August 6, 2002 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Steampunk (alternate) is surging. With the recent works of China Mieville (and his creation of New Crobuzon) and Phillip Pullman (His Dark Materials) and Alan Moore, inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, there is a new growing fascination with this genre typified by Victorian Anachronism, an alternate history in which technology is overwrought and fantastic. Think Leonardo's machines (though not Victorian), Victorian Robots (prev. mefi thread), The Babbage Engine. 19th Century Science.
posted by vacapinta (30 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Of Tangible Ghosts and Ghost of the Revelator by L. E. Modesitt. Jr. are great examples of this genre, at least in my opinion. Not quite like "The DIfference Engine" from Sterling and Gibson, but a great pair of books. I just wish he'd write more in that universe with those characters.
posted by mrbill at 2:15 PM on August 6, 2002

Sorry. Both of my first two links got mefi'ed. Its merely a geocities site devoted to the genre - here's a Google cache of one of the main pages.
posted by vacapinta at 3:03 PM on August 6, 2002

alan moore rules the waves....
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:45 PM on August 6, 2002

China Mieville is a man? Well, I never.
posted by kindall at 3:54 PM on August 6, 2002

Heeeyyy -- dont forget Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age...came out in '95, and still a good reread for me!
posted by metrocake at 3:54 PM on August 6, 2002

just finished mieville's the scar - dense and borderline turgid (and looong) but ornate and imaginative enough to make me want to read perdido street station.

stephenson rules...hiro protagonist, my man. cryptonomicon is just plain impressive.
posted by gottabefunky at 4:36 PM on August 6, 2002

Apart from the original Wild Wild West series on TV, I can't think of any aspect of steampunk that I've enjoyed as much as the Thief videogames.

But mind you, that's my taffing opinion...
posted by Smart Dalek at 4:42 PM on August 6, 2002

Another game drawing heavily from the Steampunk genre is Arcanum. Great game, too.
posted by Acetylene at 5:41 PM on August 6, 2002

Anyone else read The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling? Not astounding, but I loved Keats-as-movie-maker.

Diamond Age is indeed pretty good, and Pullman's vision in His Dark Materials was pretty fresh (though this freshness tapered out by Golden Compass, I thought...). I'm trying to get my hands on Perdido St Station. Anyone else read it, to tell me if it's *actually* worth buying (or just borrowing)?
posted by Marquis at 5:42 PM on August 6, 2002

I just recently finished Perdido Street Station, and yes, IMHO, it is an extraordinary novel, rich, haunting, inventive, and utterly compelling. Marquis, it is well worth actually buying. I wish I could be more precise in my praise, but I don't quite know what to compare it to. It is very dark fantasy, and it straddles a position in between science fiction (like the better known steampunk novels), horror (think Lovecraft), and fantastic, but naturalistically depicted, alternate worlds (Mieville himself mentions Peake's Gormenghast trilogy as an inspiration).
It might be worth making a distinction between "steampunk" works that actually play with Victorian history & literature (like The Difference Engine, and Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and ones, like Perdido Street Station, that do not reference the Victorian period at all, but have a sort of Victorian feel because of the sort of society they depict. (Perdido Street Station feels Victorian because it has heavy industry and pollution, but no electronics or internal combustion engines--its computing machines are Babbage-like in that they work by mechanical gears, etc).
posted by Rebis at 6:33 PM on August 6, 2002

Mmmm. Mervyn.

Thanks for the tip, Rebis. I'll definitely seek it out.
posted by Marquis at 7:08 PM on August 6, 2002

(and I mean that honestly: thanks.)

Your notion of genre divisions is a good one. Something that rather upset me, recently, was the utterly inane recommendations made over at the usually-urbane Kuro5hin, where a discussion of "fun novels that aren't SF" recommended Calvino, Guy Gavriel Kay, Cervantes, Vonnegut, Gaiman, Marquez, Rushdie, Borges, Jeff "Vurt" Noon, Stephenson, Pratchett, Zelazny, and yes, Mieville, not to mention sometime-SF writers such as Kafka, Eco, Coupland and Banks.

Not all science-fiction, certainly, but if we take the notion in spirit rather than in letter, then these are all authors of speculative fiction. It saddens me to think that some readers of candy scifi shy away from Borges or Rushdie, for fear of being corrupted by anything remotely "literary".
posted by Marquis at 7:17 PM on August 6, 2002

Perdido Street Station is one of the better recent books I've read. I'd say it's a must-read, no matter how one gets a hold of it.

I'm halfway through The Scar right now, and it's not quite the same thing--same world, but quite different. More horror than steampunk, I think.
posted by Electric Elf at 8:26 PM on August 6, 2002

Marquis: I would go so far as to say that fantasy, science fiction and horror, although usually categorized separately, are all the same genre headed in different directions. They depict worlds which are not our own, but which have aspects that are recognizable to us. The term fantastic literature comes closest to what I'm thinking of, (fantastic in the sense of "Existing only in the imagination; fabulous, unreal"), and I like this term since it has plenty of room for the authors you mention. (Although how anyone could put Noon, Stephenson, Pratchett, and Zelazny outside of standard SF is a mystery to me. A quick check of awards lists shows that Zelazny won three Nebulas and six Hugos.) I'd also add Pynchon and David Foster Wallace to the list of "authors who aren't usually considered SF, but actually write it." Gravity's Rainbow was nominated for a Nebula, but lost to Rendezvous With Rama.

Er. Right. Steampunk. Paul Di Filippo wrote three nifty novellas which have been collected in the book The Steampunk Trilogy. Queen Victoria replaced by a newt, a riff on Lovecraft (among other things), and Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson travel to another world. Fun stuff. Also, Homunculus by James P. Blaylock. The reviewer notes "Homunculus isn't really sci fi, though it has aliens, space travel, and perpetual motion. It isn't really horror, though it has some cracking zombiefaction and grave robbing. And it isn't really fantasy, having only Magic in small details, not as an important basis."

LoEG totally rules, and inspired me to read the source books for all five of the main characters. I recently picked up a copy of The Mysterious Island to complete my Nemo knowledge. I'm also planning on taking on some more H. Rider Haggard at some point (maybe She?). King Solomon's Mines was a lot of fun.
posted by finn at 9:56 PM on August 6, 2002

I'm with gottabefunky on Mieville's style. I got Perdido St Station as a present and was intrigued by the inventiveness, but had to put it down after a hundred or so pages. The fatty, overwrought prose bothered me too much. Somebody ought to clue him in that sentences without adverbs can in fact work quite well. Shame, because the city was interesting.
posted by muckster at 10:04 PM on August 6, 2002

Marquis said-
and Pullman's vision in His Dark Materials was pretty fresh (though this freshness tapered out by Golden Compass, I thought...).

How could it be fresh and tapered out all at the same time? Golden Compass was the first of the trilogy? Or am I missing something here? If you meant the third one, The Amber Spyglass, I would agree. A tremendous letdown full of irrelevant detail, that left a sour taste in my mouth...
posted by Windopaene at 10:06 PM on August 6, 2002

finn: I don't really disagree with you that "fantasy, science fiction and horror... are all the same genre headed in different directions." Making the distinctions or not is a question of what context you are speaking in. In some cases, the point is to emphasize the difference of fantastic literature in general from what is sometimes called "mimetic fiction." In others, the point might be rather to distinguish the "different directions" in which such works are headed--or in my case, the different moods and emotions and ideas that SF, horror, and baroque fantasy evoke.
posted by Rebis at 11:35 PM on August 6, 2002

I've finished both Pedido Street Station and The Scar. I think Mieville's third Bas-Lag novel will tie up some loose ends. I think it'll be a doozy!
Thanks for the suggestions guys, I'll look into them as soon as I catch up on James Morrow's stuff.
posted by black8 at 12:33 AM on August 7, 2002

May I refer to my own site for lists of SF&F books by theme? Here's
Steampunk (not our biggest list by far.)
posted by otravers at 2:06 AM on August 7, 2002

I really liked Mieville's "King Rat". It was a bit overdone at times, but was good enough, on the whole, that I enjoyed it despite it's faults.

I especially like the interactions between the two main rat characters. It was mostly the parts where he discussed music and software that I got annoyed. It seemed too much like he'd just discovered jungle and that he really needed to make sure we knew that he knew about computers.

other than that, great book.
posted by jaded at 3:21 AM on August 7, 2002

Windopaene - Oops! Got my slightly-golden-hued cartographic apparata mixed up. I did indeed mean Amber Spyglass. Pullman fans should note that it made the short-list for the Booker! (!!!) (!!!!!)
posted by Marquis at 6:22 AM on August 7, 2002

I was pretty excited to read The Difference Engine by Sterling and Gibson, being a big fan of both authors and fairly intrigued by the book's premise. Somehow the conglomeration did not seem to work for me though. Both authors seemed to sacrifice the best parts of their individual styles to cooperate and create a somewhat interesting but ultimately dry read. I was a bit let down by the book. I'd love to see both authors try the genre again, but this time on their own.

I'd be interested in checking out the Stephenson and Moore stuff. Steampunk is interesting, though I have to wonder if it's something of a fad. Even highly specialised genres can be pretty fertile though. I mean look at medieval fantasy. It amazes me how much mileage hundreds of authors have gotten out of plundering Tolkien, and with so little variation too.

Oh, and of Mieville: I read King Rat and while it wasn't too shabby, I had a hard time not comparing it to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The secret-magical-and-filthy-world-below-London stories shared much in common, but Neverwhere blew King Rat out of the sewer water, as it were.
posted by picea at 7:20 AM on August 7, 2002

very few sci-fi/fantasy writers can shine equally well in both style (quality of writing, storytelling skill) and subject matter: how inventive and interesting (and in some ways credible) are the worlds created. countless awful examples of the genre(s) show how hard it is.

someone like william gibson can be an amazing writer, and come up with some memorable images, but without a plot to speak of his books don't hold together (though i'll still read em for the prose).

IMHO, mieville falls in the opposite category: very creative worlds, some haunting images, but goopy writing. muckster is right, he does need to take mark twain's advice and hunt down adjectives and slaughter them ruthlessly.

very few sci-f/f writers can pull it off in both categories equally well. someone like vernor vinge comes to mind; a fire upon the deep and a deepness in the sky are two of the more amazing examples of the genre i've read (and it's a long list).
posted by gottabefunky at 10:06 AM on August 7, 2002

Mmm, Jim Morrow. That's good eating.

Why, yes, yes I did go back and track down all his old stuff.
posted by NortonDC at 10:58 AM on August 7, 2002

Mieville's King Rat was decent, although not especially steampunk — more urban fantasy. Of course, these are subgenres that do tend to overlap. Steampunk is a slippery little bastard of a term; there are novels that have the mood and ambience of steampunk (Stephen Brust and Emma Bull's Freedom and Necessity come to mind), are suitably Victorian, paranoid, and noirish, but lack the actual machine-y bits. Then there are books like King Rat or Neverwhere which have a similar feel to them but are somewhat disqualified by the fact that, despite their main characters carry swords and wear monocles, they are at least superficially contemporary in setting.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:02 AM on August 7, 2002

muckster said: "The fatty, overwrought prose bothered me too much."

Yeah, the density of Mieville's writing in "Perdido St. Station" is such that you're really either in the headspace to be swept up by it (as I was) or you joylessly trudge through it. If something in the story doesn't hook you almost immediately then the prose will just kill you.

When I first picked it up I barely got through the first chapter before setting it down in favor of another. I then returned to it about a week later and found myself absolutely enraptured with the writing, the story, the city, the characters...everything. A truly amazing book.

and btw, "The Difference Engine" is crap...IMHO.
posted by xochi at 2:26 PM on August 7, 2002

Isn't it fitting that mieville prose is arduous? Kind of gives some sense of authenticity, just like Victorian literature :)

xochi: Enraptured is the word. I myself found The Scar to be the most worthy weird fantasy [author's term for his writing] novel i have stumbled across in a while. Maybe his writing has matured? I have yet to read it's predecessor.
posted by elphTeq at 5:43 PM on August 7, 2002

Rebis wrote: In some cases, the point is to emphasize the difference of fantastic literature in general from what is sometimes called "mimetic fiction." In others, the point might be rather to distinguish the "different directions" in which such works are headed--or in my case, the different moods and emotions and ideas that SF, horror, and baroque fantasy evoke.

I agree that these labels can be useful. I personally am much more likely to read SF than fantasy mostly because I perceive the latter category as being much less diverse and full of Tolkien imitators (admittedly, this perception may be false). However, I think the categories are more detrimental than helpful. SF is still a genre that does not carry the same cachet as "real literature". This means that excellent authors that come out of traditional SF get missed by the standard literary types and authors with literary cachet who write work that might be considered fantastic get missed by SF fans. Everyone loses. There are some interesting exceptions to this, but for the most part it's the truth. I'm not sure that it's even possible for this gap to ever be bridged since SF fandom thrives on being apart from standard literary types.
posted by finn at 8:15 PM on August 7, 2002

I didn't know His Dark Materials was steampunk... I was intrigued by the title but had not yet bought it. Now it'll get moved up on my list. :)
posted by Foosnark at 10:13 AM on August 8, 2002

I can't let a thread that refers to my favorite comic of recent years slip by without contributing a bit.

If you've read the comics and enjoyed them, you MUST visit Jess Nevins' awesome annotations on the series. You WILL learn something new about the amazing array of Victorian obscurities that Moore hides in every issue. If you haven't read the books, these notes will give you a glimpse at the coolness that you're dealing with here.

Also of note, a movie is in the works.
posted by El_Gray at 11:46 PM on August 10, 2002

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