Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Steampunk
Why it’s daunting: As literary subgenres go, steampunk is especially nebulous. Coined partly in reaction to the future-obsessed cyberpunk craze of the ’80s and ’90s, steampunk looks backward rather than forward, imagining what the Victorian and/or Edwardian Era might have looked like if technological advances such as computers and robots had popped up many decades too soon. But what began as a quaint exercise in subversive nostalgia has radically branched out, and steampunk now loosely embraces just about any kind of gleefully anachronistic science fiction, from gadget-laden Westerns like the ’60s TV series The Wild Wild West to the fictional, pre-atomic milieu of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels. Further compounding the subgenre’s hazy definition, steampunk also relies heavily on chronological context: In a sense, some of the staples of 19th-century science fiction (Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and From The Earth To The Moon, for example) could be considered steampunk. That is, if they’d been written in recent years, rather than during the steam-driven age in which they take place.
Possible gateway: Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Why: Although an anthology seems like a no-brainer entrée into steampunk, editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer use their self-titled 2008 collection as more than just a sampler. The book is a thoughtful, exhaustive overview of steampunk that starts with an excerpt from Michael Moorcock’s 1971 novel, The Warlord Of The Air, one of the earliest examples of proto-steampunk. Besides establishing the alternate-history bent of much of the subgenre, Warlord revels in one of steampunk’s most vivid, ubiquitous tropes: the airship. Fellow pioneer James P. Blaylock is represented here with the pulp-infused short story “Lord Kelvin’s Machine.” Horror legend Joe R. Lansdale takes a similar tone with “The Steam Man Of The Prairie And The Dark Rider Get Down,” which throws some spit and spark into the steampunk equation. The anthology’s most noteworthy inclusion, though, is Michael Chabon’s “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance”—an alternate history of the Civil War that not only shows Chabon’s perpetual love affair with genre fiction, but the literary playground of steampunk as a whole. The book is rounded out by intriguing essays that explore everything from steampunk’s dime-novel ancestry to its shameless flirtation with comics.
Next steps: Oddly, steampunk’s most visible and successful novel, 1990’s The Difference Engine, was written by two of cyberpunk’s biggest names, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Accordingly, the book revolves around the widespread manufacture and application of Charles Babbage’s punch-card computer in the 19th century—which leads to a version of history where North America comprises many nations, Great Britain’s social structure has been re-imagined, and figures such as Sam Houston and Benjamin Disraeli pop up in wholly different incarnations. Crappy screen version aside, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic series The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been a steady, mostly reliable source of steampunk gee-whiz that throws dozens of bygone genre icons such as Allan Quatermain, Mina Harker, John Carter, and Captain Nemo into a seething stew of conspiracy-mongering and continuity-splicing. Another great steampunk work that’s suffered a poor big-screen transition is Philip Pullman’s willfully controversial young-adult series, collectively known as His Dark Materials. While the movie version of the trilogy’s first book, 1995’s The Golden Compass, neutered most of its antireligious sting, it at least captures the splendor and spectacle of Pullman’s intricate, majestic, steam-filled world. As a strictly literary phenomenon, steampunk seems to have died down over the past couple years, leading many to wonder if the subgenre has been strip-mined beyond recognition at this point. Ekaterina Sedia’s 2008 novel The Alchemy Of Stone helped put those doubts to rest: Her concise, sparsely sumptuous story of a clockwork woman in search of humanity amid a crumbling city not only gives steampunk a shot in the arm, it does so with grace, understatement, and a strong backbone of social commentary.
Where not to start: Long before finding fame with The Prestige, Christopher Priest wrote the 1976 novel The Space Machine, an H.G. Wells homage that juxtaposed Victorian England and the surface of Mars. It remains a fun yet overlooked bit of early steampunk. That said, it isn’t a strong example of what the subgenre can do—unlike K.W. Jeter’s 1987 book Infernal Devices, a Victorian-Era romp full of clockwork androids (which, along with airships, are an essential steampunk trope) that winds up feeling too flimsy and whimsical, in spite of its on-the-nose steampunk-isms. The same can be said of Paul Di Filippo’s The Steampunk Trilogy. The trio of novellas seems, from name alone, to be the perfect introduction to the subgenre, but its saucy, pun-laced tone is best savored after digesting some of steampunk’s more substantial fare. Now that steampunk has become a subcultural touchstone—even Thomas Pynchon worked elements of it into his 2006 novel, Against The Day—a new crop of writers has latched onto its wonderfully clunky retro-futurism. But regardless of whether the new steampunk breed is good (such as Jay Lake’s sprawling, metaphysical Mainspring from 2007) or not-so-good (like S.M. Peters’ by-the-numbers Whitechapel Gods from 2008), such new entries are best reserved for readers who already have a solid grip on steampunk’s fundamentals.