Steampunk is a subgenre of fanstasy that has recently been growing in popularity. People have even been reclassifying old classics such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as steampunk, even though this was written long before the term was even thought of.
For those of you not in the know, Steampunk is (according to Wikipedia):
a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s. Steampunk involves a setting where steam power is still widely used–usually the Victorian era Britain–that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them; based on a Victorian perspective of fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc.
There are a lot of things that make Steampunk cool. There’s the old-fashioned technology, the awesome goggles, the zepplins, and the top hats and corsets. And the reason we’re going to talk about today is because it takes boring old history and makes it new and exciting for the modern generations.
Since steampunk is science fiction plus Victorian era Britain, most of the books in this genre are actually set in Victorian England! They delve into events that really happen, except they add that little fantastical element of modern machinery. As mentioned above, these are called alternate histories. And they are such a great way to learn about non-alternate histories.
Now, I know that history can be exciting. There were lots of people killing other people and people sleeping with other people and all that raunchy scandal that we humans thrive on. But it’s so easy to take history and make it dull and boring. Who really, truly enjoyed history class in school? Show of hands? How many of you learned so much more just by reading a historical mystery or watching the movie Victoria?
That’s why Steampunk is awesome. It takes something that is old and dusty and puts it in a shiny new box. Just take Queen Victoria and add a couple of machines that can travel through time and space, and voila! Now everybody wants to read it!
If you want to get into Steampunk but don’t know where to start, I’ve listed some of the ones that I have read below. Okay, okay, so one of them is a TV show, but it counts too. Or if you want to learn more about this era and don’t mind a few little twists on facts, these are also cool things to put on your to-read (or to-watch) list. And for more general research on the Steampunk phenomenon, my friend Bailey Thomas led me to these blogs that have great things to say.
I’ve already given a review of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan which you can read here. You’ll notice that in that review I liked the world-crafting better than the historical aspect of the book. But that doesn’t mean that the historical aspect is lacking. While it’s true that none of the characters in Leviathan are true historical characters, they are representative of some viewpoints of that era and are a good jumping off point for World War I knowledge. Leviathan takes the Allies and the Axis powers and illustrates there differences in a very steampunk way: one group works with Darwinian creatures that are a cross of animal and technology, while the other group deals strictly with the Clankers, steam-run machines. The two different kinds of weaponry are, in a way, metaphrs of each group’s core values and fighting techniques. And in the end, you will learn a little bit more about World War I then you knew before.
His Majesty’s Dragon
Previously I have labeled His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novack as a pure alternate history. And while it still doesnt’ technically qualify as steampunk becuase steampunk is anything between the Napoleanic wars and World War I, I think it could still qualify. Because with the addition of dragons comes a whole new chunk of lore that hasn’t previously been, and even quite a bit of old fashioned technology. His Majesty’s Dragon takes place during the Napoleanic war and is basically just Horatio Hornblower plus dragons. This story is character driven rather than plot driven, in my opinion, but the relationships between the dragons and the humans is representative of the politics and racism and prejudices going on int hat time period. So even though it’s about dragons, you can learn a lot of history and the kinds of tensions that were present during that time period.
My mother recently convinced me and Sean to start watching Warehouse 13 on the Syfy channel. The premise of the show is that these agents that work for the government track down historical items that have magical (and usually dangerous) abilities and store them in the warehouse. The reason this show is steampunk is because
- The “artifacts” that the characters collect are said to run on science, not magic. It’s just that the science is so advanced that even we don’t understand it yet. Some of the artifacts include items like Lewis Carroll’s looking glass, the blade that chopped off Marie Antoinette’s head, and Rheticus’s compass. These items have properties like “wave magnification transference.” It’s like saying “Reverse the polarity!” or using a flux capacitor–it doesn’t really mean anything, but it uses science-y words to sound smart. And who knows, in a world based off of steam technology, maybe “wave magnification transference” actually exists.
- Since the basis of the show is searching for these old artifacts, a lot of history is thrown into the episodes. It takes stories that are already popular and turns them on their ear, or introduces you to little known figures that really deserve to be better recognized.
- The characters constantly use machines that were invented over fifty years ago but that are advanced beyond today’s technology. For example, instead of guns, the agents of Warehouse 13 use stunguns called Teslas. Because, of course, they were invented by Nicola Tesla. They also use communication devices that were invented by Philo Farnsworth that are like pocket two-way televisions.
- Claudia, the young, hip member of the show, embodies the “punk” part of steampunk. She is an orphan and spent many years in self-exile trying to bring her brother back from a rift-thing in space, has a pink stripe in her hair, and rarely listens to authority.
We will definitely be revisiting this genre later on, but for now I’ve taken up quite a bit of your time. Until next time, readers! Read on!
Oooooooh, I love His Majesty’s Dragon! I’ve got the second book on my To-Read Shelf and am looking forward to it with much glee. I wouldn’t have thought of it as steampunk; I would place it in the same fantastical alternate history genre as Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series. But you make a good argument for steampunk here, too. Yay for cross-genre!
Sadly, the only other steampunk I’ve read is The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick. The beginning of the story got my attention in a big way…but then he killed off the mechanical dragon, and I just didn’t care anymore. I was never clear on the protagonist’s main goal. It all came across as a series of really cool action sequences that had very little to do with each other. So my first steampunk read was a great disappointment.
But, based thereupon, I make no judgments of the genre. I’m going to enjoy delving deeper and exploring farther. : )