You've heard the term "steampunk," but just what does it mean? Steampunk is a categorization of science fiction stories where technology is powered by steam, not electricity. Steampunk stories usually take place in the 19th century, often in Victoria-era London. It's a subgenre of sf where the science is less rigorous; a forgivable sin since steampunk is more about the flavor than the factual.
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Steampunk rose to prominence in the 1980s. The term itself, attributed to K.W. Jeter, is a tongue-in-cheek nod to cyberpunk. It often employs a writing style similar to 19th-century scientific romance authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, though ironically, their stories are not usually considered steampunk themselves.
All of which sounds very academic and downplays why you'd want to read steampunk—because it's fun.
Across the decades of its formal existence, steampunk has produced several notable and enjoyable works. First, there's K.W. Jeter's Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987). In the former, the Morlocks from H.G. Wells' classic The Time Machine travel back to 19th-century London and infest the sewers; the latter involves a mysterious pocket leading a clockmaker's son toward trouble. Both were just republished.
One of sf's early steampunk success stories is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, a novel credited with popularizing steampunk. It envisions a past where Charles Babbage succeeded in creating Difference and Analytical Engines. Also popular is The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, where a cabal of magicians summons ancient Egyptian gods from the past to destroy the British Empire.
Steampunk is often a genre of adventure, as evidenced by Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan and Behemoth (targeted at young adults but can be enjoyed by anyone) where mechanized machines are used in an alternate World War I. Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius is a fun steampunk adventure that originated from a web comic. On the literary side of the steampunk engine is The Dream of Perpetual Motion, where Dexter Palmer serves up a steampunk version of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Where there's adventure, there are heroes. Andrew P. Mayer posits a group of superheroes called The Society of Steam in The Falling Machine. George Mann, meanwhile, has an exciting superhero series in Ghosts of Manhattan, set in a 1920's New York City. (A sequel, Ghosts of War, comes out this summer.)
Steampunk is not immune to genre-mashing. Boneshaker and Dreadnought by Cherie Priest offer fast-paced adventures that successfully throw in zombies for good measure. Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series (Soulless, Changeless and Blameless) are paranormal steampunk stories that are fresh and humorous. When you mix steampunk with weird fiction, you get Joe R. Lansdale's Flaming Zeppelins (comprised of Zeppelins West and Flaming London) and Mike Resnick's The Buntline Special. In the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, Mann's Newbury and Hobbes stories (The Affinity Bridge and The Osiris Ritual) offer intoxicating steampunk mysteries. Also noteworthy: Mark Hodder's Burton & Swinburne novels: The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack (a Philip K. Dick Award winner) and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.
For bite-size steampunk stories, there are plenty of anthologies. Consider Steampunk and Steampunk II edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; Extraordinary Engines edited by Nick Gevers; Hot and Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg; and coming soon, Ghosts by Gaslight edited by Jack Dann & Nick Gevers and Steampunk! edited by Gavin Grant & Kelly Link.
Finally, for those who are curious about the steampunk genre itself, check out The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana by Jess Nevins and The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.