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Tropic of Capricorn, Topic of Steampunk

The first adult book I ever read was The Invisible Man by H.G.Wells.  I then, in my monomaniacal way, delved into Jules Verne as well as the rest of Wells.  In 2006, I scored a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.  As it happens, about a year after that I downloaded the viewer to our shared Mundus Virtuale.  And now, as Christmastide approaches, and inspired by the forum about Too Much Steampunk, I am casting about for information about literature about our favorite trope.

I took up residence in New Babbage a scant year ago now, and since then have been devouring the writings extant.  I have not yet read K.W. Jeter, and although I have read some of Michael Moorcock’s stuff I have not yet attempted Warlord of the Air.  I have read Blaylock, Gibson, and just about everything written by Tim Powers (though his contempory stuff gives me the creeps).  I have suffered through the various anthologies out there but I find short stories more than a little frustrating.  And I have read Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Dreadnought; the former I had my problems with until about a third of the way through, but the latter I found to be a completely enjoyable romp – the woman has a wonderful imagination!  (see my review of it on Amazon).

So, it works down to this.  I would like you good Citizens & True to help me sort through the extensive library of Gaslight Fiction out there.  If you would be so kind, please advise me of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  As I am sure most of us hanker, I have a fancy at trying my hand at the genre, and would like some insight into what makes it good and what fails.  Since it is in the spirt of research that I am inspired, I am hoping that you will contribute your ideas on your favorite, and your least favorite, of the “subgenre”.  The Panic of ’08 lays heavily on my family, and I am making my wishlist and checking it twice, books being not only my favorite gifts to give and receive, but also a reasonable expense.  I thank you in advance!

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  1. Gabriell Anatra Gabriell Anatra November 29, 2010

    Books are often a good investment for gifts. Of course I say that with two 5-foot stacks sitting in my ‘to be read’ pile. .

    • Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska November 29, 2010

      O dear, I feel yore pain!  I can say that I have, at least, read parts of them all.  But I have the nasty habit of reading more book than one at a time.  Drives my family nuts!  For that reason, along with the difficulty of his writing, it took me almost a year to finish Pynchon’s book.  In no small part because when I determined to finish it I could no longer remember the story and had to start it again!  But tell me, of the ones with which you are familiar, which is your fave and unfave?

      • Gabriell Anatra Gabriell Anatra December 2, 2010

        The great majority of my reading is science fiction of one sort or another. Space opera and transhumanist works being the major subjects. I finished Stirling’s ‘In The Court Of The Crimson Kings’ not too long ago and it was pretty good. I have ‘Perdido Street Station’ in the stack but haven’t gotten to it yet.

        Alastair Reynolds would probably be my favorite author at the moment, though Jack McDevitt, Charles Stross, and Peter Hamilton are favorites too.

        • Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska December 3, 2010

          Oh dear, now you have that King Crimson song stuck in my head!

  2. Jonathon Spires Jonathon Spires November 30, 2010

    Keith Roberts is one of my favorite writers of all time. His book Pavane may be one of the first steampunk books. You mght also like his “Kiteworld,” though the book deals with faith and moral decay into perversion and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Sadly he is virtually unknown now. He was a brilliant writer but an unpleasant person by many accounts, and he alienated,  colleagues and publishers.

    I can’t say enough about Keith Roberts. He was the Thomas Hardy of steampunk.

    A very different sort of steampunk (and its difficult to call it that. Clankpunk? Greenpunk maybe?) is the very harrowing The Windup Girl. In the universe of the windup girl, set in a post-catastrophic Thailand several hundred years from now, what machinery is left is generally powered by human and animal wound springs with some steam and internal combusion, as well as airships. It’s not a whimsy kind of “lets throw everything steampunk related into a romp” kind of novel like Boneshaker. (I like Boneshaker, but it’s pulp. Good pulp.) The Windup Girl leaves exit wounds.

    And of course, if there is a gold standard steampunk work, it might well be The Difference Engine, by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.



  3. Mr Tenk Mr Tenk November 30, 2010

    Perdido Street Station  by China Mieville is good reading, especially if you hang around Babbage/Armada. Some though provoking takes on body modificaion, thaumturgy (i.e, how to use magic in context without getting people into a twist about it), automaton intelligence, and using the City as major a character. Not exactly gaslight, but good wonky punk.

    Leviathan left me flat, disappointing because i really enjoy genetic tinkering scenarios. I’m afraid I’ve come to an age where YA romps just are not as entertaining as they used to be.

    I’ve got The Windup Girl on order, looking forward to it. Romps are fun, but meat is better.

  4. Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska November 30, 2010

    Excellent!  I have seen  mention of Windup Girl and Perdido Street Station (one of the avenues in Babbage, is it not?) but have not read them.  Will do so now.  Mr Roberts is completely new to me, and I shall see to it.  And I have wondered about Leviathan.

    If you get a chance, give Against the Day a shot.  It’s not easy, but the payoff is tremendous.  World War I is a malevolent spirit that floats over the whole narrative, and his handling of the Tunguska Event is a real treat!

    • Mr Tenk Mr Tenk November 30, 2010

      Yes, Perdido Street intersects Jefferson Avenue, right where Gadget is building his monster trap!

      The Scar, also by China Meiville, is the inspiration for Armada, and is in the same world as Perdido Street Station.

  5. Jonathon Spires Jonathon Spires November 30, 2010

    Ill have to find Perdido Street Station.

  6. Queer Hermit Queer Hermit November 30, 2010

    If your tastes would run to online reading, as my typist does, I would very much recommend “Girl Genius”.  It would even help with your understanding of Babbage a bit as there is an embassy of the Baron’s within the confines of our sooty city and Miss Hienrichs is an embassadress for Herr Wulfenbach.

    • Jimmy Branagh Jimmy Branagh November 30, 2010

      Be advoised thet Oy am also a Consular Liason ta Babbage.

  7. Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska November 30, 2010

    Ah, I am quite familiar with Girl Genius.  In fact, I spent the Summer catching up having learned about it several months ago, and I hate to admit, I have a big crush on Agatha (yeah, I know, cartoon and all that, but still, we do hang out in a virtual world, neh?  Gotta keep ’em dreamin’ St Leibowitz!).

    I have gotten some mixed messages on China Melville, but I loved his distant cousin’s whale book.  Any pointers on which of his stuff to read, or should I try it all?  I am looking for what to avoid, after all…

    • Mr Tenk Mr Tenk December 1, 2010

      Mieville does give one mixed reviews and can be a thick slogging if you aren’t in the mood, first one I was handed was The Scar and was indifferent to it, if you don’t like horror or Clive Barker you probably won’t like it. The first book of his I fully warmed up to was The City and The City, which low on plot but an interesting scenario. Not steampunk, its a detective/police story, and fascinating from weird cities angle.

  8. Aeolus Cleanslate Aeolus Cleanslate December 1, 2010


    I’ll add Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which most consider steampunk despite its futurist setting, and Dru Pagliassotti’s Clockwork Heart … not a classic, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed.

    I’d also point strongly to the big steampunk anthology by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo, and Nick Gevers’ Extraordinary Engines. Some of the stories in there are altogether classics.

    This topic does come up fairly regularly, so we have an ongoing place in the Archives for the Steampunk canon. I don’t remember it being so sparse, though – perhaps it’s time to pump it up a bit…


    • Jonathon Spires Jonathon Spires December 1, 2010

      Dru Pagliasotti. wow. I have sort of not followed up on how people are doing. She published a story of mine some years ago in her magazine. I hadn’t followed her writing career. I will have to read this. She’s a great editor, btw.

  9. Edward Pearse Edward Pearse December 1, 2010

    I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for. I will second the recommendation of Keith Robert’s Pavane. It’s an alternate history rather than steampunk but then, I quite enjoy that branch of of the genre.  Set in an alternate England where the Assassination of Elizabeth I succeeded. I’d also recommend The Two Georges by Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove. Alternate North America where the War of Independence was averted.

    Perdido Street Station I could not finish depsite slogging through half the novel. It’s not to everyone’s taste.

    George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge is a trope ridden steampunk novel, but fun stuff none the less.

    The Diamond Age is a futurist SF novel with Victorian affectations and would probably be closer to Bladerunner (the movie) if there was a Victorian enclave set in it. Very good but not steampunk.

    Worldshaker by Richard Harland is a Young Adult steampunk novel set on huge Land Leviathans.

    There’s also an excellent resourse called Recommended Reading for Castle Falkenstein. The list was compiled back in 1997 so it doesn’t have a lot of the recent stuff, but the Falkenstein RPG was where I first heard the term “steampunk”

  10. Livius Alectoris Livius Alectoris December 1, 2010

    Dear fellow citizens, allow me to remind you that, in SL there is also a region called Mieville.

     I really enjoyed Perdido Street Station, which I don’t feel totally steampunk and I found most interesting in the description of the places than in story. About The Scar I found absolutely brilliant the idea of Armada, but the story not impressed me. However, Mieville is definitely an author to watch: is young, believes in the cultural and political value of narrative and is a Mervyn Peake’s fan.

    Anyway, the Philip Reeve’s “Mortal Engines” quartet  could be considered a possible source of inspiration. It’s children narrative so, the language is very simple but, I think it contains any good ideas.  It seems a common feature of many writers today, to have good basic ideas, but not be as good storytellers.

    At last, I find the Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy  again, the most steampunk book that I’ve read, even if you consider it was published fifteen years ago. The problem is a steampunk writer would be have good culture about History, Science, Mechanics and the ability to not make it obvious.

  11. Mr Tenk Mr Tenk December 1, 2010

    Speaking of Peake, The Gormenghast Novels are truly strange! Again, not steampunk, but in a fantasy vien that will appeal to steampunks, and again, a story about a city. (hmm, that seems to be a touchstone for me.. wonder why?) You might also find the televised mini-series version in your local dvd rental.

  12. Yang Moreau Yang Moreau December 1, 2010

    Not quite steampunk, but set in 1917 with much clockwork and old town adventure in a similar spirit to steampunk is also The Boneshaker by Kate Milford. It seems to be written for perhaps a teenage audience or maybe a slight bit younger, but a VERY enjoyable read even for adults, I found.

  13. Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska December 1, 2010

    I have noticed a lot of juvenile fiction goes steampunk, City of Ember fer example.  Considering how I got caught up, it seems youngsters have a special affinity for clockwork and airships.  No matter what the target audience, tho, kewl ideas are kewl ideas.

  14. Grendel Footman Grendel Footman December 1, 2010

    Personal picks of mine, Fitzpatrick’s War, it’s steampunk, but set in the future, after a world wide EMP set everyone back to late 19th, early 20th technology , and somehow set them back to a victorian culture as well. and basically a plot to take over the world more or less.

    Steampunk Trilogy, as a few people have mentioned, is pretty good

    the Difference Engine, even though William Gibson hates that people consider it steampunk.

    only read the Scar so far with Meiville’s books, but I liked it, looking for a copy of Perdido Street Station now

    if you’re into comics at all, Leauge of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a good series, better than the movie was.

    and Transformers Hearts of Steel was also pretty good, even if it was short

    5 Fists of Justice is also good


    • Marion Questi Marion Questi December 2, 2010

      I was not aware of Gibson’s view.  I consider The Difference Engine to be the definitive steampunk novel!

      I also second Mr. Cleanslate’s recommendation of The Diamond Age as an excellent read, although I don’t consider it steampunk. The novel explores a number of interesting themes but perhaps what makes it interesting to the Victorian Steampunk is it’s challenge to the cultural/moral relativist view that one culture is just different from another but not better. Stephenson seems to assert that, for humans, culture can be a matter of choice and that some choices are better than others.  The Neo-Victorians seem to be the best choice.

      Of course, this is exactly the situation in Second Life. You get to chose your own cultural milieu. And those of us drawn to New Babbage and the Steamlands also tend to regard Victorian culture as the superior choice.

      • Edward Pearse Edward Pearse December 2, 2010

        “I was not aware of Gibson’s view. I consider The Difference Engine to be the definitive steampunk novel!”

        And this is why so many people think steampunk should be punk, because they get the wrong book as the definitive one. :-)

  15. Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska December 3, 2010

    How is Mieville’s Kraken?  Inneybuddy read it?

  16. Phineas Frakture Phineas Frakture December 3, 2010

    Whitechapel Gods is also a great one…also reading The Kingdom Beyond th Waves right now…more of fantasy with Steampunk thrown in though

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