Defining steampunk with cyborg squirrels? Maybe not
When I learned that this issue of SFR Quarterly would be steampunk themed, I must confess, I did indulge in a brief moment of…panic. Not what you were expecting? Perhaps you were expecting “delight” or “unbridled joy” or something along those lines. I’m sure those would have been my reactions, if I actually had any practical knowledge of the genre. It’s not that I don’t like the genre; I just hadn’t quite gotten around to exploring it.
But I did know a bit and, like any inquisitive woman should, I know how to research and seek the knowledge of experts. So, instead of trying to speed read a suitable number of volumes of steampunk romance treasure, I dug in and got to work learning about the subject from the experts: the readers and writers of the genre. I can’t wait to share their wisdom with you, but first let’s start with what I did know.
Steampunk, I had heard from the old guard of the SciFi world, is a branch of alternate history. But this, I thought, could be said of many things, so maybe I needed a definition. One definition mentioned steam-powered machinery, to which I said a very ungraceful—duh. Another mentioned anachronistic technologies and retro-futuristic inventions, to which I said—huh. From there, I moved on to searching out the origins of steampunk. My scholarly resources mentioned H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, which I already assumed, so maybe I know more than I thought. And then I learned something I didn’t know. The term “steampunk” came into popular use in the 1980s and is generally thought to be a play on “cyberpunk”…aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.
Or maybe not.
It was at this point that I turned to the authors of the genre. I started by asking why they write in this difficult to define genre. Zoë Archer, who writes in the popular Ether Chronicles, alternating books with her husband Nick Russo, admitted that, “Honestly, I started writing steampunk accidentally, since people began labeling my Blades of the Rose series as steampunk.” In her series she was using Victorian-era technology and advancing it. “Think Q’s gadgets from James Bond, except using Victorian tech,” she said. From there, Zoë explains that she was eager to take the opportunity to write the Ether Chronicles.
“I like combining the historical elements with lots of action, technological innovation, and, best of all, heroines that can really kick ass. With alternate history like steampunk, you can have greater parity between the sexes, so I can write heroines who are spies, scholars, and engineers. I can do this without having to explain why a woman during the 19th century would be able to step outside societal norms. Plus, flying ships! Ether guns! And lots of tall boots.”
When I got in touch with Cindy Spencer Pape, author of the Gaslight Chronicles and the award-winning Steam & Sorcery, she summed things up nicely, saying: “I think my favorite thing about writing steampunk romance is the capacity to mash up all the things I love into a single book—history, suspense, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and romance all tied up together in one gear-studded bow.”
Shelley Adina, whose Lady of Resources is the latest in her Magnificent Devices series, had this to say of steampunk. “It’s only limited by the borders of your imagination. Steam-powered vehicles that operate on land, air, or sea? They’re de rigeur. Ray guns that shoot lightning? No problem. And airships controlled by artificial intelligence? Whyever not? If you can dream it up, in this genre you can put it on the page.”
I was beginning to see a theme that went beyond the common elements of the genre to the “punk” at its steam-powered heart.
Emma Jane Holloway, author of The Baskerville Affair series, said: “Why steampunk? I hate boundaries. This is such a flexible genre, if you want a female heroine, or a bit of romance, or no romance, or cyborg squirrels, it’s all good. I hope steampunk artists continue to do whatever they want to. I would hate to see the genre get hemmed in by a lot of ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’. That’s the fastest way to take the joy out of something.”
In A Study in Silks, the first of her series, she combines machinery and magic to set the niece of Sherlock Holmes on a path that will eventually lead her to the hunting grounds of Jack the Ripper—all with a mysterious rake at her side. Okay, I can definitely see how that would be fun.
And very much punk.
And maybe that is all the definition we need.
That only leaves the best part of research, identifying and studying exemplars. I need some reading recommendations! Once again I turned to my experts. One suggestion came up time and time again: Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series.
Blair Bancroft, author of Airborne—The Hanover Restoration, said: “My all-time absolute most favorite—Gail Carriger’s series, which begins with Soulless. The books are a combination of Steampunk and Paranormal, marvelously flavored with humor and imagination.”
Maeve Alpin, whose novels As Timeless as Stone and As Timeless as Magic add Egyptian mythology and a time travel twist to steampunk, also praised Carriger. “I adore Gail Carriger’s fresh and quirky take on werewolves, vampires and other paranormal creatures. The characters are so memorable, even the secondary ones. Gail Carriger is gifted at witty, humorous dialogue. I love Alexia Tarabotti and the Steampunk World Gail Carriger has built for her.”
Maeve even provided quotes from Carriger’s books. Here’s one of my favorites:
“I never gossip. I observe. And then relay my observations to practically everyone.” —Gail Carriger, Timeless
Despite the heroine’s denials, plenty of people are gossiping about The Parasol Protectorate, but I need more recommendations.
Rebecca Andrews, author of A Season for Justice, and newly minted steampunk reader, suggested Bec McMasters’ Heart of Iron. “She [McMasters] is my first foray into steampunk and I like her very much.”
Zoë Archer said: “Some authors in the genre I admire are, Karina Cooper, Nico Rosso (naturally!), and, of course, the queen, Meljean Brook.”
I think that should keep me reading for a while! I’d like to wrap things up with a thank you to all the authors who helped me learn more about the genre. They had far more cool stories (like Shelley Adina’s experiences with airships!) and insights to share than I was able to include here, so please go find out more about them for yourselves. I hope I leave you with some new books to try and this one last thought on the wonderful world of Steampunk—never forget the punk!