Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Steampunk? It's an increasingly popular fiction genre with many variations, and it's even a fashion/lifestyle in certain mod circles. Here's an elegant definition from steampunk author Cherie Priest:
An aesthetic movement based around the science fiction of a future that never happened.
Wikipedia's definition is less elegant, but more descriptive:
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s. Steampunk involves a setting where steam power is still widely used—usually Victorian-era Britain or "Wild West"-era United States—that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them, based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc.
Whereas typical dystopian YA lit takes place in our future world after cataclysmic war, natural disaster or society gone wrong (The Hunger Games, the Uglies quartet, The Forest of Hands and Teeth), steampunk is often set in a "what if" kind of historical past -- as in, "what if Queen Victoria had been assassinated and Prince Albert became king?" or "what if the British had sent troops to support the South in the Civil War?" The feature that makes steampunk unique is that much of the speculation centers on the odd, but plausible, technologies developed in these alternate timelines: steam-driven motorcycles, genetically-altered creatures, monster-creating viruses, realization of Babbage's "difference engine" (computer) by the turn of the 20th century. The unexpected speculative details laid over a framework of a familiar historical structure keeps readers' minds working to construct the unique steampunk world created by each author.

Looking for something new and different? Need something novel for holiday giving? Below are some of the steampunk novels in the Paideia Library that challenge the imagination and set readers on their own journeys of "what if?"

Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan - As World War I breaks out between the clockwork & iron Mechanicals of the Austria-Hungarian forces, and the Darwinist British, who fly and fight with genetically engineered creatures, Deryn masquerades as a boy to achieve her dream of becoming an aeronaut. Behemoth and Goliath complete the trilogy.

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker & Dreadnought - Sixteen years after the Boneshaker incident of 1863, which destroyed downtown Seattle and released a zombie-making gas, the machine inventor's widow has to cross the safety wall into the City in pursuit of their son, who's determined to discover his father's true story. Meanwhile, 20 years into the Civil War, nurse Mercy Lynch travels cross country via dirigible, steamship and rail to see her injured father on the West Coast, but she'll have to survive Union intrigue, Confederate opposition, and a zombified Mexican army if she's to make it to Tacoma on the steam-engine Dreadnought alive.

The Girl with the Steel Corset by Kady Cross. Ever think you'd imagine a Victorian-era cross between X-Men: Origins and a Harlequin Romance?? Me either, but amazingly enough, it works. Fired from her position as lady's maid, Finley joins handsome heir Griffin King and his band of other strangely gifted teens to investigate a series of crimes committed by clockwork automatons.

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder. Investigating a series of attacks on young women during the early years of King Albert's reign, famed explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and peculiar poet Algernon Charles Swinburne discover that their London of steam-driven technology and eugenically created animals should never have existed at all. The Burton & Swinburne trilogy also includes The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.

Soulless, and the rest of Gail Carriger's tongue-in-cheek Parasol Protectorate series. A total guilty pleasure, this series is breathless (sometimes steamy) Victorian romance mixed with mystery, supernatural creatures and paranormal London steampunk technology. To her family's utter dismay, society-born Alexia Tarabotti is too strong-minded to attract suitors, too "Italian" for beauty, and has no soul to boot. Soulless 'preternaturals' have the singular ability to neutralize supernatural powers, which comes in handy when Alexia attracts the murderous attention of a rogue vampire, and the romantic attention of the unpolished, powerful and magnetic werewolf, Lord Conall Maccon.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials trilogy) by Philip Pullman. Yep, The Golden Compass qualifies as steampunk. Think about it -- alternate worlds/history, odd but plausible technology, realistic settings and matter-of-fact techno-magic (the alethiometer? scientific explanation of the soul? experimental theology?). Lyra Belacqua's quest to rescue her friend Roger from soul-destroying experiments in the Far North is still captivating, and is the beginning of a trilogy that explores the nature of love, humanity, madness, original sin and Heaven itself.

I've just noticed in making this list that steampunk has a generous share of spunky, strong women. Maybe that goes along with the alternate history thing, for it certainly turns around the stereotype of 19th century womanhood.

On my list to read over the December break is Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding, one of School Library Journal's "Best Books of 2011." Airships, bounty hunters, sky pirates and an armored golem -- sounds like fun!

This list is only scratching the surface; there's more YA steampunk in the Paideia Library (listed below) and much, much more targeted for the adult reading market.

Are you into steampunk? What have you read that you'd recommend for our junior high and high school collection?


Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories
ed. by Kelly Link & Gavin Grant

Kenneth Oppel's Matt Cruse airship trilogy - Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

The Hungry City Chronicles by Philip Reeve

Fever Crumb and sequels by Philip Reeve

Scarlet Traces, a graphic novel by Ian Edginton

This post on The Book Smuggler blog reviews several more titles. At the bottom you'll find links to blog posts and articles for further reading, and links to websites for exploring Steampunk-as-lifestyle. Membership in the Victorian Steampunk Society, anyone?

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