The Steampunk Bible

Jeff Vandermeer with S.J. Chambers

Abrams Image


              The Age of Steampunk has arrived! 

            I can say this with complete confidence because The New York Times ran an article in May 2008 about the movement, signifying its emergence from underground aesthetic to a sort-of, kind-of mainstream thing.  And how can the Times be wrong?  Author Jeff VanderMeer's The Steampunk Bible is just the book to help steampunk fans and newbies alike figure it all out for themselves. 

            Steampunk is hard to define, much like its predecessor, goth.  There are a few things that can be said about it with confidence.  Steampunk is a playful re-imagining of the past, usually, but not always, that of Victorian England of the later nineteenth century, especially if the Victorians had employed their technology in a more forward-thinking, or fanciful way.  That really doesn't do steampunk justice, true, but defining a movement is never easy.  There are many components to it.  Foremost today is its increasing presence in mainstream science fiction.  Like tribbles infesting a starship, every month seems to bring more steampunk titles to the shelves of my local bookstore.  Many pay homage to the earliest pioneers of the SF genre, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the tropes of those authors – airships, submarines, strange technology festooned with brass – increasingly find their way into modern novels. 

            Steampunk has a longer history than you might think.  A couple of decades ago, Game Designers' Workshop produced a startlingly different role-playing game, Space: 1889.  Humanity had made the voyage to Mars and found an ancient civilization there similar to that of the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian tales.  While it never achieved the success of Dungeons and Dragons - what did? - it proved to be a welcome change of pace from the usual fantasy and science fiction game systems prevalent in that era. 

            “Steampunk” as a term originated in 1987 with K.W. Jeter, author of Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, as a means of describing this new type of Victorianesque science fiction.  Perhaps the most influential text of the steampunk genre is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.  This was published in 1991, and followed closely on the heels of that other influential SF genre, cyberpunk.  The Difference Engine is where modern steampunk fiction shows its original DNA most clearly.  Just as cyberpunk was obsessed with the burgeoning silicon-based information technology, steampunk dwelled in the same way on old-fashioned technology, and how it might have been harnessed to produce an anachronistic information revolution concurrent with that of the actual nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution.  It is no coincidence that Gibson was involved with both. 

            The Steampunk Bible is visually stunning, with extremely high quality photographs of a kind that you don't often see these days in print books.  The many facets or branches to the movement are each covered at length.  Most of us will have previously encountered steampunk either as part of the science fiction that we have read, or as a film.  These are strong chapters, and I enjoyed VanderMeer's discussion of the origin of steampunk as a subgenre of the broader SF market.  There is also a retrospective of films that can be considered, even if only retroactively, as steampunk.  There are more of these than you might think.  20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and The Time Machine (1960) are obvious examples, but don't forget more recent productions such as Steamboy (2004), Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) - okay, perhaps you should forget that last one. 

            It turned out, much to my own surprise, that my favorite portions of The Steampunk Bible were not those areas in which I was originally most interested, print fiction and films.  VanderMeer's most intriguing chapters concern the aesthetic facet of steampunk.  There is an extraordinary subculture devoted to a reworking of Victorian fashion, complemented by the accoutrements of steam sci fi.   Steampunk fashion is, to say the least, baroque, but also elegant, a far cry from the simpler but perhaps overly-minimalistic fashion prevalent today.  Steampunk aficionados like to dress up! 

            A question that has arisen again and again is why steampunk has proven to be so popular.  Just as almost all modern fantasy fiction has been placed in some quasi-medieval European someplace or another, steampunk is almost exclusively set in a late-nineteenth century variation on Britain, or to a much lesser extent, America.  What is it that is so intriguing about that time and place?  Britain in the throes of its Industrial Revolution was not an especially clean or happy place.  Hasn't anyone ever read Dickens?

            But the era was optimistic, about technology, science, and above all the future.  The Victorians believed in Progress with a capital “P.”  Perhaps there is some envy of their faith in the future, that things would be better tomorrow than they were today.  Also, modern science fiction, even though usually based upon the extrapolation of some underlying real-world science or technology, often has a strong element of fantasy to it, even if the authors who produce it are themselves are reluctant to admit it.  Victorian-themed steampunk simply acknowledges the fantastic element more readily.  Steampunk fiction, I find, often has more color to it than the hard SF currently in vogue.  

            Jeff VanderMeer has done a great job.  Since the genre is something of an acquired taste at this point in time, The Steampunk Bible is primarily for fans.  But if you are already an aficionado of steampunk, or want to be one, you will certainly enjoy this book.


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