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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Trending: Steampunk

Yes, I know Steampunk is not a new concept, but as I mentioned in the first trending post, I am going to use this semi-regular series to chronicle the biggest trends in leisure reading right now.  Starting today, I have also begun an archive page called "Trending."  You can also always use the tag trending to find past posts in the series. (I am librarian through and through; easy access to information is my goal).

Back to the issue at hand....Steampunk.  Steampunk is the biggest trend in science fiction right now, and since I will be talking about science fiction with the students tonight, what better time to explore it here on RA for All than today.  Also, in case you missed it, last week was Steampunk Week .

The term Steampunk is thrown around a lot these days, but what is it exactly?  Well, it turns out this is not an easy question to answer.  As the website Steampunk.com explains: "It is a genre AND a design aesthetic, AND a phlisophy."  I will let them explain:
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What is Steampunk?

This is a good question that is difficult to answer.
To me, Steampunk has always been first and foremost a literary genre, or least a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, or rebellion against parts of it (the punk). Unfortunately, it is a poorly defined subgenre, with plenty of disagreement about what is and is not included. For example, steampunk stories may:
  • Take place in the Victorian era but include advanced machines based on 19th century technology (e.g. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling);
  • Include the supernatural as well (e.g. The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger);
  • Include the supernatural and forego the technology (e.g. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, one of the works that inspired the term ‘steampunk’);
  • Include the advanced machines, but take place later than the Victorian period, thereby assuming that the predomination by electricity and petroleum never happens (e.g. The Peshawar Lancers by S. M. Stirling); or
  • Take place in an another world altogether, but featuring Victorian-like technology (e.g. Mainspring by Jay Lake).
“It’s sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans.”
- Caitlin Kittredge
There are probably plenty of other combinations I’ve forgotten, but that’s steampunk as a genre in a nutshell. Steampunk has also cross-pollinated its way into other genres, so there is steampunk romance, steampunk erotica, and steampunk young adult fiction. I haven’t spotten any steampunk picture books yet, but I won’t be surprise when I do.
And it isn’t just written fiction anymore. There are steampunk games (e.g. Bioshock II), steampunk graphic novels (e.g. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and even steampunk movies (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) and TV shows (e.g. Warehouse 13). There is even steampunk music and steampunk performance art.
“To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance.” – Jake von Slatt
But steampunk has become a lot more. What with all the cool contraptions in the stories, it was only natural that some people would decide to make some of them (or at least things like them). Thus, steampunk gadgets came into the real world. People has “steampunk’d” everything from computers, desks, telephone, watches and guitars to cars, motorcycles, and whole houses. These objects can vary from a grungy look of a forgotten antique to the shiny overwrought newness of a Victorian gentleman’s club. Think brass and copper, glass and polished wood, engraving and etching, and details for the sake of details. So, steampunk is also a design aesthetic.
“Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.” – Jess Nevins
This aesthetic carries over into personal style with both clothing and jewelry being made in a “steampunk” style. The clothes are not exactly Victorian, adding in technological bits or hints of a more adventurous life than a typical Victorian citizen likely enjoyed.
So, steampunk is a genre and a design aesthetic.
But wait, there’s more! Steampunk has a philosophical angle as well, which is somewhat of a combination between the maker ideals of creativity and self-reliance and the Victorian optimistic view of the future. This last bit has led to accusations that steampunk includes a fair amount of empire worship, which is a reasonable concern. Another criticism has been that steampunk focuses on the best of the past and quietly sweeps the bad (i.e. slavery, child labor, widespread disease, etc.). Again, this may be a valid criticism and it is somethat that steampunk will have to address. Paul Jessup’s piece “The Future of Steampunk” offers a good discussion of these issues.
Final answer: steampunk is a genre AND a design aesthetic AND a philosophy.
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This is the best definition I could find.  While researching into the trend I also found a few other resources for those of you who are looking for more information:


So that's the trend, but in order to understand how to assist readers both new and established in finding a Steampunk title to read, you need to sample some of the core books in the genre for yourself.  tThis is where I can take over.  The following list includes my picks for the best in the genre today, including a start with title.  All will be readily available at your library or through interlibrary loan:

  • Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have compiled a few anthologies of the genre.  Start with the aptly titled Steampunk.  Use the link to find more of their work.  Jeff is also an accomplished and award winning fiction author himself.  Start with the first book in his Ambergris trilogy Shriek: An Afterword.
  • Neal Stephenson is the best known of the steampunk writers.  Some of his work moves more into cyberpunk (which has less history and more technology), but The Diamond Age is an accessible and enlightening Steampunk classic.
  • Cherie Priest and Paolo Bacigalupi are award winning authors writing both YA and adult titles which all easily crossover between the two audiences.  Start with Boneshaker (Priest) and The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi).

Finally, I leave you with the most convincing evidence of why you need to care about this trend. Steampunk is becoming mainstream enough that there is an impending documentary about the movement entitled, Vintage Tomorrows.  The film includes authors, fans, and artists who love this genre and its retro-furtuism world view.  Watch the embedded trailer below. And then run out to the library and try some Steampunk.

6 comments:

Sarah Elsewhere said...

I agree that "The Diamond Age" is a fine example of Steampunk, but I'm not sure I'd call it fun. I may've been overly bothered by the rapes, though.

The "Girl Genius" graphic novels/webcomic are a little more light-hearted.

Thanks for another great post!

Becky said...

You are right about the "fun." I will change it. I meant fun compared to some of his other more challenging works.

Becky said...
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John Klima said...

You're absolutely right about this being a trending topic. We kicked off our city reading project with a steampunk stroll this year!

Also, I've written two articles for LJ online (http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6720180.html and http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/reviewsbook/890996-421/steampunk_13_titles_to_update.html.csp) about Steampunk and I'm writing a readers advisory book for ALA.

Becky said...

Thanks for the links to the steampunk articles. I look forward to your book too. Good luck. I know what you are going through. I am in the done and waiting for publication phase, but a year ago today, I was a stress case.

Sarah Elsewhere said...

I can definitely see fun in comparison to his other books!