Saturday, November 24, 2012

Comprehensive survey explains all things “Steampunk”

All books are either fiction or non-fiction. When you read fiction, you are faced with a wide array of categories, or “genres”.
Romance – the largest genre – has all types of variations – Christian Romance, Historical Romance, Supernatural Romance, and so forth. In the same way, science fiction and fantasy has its sub-divisions. “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” are both Space Opera – far-ranging stories set in Outer Space. “Total Recall” and “Bladerunner” are Dystopias – visions of a future gone wrong.
One popular sub-category of science fiction and fantasy is Steampunk, stories with a sensibility derived from the 19th Century work of Jules Verne, but written in the present day. It is very popular, for a number of reasons which are intelligently explained and laid forth in a book just published called “Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film and Other Victorian Visions.”
A month ago I received an email from a publisher based in Minneapolis about the British author Brian J. Robb’s Steampunk book. I used the internet to check out the publisher, Voyageur Press, and saw it is reputable and in fact doesn’t publish fiction, but is a non-fiction publisher.
Robb is a best-selling author who written non-fiction books on science fiction and fantasy topics such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, films adapted from Phillip K. Dick stories, and the horror films of Wes Craven.
I did something I haven’t done in years, and said I would be willing to read and review the book, which arrived two weeks later. I read it this past weekend, and I’m pleased to say I didn’t regret it.
An extra prod to my decision to read and review the book was that I’m a little more knowledgeable than most people about the genre.  As some of you may know, I am a professional member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and my breakout story sale to Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2005 was a story about a secret rocket development program for the Republic of Texas in 1844. So I know a little about Steampunk.
The touchstone book on the genre, “The Steampunk Bible”, was written by Jeff Vandermeer in 2011. I’ve read it, and when I opened Robb’s “Steampunk” my first question to myself was, what could he add to the field?
Well, in terms of actual information, not much, but in terms of clarity and organization, a great deal. I didn’t realize until I turned the last page that Robb – being a non-fiction writer – had a way of explicating the history and trends of the genre that makes for easy reading.
Vandermeer is an author and editor (I once participated in a writing workshop he led) and his “Bible” really gets into the authors more (it blurbed itself as a “veritable Who’s Who of key players”). Robb has some distance which allows him to look at the subject more objectively. Vandermeer’s book is indeed a “Bible” while Robb’s is more of a history and reference work. I think it is more accessible to people who are not hard-core fans of the genre,
My heart goes with Robb’s book, then, because – strange as it may seem – I have never been a Steampunk fan, or a fan of science fiction and fantasy in general. In the continuum of Reader to Fan to Author, I went straight from Reader to Author, probably because I didn’t need to be a fan and learn how to write – I learned to write as a journalist. I attended my first fiction writers workshop after selling a story to Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Because of what I do know, I can judge whether Robb did his research and knows his stuff. He did and he does. 
In his first chapter,  “The Gilded Age”, he lays out the ancestry of the genre during the Industrial Revolution – an era which used to loom larger in our collective historical consciousness until the present technological age sped off – and how Jules Verne and dime novels for young men implanted so many of the ideas we recognize today.
He also makes an appropriate nod to the fact that the 19th Century Industrial Revolution came at a time when Great Britain’s economy and imperialism were at their peak, which is why so much of Steampunk smacks of the Victorian Era (Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901).
One of the strengths of Steampunk is that can draw from other popular strains of speculative fiction and fantasy, such as alternate history and fantasy. One of the best examples of Steampunk we’ve seen, the “Wild, Wild West” television franchise, did just that.
Robb does an excellent job of explaining the role of the various influences that went into the formation of Steampunk.
Just as 19th Century science fiction owed its form to Jules Verne, modern Steampunk owes to current form to some crucial authors. Despite not being a fiction editor or author himself, Robb nails the literary nail on the head with the steam-powered nail gun in giving credit to K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock and Tim Powers as having produced seminal work in the late 1970s and the 1980s.
The trio of authors were, strangely enough, all living in Orange, California, at the same and met regularly at the same pub, where their idea all went into the same stew that produced some defining works.
Although they ultimately went off in some different tangents – sometimes more towards fantasy, sometimes more towards steam and clockwork technology – Blaylock (who wrote the foreword to this book), Jeter and Powers all made critical contributions towards the development of the genre, just a few years after a British author, Michael Moorcock (currently a Texas resident) wrote some early defining work.
Moorcock’s stories, starting in 1971 with “The Warlord of the Air”, provided what Robb describes as the “toolbox” of Steampunk images and styles which was opened up by Blaylock, Jeter and Powers. A London native, Moorcock mined the rich vein of the Victorian Era for his alternate histories.
I don’t want to mention the Vandermeer “Bible” too much in this article, but one thing I have to note is that in comparison Robb is British and I’m sure that contributes to the objectivity of his work. Most Steampunk culture is based in the U.S., where it has more of a fantastical following because of its foreignness. There are people in Britain whose great-great-grandparents actually lived that way, when we were still in a frontier culture.
On the other hand, Robb is also very balanced in not hammering us over the head with the Victorian underpinning of the genre.
One of his great strengths in the book is the clear way he explains what Steampunk is – not an easy task. The geo-political background with the British Empire is obvious, but a lot of what defines Steampunk is its “look” and he points to the fact that during the Industrial Revolution people were proud of their craftsmanship and didn’t mind if you saw how things work – as opposed to today’s technology, which for all most people know could be magic boxes filled with pixie dust.
The downside of that is the slam that some people “slap cogs on it and call it Steampunk.” Real Steampunk understands the tech basis of the culture. It its day, steam and mechanical power was cutting edge.
All fiction is read by people in the present living in the modern world. Robb notes that Steampunk is especially amenable to enjoyment by everyone today because it is a genre with a lot of female fans and top notch woman writers
This is not true historically for science fiction; which has been a notoriously male-dominated field. Steampunk is helping to change that. As a newly-emergent field, Steampunk is taking advantage of the gender equality that is creeping into the numbers of both science fiction authors and readers.
That’s because the many strong female characters found in Steampunk today are not an anachronism – there were many groundbreaking women leaders in that era, from women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony in the U.S. to suffragette leader Emmeline  Pankhurst in Great Britain.
This strain is explored in his chapter “A Young Lady’s Primer”, where he notes authors such as Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest and Ekaterina Sedia “are at the forefront of the current wave of female-driven steampunk.”
I’ve served on literary panels with both Carriger and Priest, and I’ve seen how they follow the two different ways authors live in the Steampunk world. Robb devotes a chapter to role of Steampunk as a lifestyle and fashion scene; in fact, there are “Steampunks” who don’t even know it’s a literary genre. Carriger role plays and if you meet her, you know her persona as an author is a Steampunk character. In her case, it may be useful in that, for personal professional reasons she uses a pen name; since she made up a pen name, she also made up a character. Priest, on the other hand, when I met her, wasn’t wearing a bustle or waving a parasol.
Carriger has the style, feel and meaning of alternate history down, and her books – collectively called the “Parasol Protectorate” – are among the most popular Steampunk offerings.
Women are well-represented in the latest crop of emerging speculative fiction authors, and Steampunk seems to be a very useful “sandbox” for them to play in a myriad of aspects of the genre – not only literary styles, but also fashion, art, music and lifestyles. It’s fun and exciting to watch
I’ve also served on panels with Tim Powers, and through him, I see a strain in Steampunk from an unexpected source – Phillip K. Dick. You wouldn’t think that Dick was an influence on Steampunk – the guy whose movies became “Blade Runner”, “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” – but he was a paranoid character who always questioned the official history and what was the truth.
Powers, Jeter and Blaylock all knew Dick –who was prominent in the California speculative fiction scene in the 1960s and 1970s – and Robb correctly traces Dick’s influence through the California trio on the development of Steampunk. When set in the past, good Steampunk is often “Secret History”, and when set in alternate worlds, it calls into question what is reality. It’s easy to see Dick’s influence once it’s pointed out, as Robb does.
Another reason why Robb’s book is more accessible to the public is that he casts a broad net that still coincides with the public mind. For example, stories set in alternate worlds between WW I and WW II aren’t Steampunk – the term “Dieselpunk” has sometimes been used – but the public feels movies such as “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” are still in the field.  Another term that’s been used is Valvepunk (the British call vacuum tubes ‘valves’), for technology before transistors and microchips.
Robb also acknowledges Steampunk influences in places where its visual style is readily seen by the public. “Doctor Who” is an example from Britain; closer to home we have “Warehouse 13”, the most popular show on the SyFy Channel.
The Steampunk “toolbox” that Moorcock crafted together in the 1970s shows its influence in places such as this. There are also relatively new authors – Britain’s China Mieville is a well-known example – who write fantasy with such a Steampunk “feel” you almost forget it’s fantasy, or perhaps fabulist alternate history.
After reading the book, I see Steampunk influence all over. Have you seen a Heineken beer commercial called “The Switch” where three guts walk into a dingy, drab bar that transforms into a hip social scene as the beer is poured? The way everything unfolds, rolls out, or turns over –with an array of switches, slides, chains and cogs – is pure Steampunk: Visible, obvious, fun and perhaps slightly unreliable – but percussive maintenance can be fun, too.
As a professional non-fiction author who’s written on genre topics before, Robb shows his skill in the way the books flows and holds together logically. It’s a good read. Because visual elements are so important to Steampunk, the book is heavily illustrated; it had 300 color images in its 192 pages.
The only thing I would note by way or warning is that as a Brit, Robb occasionally drops words and terms in British English that Americans might not get, such as “spanner” for wrench.  One reference to “Passchendaele” left me flat-footed; I had to look it up. It was a brutal World War I battle, infamous for its carnage that apparently became a byword for the British.
Overall, I was very impressed, and if you have the slightest interest in the genre, I recommend the book. Being it’s coming out so soon before Christmas, it would make a great present for anyone you know who likes the kind of science fiction and fantasy that harkens back to Jules Verne and/or “The Wild Wild West”.
(“Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film and Other Victorian Visions” by Brian J. Robb, Foreword by James P. Blaylock. Hardcover, 192 Pages. ISBN: 9780760343760. Publisher: Voyageur Press. Price: $35.00.)


  1. Anonymous11:04 PM


    On the basis of this review you haven't read The Steampunk Bible...since everything you cite to differentiate this new book from The Steampunk Bible...*is in The Steampunk Bible*. Indeed, this new book *uses many of the exact same images*. So, you'll have to forgive me if my general response to your review is WTF.

    Best Wishes,

    Jeff VanderMeer

    1. Jeff -

      My review was to explain what is in the Robb book, not to make any comparisons with the Steampunk Bible. You might recall early on I said in my review, in terms of what the Robb book contributed "in terms of actual information, not much". I read and liked the Steampunk Bible. Both books covered mostly the same territory. As a layman, I enjoyed the Robb book more. That's my taste and my opinion.


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