The best books that chart the evolution of Steampunk

The Books I Picked & Why

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

By Harry Harrison

Book cover of A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

Why this book?

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! is an outlier, if you like. I call it ‘proto-Steampunk’ as it was published before the term was coined in the early 1980s. Regardless, it could be a template for Steampunk when it arrived. In some ways, it’s an alternate history, and it has steam-powered contraptions, big engineering projects, a Victorian tone that still incorporates our modern gaze, cameo appearances by real historical figures, and a rip-roaring narrative. Its rollicking diction is uplifting, and it mirrors the gorgeous stiff upper lip tone of much Victorian fiction to heart-warming effect. It plays with the manners, morals, and decorum of the times to create a world that isn’t the nineteenth century as it was, but as it should have been. The edition I have, purchased many years ago, has a foreword by the notoriously curmudgeonly Auberon Waugh where he admits that he ‘cried like a baby at the wedding between the beautiful, good Iris and brave Captain Washington’ which is a thoroughly splendid outcome for all.

A bonus for me in this book is the appearance of the descendant of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of my personal historical heroes, a visionary of the sort we sorely need these days.

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The Anubis Gates

By Tim Powers

Book cover of The Anubis Gates

Why this book?

In the early 1980s Steampunk truly began when a trio of like-minded writers in California formed a loose affinity group, deliberately setting out to write in a mode that would capture some of the feel of Verne and Wells. Good friends K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers produced Morlock Night (Jeter), The Anubis Gates (Powers), and The Digging Leviathan (Blaylock). These were hugely influential works in establishing Steampunk as a legitimate sub-genre. And the name? At the time Jeter wrote to Locus, the Science Fiction magazine: "Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock, and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps..."

I picked up a copy of The Anubis Gates not long after its publication, as I was intrigued by its blurb which promised wonders – and I wasn’t disappointed. Beginning as a time travel story, we’re plunged into a darkly atmospheric London, grimily Dickensian with a cast of grotesques including body-swapping werewolves, deathless magicians, beggar kings, and evil clowns. Throw in some ancient Egyptian magic, Romany lore, a breathless plot and it’s a heady concoction. I was enthralled when I first read it and became a lifelong Tim Powers fan, and it truly began my search for more Steampunk.

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The Difference Engine

By William Gibson, Bruce Sterling

Book cover of The Difference Engine

Why this book?

1990 saw the release of The Difference Engine when cyberpunk originator William Gibson teamed up with Bruce Sheffield. This book set the Steampunk template for using historical figures, giving the historical events a tweak, and then seeing where the narrative goes. The timeline twist they posit was that in the 1820s, Charles Babbage manages to complete his Difference Engine, the forerunner of modern computers, and thus unleashes a technological revolution in the Victorian era. It’s important for the way it probes the social consequences of this upheaval, particularly the clashes with Victorian sensibilities.

I was a red hot William Gibson fan after reading Neuromancer, the seminal cyberpunk novel and I had a fanboy moment in meeting him at a book signing not long after the release of The Difference Engine, where, quite typically, all the thoughtful and considered comments I’d prepared about his themes and concerns went out of my head and all I managed to blurt was ‘I love your work!’ He smiled benignly and signed my book with elan. I think that sort of thing had happened to him before.

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The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

By Neal Stephenson

Book cover of The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

Why this book?

Neal Stephenson released The Diamond Age in 1992 and along with The Difference Engine and Kim Newman’s memorable Anno Dracula (Count Dracula marries Queen Victoria) it picked up the baton of Powers, Jeter, and Blaylock and kicked off what I call the Second Wave of Steampunk The Diamond Age projects Steampunk into the future in a classic spec fic ‘What if this goes on?’ scenario, with the neo-Victorians managing a world where nanotechnology is ubiquitous.

Stephenson is another of my favourite authors and this excursion into Steampunk territory is full of his usual mix of erudition, wit, mindboggling concepts, and a rampaging narrative. Superb stuff, and it set the standard for Steampunk not just as a confection, but capable of interrogating serious ideas.

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By Gail Carriger

Book cover of Soulless

Why this book?

A breathless comedy of manners and morals with a protagonist without a soul trying to navigate romance in a world that closely parallels our Victorian era but with intriguing differences, such as vampires and werewolves being a customary part of society? What’s not to like?

I met Gail Carriger at the World Science Fiction Convention in 2010, the year after Soulless was released and she’s just as delightful as the book: charming, knowledgeable, and a true tea aficionado. Soulless has continued the evolution of Steampunk and by adding comedy and romance to the world of steam and top hats it has attracted many more readers to this wonderful sub-genre.

Informed readers will note that I haven’t included any works by Jules Verne or HG Wells, who are often called the Fathers of Steampunk. That’s because, to my mind, Steampunk is a modern take on their kind of stories, a retrospective view of the Victorian era, with our contemporary sensibilities. As such, Verne and Wells (and their contemporaries) simply can’t be Steampunk. They’re not looking back on an era. If anything, they’re looking forward!

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