Featuring H.G. Wells, Neal Barrett & Cherie Priest
By John Klima — Library Journal, 03/04/2010
Steampunk is everywhere, from movies like Sherlock Holmes and Howl’s Moving Castle to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and an art exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England. A subgenre of science fiction, it typically (but not always) employs a Victorian setting where steam power and advanced technologies like computers coexist and often features themes, such as secret societies, found in mystery novels.
A little background: The subgenre has its origins in the 1980s with writers such as Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter, who crafted novels in Victorian settings using many of the conventions of 19th-century writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne but also displaying the sensibilities and style of cyberpunk. Unlike cyberpunk, which is decidedly dystopian, steampunk tends to have a more positive outlook of the future.
Here are ten classic steampunk works and ten more recent titles for a well-rounded collection.
The Classics | Recent Works
Barrett, Neal, Jr. The Prophecy Machine. Spectra: Bantam. 2000. 352p. ISBN 978-0-553-58195-9. pap. $6.50. SF
If this was published today, it would be heralded as a major steampunk work. Current steampunk fans will revel in Barrett’s world of transformed animal Newlies, mechanized lizards, and the opposing religions of the Hatters and Hooters. The Hatters rule the day and run amuck, jabbing people with pointy sticks. Night is the arena of the Hooters, who set fire to things. In the middle of this is Finn, a lizard maker, who is trying to protect his two most precious belongings: the love of the Newlie Letitia and the cranky mechanical lizard Julia Jessica Slagg. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Blaylock, James P. Homunculus. Babbage Pr. 2000. 248p. ISBN 978-1-930235-13-7. pap. $17.95. SF
Summarizing the plot is difficult to impossible, but events begin with a corpse-piloted dirigible that has been orbiting London for years and has finally caught the interest of the Royal Society. From there, plots and characters spring forth like spawning salmon. This is one of the more difficult steampunk books to read owing to the complexity and absurdity of the plot. Blaylock is not as successful here at pulling its parts together into a single thread as Tim Powers is with The Anubis Gates, but a patient reader will be rewarded by Blaylock’s sense of humor.
Di Filippo, Paul. The Steampunk Trilogy. Running Pr. 1997. 354p. ISBN 978-1-56858-102-6. pap. $14.95. SF
The three novellas in this book capture the steampunk aesthetic of employing Victorian language and settings juxtaposed against modern sensibilities and moralities. Di Filippo focuses more on social commentary than on technology, as some steampunk is wont to do, but the results are imminently readable. But take note: here, Queen Victoria is replaced by an engineered newt clone while she engages in sexual escapades, Walt Whitman seduces Emily Dickinson, and a Swiss naturalist searches for the pickled genitalia of the Hottentot Venus. It may not be for everyone, but this is a core component of the steampunk movement. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Gibson, William & Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. Spectra: Bantam. 1992. 448p. ISBN 978-0-553-29461-3. pap. $7.99. SF
Unlike many steampunk novels, this has a dystopian feel to it, which isn’t surprising given that it was written by two of cyberpunk’s best-known authors. The reader goes back in time to the Industrial Revolution, where Charles Babbage perfected his analytical engine. The mass-produced Babbage computers have lead to an explosion of technological creation. The cyberpunk authors transform computer hackers into Babbage “clackers,” who create punch cards to run programs on the machines. The plot centers around a powerful set of punch cards—they are believed to be able assist someone in placing winning bets—and all the disparate groups trying to acquire them. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Jeter, K.W. Infernal Devices. ROC: NAL. 1987. 224p. ISBN 978-0-451-14934-3. Out of print. SF
This canonical steampunk work is currently out of print, but Angry Robot Books is reprinting it and Jeter’s earlier steampunk Morlock Night in late 2010. Infernal Devices features watch repairman George, who lives in the shadow of his father’s clockwork genius. Various sordid underground fraternities begin to request George’s services, with the assumption that he knows his father’s secrets. The inquiries escalate into conflict and an unwitting George traveling through a London he no longer knows. A well-written novel that should be added to any collection. If you have patrons with an interest in steampunk, this is essential.
Moorcock, Michael. The Warlord of the Air. DAW, dist. by Penguin. 1971. ISBN 978-0-441-87060-8. Out of print. SF
The first book in Moorcock’s “A Nomad of the Time Streams” trilogy predates the steampunk movement but is clearly an influence on it. British army captain Oswald Bastable is transported to an alternate-universe version of the 20th century, where the world wars never occurred and technology moved in a different direction. Great airships patrol the sky, and Bastable works to protect them from a group of rebellious colonists. The other novels in the trilogy take Bastable into different alternate time streams. The books are currently out of print but are not difficult to find. Moorcock is certainly popular, and more books from him would be welcome in any collection.
Powers, Tim. The Anubis Gates. Ace: Berkley, dist. by Penguin Group (USA). 1997. 400p. ISBN 978-0-441-00401-0. pap. $16. SF
After Jeter’s and Blaylock’s books, Powers’s stands as the other pillar upon which the current steampunk trend sits. Essentially a time-travel story, the book’s plot centers around the titular gates, which are used by a group of modern-day Londoners to travel back in time to attend a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The trip goes awry, and one of the travelers, professor Brendan Doyle, is captured by Egyptian magicians. Powers handles the paradox of time travel with incredible skill, weaving it seamlessly into the already complicated plot. He deserves to be better known, and this book will send patrons looking for more books by him.
Steampunk. Tachyon, dist. by IPG. 2008. 400p. ed. by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer. ISBN 978-1-892391-75-9. pap. $14.95. SF
While most of the best steampunk is novel length, this anthology is an excellent introduction to the subgenre. Incorporating work from the mid-1980s to today, this volume captures the movement from its beginnings on, collecting writers such as Michael Chabon, Neal Stephenson, Michael Moorcock, and Joe R. Lansdale, among others. It also includes three essays about steampunk’s place in literature, film, and comic books. This is not only an engaging book to read but a great resource for anyone looking for information about steampunk.
Swanwick, Michael. Jack Faust. Avon. 1998. 352p. ISBN 978-0-380-79070-8. Out of print. SF
The medieval German setting marks this as unusual for a steampunk novel early on. When Jack Faust bargains for total knowledge with an entity that calls itself Mephistopheles, it comes with a hefty price—humankind’s destruction—but he assumes that knowing everything will allow him to think of a way to avoid annihilation. Faust uses his new immense knowledge to introduce technologies into medieval Europe long before they should be. But these advancements soon move beyond Faust’s control. The reader already knows the ending of the book, but it’s Swanwick’s skill that compels one to the end. This is currently out of print, but there are many used copies available. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Wells, H.G. The Time Machine. Penguin. 2005. 128p. ISBN 978-0-14-143997-6. pap. $9.
This may be cheating a little, given that steampunk as a subgenre didn’t exist for more than a century after Wells wrote this book. However, the novel is a major influence on steampunk and is a starting point for many of its tropes—it has a Victorian setting and technology that didn’t exist but is described in enough detail to make it seem real. Fantastical settings and creatures play a role when the narrator goes into the future. While this book should already be in almost every collection, it is a great recommendation for the steampunk fan who’s read everything. Available used.
Akers, Tim. Heart of Veridon. Solaris. 2009. 480p. ISBN 978-1-84416-759-3. pap. $7.99. SF
Akers’s debut tells the story of Jacob Burn and his attempts to discover the nature of an artifact that was delivered to him, while trying to elude others who want the object. As with a lot of steampunk, the real star is Akers’s city of Veridon, which is in the midst of an industrial revolution. As the reader and Jacob learn more about the artifact, the reader learns ever more about Veridon. The action keeps the pages turning, and readers will want more novels set in this world.
Barnes, Jonathan. The Somnambulist. Harper: HarperCollins. 2009. 384p. ISBN 978-0-06-137538-5. pap. $14.99. SF
Rich in vivid period details, Barnes’s debut novel will sweep the reader up in its distinctive world. Conjuror Edward Moon and his giant, mute, milk-drinking companion, the Somnambulist, work as detectives, brought out of retirement to investigate a group trying to take over London. Moon is reminiscent of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes but rife with unnatural habits and insecurities. This is extraordinarily well written and employs an untrustworthy narrator whose identity will shock the reader. Like Berry, Barnes infuses mystery into the fantastic with ease. Barnes followed this novel with The Domino Men, which readers will enjoy, too. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Berry, Jedediah. The Manual of Detection. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). 2009. 288p. ISBN 978-1-59420-211-7. $25.95. M
Not a typical steampunk novel, but certainly one that works the aesthetic. Charles Unwin is a clerk cataloging the adventures of the legendary sleuth Travis Sivart. One day, Unwin is promoted to the rank of detective and given the case of finding Sivart, who has gone missing. The book takes many a surreal turn, and its setting defies definition. The modes of transportation, communication, dialog, and even fashion are all straight out of steampunk. This is more straightforward mystery than science fiction or fantasy and lacks the detailed descriptions of technology, but fans of the subgenre will enjoy this book from a talented new writer. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Carriger, Gail. Soulless. Orbit: Hachette. 2009. 384p. ISBN 978-0-316-05663-2. pap. $7.99. SF
As much a comedy of manners as steampunk, this is summed up perfectly on its cover: “A novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols.” Protagonist Alexia Tarabotti is considered a spinster at age 25. She is also soulless, so supernatural beings have no power over her. Even more, Alexia can neutralize their powers by touching them, making a vampire or a werewolf human. Alexia finds herself stuck between the supernatural beings and a political/religious group hoping to remove the supernaturals’ citizen status. The first in a series that fans of urban fantasy or paranormal romance should love.
Dahlquist, Gordon. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Bantam. 2006. 768p. ISBN 978-0-385-34035-9. $26. F
A huge book from a debut novelist. Celeste Temple travels to London to visit her fiancé, Roger, only to have him break off their engagement. This sets off a wild series of events, starting with Miss Temple waking up in her undergarments in the middle of a ritual. After she escapes, she proceeds to seek out the secrets of the ceremony as the people behind it search for her. The book has a lot of characters and plot twists and can therefore be quite a challenge to the reader; however, the paperback version was reprinted in two volumes in 2008–09, which may make it less intimidating to pick up. This novel has a sequel, The Dark Volume, which features the same characters and continues the myriad plots. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Extraordinary Engines. Solaris. 2008. 496p. ed. by Nick Gevers. ISBN 978-1-84416-634-3. pap. $12.52. SF
Where the anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer reprints seminal works of the steampunk movement, Gevers’s volume collects all new stories from writers like Robert Reed, Margo Lanagan, Jeff VanderMeer, and Jeffrey Ford. Stories range from Lanagan’s tale set in the Australian outback in which a Victorian bride struggles to reconcile herself with her new husband’s domestic robot maid to Keith Brooke’s gaslight take on today’s popular forensic television shows. Steampunk generally works best in novel form, where the author has space to develop the world around the characters, but these short stories are the exception to that.
Lake, Jay. Mainspring. Tor. 2008. 368p. ISBN 978-0-7653-5636-9. pap. $7.99. SF
A clock maker’s apprentice is visited by an angel and tasked with winding the mainspring of the Earth. If he fails, life as he knows it will end. The American Revolution never happened, the Royal Navy uses airships to control the Queen’s empire, and a young man from New Haven, CT, realizes how big the world really is. This title is followed by the even more ambitious Escapement, and there are more books to come. These novels are core steampunk with their Victorian setting and steam-powered machinery coupled with fantastical creatures and elements. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. Del Rey: Ballantine. 2003. 640p. ISBN 978-0-345-45940-4. pap. $7.99. SF
Miéville takes steampunk out of Victorian London and into Bas-Lag, a world of his own creation. Scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is working to solve his crisis energy theory. He receives inspiration from his Khepri girlfriend, Lin (female Kherpi have human bodies and beetle heads, and the males are giant beetles). There are also sentient cacti, modified creatures that combine flesh and technology, magic, dirigibles, underground newspapers, and more. The depth that Miéville has given this world, also showcased in the subsequent Bas-Lag novels The Scar and Iron Council, is truly breathtaking. (See LJ‘s original review.)
Moore, Alan & Kevin O’Neill. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Vol. 1. America’s Best Comics. 2002. 176p. ISBN 978-1-56389-858-7. pap. $14.99. SF
Probably the best-known work of modern steampunk, Moore and O’Neill’s graphic novel captures the movement’s aesthetic, both visually and textually. The story is set in a world in which all of the Victorian era’s novels actually happened, and a group of the literature’s heroes work together, as the titular league, to fight against the villains from those books. The story and the artwork are stunning. Nearly every panel is rife with inside jokes and obscure references to Victorian literature. Moore does his usual amazing work of turning things upside down and inside out and then changing things once more when the reader gets comfortable.
Priest, Cherie. Boneshaker. Tor. 2009. 416p. ISBN 978-0-7653-1841-1. pap. $14.99. SF
Zombies, steam-powered technology, airships, pirates, and mad scientists—What more could you want? How about great storytelling, compelling characters, and an interesting plot? Priest combines all of these things and somehow even more. There’s the added benefit of a teenage protagonist, which makes this a great introduction to steampunk for the YA audience. This lacks the traditional Victorian setting, but that shouldn’t prevent readers from enjoying it. There is a second novel, Dreadnought, under way and a novella, Clementine, due out in May, which are both set in this world as well.
John Klima does science fiction, fantasy, and horror collection development for the Bettendorf Public Library. He also edits the Hugo Award–winning magazine Electric Velocipede.