Defining Steampunk: Books

This week, we’re returning to the topic of steampunk. (See my post Defining Steampunk. For more, see the transcript of this week’s #steampunkchat on Twitter, available here.) I wanted to delve a little deeper into the part I know best — steampunk as a literary genre — and talk about where it begins and ends.

Girl Genius Color Omnibus Vol. 1

The cover of one of the Girl Genius books.

I’ll start with a rough, working definition: speculative fiction based roughly on the nineteenth century but written much later, often with the purpose of re-examining the assumptions and imbalances of the time — hence the “punk” part of the name. In practice, this often includes such visual tropes as steam or clockwork technology, airships/dirigibles/blimps, goggles, and corsets (in a Europe- or Western-based world). To see what this looks like, I highly recommend Girl Genius, a graphic novel series by Phil and Kaja Foglio (more about this below).

Some of the earliest steampunk writers are K. W. Jeter — who is credited with coining the term — and Michael Moorcock, writing in the ’70s and ’80s. One of the early defining works of the genre is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. They posit an alternate timeline in which punch-card computers and steam-powered carriages have been adopted into general use, with political and social changes to match. Because Gibson and Sterling are/were cyberpunk writers, the scientific underpinnings are strong enough that I would call their book science fiction.

Other steampunk novels based on a somewhat recognizable Earth, both science fiction and fantasy-leaning, include:

  • Gail Carriger‘s Parasol Protectorate, where Victorian England includes werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and mad science
  • S. M. Peters‘s Whitechapel Gods, where a chunk of London has been cut off and evolved into its own miniature steam-powered society controlled by all-powerful beings
  • Philip Pullman‘s The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, if you’re not in North America) where scientists at Oxford study things that don’t exist in our version of the world
  • Scott Westerfeld‘s Leviathan series, where World War I is re-imagined as a battle between those who use mechanical weapons and those who use biology-based weapons

On the flip side are novels set on other worlds that resemble nineteenth-century Earth in some ways, but whose geography is unrecognizable. I would call these fantasy rather than science fiction. For example:

  • Phil and Kaja Foglio‘s Girl Genius (link above), where England exists, but isn’t the focus, which enables the authors to include everything from giant robots to ice maidens to constructed “people” to lots and lots of airships
  • China Miéville‘s Perdido Street Station, which involves a fantasy city that is chock-full of fantastical races, but also has rudimentary computers, airships, and cable cars

You can probably see by now that there are no clear lines around steampunk literature as it bleeds into other subgenres. (In other words, it’s a fuzzy set.) The Golden Compass and Perdido Street Station are solidly in the fantasy corner, and arguably not steampunk at all. Gail Carriger’s series is also paranormal romance. Whitechapel Gods and Perdido Street Station involve powerful, unknowable beings that could pass for Lovecraftian Elder Gods.

Further from the epicentre (if steampunk has such a thing), you might find alternate-history novels such as:

  • Ian R. MacLeod‘s The Light Ages, which is set in an alternate version of Britain’s Industrial Age in which everything is driven by a substance called “aether”
  • Naomi Novik‘s Temeraire series, which features the Napoleonic Wars with the addition of dragons
  • Patricia Wrede‘s Mairelon the Magician and Magician’s Ward, which feature a Regency-era London where magic is real

What do you think? If you’re not familiar with steampunk, which part sounds like it might tickle your fancy? If you are familiar, what corners of it am I missing? (For starters, I haven’t mentioned anything based in other parts of the world.) Where do you see steampunk ending and other subgenres beginning?

7 responses to “Defining Steampunk: Books

  1. Though far from definitive, I’ve found that there is some tendency to include an almost Gothic horror aspect in Steampunk storytelling: zombies, witches, mad scientists, golems, and the like. Also, I think, there seems to be an increase in American Steampunk as of late. Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels are a great example of this.

    I really appreciate all the links – thanks for a great post.

  2. steampunkaneers

    As an author of steampunk, I really enjoyed this article. Great definition, and great recommendations!

  3. Interesting…I was a pretty big fan of some of Michael Moorcock’s stuff when growing up and he’s definitely influenced what I want to do with my fiction. I never thought of him as having anything to do with steampunk, but now that you mention it, I can see it in the Runestaff series with its flying machines and such. What works of his in particular were you thinking of?

  4. Thanks, everybody, for weighing in!

    Tobias, I’ve noticed mad scientists, but not the other horror tropes you mention…and I’m curious as to what books you found them in, so I can read them! Cherie Priest is definitely on my (enormous) TBR list.

    steampunkaneers, glad you enjoyed it!

    Mike, here’s where I confess I haven’t actually read Moorcock…I was going off Wikipedia, which cites his A Nomad of the Time Streams series (Warlord of the Air et al.).

  5. Cherie Priest’s series has a great plague-style zombie hoard that is central to the first book, not so much in the second. Golems, simulacra, and automatons show up in any manner of incarnations, but one of my favorites is from a short story in the VanderMeer anthologies titled The God-Clown is Near by Jay Lake. And, whether intentionally or not, the story that follows that in the Anthology also includes a vampire: The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel by Joe R. Lansdale.

    For the life of me, I cannot find a particular book or story that includes a witch. I think, perhaps, that I included witches because of the prevalence of steampunk witch imagery online rather than in stories. I’m still working on my first cup of coffee, so I’ll revisit this in a bit.

  6. Tobias, thanks so much for the suggestions! Now that you mention it, Girl Genius also has simulacra and other “created” beings (as well as a huge variety of robots).

  7. “Mike, here’s where I confess I haven’t actually read Moorcock…I was going off Wikipedia, which cites his A Nomad of the Time Streams series (Warlord of the Air et al.).”

    Ah, okay…I’ve never read those. They sound kinda fun. I’d probably give them a try if they ever come out in ebook.

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