Steampunk 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 reading it. The clearest and most concise definition I could find online says steampunk is “genre fiction typically set in Britain in the 1900’s when steam power was prevalent and prior to the broad use of electricity. The location can be anywhere, however, including North America. Steampunk usually encompasses alternate history elements and fantastical inventions. They are often heavily geared toward science fiction and fantasy. Steampunk comprises romances and non-romances.” Even that definition can lead to some head scratching, though. What does it really mean?
Steampunk is alternate history. Steampunk is awesome gadgetry. Steampunk is corsets, cravats, top hats, goggles, and parasols. Steampunk is a variety of little elements that add up to a very unique reading experience. So, how to identify a potential steampunk reader? Here are some questions you could ask to find out:
- Are you a fan of historical settings?
- Do you love when characters use cool gadgets?
- Are you fascinated by clothing from different eras?
- Do you find yourself dropping slang you’ve read into regular conversations?
If you or a reader you know answered yes to even one of these questions, you may find that you love steampunk. The next thing you have to figure out is where to start. Even though all steampunk books have core elements that make them fit the subgenre, there are elements that make each have an individual feel. Any reader could start with an anthology of stories like Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, or Steampunk!, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. grant. If only one of the above elements strongly appeals to you, though, you may want to start with a title that fits that element more closely.
For example, historical fiction fans may want to start with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy (which made the 2011 Teens’ Top Ten, 2011 Top Ten Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2011 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults, and 2010 Best Books for Young Adults lists), which is an alternate history of World War I. Another classical alternate history is William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, in which Ninteenth Century London is experiencing both the Industrial Revolution and the start of the computer age. These books celebrate both details from our past and the possibilities of what could have been if the world had evolved in different directions.
Fans of gadgetry might be more interested in books like Kady Cross’s The Girl in the Steel Corset, which features some really cool steam-powered bicycles and automatons. Arthur Slade’s The Hunchback Assignments series (among 2011’s Best Fiction for Young Adults) centers around a hunchback named Modo who happens to be able to shape-shift, but is surrounded by secret agents and villains that utilize the most amazing inventions. These books have the historical version of James Bond’s spy gadgets!
Fashion fans can rejoice in the world of corsets and cravats. Some authors go out of their way to revel in the historical details of the time period, especially in the fashions. Gail Carriger is a perfect example. Her Parasol Protectorate series (Soulless was among the 2010 Alex Award winners) features a heroine who will not leave the house without a parasol, a best friend with the most odious taste in hats, and a Lordly vampire who exemplifies men’s avant garde fashion in Victorian London.
If you find yourself picking up on Georgia Nicholson’s terminology or speaking with a British accent after watching Bridget Jones’ Diary, you may be more into steampunk for the intriguing slang you can incorporate into your everyday vernacular. Philip Reeve’s Larklight series will leave you with a resounding “Huzzah!” Not only is the family heartily British, but their travels through space allow them to combine traditional Victorian slang with imagined space terminology–a wordsmith’s delight.
So whatever the aspect of steampunk that may appeal to a reader, there is a matching book out there. Watch out, though! Once you’ve delved into your first steampunk novel, you may find that you cannot resist diving back into this complex and imaginative world. The language, the history, the style and the characters will be calling…
— Jessica Miller, currently reading Flyaway by Lucy Christopher and Article 5 by Kristen Simmons