Steampunk is a hard genre to pin down. It’s fantasy, it’s science fiction, it’s Victorian, it’s futuristic… but what is it? My favorite way to describe it to people is this:
Ok, so imagine a guy from the late 1800s, early 1900s. He’s wearing a top hat, a monocle, and a nice fancy suit. He’s got some sweet goggles because he’s about to ride in his zeppelin. Oh, and he has a brass robotic arm.
Most people then say, “Ohhhh,” and that’s that. Steampunk is speculative fiction that imagines a world that still uses steam power. Victorian morality and clothing still apply, but there are more dirigibles and other fun stuff. Here are some pictures of steampunk stuff to give you the idea.
This list is in no way comprehensive. There are tons of steampunk novels worth reading; the ones on this list are the ones I recommend for people starting out in the genre.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
An inventor creates a time machine that transports him to the future. What he finds is frightening: the Eloi are beautiful, idiotic people who live in mortal terror of the Morlocks, dark-seeking creatures. Can this future be prevented?
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
A crew is assembled to take down a monstrous sea creature, led by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. A great adventurous sea story.
Wells and Verne are the granddaddies of steampunk. Their novels are full of gadgets, Victorian morals, and fantastic plots that transport the reader to other times and places. Anything by either of these guys would serve as a great first education in steampunk.
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
It’s 1914, and the division in Europe is between the Darwinists, countries that use genetically-engineered animals for their weapons, and the Clankers, those that use robots and other machines. Alek is the son of Franz Ferdinand, and when his parents are assassinated, he must escape to safety. Deryn is a British girl who attempts to pass for a boy so she can be in the military. What a fantastic and entertaining book.
The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
This is the first book in the Sally Lockhart series. It’s intended for young adults, but it’s so captivating that I think anyone could read it and be entertained. These books take place in London in 1872. Sally is an inquisitive, intelligent young girl who gets herself mixed up in a gem-stealing, opium-smoking mystery. The other books are The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, and The Tin Princess.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Another young adult book, and another one by Pullman. He knows how to write steampunk that makes the reader completely unaware of the fact that they are reading a strange genre! The Golden Compass takes place in a dimension parallel to ours, in which part of everyone’s personality is visible in the form of a daemon, or an animal companion. Lyra Belacqua lives in Oxford, England, at the university. She embarks on an amazing journey to save her friend, Roger, from an evil group of child-snatchers. This book is the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy; the other two books are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
This is a graphic novel series that takes place in 1898. It features characters from Victorian literature who have joined forces to fight evil. These characters include: Mina Murray (Mina Harker, from Dracula); Captain Nemo (from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea); Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde); Hawley Griffin (Griffin, from The Invisible Man); and Allan Quatermain (from King Solomon’s Mines). Alan Moore is the creator of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell, so he is no stranger to steampunk aesthetics and dark plots.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Imagine if Charles Babbage, who created the concept of the programmable computer, has invented something more powerful, and then had risen to political power. What would the world have turned into? This novel, which helped define the genre of steampunk, answers that question. It’s complex, fascinating, and brilliant.
The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe
This is the first in a series of four books; the others are The Pirates! in an Adventure with Ahab, The Pirates! in an Adventure with Communists, and The Pirates! in an Adventure with Napoleon. They are tiny little books that can be read in one sitting, and they are hysterical. The first book follows the pirate crew, led by the Pirate Captain (and his luxurious beard), as they sail around the world. Accidentally, the Pirate Captain sinks the Beagle. He rescues Charles Darwin and his “man-panzee,” and tries to take them back to London. The pirates are never referred to by name, but instead are called “the pirate with a scarf,” “the pirate with scurvy,” “the pirate in green,” etc. As they tramp around 1837 London, they get in all kinds of scrapes of increasing hilarity. This is reimagined history at its most humorous.
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