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The Famous Five

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We saw a biopic of Enid Blyton over the weekend; hence the title.

Katherine Mosley and Brandon Herman guested hosted a webcast on steampunk over at; I was asked to provide a list of some of the best or more representative steampunk literature. Here are my choices:

1.  The Classics:  The Difference Engine, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling.   While steampunk originated with Jeter & Blaylock, this is the book that got my attention when it came out in 1991.   Iconic cyberpunk authors Gibson & Sterling use history in an informed and purposeful way;  their use of alternative technology (Charles Babbage actually develops his Difference Engine — an early computer — in a functional way) is well-thought through.  They deal with politics, including class and gender issues, effectively.   And they repurpose characters and situations from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil, in a way that’s far more realistic than Disraeli himself.

2.  American Steampunk:  Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.   Priest’s Clockwork Century series imagines a world where the U.S. Civil War continues on into the 1880s.   She’s good at strong female protagonists and at nonstop action;  reading Boneshaker feels like seeing a good summer action movie.  Her worldbuilding is solid, and I’m particularly fond of the way she takes all of the cliched steampunk tropes (goggles, airships, etc.) and gives them purpose.   The series continues with (so far) the novella Clementine and the novel Dreadnought.   She engages with issues of race, class, and gender, though some of the ethical issues in Boneshaker take a backseat to the action.  Plus there are zombies.

3.  Drawing-Room Steampunk:  Soulless by Gail Carriger.   Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series is steampunk meets paranormal romance meets Oscar Wilde and/or P. G. Wodehouse.  Protagonist Alexia Tarabotti is a smart and independent woman constrained by the social circumstances of Victorian England, although this is a Victorian England which has come to terms with the presence of vampires and werewolves in its midst.   Consistently amusing, Carriger’s series also does a good job with gender issues.

4.  YA Steampunk:  Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.   Westerfeld’s trilogy has a fascinating premise, an alternative World War I, fought between the Austo-Hungarian Clankers, with their classic steampunk technology, and the British Darwinists, who’ve genetically engineered living weapons.   In later books, Westerfeld takes his characters out of Europe and into the wider world.

5.  Science Fiction/Fantasy with a steampunk feeling:   Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.   Elsewhere in this blog I’ve discussed where Mieville’s Bas-Lag books fit in the steampunk spectrum, but this smart, highly-political novel certain has the technology and the feel of a steampunk world, in addition to political situations (oppression of the workers, imperialism, etc.) very much connected to steampunk’s nineteeth-century inspiration.  It’s set, however, on another world, with well-conceived alien cultures and lush, gorgeous descriptions which situate the world extremely well.

Bonus:  though I haven’t yet had the chance to read all of it, Joelle Vanderhooft’s anthology Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories brings both queer and multicultural perspectives to steampunk, two things I hope to be seeing a lot more of in the near future.


Written by Catherine Siemann

April 27, 2011 at 11:28 am

Posted in steampunk

One Response

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  1. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to read Boneshaker at least half a dozen times, based on what I see in the amazon listing, reader reviews, what people I know say…. I just can’t decide if it looks interesting or silly, and that’s almost certainly not the book’s fault but just my reaction to what I hear. I tink I really should just quit waffling and read it.

    And I quite enjoyed Soulless, with only a few quibbles. It was Book 2 (I’m totally spacing on the name) that pissed me off beyond belief, because she violated her own world-building and, worse, massively undercut her heroine.

    Have fun tonight. What time does the program start?

    Leslie Wainger

    April 27, 2011 at 12:23 pm

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