Monday, November 19, 2012

Literature! Aether Salon (Edited)

(The slides can be viewed here.)

Good afternoon, gentle beings.

Today I am inviting you join me in  a conversation about our favorite steampunk books. (In other words, I expect you to be your usually witty selves and speak up when you have something to add.) In the past decade the genre has exploded into numerous sub genres, and I suspect we all have our favorite novels and stories. I'll give you a little history into the genre and then offer up several suggestions for your to-be-read lists.

But before I get to the book lists, let's talk about what steampunk literature is. How do you define steampunk literature?

From artist John Coulthart, we get this explanation:

STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [invention (steam x airship or metal man/baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot

Looks pretty impressive doesn't it (and I'm glad I didn't have to deliver that one in voice). Kind of like steampunk itself. Lots of parts and pieces but not necessarily as clear as it could be.

Over at they have this explanation of steampunk literature:

Steampunk has always been first and foremost a literary genre, or [at] least a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, rebellion against part of it (the punk).

Okay so here we getting a little bit into the name. We have some "steam," and we have some "punk."
Here is perhaps one of my favorites from author Beth Bernobich:

Steampunk is...a mood (fog-laden streets lined with cobblestones); a theme (a world standing on the edge between one age and the next), a tech level (horses and automobiles, clockwork creations, goggles and steam engines, and aircraft rising toward the stars), and more than a bit of madness.

I think I like this version because it aligns best the steampunk that I like to read. It combines in the aesthetic and the escapism and the whimsy.

Here are a couple more the humorous explanations of steampunk.

Steampunk is...the love child of Hot Topic and a BBC costume drama.
~Gail Carriger, author of The Parasol Protectorate series

Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.
~ Jess Nevins, author of Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

In case you haven't figured it out yet, there isn't a clear explanation of this genre. And that's all right. Why should a genre that is still growing -- still expanding -- be bound by a definition?

That said, I think Jeff VanderMeer and SJ Chambers has given us perhaps the most workable framework for steampunk literature today. And if you are trying to decide of a work falls into this category, this definition may help.

First, it’s simultaneously retro and forward-looking in nature. Second, it evokes a sense of adventure and discovery. Third, it embraces divergent and extinct technologies as a way of talking about the future.


Now that we know what steampunk literature is (ha ha), we can talk about its origin.

Steampunk literature wedges its foot in the door in the 19th century. Jules Verne, HG Wells and Mary Shelly were among authors exploring the role of technology and man's relationship with it. The rapid changes ignited by the Industrial Revolution lead authors to look at technology with a critical eye.

Shelly, for example, asks how technology affects morality in Frankenstein - what are our responsibilities for what we create?

Verne was a hard science man, caring more about the scientific veracity than the fantastical possibilities of the genre. As the power of science and technology became more evident to the public, so they realized the role of mad scientist was a real possibility.

Although Wells used science in his literature he was much more concerned with its political implications. As a socialist, he was more concerned with the misuse of science than its accurate depiction.


While we most often associate Steampunk literature with Victorian England, American dime novels were also influential. Edisonade novels, targeted at boys and young men, grew out of a fascination with science combined with American expansionism. The Edisonade novels had a formula: "a young American male invents a form of transportation and uses it to travel to uncivilized parts of the American frontier or the world, enrich himself, and punish the enemies of the United States."  Unlike the works mentioned earlier, technology is embraced. It will improve the character's life with no repercussions. Edward Ellis introduces readers to The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairies, a work that inspires additional series and hundreds of novels. The Edisonade genre was successful for twenty years before the closing of the frontier and changing tastes killed the genre.


So having seen how people of the time approached Victorian and Edwardian science, let’s look at how more contemporary generations adopted, and adapted, it. Steampunk literature becomes a full-fledged genre in the late 1970s/early 1980s. There were a couple of 20th-century precursors that helped set the stage. Ronald Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb is an alternative history that speculates on what would have happened if England had a nuclear bomb during the Crimean War.

Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable series, starting with The Warlord of the Air, is probably the best recognized steampunk precursor. Another alternative history, this one set in India in a world in which World War I never occured. Airships and the Victorian/Edwardian style of writing set the stage for future steampunk novels. According to Moorcock, these novels were "intended as an intervention, if you like, into certain Edwardian views of Empire. They were intended to show that there was no such thing as a benign Empire, and that even if it seemed benign, it wasn't. The stories were as much addressed to an emergent American Empire as to a declining British."

Novels such as these harken back to our proto-steampunk novels that warned against the misuse of technology and implications for the control of society.


The first generation steampunk novels were actually alternate histories based on Victorian times. Three authors - Tim Powers, KW Jeter, and James P Blaylock - would met regularly at a bar and critique each others work. From this group came the original steampunk novels, and from KW Jeter, the term "steampunk" to define the genre.

“I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective ‘Steampunk,’ perhaps.”
~ KW Jeter, Locus Magazine, 1987

So what were these original novels about?

The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, is a time travel fantasy taking place in Egypt and features kidnapping, Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and werewolves. (Does this remind anyone else of Gail Carriger's latest?)

KW Jeter's Infernal Devices gives us clockwork creatures, a mystery and a mad chase, but be warned, this novel has a reputation for being difficult to get into.

James Blaylock takes us into a world of volcanos throwing the earth into the path of a comet, and scientists determine to reverse the earth’s magnetic poles to deflect the comet. Oh, and there is a mystery to be solved.

During this same era, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published The Difference Engine. Another alternate history, this novel speculates on a world in which Charles Babbage successfully creates the first computer. Like many of their predecessors, Gibson and Sterling explore the corrupting influence of technology. It contains mystery, poets (Lord Byron is the leader of a radical group and Keats gives up poetry to program computers), and a gritty realism.

While steampunk may have been off to a great start, it quickly disappeared. As Jeff VanderMeer explains in The Steampunk Bible, “From 1991-2007, anything that might have been classified as Steampunk was described as science fiction, science fantasy, or alternative history. There were a few books and short stories that implemented steampunk elements. 1995 gave us Paul Di Filippo's Steampunk Trilogy, Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass.“

The Renaissance for steampunk literature occurred in the late 2000’s. Steampunk itself was redefined for this resurgence. It became more an aesthetic and foundation than a term to describe a movement. Now, steampunk literature is hot, HOT, HOT!!! Readers love it, publishers love it, and there are lots of opportunities for steampunk authors.


Now we can get to the reading list! You may be familiar with some of these titles, and some may be new. Please feel free to share some of your favorites in the chat as well because my list will not be exhaustive. (My apologies to the transcriptionists.)

Please be aware that I have not read all of these works. Many are new additions to my “to be read” list. Many of the books I am about to mention can fall into multiple categories.

First up is steampunk with a supernatural element.
Gail Carriger, The Parasol Protectorate
Cherie Priest, Boneshaker
Kim Newman, Anno Dracula
Clay Griffith. The Greyfriar

I love to see the way authors apply steampunk gadgets and deductive reasoning in mysteries with a steampunk flavor.
Lilith Saintcrow, The Iron Wyrm Affair
China Mieville. Perdido Street Station
Mark Hodder. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
PC Martin. Steampunk Holmes: Legacy of the Nautilus
T. Aaron Payton. The Constantine Affair

With the steampunk westerns, you might expect to see a return to the Edisonade novels, but that is far from the case.
Cherie Priest, Dreadnought
Devon Monk, Dead Iron
MK Hobson, The Native Star

Airships, pirates - swash and buckle.
Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls
Michel R Vaillancourt, By Any Other Name
George Mann. The Affinity Bridge
Scott Westerfeld. The Manual of Aeronautics

As these novels show, it isn’t always easy to be a clockwork girl. Or boy. Or other.
Ekaterina Sedia, The Alchemy of Stone
Jay Lake, Mainspring
Cory Doctorow, Clockwork Fagin (YA)
Kady Cross, The Girl in the Steel Corset

Colonial - this is an area I haven’t done any reading in...yet, but considering the alternate history element of many of steampunk novels, I bet we will see more works appearing within this category.
SM Stirling. The Peshawar Lancers

The best way to sample steampunk (and the place I started) … Anthologies
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, eds. Steampunk
Nick Geves, ed. Extraordinary Engines
Mike Ashley. Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader

One of the areas with the largest fan base, graphic novels (and web comics)
 Phil and Kaja Folio, Girl Genius
Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Brian Selznick, The Adventures of Hugo Cabret
Ian Edginton and D’Israeli, Scarlet Traces
Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Here are a couple of reference books I would recommend to any steampunk aficionado.
Jeff VanderMeer with SJ Chambers. The Steampunk Bible
Jess Nevins and Michael Moorcock. The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

And finally, the references I used when researching today’s talk.
“The Future of Steampunk,” Paul Jessup. The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf and Book Review.
“Steampunk Is,” The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf and Book Review.
“What is Steampunk?” John Leavitt.
Steampunk. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff Vandermeer, eds.
“Introduction: The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk.” Jeff Nevins. In Steampunk.
Steampunk Scholar.

Thank you for your time, attention, and willingness to share.
Kghia Gherardi: Any other works you would recommend?
Garnet Psaltery: I recommend new reading glasses
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach (klauswulfenbach.outlander): Heh.
Bookworm Hienrichs chuckles.
Kghia Gherardi: I doubled my to-be-read list doing working on this project
Darlingmonster Ember: :D
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach (klauswulfenbach.outlander): My thanks and sympathies, Ritterin.
Kghia Gherardi: and I need to go back and re-read
Simeon Beresford: YA is strong in this area.
Sebastian Neverwas (sebastianneverwas): Did you mention The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi?
Sebastian Neverwas (sebastianneverwas): Which is more of environmentalist-punk. *grin*
Kghia Gherardi: Oh, I forgot Windup Girl.
Stew Macpherson: a wonderful job of pulling it all together Kghia.
Stereo Nacht: I must admit that, beside the Golden compass, my first Steampunk novel was Dalhquist's "The Glass Book of the Dream Eaters"; slow to start, but wonderfully complex.
Darlingmonster Ember: I would recommend, for those with interest in bloody-minded adventure and social comment, The Court of the Air , by Stephen Hunt
Kghia Gherardi: Caledon exposed me to Steampunk, and I haven't been the same. :)
Sebastian Neverwas (sebastianneverwas): I do believe New Babbage should toot it's own literary horn too.
Stew Macpherson: Definately Stephen Hunt...
Polly Ellsmere: I think Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series verges on Steampunk
Hysshia ap Suolla an Isala (hysshia) wonders if early fantastic horror as Pier Alderson Bierce fits the bill,..
JJ Drinkwater see's Dame Kghia's to-read list becmming tot ally unmanageable
Garnet Psaltery: Entries for Tales of New Babbage vol 2 need to be in by 25th!
Kghia Gherardi: I didn't even get into steampunk horror or steampunk romance.
Bookworm Hienrichs: Yes, indeed--Tales from New Babbage, Volume 1 is now available as an e-book.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach (klauswulfenbach.outlander): Ah, good idea, that.
Kghia Gherardi: An excellent inclusion!
Bookworm Hienrichs: I also discovered a rather intersting Steampunk web series currently being written, called 'Railroad.'
Bookworm Hienrichs: It's at
Garnet Psaltery claps the mention of trains
Simeon Beresford: Or Steampunk Lesbian Or steampunk BSDM.
Hysshia ap Suolla an Isala (hysshia): or the distopian novels of Dino Buzatti, those may be more Dieselpunk,.
Linus Lacombe: hmmm..."Quest for the Golden Prim?"
Bookworm Hienrichs looks at Mr. Lacombe. "If it would get started again..."
Linus Lacombe smiles knowlingly to ms Hienrichs
Bookworm Hienrichs: Does anyone have any other questions for our speaker?
Kghia Gherardi: I will share slides and reading lists, so check the Aether Salon website for any you may have missed
Bookworm Hienrichs: If there are no questions, then I thank you for coming, and invite you to come next month, December 16th, at 2:00 SLT. Our guest speaker will be Victor Mornington, who will tell us about the Dr. Who community in SL.
Bookworm Hienrichs: Thank you all again, and safe travels!

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