One of my reading resolutions this year was to branch out into unfamiliar territory, so I decided it was high time I checked out that steampunk thing all the kids are talking about these days. Steampunk, in case the only thing that comes to mind when you hear that term is clunky brass aviator goggles, is a subgenre of fantasy that celebrates unconventional inventors and their gadgets, and is usually set in the not-too-distant-past. Robots and flying machines are staples, and the most common setting is Victorian London, a flavor which permeates the story’s sense of fashion, art, and culture.
The name of the subgenre, for instance, comes from the idea that much of technology was still powered via steam. The result is something that straddles fantasy and science fiction. The machines aren’t powered by magic (except for sometimes, when they are), but the authors also don’t take time to break down into explanations of the circuitry and fiddly workings of their gadgets (except for sometimes, when they do).
Victorian London aside, it makes a lot of sense that our generation would turn to steampunk. We grew up with the Internet morphing from a nerdy project at tech-heavy colleges to something most of us can’t function without, and new releases in phones, music players, and computers make news.
Why shouldn’t writers treat technology with the same enthusiasm and wonder that we associate with magic?
Look at the recent resurgence of Dr. Who. A brilliant, charismatic outsider using a flying time travel machine and a few well-chosen gadgets to fight evil? Sounds like the definition of steampunk to me.
By using an anachronistic setting, steampunk heightens this sense of wonder, as well as tunes us in to a world many writers associate with genius (Sherlock Holmes and The Time Machine both date to the Victorian era, after all). In a world where the death of an inventor is mourned worldwide via the machines he created, it’s making less and less sense to turn to quasi-medieval settings for our fantasy literature.
So put down The Hobbit (at least until the refresher reread before the movie) and let’s get excited about automatons! Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories is a great place to start. The book both serves as a lively introduction to steampunk and a reminder that there is more to the genre than Queen Victoria and brass goggles. The editors note in their introduction, in fact, that they deliberately excluded Victorian London as a setting for the stories. The result is steampunk in the near future and ancient Rome, Ireland and the American South, and stories that range from tongue-in-cheek to adventurous to romantic to eerie.
An early favorite of mine was “Clockwork Fagin,” a playful retelling of Oliver Twist in which the orphaned boys hatch a plan to subdue their villainous master and live in style. “Some Fortunate Future Day,” a post-apocalyptic story of a girl living alone in an automated house who finds a wounded soldier in the backyard, reminds me a little of Ray Bradbury’s work. It’s short, tight, foreboding with a touch of sweetness mixed in at the same time.
It may not have Bradbury’s poetry in the writing, but I could see him writing something similar (and coming from me, this is high praise indeed!). The closing story, “The Oracle Machine,” takes the biggest leap of all back to ancient Rome, and mixes legend, history, and the eponymous invention into a story of fate and revenge.
Steampunk! accomplishes a lot in its 400-some pages: it will introduce and excite newcomers to the genre, while keeping plenty of new twists for established steampunk fans. I’m not saying every reader will enjoy every story—that’s not the point of an anthology—but you are bound to come away with a generous helping of what you like. And for those interested in trying different things this year, welcome to the steampunk genre!