Sunday, 20 November 2011

Turning Up The Heat – Steampunk at Blackwells

‘So what is this steampunk business then?’ asked one of the managers. And with those simple words a can of worms was opened and those worms will remain wriggling until our steampunk night on December 8th. And beyond.

The books chosen for the steampunk promotion aren’t necessarily classic definitions of the genre, but are designed to invite discussion. Which trappings and tropes have particular authors picked to adorn their imagined worlds? Is steampunk merely about top hats, dirigibles, or moral values of a bygone age? Do steam engines and goggles get in the way of examining Victorian society, and what does this glimpse back into our Imperial past tell us about the world we live in today?

For me, personally, steampunk is lovable mutt. Not a thoroughbred like traditional Hard SF or High Fantasy, but a weird stew of influences. Which other genre mixes historical fiction with SF, frequently adds a dose of ‘boys own adventure’ and dares to examine how society functioned in a bygone age? Steampunk, like all good SF, holds a mirror up to the way we live now, not by reflecting back the possible future, but instead comparing us to an impossible past.

Let’s take a look at some of the promoted titles:

Even a punch-drunk navvie who’d fallen face-first from a Zepplin (beg pardon, dirigible) would know that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) is the birth of this contentious sub-genre. The Difference Engine is an alternate history novel set in 1855. Much of the novel focuses on a missing set of computer punch cards, used by Charles Babbage’s analytical engines. Sterling and Gibson explore (often through the protagonists, but sometime through vignettes) how the computer-aided steam age has changed Britain and her Empire.
Heart of Veridon (2009) on the other hand is not set in this world. The City of the Cog is a vast industrial affair, and the inhabitants have learned how to fuse technology with their bodies. The protagonist, Jacob Burn, is a failed airship pilot and now spends his days among the criminals of the city. However, it is his noble birth that places him at the heart of a conspiracy and he is deceived and hounded by the authorities at every turn. Heart of Veridon is followed by Dead of Veridon, making up the first two books of Tim Akers; Burn Cycle.
Gail Carriger’s Alexia Tarabotti novels fuse steampunk with paranormal romance. Soulless (2009) is set in an alternate history where werewolves and vampires are functioning members of society. Much of the novel is concerned with etiquette and decorum, but there’s also plenty to get your teeth into, including the mystery of several missing vampires. Carriger’s other novels in this series include Changeless (2010), Blameless (2010), and Heartless (2011).
The Windup Girl (2009) is set in Thailand during the 23rd century. It focuses on the fate of Emiko, the titular Windup Girl. In a world controlled by calorie companies, beset by bio-engineered plagues, Emiko finds herself amid seething conspiracies and ambitious agendas. 

Other titles on our list include:

Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004) by China Mieville.
Retribution Falls (2009), The Black Lung Captain (2010) and The Iron Jackal (2011) by Chris Wooding.
Swiftly (2008) by Adam Roberts
The Diamond Age (1995) by Neil Stevenson
Fever Crumb(2010) and The Mortal Engines Quartet by Philip Reeve
Cyber Circus (2011) by Kim Laikin Smith
The Bookman (2011) by Lavie Tidhar
Ulysses Quicksilver Omnibus (2010) Jonathan Green

What titles would be on your list? Are there novels listed above that don’t fit your definition of ‘steampunk’? Let us know in the comments or come and discuss it with us on 8th December.

Den Patrick is full-time bookseller, part-time writer and lover of all things Geek.

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