Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Steampunk science fiction

    Although no one’s left any comments yet, it seems some people are at least looking at this blog, so it’s probably time I fulfilled my promise to write about “steampunk.”
     Steampunk is fashion, role-playing and a literary sub-genre. In a sense it goes back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, although in modern times it was named and developed by a few science fiction and fantasy writers (James Blaylock, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter) who enjoyed setting their fiction in the past, specifically Victorian-era England rather than the future.
     The name was coined as a backward construction from “cyberpunk,” another sub-genre of science fiction set in a mostly dystopian, urban and high-tech future, epitomized by William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and the Shaper/Mechanist stories of Bruce Sterling.
     Steampunk stories were set in the past, but with modern or even futuristic inventions and technology, with the difference that they were (often) steam-powered.
     Curiously, the steampunk novel that made the biggest splash at the time was “The Difference Engine,” co-written by Gibson and Sterling, with a more rigorous sense of scientific extrapolation than was to be found in the founding fathers’ work. Specifically it speculated on what would happen if Babbage’s steam-powered proto-computer “difference engine” had been built.
     Despite its impact (or maybe because of it), “The Difference Engine” seemed to kill steampunk. Maybe it was so serious it took the fun out of the game.
     I hadn’t heard much about steampunk for years until April 2009 when I stumbled across “Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology,” edited by Nick Gevers (Solaris). Although I wondered in what sense it was “definitive” – to my mind, that would mean it covered genre from beginning to end, and this was an original anthology I was curious, bought it and fell in love with steampunk again. Shortly thereafter, I saw another anthology called simply “Steampunk,” edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Tachyon), that I felt more fully justified the description “definitive,” and bought that one too.
     Now that I was looking for steampunk, I saw new titles everywhere, and not just the science fiction aisle. There are books on making your own steampunk jewelry and costumes. Magazine fashion spreads use the tropes and imagery of steampunk. 
     Last fall, Off the Beaten Path, a bookstore/café specializing in steampunk, opened at 23023 Orchard Lake Road in Farmington  (www.otbp-bookstore.com or 248-987-2934). 
     Among my favorite recent steampunk books are “Steampunk’d” by Jean Rabe (another original anthology), “The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack” by Mark Hodder (an alternate history featuring explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the poet Algernon Swinburne) and “Soulless” by Gail Carriger (the first volume of her "Parasol Protectorate" series). The latter title, like too many recent steampunk, features fantasy and the supernatural as well as technology – here vampires, werewolves and ghosts but Carriger does it better and with great fun.


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