music, or literature. Only a week or two ago, aspiring fashion designers on the Lifetime television show Project Runway: Under the Gunn were asked to deliver their version of “steampunk chic.” You can imagine there were plenty of gears.
The point is that many people encounter steampunk outside of literature. The books mentioned above represent a genre in it’s infancy. Now, after twenty five years, I think it’s safe to say that steampunk has established itself as a movement—as a lasting expression of our fascination with retro-futurism. With so much dire portent in our news media, it’s no wonder that fantasists look to project a future that is influenced by the romance of past ages.
In Neal Stephenson’s quasi-steampunk novel The Diamond Age, there is a group of people who take this to the extreme, isolating themselves from a what they see as a dissolute world by adopting the manner and mores of Victorian England. They are but one “phyle” or tribe in the future Stephenson imagines, but consider that the neoVictorians exist alongside stupefying levels of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, and you get a glimpse into a future built on the foundations antique virtues and present-day speculation.
This is why Stephenson’s book is only quasi-steampunk, in my opinion. For something to truly hit the mark we’re looking for in the genre, one must imagine a path-not-taken world in which any number of fantastic conventions can be applied, whether it be magic, elaborate advances in the fastidious tech of clockwork...even vampires.
Save the stake or sun, it seems there is no keeping the undead down. Consider Soulless—a novel, the cover tells us, “of vampires, werewolves and parasols.” It is the first book in a series called The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger, in which she seamlessly integrates the romance of Victorian novels with steampunk staples like dirigibles and supernatural elements common to paranormal fantasy. It’s the perfect book to lure you away from that doorstop you’ve had on the nightstand all cuffing season.
If you’re more into a YA/alternate history vibe with your steampunk there is Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Also the first in a series, Leviathan traces the journey of its young heroes as a fantastical Europe gears up for World War I, complete with living airships. Westerfeld creates a vivid setting and populates it with good characters. Throw in some really cool illustrations, and the book imparts a great experience of the genre.
Steampunk has many faces. It’s all part of the DIY license present in the constituent punk ethos. Cherie Priest takes it in her own direction when she sets her novel Boneshaker in the American west, amid a gold rush Seattle rife with zombies.
Zombies in Seattle? What’s punk about that, you ask? Well, imagine Escape from New York meets Jules Verne. I think there’s even a Trail of Dead song about it.
Anyway, I can’t close this thing out without mentioning one book that only exists in print: Jeff Vandermeer’s Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the Imaginary World of Airships, Corsetts and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature. In addition to being a great object to look at, the Steampunk Bible not only examines to current cultural condition of the movement, it also looks back at its history, giving readers an excellent picture of how it came to be what it is today.
It all shows that rumors of steampunk’s demise were greatly exaggerated.