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On Steampunk Novels

December 12, 2013

One of my favorite genres to read in is Steampunk, for better (Cherie Priest’s The Clockwork Century series, set in an alternate United States complete with zombies) or worse (slap a gear on it, reference some “aether,” and call it Steampunk).

My assumption is that Steampunk is sufficiently well-established now that I don’t need to provide a definition (but, in case you would like some, try here, here, and here).

I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about what makes a “good” Steampunk novel for me, since I have to admit that a lot of the classic Steampunk novels leave me a bit cold. I know that works like Michael Moorcock’s A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine helped to establish the genre, but somehow I have a hard time loving these books. While I enjoyed the hell out of the alternate universes portrayed, I guess I couldn’t make an emotional connection to these stories.

Lately, I’ve decided that I need my Steampunk novels to go beyond worldbuilding and alternate uses of technology. Steampunk, for me, needs to be a space where authors are also subverting the actual nineteenth century, including its cultural and gender norms. I’m starting to conclude that I need Steampunk to be the place where the nineteenth century lets its freak flag fly, and, given the growing popularity of the genre, I doubt I’m the only one.

Consequently, my favorite Steampunk novels include books that not only riff on Victorian technology, but are mashups of Victorian literature and cultural tropes. This includes the graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, which takes characters from Victorian science fiction and horror stories, like Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man and places them in new situations and, later, other time periods.

My favorite book in this style is Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, the first book in his Burton and Swinburne series. At first glance, the series appears to be a straight-up homage to Victorian adventure stories with some advanced technology thrown in. But Hodder has done something far more brilliant than this. His characters, for the most part, are all actual historical figures (Sir Richard Francis Burton was an explorer and diplomat and Algernon Charles Swinburne was a poet). Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Florence Nightingale, Henry Beresford, Laurence Oliphant, and even Oscar Wilde all make appearances, albeit in radically different guises. What was fascinating about this book is that Hodder begins with actual history (the rivalry between Burton and John Hanning Speke over the source of the Nile) and then very subtly begins twisting it into different shapes. His depiction of an alternate Britain, in this case, one without Victoria, is fiercely compelling. By the end of the book, almost all of the characters are on very different paths than they were in actual history, and Hodder doesn’t let anyone off the hook. The structure of the book is also brilliant, as he keeps multiple balls in the air, weaves scenes in and around each other, jumps back and forth in time, and keeps you riveted until the end. The main character, Burton, ends the story fully aware that he’s living a different life as a government agent than he was “supposed” to, and isn’t entirely sure how he feels about it. I can’t recommend this book enough…any book that has me scouring the Internet to figure out just how the alternate universe and reality diverged, and leaves me with serious respect for the level of research he conducted to write it, earns this a permanent place on my “to recommend” list. There are three other books in the series to date that I have still to read, but they are sitting neatly on my bedroom floor, tempting me away from my dissertation.

Other Steampunk novels that I have enjoyed come out of the romance genre, including Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series, which is a comedy of manners involving vampires, werewolves, and one “preternatural” woman who turns out to lack a soul and doesn’t miss it a bit. (The series has since branched out into YA with the Finishing School series, involving a young ladies’ academy, although “finishing” in this case refers to the training of assassins.) While Carriger aims her Steampunk toward humor, the various series written by Kady Cross (YA, Steampunk Chronicles), Kate Cross (Clockwork Agents), and Kate Locke (The Immortal Empire) (all are the same author, who has also written romance novels as Kathryn Smith) build complex alternate universes, though in various “flavors” that run the gamut of what most Steampunk novels tend to offer. The Steampunk Chronicles, for example, feature a misfit band of teenagers with various paranormal abilities living in a technologically advanced Britain, the Clockwork Agents aren’t paranormal, but instead feature rival spy agencies, as the Wardens of the Realm face off against The Company. The Immortal Empire series is a little more interesting, as it is set in an alternate 2012, where Queen Victoria is an undead vampire, Britain is ruled by an aristocracy of vampires and werewolves, and their undead conservatism means that Britain is still plenty Victorian during the twenty-first century (and there are goblins in the sewers, just because). Similarly, Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series features many of the same elements (strong women, high technology, and the paranormal), but infuses it with harsher social commentary, as her Britain is sharply divided amongst the aristocratic vampire Echelon, who demand blood taxes from the human citizenry, lower class Mechs, who have been enhanced with technology, the Nighthawks, who are rogue vampires, and Humanists, who fight the Echelon but have no problem employing terrorist tactics.

While all of these novels successfully create interesting Steampunk worlds, there are cases where no matter how compelling the worldbuilding, one can’t escape a weak story. Beth Ciotta’s The Glorious Victorious Darcys series, for example (starting with Her Sky Cowboy), features one of the most creative explanations I’ve seen yet for how the Victorian era gained advanced technology (Hippies from the 1960s traveled back in time to alter the course of history toward peace, with, as always, mixed results). Her Sky Cowboy, however, is a pretty conventional romance where a young ingenue (obsessed with engineering and engines, of course) meets up with a pirate (although in this case, he captains an airship). I would rather have focused on how the hippies changed time, instead of focusing on the rather boring sexual tension between the two main characters.

Outside of the romance genre, one of my absolute Steampunk favorites, as mentioned above, is The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, which is one of the few to feature American-based Steampunk (and, to a certain extent, verges into the Weird West genre). The series, starting with Boneshaker, features a United States where the Civil War didn’t end and instead dragged on into the 1870s. Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, as the result of an accident involving a drilling machine, a mysterious gas was released into Seattle, turning much of the population into zombies. The affected section of the city was walled off, but, as the series progresses, it becomes clear that “the blight” is beginning to escape the confines of Seattle. I love how feasible Priest’s Steampunk is—with the exception of the airships, all of the other technologies involved are just slightly more advanced versions of then-existing machines. I very much look forward to seeing just how far the blight spreads before it becomes a serious problem.

[I also have to mention Scott Westerfeld’s YA Leviathan series, although this series is really not Steampunk per se, because of its 1910s setting, which I guess makes it sort of pre-Dieselpunk? It features a gorgeous alternate Europe (Keith Thompson’s illustrations for this book are very well done). The nations of the world are divided into those that embraced genetic technology versus mechanical, and are about to square off in a conflict eerily similar to World War I. Caught in the middle are Alek, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and Deryn Sharp, a young woman who has disguised herself as a midshipman in the British Air Service.]

In short, “my” Steampunk has to have good worldbuilding, social and cultural commentary, and characters that grab me. I need to be able to lose myself in the story. Admittedly, that’s the measure of a good book in general, but with Steampunk there’s an extra twist. I’m a trained historian. Convince me to forget what I know and take a ride in your alternate universe. 

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