A lot of readers have found it confusing to negotiate their way through book lists under the heading of Steampunk. They find Mysteries, Young Adult, Romance and an inordinate number of stories with vampires, zombies and werewolves for a genre that isn’t Horror. They come across Adventure stories, many of them in the YA camp, airships and mechanoids. So what is it that actually defines a story as Steampunk?
Well, the simple answer is alternative forms of energy, i.e. steam and clockwork technology instead of fossil fuels. Steampunk tends to be set in either Victorian England or the Wild West. Usually there is an airship involved somewhere, steam powered of course.
The complication comes in when you realise that these elements can apply in any genre, even Horror, as Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters demonstrates. So how did a novel with gruesome mutilations get into the same category as Gail Carriager YA Romance novels? And why vampires and werewolves?
As these tend to show up mainly in the Romance selections, I blame Twilight. Romanticising these monsters is a realm where I make no attempt to understand. On the Adventure front, Scott Westerfield and Cherie Priest have made a good showing with airship technology. My only complaint is that they are written for the Young Adult audience and a little too one dimensional for my taste.
I first came across Steampunk in the world of music, specifically the song Airship Pirates by Abney Park. The imagery of this band with their goggles and outlandish flight gear and hair styles sparked something in my imagination that made me want to read a story about airship pirates. My vision was of an Adventure story, but written for adult readers. As it turned out, the lead singer of the band did eventually write a story, but by then I had already released The Wake of the Dragon: A Steampunk Adventure.
The story is set in Victorian England and involves airship pirates who commandeer a shipment of opium that a crooked businessman has already effectively stolen from the East India Company. I had fun with this, introducing multiple elements including spies, mechanoids and a most unlikely hero. A second book for the series is in progress and a third one is planned, taking the reader to Egypt for the Victorian era pyramid excavations.
One of the first Steampunk books I read was a Mystery, The Affinity Bridge by George Mann. Again, we have a setting in Victorian England, airships and surprisingly, zombie-like creatures. In a London fog, a few monsters are bound to enter a story!
One of the main elements of Steampunk is atmospherics. By taking the reader to an alternative history, a touch of the familiar in a romanticised depiction creates an attractive backdrop to what is effectively a Fantasy realm, though technically Steampunk is considered science fiction. Steam technology is an essential component, though often minimal or lacking in the Romance versions.
So what the reader looking for something under the Steampunk category has to keep in mind is that it isn’t a single genre. Steampunk indicates an alternative history and technology basis to a story, but the reading experience of one author’s use of these elements does not reflect on another author’s interpretation of how a similar setting might be used.
Your best bet is to read the story descriptions carefully and if possible, try an Amazon sample or utilise their ‘Look Inside’ feature to determine whether a story suits your reading preferences. Keywords can also be helpful. If you put your genre preference in their search bar, say search on ‘steampunk adventure’, some stories of potential interest should come up! Maybe even mine. Amazon does not filter YA unless you specifically search for YA, so if like me you prefer something at a more mature reading level you’ll have to use your judgement while reading the descriptions and viewing samples.
Steampunk allows for some very imaginative fiction. Not all of what is available is good, but don’t let a single bad story put you off! They happen in all genres. With a little discernment you might find a few stories worth the effort, perhaps even as enjoyable as the creative imaginings of Jules Verne, whose inventive use of alternative technologies have inspired many modern Steampunk writers!
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