Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature
by Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers
Abrams, May 2011
This richly illustrated book provides a comprehensive guide to all things Steampunk. It covers pretty much everything: literature, comics, fashion and cosplay (dressing up), crafts, music, art and even lifestyle. The term itself (clearly derived from Cyberpunk) was coined in the late ‘80s by the writer K.W. Jeter, whose novels Morlock Night and Infernal Devices were key in defining the genre. As a literary genre, you could describe it as science-fiction that is set in the (or an imagined/alternative) Victorian Age, perhaps the Edwardian Age. Curiously, then, it has the characteristic of being both retro and futuristic. And you could see Steampunk literature as building on the work of such writers as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and, to a lesser extent, Poe and Conan Doyle.
Somehow the Steampunk aesthetic, whether it be a fondness for clockwork devices or an interest in dressing up in cravats and corsets, has extended to other areas of culture too – and the authors cover these also. They even compare Steampunk to Surrealism at one point, which strikes me as absurd: Surrealism was much more radical, an hard-edged beast. That Rimbaud/Marx conflation and all it implied.
A lot of the book reads like features journalism. There are clichés – talk of ‘the major players’ and that other one, ‘the movers and shakers’ at one point – and it’s not overly critical, to put it mildly. When reading one of a number of what seemed to be promotional pieces (e.g. the list of ten Steampunk bands that I really must check out), Robert Silverberg’s wise counsel came to mind: 80% of everything is crap. There were, however, two contributions that I found to be especially thought-provioking. Bruce Sterling, co-author with William Gibson of the seminal Steampunk (as we should now call it) novel The Difference Engine, made the cogent point that a focus on the past speaks of an unease with the present. Our current way of life is unsustainable – economically, environmentally and in other ways too – according to Sterling. And Catherynne M. Valente’s paean to punk and the quotidian grittiness of Victorian life was pretty fantastic too. Here’s a sampler from her piece:
Get punk or go home – and think, for just a precious second, about what punk means, the rage and iconoclasm and desperation, the nihilism and unsentimental ecstasy of punk rock. I’ve heard the punk suffix mocked soundly by everyone I know – but we should be so lucky as to live up to it. (61)
If you’re intrigued by Steampunk, I would definitely recommend this book: it’s well designed and the illustrations are gorgeous to look at. Where the book falls down, as indicated, is in its sometimes fan-boy style, its concern not to offend. More attitude and opinion (as exhibited by Valente) would have been welcome. Oh, and to mention John Ruskin in relation to arts and crafts but to omit all consideration of William Morris is not only ignorant, it’s virtually a criminal act. That’s just not on.
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org