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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

“What’s with All the Goggles?”

That’s the question I asked the clerk some five years ago, after seeing a display in my local bookstore. “It’s Steampunk!” was the answer I received. She handed me a copy of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. “Try this! It’s awesome!”

 Well, I did, and it was, but it really didn’t answer my original question. So, like all curious people in the Information Age, I googled “steampunk”, and then proceeded to fall down a rabbit hole lined with Victoriana, clockwork, dystopias and the occasional monster or mad scientist.

Depending on whom you ask, steampunk could be any number of things: an aesthetic device, a philosophy or the intertwining of romance and science. Most agree that it started as a subgenre of science fiction where complex devices like cars and computers are powered by steam engines and clockwork and is usually set in the mid to late
1800s, generally in Victorian England or the American Wild West. As the science fiction author Caitlin Kittredge once described it, “It’s sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans.”

As the genre has grown, it has meshed with other genres. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series contains flavors of fantasy and romance. The main character, Alexia Tarabotti, finds out that she has the ability to turn vampires and werewolves human when she accidentally kills a vampire with a parasol during a dinner party.  The series counts werewolves, vampires and ghosts as well as humans among its main characters and takes place in Victorian London.

Carriger also writes young adult novels  set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate series. In the Finishing School series, the first of which is Etiquette and Espionage, Sophronia and other young ladies are sent to finishing school to “
learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage--in the politest possible ways, of course.”

In his Leviathan trilogy, young adult author Scott Westerfeld explores an alternate history in which World War I is being fought by the opposing sides of the Darwinists, who favor genetic experimentation and go to war on giant monsters, and the Clankers, who like to do their fighting with massive war machines.

My first foray into the world of steampunk, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, is set in the American West, Seattle, Washington, specifically, about 20 years after the Civil War. Sixteen years before the book begins, Russian gold hunters in the Klondike commissioned Dr. Leviticus Blue to create a machine to help mine gold. But things go terribly awry when the machine destroys several blocks of Seattle and releases a gas that turns the entire city into the walking dead. Years later, the city has been walled off, and Dr. Blue’s widow, Briar, must find a way in to rescue her son, who has braved the wall to try his hand at rewriting history.

And of course, there are the works that inspired the term “steampunk”: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, wherein a group of modern Londoners use Gates to go back in time to attend a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge only to be kidnapped by Egyptian magicians, and James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus, which opens with a dirigible piloted by dead men that has been circling 1870s London for some time and which may or may not hold a tiny space alien on board.

Whatever your preferences, dark-themed or comical, wildly fantastical or purely scientific, there’s sure to be a steampunk novel out there to feed your fancies. Not sure where to start? Try Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories by Kelly Link or Steampunk Revolution by Anne VanderMeer. Both of these short story anthologies are sure to whet your appetite.

-Stephanie Hutchins, Chantilly Regional Library

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