Black Holes and Parallel Universes: Science Fiction Reading Ruminations Reading Themes

[Saturday Reads] A Primer on Steampunk – Jeff Vandermeer (Part 1 of 2)


Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just booklove miscellany in general.

Iphigene has outdone herself with this beautiful widget she created.
Iphigene has outdone herself with this beautiful widget she created.

Steampunk is a genre that is unfamiliar to us here at GatheringBooks, which is why we thought that it would ‘educate’ us a bit to have this reading theme. After seeing most of my sci-fi-and-speculative-fiction-aficionado friends and fellow bibliophiles speak highly of Jeff Vandermeer, I borrowed most of his books that I can find from the library. Admittedly, I have not finished reading these books yet, but I would love to share them all with you, as they seem to be essential reads for Steampunk Neophytes like myself.


The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World Of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature
Written by Jeff Vandermeer with S. J. Chambers
Published by Abrams Image (2011)
Book borrowed from the Jurong Regional Library.

As the title says, this is a gorgeously-illustrated and beautifully-designed compendium of anything that is connected to Steampunk. The book is divided into seven major sections, beginning with It’s a Clockwork Universe, Victoria which attempts to define the genre in this way:

STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [invention (steam x airship or metal man / baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot

Sounds fairly easy enough, isn’t it? The second section is all about An Imaginary Voyage to the Past tracing Steampunk’s roots to “Verne, Wells, and the Industrial Revolution.”


And naturally, one could not talk about Steampunk without making reference to Edgar Allan Poe:


Third section touches on Clanking Metal Men, Baroque Airships, and Clockwork Worlds as Vandermeer discusses  the storyline that links the steampunk genre together, or what he calls the “story behind the stories” as well as the illustrated narratives. The fourth part, is the one that basically goes over my head with From Forevertron to the Raygun Rocketship and Beyond. One of steampunk’s essence is its fascination with the gears, the cogs, the strangely-put-together wheels that provide the genre with a sense of “aesthetic legitimacy” as you can see in the pages below:




One of my favourite parts would be Hair Stays, Goggles, Corsets, Clockwork Guitars, and Imaginary Airships which explore “fashion, accessories, music, and the steampunk subculture.” While I have not attended any cosplay convention yet, I imagine that Steampunk aficionados would be a huge hit in such gatherings, as can be seen in their very distinct fashion sense:


The book also includes suggestions on how the reader can “raise your steampunk fashion game.”


The sixth section looks at Steampunk Movies and Television with Magic Lanterns, Robot Armies, Giant Tuning Forks, and Perambulating Castles. There was a special mention of Hayao Miyazake’s adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle (one of my favourite films) and the movie that I have only learned of now (see image below):


It is also worthwhile noting that there are several essay contributions interspersed throughout the book written by Desirina Boskovich, Libby Bulloff, G. D. Falksen, Rick Klaw, Jess Nevins, Jake von Slatt, Bruce Sterling, and Catherynne M. Valente, the latter known for her Fairyland trilogy which we will also be featuring here in GatheringBooks for our next reading theme.

The last section touches on The Future of Steampunk as Vandermeer explores possibilities of an international/multicultural steam. He also acknowledges that it is very difficult to predict how the trajectory of steampunk would be like in the next few years:

The truth is, no one knows what Steampunk will look like in the future – there’s even a kind of irony in suggesting a future for a subculture that gains so much of its power from reimagining the past. With any luck, though, sustainability will become a hot-button Steampunk issue, and international/multicultural Steampunk will become integrated in a way that enhances all aspects of the subculture.


Edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
Tachyon Publications (2008)
Book borrowed from the Jurong Regional Library.

In Vandermeer’s Steampunk Bible above, he included a short discussion of this collection of Steampunk short stories published in 2008:


He acknowledged that at the time this anthology was published, he and his wife had “limited knowledge of the larger Steampunk subculture.” However, he related that this was actually a good thing as it led to an even more dynamic exchange of ideas:

… as we attended Steampunk events, an interesting cross-pollination occurred. Steampunks who had come into the fold through fashion or film and had never heard of the authors in our book picked it up to learn more about the history, while we became immersed in the subculture…

This collection includes an introduction the 19th century roots of Steampunk written by Jess Nevins, a pop culture survey written by Rick Klaw, and a chapter on the essential sequential steampunk which includes a modest survey of the genre within the comic book medium written by Bill Baker. Aside from the observations and reflections noted by these three steampunk experts, the rest of the book focuses on fiction short stories written by the likes of Neal Stephenson, Michael Chabon, Ted Chiang, Michael Moorcock, Molly Brown just to cite a few.

How about you, fellow bibliophiles, have you read any of these books yet? Are you familiar with steampunk literature? Who are among your favourite authors? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

1 comment on “[Saturday Reads] A Primer on Steampunk – Jeff Vandermeer (Part 1 of 2)

  1. The Steampunk Bible sounds awesome! 😀 I love steampunk-type stories. Not a lot of people know what the genre is. Great post!


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