In the days before television, movies, or even pulp magazines, readers who wanted exciting fantastic fare read dime novels. This style of popular literature lasted from about 1860 to 1930, before the pulps finally killed them off. In those 70 years, countless series and titles were published — mysteries, Westerns, historical dramas, romances, and even steampunk.
Yes, steampunk goes right back to the age of steam. I recently read one of the most popular titles, the 1883 edition of The Steam Man of the Plains, published by the Five Cent Wide-Awake Library, a series directed specifically at adolescent boys. You can read it online at Northern Illinois University’s excellent online collection of dime novels.
Back when I was planning what I hoped would be my début novel, I wanted to put magically-enhanced medieval knights up against tanks, but I didn’t want to involve a modern military — too sophisticated with too much tech; I would end up spending most of the novel finding magical ways to break drones and cruise missiles that didn’t also break the medieval setting.
If my tanks were going to be pre-modern, then I might as well pick the era with the coolest looking tanks — that gave me WWI, which also gave me Zeppelins.
So Great War tanks and Zeppelins and semi-automatic weapons. That made at least half the story Steampunk (Decopunk actually)… not half the novel as in the first (or second) half. Rather half the genre. The other half is Heroic Fantasy. As a reviewer kindly put it:
…it’s like every fantasy, steam punk or alternative history novel thrust screaming into a thunderdome and told to fight for our entertainment.
But Steampunk provided more than just carefully calibrated tactical situations with nice aesthetics, it also let me write about big ideologies.
Imagine the gilded age… but with superheroes and steampunk technology.
That is the central premise of Andrew P. Mayer’s Society of Steam trilogy, which just published its final volume in January. The books portray a world in which the brilliant inventor Sir Dennis Darby has brought together heroes to form the Paragons, a New York City group of adventurers that fight menaces to decent society. Among the heroes is the Automaton, an intelligent steam-powered construct of Darby’s own invention.
This alone would be enough of a premise for a trilogy of novels, but the first book in the trilogy, The Falling Machine (Amazon, B&N), begins by throwing this fascinating world into turmoil… by killing off Darby himself in the first chapter, leaving his student Sarah Stanton – forbidden by gender to become a hero in society – to take a stand and see that his vision of the future has a possibility to come to pass. The trilogy therefore is not about the Paragons so much as it’s about the Paragons facing their darkest hour… with an outcome that is far from predictable.
To think about the challenge facing Mayer in writing this series, consider that this would sort of be like if the first issue of X-Men began with Professor Xavier dying. The series is trying to depict the status quo changing, but also has to — at the exact same time — depict what the status quo was. It’s a tough balancing act and Mayer does a good job with it, though there are times where it’s a little uneven, particularly in the first book, which ends with several characters dying and the ranks of the Paragons devastated by their greatest challenge: the villain Eschaton.
In his debut novel, author Jay Kristoff creates a rich fantasy steampunk setting based upon Japanese feudal culture, complete with griffins, samurai warriors, demons, airships, an evil mechanized religious order, and a ruthless dictator. Really, I think that list should be enough to get you interested in reading Stormdancer(Amazon, B&N), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
To date, steampunk has largely been confined to Victorian England settings, with the occasional foray into the wild west. Even the anime and manga steampunk tales have tended to lean on these more traditional interpretations of the genre. Kristoff boldly takes the genre in a new direction, infusing it with new vigor.
The central character in Stormdancer is Yukiko, daughter of the Shogun’s master hunter, Masaru. They are members of one of the four prominent clans, theirs based around Kitsune, the fox, the trickster god in their religious pantheon. When the Shogun hears rumors of a surviving “thunder tiger” (or arashitora, this culture’s name for a griffin), he has a prophetic dream that he will become a stormdancer, riding the great beast into battle and vanquishing all of his enemies. But first, he needs to get his hands on one, so he orders Masaru (along with his team, including Yukiko) off to capture it. Needless to say, things do not go entirely as expected (otherwise it would be a very boring book).
Last winter, I saw an excellent game on Kickstarter called Empires of the Void (Amazon). I was fairly new to Kickstarter, however, so didn’t actually back it at the time because I was hesitant about how the whole process worked. When I caught a glimpse of the game at GenCon, however, I was very impressed with the production values and wish I’d gotten it … because the Kickstarter discount turns out to be nearly 50%.
I’m not going to make that mistake again. Empires of the Void‘s creators, Red Raven Games, now has a second Kickstarter going. City of Iron is a steampunk-themed board game, complete with bizarre races, exotic lands (including floating islands), airships, and yes, even bottled demons. That’s right: one of the game’s many resources are bottled demons.
The goal of the game is to build up your civilization’s resource levels to surpass those of your competing civilizations. There are a variety of different ways you can proceed, with each turn allowing for three actions chosen from the following:
Dreadnought (Amazon, B&N)
Tor (400 pp., $14.99, 2010)
Reviewed by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
Cherie Priest returns to her “Clockwork Century” in full force in this third novel. In some ways, I would recommend that readers begin with Dreadought, even though it’s the third book in the series. Basically, the plot twist at the end of Dreadnought is the entire premise of Boneshaker, as I’ll explain later in the review. (Spoiler-ish alert!)
The book focuses on Mercy Lynch, a Confederate nurse whose husband has just died fighting for the Union. (Gotta love those border state romances!) She receives word from her father – who left her as a child – that he is dying, and he would like her to visit him in the Washington territory. That father is Jeremiah Swankhammer, who readers of Boneshaker will recognize as one of the key characters in that story.
With nothing really to keep her in Virginia, she sets off on a cross-country journey by airship and train to reach Tacoma and, ultimately, Seattle. Unfortunately, the only train that can get her from St. Louis to Tacoma is the Union steam engine Dreadnought, and the train is carrying some bizarre cargo … cargo which makes the train trip into a harrowing ride that brings Mercy and the other passengers into conflict with bushwackers, a mad scientist, and even zombies!
The Last Page
Tor (431 pp, $25.99, 2010)
Reviewed by Matthew David Surridge
Anthony Huso’s debut novel The Last Page is something of a problem. It’s not that it is a bad book; in many ways, it is quite a good one. In fact, it is good enough, creative enough, smart enough, that it raises expectations. You want it to be great. And that is the problem, because I don’t think it is.
The Last Page is a high-fantasy steampunk novel, and a love story. We follow the sexually charged relationship between the improbably named Caliph Howl, heir to the throne of the northern country of Stonehold, and a witch named Sena. The two of them meet at university, go their own ways, and then come together again after Caliph has become king and Sena has acquired a vastly powerful magical tome. Unfortunately, Caliph is facing a civil war against a national hero, and Sena’s book has a lock which can only be opened at a fearsome emotional cost.
Cherie Priest has become one of the biggest names in the steampunk sub-genre, starting mostly with her groundbreaking 2009 book Boneshaker that introduced most readers to “The Clockwork Century,” the alternate history 1880’s storyline that she created. There are three main features of “The Clockwork Century”:
The Civil War has been going on for over 20 years.
There are airships (and other steampunk accoutrements, such as goggles).
There are zombies (or close enough approximations)
Boneshaker focused on features 2 and 3, with the Civil War really just a background note that has little direct bearing on the story. After all, it’s set in Seattle, which is far outside the territory where the Civil War is being fought.
Clementine, on the other hand, leaves the zombies behind to focus on the Civil War (and the airships) in far greater detail.
One of the most popular steampunk books of the last few years, Boneshaker(Amazon, B&N) melded some of the most popular genre elements of steampunk and the zombie apocalypse wave of fiction. In this review from Black Gate #15, I commented that the book was a little action-heavy, full of zombie chases that didn’t always translate well on the printed page. I compared it to a George Romero film … and it turns out that someone took that to heart, because it’s being made into a film. I don’t normally go to zombie movies, but I’ll definitely make an exception for this one, which may well be the most visually-stunning zombie film ever.
Tor (416 pp, $15.99, 2009)
Reviewed by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
Steampunk is traditionally set in a Victorian urban environment, with a veneer of gentility that covers a darker underbelly. And steampunk almost always includes airships (or at least flying bicycles)… often with air pirates in tow.
The weird west mythos, on the other hand, represents the frontier. While technology is usually central to steampunk, the weird west is often defined by some sort of monster (frequently zombies), but these elements can cross genres. The 1999 Will Smith film Wild Wild West featured a flying bicycle and a giant robotic spider, firmly placing it in the camp of steampunk by most accounts, but containing many weird west elements.
Boneshaker takes many of these staples, puts them in a blender, and sets to mix. It is set in a modified 1880’s Seattle, which has been walled off because a gas drifting out of the ground turns people into zombies.
Simon Pulse (440 pp, $9.99, Oct. 2009)
Simon Pulse (5112 pp, $9.99, Oct. 2010)
Simon Pulse (543 pp, $19.99, Sept. 2011)
Reviewed by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy is an epic about an alternate-history version of World War I … and a great example of how steampunk can really work well when it’s firing on all cylinders (both literally and figuratively). In this, the military conflict isn’t just political, but also centers around an ideological difference about technology. The British and Russians have embraced Charles Darwin’s biological insights to breed massive war beasts, while the German alliance put their faith in mechanical (frequently multi-legged) battle machines.
In addition to the global conflict, the major tension in the story centers around two young characters – one from each side of the battle – who are living with their own secrets in the midst of the war. One is a girl disguised as a boy so that she can serve in the British military upon the living zeppelin Leviathan. The other is a prince (and secret heir to the Austrian Empire) on the run from his own people.
On top of all of that, there’s also a romance … even though one of the participants doesn’t realize it for quite some time.