What are Steampunk Books?
If you have been following the posts here at BestFantasy you have probably noticed a new direction in our book reviews. We have recently begun to spend a bit more time looking at steampunk books and there is a great reason why. Personally, I have been reading science fiction since I was a kid, and loving every minute of it. Fantasy was always a close second favorite and so it should be no surprise to find out that when steampunk books and stories started to show up in the late 1980s I fell in love with them. For those who really want to know more about this fascinating sub-genre of science-fiction, let me give you the quick five minute tour.
History of Steampunk
While it is true that there are tons of great stories from before the 1980s that are now considered steampunk books, the actual term was probably correctly attributed to science fiction author K.W. Jeter. He coined it when he wrote a story that looked at the H.G. Wells classic of fantasy and science fiction The Time Machine, and wondered what would have happened to the machine once the story ended. What did the Morlock’s do with it? According to our favorite research tool, Wikipedia, it was coined in a letter he sent to Locus, that amazing sci-fi/fantasy publication:
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.
So you could say that Morlock Night is pretty much the first true steampunk novel. If you have ever read it (and you can if you follow my link!) you will see that it is quite an inventive story and one that took science fiction is some interesting new directions. After all, haven’t you ever wondered what happened to that time machine in the H.G. Wells story? Well, apparently so did Jeter, and it is how steampunk first came to be born.
This was happening around the same time that cyberpunk was a new sub-genre. It looked at science fiction from the perspective of the internet and the cyber world in the future. If there was a sub-genre that looked at the fantasy of living in a computer why not one that looked back at machines, and steam-driven ones at that. It is no huge leap to see that the height of the steam engine was during Victorian times, and so the first steampunk books tended to stay in that era. The concept of creating a parallel universe where Victorian England’s mighty steam engines stayed the dominant machine caught many writers’ fancy and soon led to a wide exploration of ideas.
The Wild Wild West
One of the areas to first be explored outside of Victorian England is the US during the opening of the west. The television show The Wild Wild West is a great example of this. Here was this crazy show that took the classic western and married it up with a James Bond spy twist. Then they added crazy machines, magic and just enough devilry to keep everyone watching for the entire four season run.
When it comes to steampunk books one of my favorite versions of this must be Cherie Priest’s alternate western The Clockwork Century Universe series. It takes place in an alternate world where the city of Seattle has been devastated by a strange underground fog that turns people into Zombies and the Civil War rages on for decades. Steam powered dirigibles are the main transportation, along with huge steam locomotives. Plots get hatched, heroes are made and through it all are some of my favorite women characters. You can check out our link above to the full series review to see all the details.
Steampunk Grows Up
Of course, nowadays if you were to do a search in Amazon.com for steampunk, you would find easily 800 or more titles. The genre has come to embrace everything from comic book genius Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to Scott Westfield’s award-winning World War I steampunk adventure Leviathan and everything in between. If it has steam powered machines and a fantasy or sci-fi bend, then you can bet it will find its home amongst the latest sub-genre called Steampunk books.