A Beginner’s Guide to Steampunk Literatureby Scott Laming
We have a confession. Here at AbeBooks, we know very little about steampunk even though it has been widely acclaimed as an inventive and original genre of fiction. Steampunk appears to be speculative fiction with a lot of dirigibles, old fashioned flight goggles and corsets thrown in for good measure.
All that Victorian clothing and steam-powered robots suggests science fiction with a dash of fantasy. I decided to investigate.
The creation of the ‘steampunk’ term is usually attributed to the science fiction author K.W. Jeter, who used it in a letter to Locus Magazine. He was trying to find a way to describe Victorian fantasy novels like those written by himself (Morlock Night and Infernal Devices), Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (Homunculus).
He believed more people would be interested in this kind of writing if only there was a general term that described it as a genre. “Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’” Jeter wrote. The label stuck and those early works helped define the genre.
It’s still inadequate to explain away this genre as ‘Victorian Fantasy.’ The most common steampunk theme is to show a world where humanity, usually set in the Victorian era, has adopted a line of technology from the future.
A good example would be The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in which the theoretical mechanical computer that Charles Babbage devised in 1822 was successfully built and led to the dawn of the Information Age in the late 19th century rather than 100 years later. This novel also introduced steampunk to a wider audience. Other examples of technology mash-ups that might be included in steampunk literature could be spring-powered robots, 22nd century zeppelins, Edwardian atomic power or a steam-powered hovercraft.
As steampunk evolved, fantasy elements began to appear. For instance, Tim Powers’ novel, The Anubis Gates, involves a group of magicians among the beggars of the 19th century London underworld.
Steampunk is a relatively new style of writing, having only really existed as a true genre since the late 1980s, but the roots of steampunk can be traced back to the 19th century where Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and other authors were using steampunkish themes and their writing paved the way for the modern genre.
Selected Steampunk Literature
by Cherie Priest
Zombies, pirates, airships and mad scientists turn this into great YA steampunk romp.
by Scott Westerfeld
World War I is fought with mechanized machines taking on specially bred creatures.
by Gail Carriger
Victorian England has werewolves and vampires, but the vampires are disappearing.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (vol. 1)
by Alan Moore
A great graphic novel and visual representation of steampunk, including many inside jokes.
The Diamond Age
by Neal Stephenson
A book about a book. In a Neo-Victorian future, the Earth is divided into tribal empires.
by China Miéville
Miéville is no stranger to steampunk - this novel is set in the old west.
The Affinity Bridge
by George Mann
A museum researcher/agent of Queen Victoria has to solve a mysterious airship disaster.
by Jay Lake
A clockmaker’s apprentice is visited by an angel and asked to wind the mainspring of the Earth.
edited by Nick Gevers
Steampunk short stories with plots like a Victorian bride stuck in the outback with a robot maid.
by Richard Harland
A good YA read where the main character lives on a city-sized ship called Worldshaker.
The Alchemy of Stone
by Ekaterina Sedia
Urban fantasy meets steampunk in this novel about a proletarian revolution in a city-state.
The Peshawar Lancers
by S.M. Stirling
Set in the year 2025 on a post-apocalyptic earth after a devastating meteor shower in 1878.
by Kim Newman
An alternate history of Bram Stoker’s Dracula where he survives and marries Queen Victoria.
by Stephen Baxter
In 1855, the British discover a new natural energy source and use it to win the Crimean War.
Against the Day
by Thomas Pynchon
1,085 pages and 100+ characters, this novel is a marathon example of steampunk.
Literature That Influenced Steampunk
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
by Jules Verne
Published in 1870, the futuristic submarine, Nautilus, is juxtaposed against a Victorian setting.
The Time Machine
by H.G. Wells
A Victorian protagonist travels into the distant future in a time machine. Very influential.
The Angel of the Revolution
by George Griffith
A group of terrorists aim to conquer the world through airship warfare.
by James Blaylock
An airship piloted by a corpse has been circling London for years....
Bring the Jubilee
by Ward Moore
Published in 1953, this prelude to steampunk has the Confederates winning the Civil War.
by Mervyn Peake
The fourth Gormenghast book – medieval and modern time periods are mashed up.
Worlds of the Imperium
by Keith Laumer
Published in 1962, one of the first to merge Victorian aesthetics with futuristic technology.
Queen Victoria’s Bomb
by Ronald W. Clark
Nuclear technology appears in the times of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Warlord of the Air
by Michael Moorcock
First part of the Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy. World War I & II never happened.
Tunnel Through the Deeps OR A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
by Harry Harrison
An alternate vision of 1973, full of atomic locomotives and coal-powered flying boats.