Steampunk 101

I mentioned in an earlier post that this year I’m going to make an effort to reacquaint myself with my nerdy roots, and true to my word I’ve already begun in earnest. I’ve finished the first book from my three-volume H.P. Lovecraft collection, three more Ian Rankin novels (a different kind of nerdy) and this morning while waiting for my alarm to sound, I polished off The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. “But wait,” you say (don’t argue, I heard you quite clearly), “the title of this post is Steampunk 101; that’s pretty specifically nerdy.” Well, yes it is. Allow me to explain.

Last year I reviewed two novels, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, by Adrienne Kress, and Triptych, by J.M. Frey (both of which were excellent), and I have—sort of, in a very limited way—started to get to know both authors online and that, in turn, got me interested in a corner of the nerdy world that I haven’t paid much attention to: steampunk. (Because they are clearly interested and involved in it, and one of the best parts of getting to know new people is getting exposed to new things.) I’ve read a few steampunk novels before, which I’ll get to in a minute, so I put the call out for a list of books that might qualify as a kind of “Steampunk 101” reading program. I put together a list based on the recommendations I got (here’s a post on Kress’ blog that was particularly helpful), which I will be adding to as I discover what it is about the subgenre I do and do not like. I’ll get to the list, but first, let’s talk about how I’m coming into it.

difference_engineThe first steampunk novel I read was William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s 1990 collaboration, The Difference Engine, the title apparently responsible for bringing popular attention to the subgenre. It’s the closest thing Gibson has to a “difficult” book, and to be honest I found it a struggle to get acclimatized both times that I read it (the last being a good seven years ago), and I remember almost nothing specific about it, except that it took a long time to get going, and then became quite good. I’ll probably read it again soon, if for no other reason than because I find it a bit ridiculous that I remember so little.

The other two that I’ve read are Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and its first sequel, The Dark Volume. Dahlquist said (in an interview a few years ago with a Johnny Depp fansite, of all places) that he’s working on a third book to round out the series, but given how enormous the advance was on the first two—two million dollars, according to Google—and how poorly they sold versus expectations, no third book appears to be forthcoming. The rumour mill seems to think that, essentially, because an acquisitions editor saw something good and went a little nuts with the advance, no one is going to touch book three. If that’s true, and I want to emphasize the if, it’s a crying shame, because Dahlquist’s first two were fun as hell.

glass_booksThey follow a trio of protagonists, Miss Celeste Temple, Doctor Svenson, and Cardinal Chang, who on the surface could not be more different. Svenson is attached to a diplomatic mission, Miss Temple is a wealthy young woman (initially) in search of a respectably middle-class husband, and Cardinal Change (whose real name is never revealed; he’s called Cardinal Chang because he wears red leather and has unusual scarring around his eyes), and unusually intelligent and skilled… well, I’m not sure what you’d call him; he’s kind of a cross between a detective and an assassin. Imagine an even more violent, amoral Batman, but instead of living in a Twentieth Century mansion, he lives in one of Victorian London’s rookeries.

Each chapter is from the (third person limited) point of view of one of the three protagonists, moves like a rocket, and then ends on a cliff-hanger, making them two of the most fast-paced books I’ve read in years, despite being 760 and 508 pages, respectively. Neither book pretends to be high art, but Dahlquist does an excellent job of not only giving each protagonist a unique voice, but an interesting and complex one—although as their interests converge and diverge, they do tend to work in unison a bit more than perhaps they should, becoming “the gang” a bit too easily.

dark_volumeBut all that aside, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on with power relationships in the two books, and not just as a natural consequence of having three protagonists from different social classes. The plot is built on cascading layers (is that right? Maybe cascading through layers?) of control, or efforts to manipulate relationships in order to gain, maintain, or exert power, from the halls of government, to personal relationships (especially, in some really fucked up ways, power over women, although Miss Temple manages to turn that on its head—she starts out as a Damsel in Distress, but one with considerable pluck, and by the end is a force to be reckoned with). There’s a kind of Eyes Wide Shut element to a lot of what goes on (although it gets considerably weirder, and there is some seriously hand-waving to explain some of the “science” as science), and while the books can be smutty in a fun way at times, it can also get kind of dark, which I’m told is not entirely usual for steampunk. Which is sort of odd to me, given how conflicted the Victorians were about sex. On the public face of things they were every bit as uptight as the stereotypes would suggest, but they were also obsessed with brothels to a pretty much unprecedented degree, and had a thriving child prostitution industry. It’s not that the Victorians were “okay” with child abuse, it’s more that so long as a) the child was of sufficiently low station, and b) somebody got paid for the child’s, uh, services, it wouldn’t have even occurred to most of them to think of it as abuse. That’s splitting hairs, I know, but the Victorians were almost schizophrenic in their attitudes about children, and those attitudes were as much wrapped up in their ideas about class as they were in their ideas about morality. (If you want to read a novel that addresses this particular brand of Victorian hypocrisy directly, I suggest John MacLachlan Gray’s excellent White Stone Day—and my fellow Downton Abbey fans should recognize that not only is this the world that Robert Crawley grew up in, it’s also the social order the Lady Dowager wants so desperately to preserve.) Anyway, Dahlquist’s two novel are almost fever-inducingly good.

anubis_gatesSo having read all of that (and then Peter Ackroyd’s amazing psychogeography / psychohistory London: The Biography, which I think is a must-read for anyone who wants to write or read about London; it will profoundly enrich your other reading experiences, among other things), and having solicited my recommendations, I started my Steampunk 101 project with The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers. It’s considered not only one of the foundational texts of the subgenre, but also one of the best. It’s one of those protagonist-travels-in-to-another-realm/time fantasy novels, which, I have to tell you normally really fucking suck, I mean, hard. Think of The Fionavar Tapestry. It’s a fish-out-of-water thing for sure, and it gives the reader somebody to connect with without a whole lot of work for the author (in fact the author would have to work pretty hard to screw that up) but it can also be used to give a character expert-level status they wouldn’t normally possess, and otherwise Mary Sue the hell out of them (once again, see The Fionavar Tapestry for the mother of all examples). Before we go any further, I’m going to say that The Anubis Gates is the exception to the sucking thing. Oh yes, and you would not believe my surprise to find out that it was a fantasy novel, and not science fiction, as it was my understanding that steampunk was explicitly a cyberpunk offshoot, so I was expecting closely observed cultural details with particular focus on how technology fits into that whole mess. There was all sorts of cultural grime in the corners of the novel, but instead of technology, there was magic. Magic! Blew my goddamn mind. And now, as I look over my list, I see things like zombies. Well, okay.

The Anubis Gates wound up being a great deal of fun once you get past the sluggish, overblown prose of the first fifty pages (it was intended to be a dark and exciting opening, but it didn’t quite work), and Powers did a remarkably good job interweaving non-heroic (or non-mythmaking, if you prefer) versions of several Romantic poets into a time-traveling adventure with some genuine swash-buckling. Powers does an interesting thing with a fictional poet named William Ashbless (who is in reality the consciousness of Brendan Doyle, our protagonist from 1983, trapped in the body of a guy named Brennan, also from the future), a character who also appears in a novel by James P. Blaylock, and publishes poems that have no author. Ancient Egyptian magic, gypsies, psychotic clowns, time-traveling academics, magical clones and a body-jumping magician who sprouts an insane amount of hair; how could you possibly resist?

Anyway, as my first foray into a serious introduction to steampunk was pretty successful, here’s my list, which I expect to get longer, in no particular order (most of it comes from J.M. Frey and Adrienne Kress, but I also did some independent research):

  • Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest (Dreadnought was the original recommendation, but Boneshaker is apparently the first in a loosely-connected set of a novels, and I like to read things in order)
  • Mainspring, by Jay Lake
  • Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
  • Soulless, by Gail Carriger
  • The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers


Writer. Editor. Critic.


  1. I also recommend Paul DiFilippo’s STEAMPUNK TRILOGY, which is goofily awesome. The story collections STEAMPUNK and STEAMPUNK II are very good.

  2. I’ll keep those in mind, thanks! In some ways I’m a sucker for Victoriana, but optimism doesn’t really suit me philosophically, so while I am definitely looking for a rollicking adventure story, something that acknowledges just how deep the 19th Century’s shadow really was will wind up being what I connect with the most.

  3. Also check out K.W. Jeter’s “Infernal Devices” one of the earliest steampunk novels. It came back into print just recently after being unavailable for years. Jeter, Powers and Blaylock were writing in the same circles so there’s definately some overlap there.

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