Sep 25, 2012

Ten Books every Steampunk Scholar needs

I'm done. I'm finished. The mission has been completed. I'll tell you all about it soon enough, but for now, I'd like to share the last thing I wrote in the dissertation.

One of the proposed revisions my external reader recommended was an appendix of primary sources  essential to literary steampunk studies. I compiled this list based largely upon the popularity of these texts, not necessarily their scholarly or literary merit. While Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion might be more conducive to ostensibly serious textual rigour, its influence on the steampunk aesthetic is marginal. After reading over sixty steampunk novels, these are the ones I'd say are must-haves for literary studies in steampunk. There are many other works that are brilliant, or that address certain facets of the steampunk aesthetic, but in answer to the question "Where do I start?" this is what I'd reply. This is not my list of favourites, but rather a list of the books you need to be reading if you want to be talking about steampunk with any sort of authority.

Seminal Steampunk
Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock (1971): This is widely considered a seminal work of steampunk, and is often cited for its political subtext. It is still in print in an omnibus edition from White Wolf Publishing. The omnibus includes the sequels to Warlord.
Infernal Devices/Morlock Night omnibus by K.W. Jeter (2011): Angry Robot books released both of Jeter’s first steampunk works in an omnibus that includes a new foreword by Jeter, and an afterword by Jeff Vandermeer, co-editor of the first steampunk anthology and The Steampunk Bible.
The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives omnibus by James P. Blaylock (2008): While this edition from Subterranean Press is now out-of-print, it is the only comprehensive collection of Blaylock’s early steampunk writing, both short stories and longer works. Titan Books is reprinting Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine in 2013, for those who cannot locate a used copy of this collection. You'll be missing out though, both on the never-before-in-print "Hole in Space," and Blaylock's afterword.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1991): No discussion of steampunk can be considered complete without some mention of this novel. While it is not widely appreciated due to its difficult nature, it remains one of the best-known early steampunk books.

Second Wave
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (2006): While Pynchon’s epic novel contains many other styles of narratives, the adventures of the Chums of Chance clearly owe a debt to the steampunk aesthetic. Those looking for a very serious and dense work of literature to study steampunk through need look no further. That said, it is not widely read within steampunk circles, so should not be part of a literary assessment of steampunk as a popular phenomenon.

(It must be noted that the following three books, released in the same month in North America, were arguably part of the avant garde of a steampunk publishing explosion, but demonstrated their superiority with other works released subsequently through the enduring popularity of the series each book started.)
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (2009): In addition to catalyzing Priest’s career, Boneshaker popularized the genre for readers outside the subculture, and while it was not the first to do so, was arguably the book that reminded fans that steampunk could take place in the American West. 
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009): Along with its sequels, this Young Adult novel is one of the most widely read works of steampunk. While the plot is straightforward, Westerfeld’s technofantasies have a thematic resonance that transcends any formulaic plot elements.

Soulless by Gail Carriger (2009): While it continues to be reviled by critics who hold that steampunk should be serious, the tremendous popularity of Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series cannot be denied. While I have yet to gather statistics, it is my impression that these books, and this first one in particular, are the most widely read steampunk works in the past five years.

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff (2012): Since it was released late in the process of writing my dissertation, I was unable to include Kristoff’s first book in the Lotus War series in my discussion of East Asian steampunk and the problem of Victorientalism. Beyond simply being an excellent work of fiction, Kristoff’s Stormdancer provides an interesting secondary steampunk world based on nineteenth-century Japan.

Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (2008): For a study of steampunk before the 2009 boom in popularity, one cannot do better than the first of the Tachyon series of steampunk anthologies. This book includes everything from an excerpt from Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air to short fiction by Jay Lake written in 2007. It’s an excellent resource for someone looking for a survey of steampunk from its first-wave inception to second-wave innovation.

Sep 7, 2012

Ghosts of War by George Mann

Many thanks to Professor Cayne Armand, who closes this run of guest reviews, while I recover from the stress of finishing my dissertation and anticipate my oral defence on September 17 (the five year mission might be ending a year sooner!). You can check out Armand's science fiction serial at
 This is the second novel in George Mann's Ghosts series, and as I mentioned in my prior review, the heart of the Ghosts series. If you’ve not read Ghosts of Manhattan, you’ll want to read that story before reading this review, as I’m going to be required to spoiler some of the events of Ghosts of Manhattan in my review of Ghosts of War.

Initially hinted at in the ending of Ghosts of Manhattan, and featured on the cover of the novel, we spend much of this story interacting with the horrific brass and vellum raptors that are terrorizing New York City and who Lieutenant Donovan and the Ghost are trying to track down and stop. The characterization of these monsters is wonderful, painted in vivid strokes of inhumanity. This is contrasted well with the humanity of the Ghost. Where we spent much of Ghosts of Manhattan looking at the angst of Lt. Donovan, we spent much of Ghosts of War looking into the heart of the Ghost, and at his human struggle.

I will admit that my heart was thrilled to see such terrifically steampunk monsters, beings of brass and leather, using steam and pistons. The cogs of my heart churned furiously as the Ghost battled these monsters, not once, or twice, but the length of the story. While they’re not impossible for the Ghost to beat, they are a formidable foe – something that is often lost in modern storytelling. A villain that takes everything the hero can give--and then some--is a villain worth fighting. It makes a story worth reading. Mr. Mann quite thankfully chose this route.

We learn in this story that it was not The Roman that had created the moss and brass golems, but a mad scientist pressed into his service – and that these golems are his handiwork, as are the raptors.
These are not the only items of steampunk – as we had a continuation of all things that had been introduced in Ghosts of Manhattan. I’m happy to say that the dirigibles in this story do more than float ponderously in the sky – but I’ll not say more.

While the sophomore novels of a series are quite often the weaker novel of any series, the case is reversed here – Ghosts of War strikes me as the stronger of the two. As I said before, I recommend that you read both, to get yourself immersed in the storyline, in the world of the Ghost. I would recommend the purchase of both novels.

The story is not without its faults. While Mr. Mann does use grittier language throughout, he still refers to sex exclusively as “f**king.” I don’t know if this is a language disconnect, him being British and I, American. Not enough for me to put down the book, but jarring at those times I encountered it.

At a week’s remove from the story, I could now analyze very typical plot twists, twists that could easily be trite and clichéd. In the heat of the moment, as I flipped the pages of the novel as quickly as I could read, I didn’t notice them -- Mr. Mann’s use of them is enticing and refreshing. Where in other’s hands, they could detract from the story, Mr. Mann has woven a beautiful tapestry that pulls the reader along in excitement. This is absolutely a novel to let yourself be absorbed in.

While at first a bit off-putting to my scientific mind, I realized between the two novels that Mr. Mann’s reference to the supernatural through both stories is quite true to the Victorian period. I had at first thought to berate him for resorting to this measure rather than resorting to careful use of science. Reflecting on the novel after finishing it, I will actually give him applause for the integration of this aspect of Victorianism that is so often forgotten by other writers.

As I mentioned in my prior review, where we seemed to have two disparate setting pieces in Ghosts of Manhattan, I feel the two are well matched in Ghosts of War. Monsters of brass, vellum, and pistons assaulting the Big Apple in a reign of terror, a mad scientist working out his own longevity through artificial limbs, and the story culminating in a super-weapon quite apply powered by Tesla coils--I am much more pleased, and approve of the series on the whole.

Rating the story on our Steam Scholar’s scale, I would move this to a High rating for steampunk, and a B+ for the story and an overall B+ for the series.
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