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In Which Our Author Tips Her Cog-Bedecked Top Hat to Steampunk

The Invention of YESphoto © 2010 Tim Schapker | more info (via: Wylio)

Lately steampunk YA fiction – and steampunk in general – have emerged boldly into the literary scene. I’ve even heard it called one of the top ten trends in teen fiction. Yay! Go steampunk! “But, wait,” you say, “what is steampunk, anyway? And why should I care?” Sadly, the word ‘steampunk’ is often tossed around in vain these days. Case in point…this. Any intrepid soul searching for ‘steampunk’ these days is likely to turn up an exuberant plethora of work, including graphic novels and – egad! – steampunk romance.  So what is the original, clockwork heart of steampunk? Fear not, gentle reader! The Hub is here to guide through the gear and sprocket-filled futuristic past.

Steampunk is the science fiction of the 1800’s, reaching back to the aesthetics of the Victorian era – bustles, corsets, top hats and the occasional ridiculous mustache – while introducing technology that only existed in Jules Verne’s wildest dreams. Giant airships! Steam-powered robots! War machines! Difference engines! Time machines of uncertain operation! Gears!

What makes steampunk fun is exactly this tension between old-school atmosphere and futuristic technology — like a delicious cocktail of historical fiction and science fiction. For an additional bonus, most steampunk books have the classical pulp-adventure focus on swashbuckling action and spunky protagonists. Airborn by Kenneth Oppel is a great introduction basic steampunk fiction. In this book, 15-year-old Matt Cruise – a cabin boy on a luxury airship – rescues a dying balloonist and learns from him of fantastic creatures that live in the sky above the Pacific Ocean. Matt doesn’t believe him, but the balloonist’s granddaughter Kate is determined to find the animals. Of course, when pirates hijack the airship in mid-flight, Matt and Kate have more pressing problems to deal with!

In some steampunk works there’s also the “what if?” element of alternate history – what would World War One have been like if the Austrians had giant steam-powered battle mechs, for example? (This is the kind of vital question that I wish my history teachers had covered in class.) Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and Boneshaker by Cherie Priest are good alternate history novels. In Leviathan, the beginning of World War One is complicated by the fact that Britain and its allies use Darwinian biotechnology to create amazing warbeasts and living airships, while the ‘clankers’ on the other side use giant robotic walkers. In the middle of this scenario Deryn Sharpe – a girl posing as a boy in order to join the British Air Service – becomes involved with Prince Alek of Austria-Hungary, who is on the run from the assassins who killed his parents.

Alternatively, Boneshaker is set during the American Civil War, a war that has dragged out far longer than it did in ‘real’ history due to the amazing technology in use by both sides. Far from the battle lines, in Seattle, an inventor makes a giant drill to mine for gold. Its first use, however, releases a toxic gas that kills anyone it touches – and reanimates them as flesh-eating zombies. Sixteen years after this catastrophe, the inventor’s widow, Briar, must return to the now walled-off undead city of Seattle to rescue her teenage son.

Sounds great, right? Of course, while it’s fun to read steampunk, it’s more fun to dive right in! Start by taking the Steampunk Style Test to see what steampunk character archetype best fits your personality. (I’m an “Explorer,” btw.)  Now that you have a basic character idea, make your costume. Don’t forget accessories! At this point, you may feel tempted to start using pseudo-Victorian verbiage and twirling an imaginary mustache. This is normal. Once you’re all dressed up, what should you do, besides counting down the eight remaining months to Steamcon? LARP, of course — or  play a tabletop RPG. Remember to bring scones, tea and finger sandwiches for +2 verisimilitude!

What are you waiting for? Hop on your velocipede and buy a pair of gear-encrusted goggles for your foray into the endless world of steam-powered possibilities.

— Maria Kramer is reading Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader edited by Mike Ashley.

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Maria Kramer

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  1. Nicole Dolat Nicole Dolat

    Thanks for the great post, Maria. I’ve always been a sci-fi/fantasy reader, but steampunk is new to me. Even so, I picked up Leviathan not too long ago and really loved it, and I’ve had Boneshaker in my home library for a spell. I now feel very inspired to move it closer to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

    BTW, I tested as an “Aristocrat” in the Steampunk Style Test :)

  2. Steampunk is hard for me to grasp. Probably because I’m not a big of historical fiction nor science fiction. But it seems very imaginative, which is fun. When I think steampunk I picture will smith in Wild Wild West!

  3. This is an awesome post – I didn’t realize Boneshaker was steampunk AND zombies! Guess what just got bumped up on my TBR list….

  4. I am big fan of Arthur Slade’s Hunchback Assignment series. This and Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series are a nice introduction to steampunk

  5. Anna D. Anna D.

    Steampunk is great fun! For younger YA readers, I like the Larklight series by Phillip Reeve.

    I got “The Explorer.”

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      A fellow Explorer, I see! Care to take a hot-air balloon ride to the Lost Continent with me? Fame and danger await!

  6. The sequel to Leviathan, Behemoth, is out, and it is great. Better than the first book. My review will be posted next month.

    Looking forward to reading Boneshaker.

    Hoping this means the alt fiction genre will grow in general. Many possibilities.

  7. As a middle school librarian I started reading steam punk to keep up with what my students were demanding…and I love it! The mix of history and alternative history and science fiction is really appealing to me…and the kids too apparently since Leviathan and Behemoth have been constantly checked out since they came in. The strangest part is that my patrons do not much care for historical fiction, but throw in some sci fi and they cannot get enough.

  8. […] in one of today’s growing trends in YA literature (read Maria Kramer’s award-winning previous post about it!), but many people still have no idea what steampunk means, let alone if they’ll like […]

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