Top Ten Books for Steampunks

A Brief Definition of Steampunk as it lives in my head, because some of these are maybe stretching the definition of “steampunk”: steampunk is alt-history for the marginalised. The “-punk” part is important. Steampunk – good steampunk – punches our historical prejudices in the face. It lets women fly dragons for the Aerial Corps. It lets spinsters roll around with hot werewolves while solving murders in gorgeous dresses. It has artificial intelligences that run on programme cards and wheels made so pi is exactly three and cities that eat each other. It lets conmen take down corporate bastards and apprentices watch their decadent cities burn and petty thieves live with their rich lesbian lovers. It’s fun. It’s subversive (maybe only to a limited extent, but). It lives in capitalism and finds ways to resist it.

I’ll shut up now.

  1. Soulless – Gail Carriger. This is just so much fun. It’s the first novel in Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, and it follows a spinster who, yeah, rolls around with hot werewolves while solving a murder. It is brilliantly camp (seriously, there’s a gay vampire who wears outrageously colourful Victorian outfits and it’s amazing) and somehow ridiculously British despite being written by an American, and all that semi-repressed Victorian sexuality? Is. Steamy.
  2. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. This is young young adult (say, early Harry Potter age), but when I read it last year I was seriously impressed by how it manages to do working-class post-apocalyptic steampunk. By which I mean: one of steampunk’s big flaws is that it tends to be interested in bourgeois middle-class characters who, if they’re not exactly rich, at least have enough to get by comfortably. But the young protagonists of Mortal Engines are very much considered second-class citizens by their rapaciously capitalist/Darwinistic society, and so the novel becomes a critique of capitalism and colonialism and privilege. And it’s still definitely steampunk: it has airships and cities on caterpillar tracks and neo-Victorian social structures. It’s very cool.
  3. Steampunk Fashion – Spurgeon Vaughn Ratcliffe. This is essentially a coffee-table book showcasing various steampunk costume designers. I flick through it reasonably regularly when I feel like doing steampunk for the day. Like a lot of steampunk fashion, it is inordinately interested in women wearing outfits that supposedly say “sexy airship pirate!” or “sexy explorer!” but actually say “sexy accident waiting to happen!” (JEEZ, PEOPLE, WHAT KIND OF OUTFIT IS THIS TO WEAR IN AN APOCALYPSE?) But it does also have plenty of steampunk fashion that actually looks like something someone would reasonably wear in an alternative neo-Victorian timeline. And is also sexy. (If I ever have a spare £500 floating around, I will seriously consider a jacket like this. Till then, I must content myself with slightly less-than-excellent-quality steampunk items from Camden Market.)
  4. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. This is steampunk, but…weird. It’s got an artificial intelligence that’s assembled itself from scrap metal and corpses, and little half-intelligent machines that run on programme cards, and a huge sprawling city threaded by a web of train lines with a huge hulk of a station at its heart, and a mad inventor trying to solve the mysteries of flight. But. You know. It also has human-alien sex scenes, and an embassy from hell, and monsters that make your mind dribble out of your ears, and a stewing revolution. This book, you guys. It’s steampunk and then some.
  5. The Scar – China Mieville. It’s in the same series as Perdido Street Station, and it still feels steampunk to me, but it has a slightly different flavour of steampunk. In other words, it has steampunk pirates. It’s set on a socialist floating city that trundles around the sea living off what it can steal. If Armada isn’t quite my favourite fictional city, it’s very close.
  6. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. Everfair‘s not exactly steampunk to me – it’s alt-history without the playful -punk suffix. But it’s at least marketed as steampunk, and it feels important enough to deserve a place on this list. Like Mortal Engines, it deals with the colonialist, bourgeois prejudices of traditional steampunk head-on. Its characters build a new society in which people who are usually excluded from mainstream accounts of history can find a home – the victims of colonialism, the queer people, the Christian missionaries who assimilate into local religions, the women, the socialists, the exiles. There are difficulties and conflicts. Utopia recedes constantly out of reach. But there’s also compromise that allows people to live together – things aren’t perfect for anyone, but they’re as good for everyone as they can possibly be.
  7. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. I…am totally not including this here because of Adora Belle Dearheart. Nope. Not at all. Seriously, though, is there anything more steampunk than the clacks: like the internet, but with semaphore? Than a story about a man who invents stamps and hires golems and generally cons everyone into supporting the Post Office? It’s so adorably Dickensian, but without Dickens’ shitty gender politics. (Did I mention Adora Belle Dearheart?)
  8. Retribution Falls – Chris Wooding. Talking of shitty gender politics…well, things could be worse, but Retribution Falls isn’t quite the model of equality I’d like it to be. It’s here because, like Soulless, it’s riotous fun, and because, like The Scar, it has pirates. Maybe it tips a little closer to dieselpunk than steampunk – but it still has that anti-authoritarian alt-history streak I associate with steampunk.
  9. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters. This is probably the least steampunk of any of the books on this list: it’s actually just Victorian pastiche, but I’m including it here because its central couple consists of a rich heiress and the thief girl who’s sent to pose as her servant and rob her. AND THEN THEY FALL IN LOVE, and it’s a novel about how they both navigate the gender constraints of Victorian society to try and find each other again; to try and create a space where they can be together. It’s every bit as tense and heartwarming as it sounds.
  10. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. This…is steampunk in almost no traditional sense. It’s quite obsessed with trains, and that’s the main reason why it’s here – or, rather, the main excuse for its being here. Really it’s here because its fictional city Palimpsest feels very Victorian: it’s symbolic and meaningful and layered in a way that modern cities in fiction rarely are. It carries a weight of meaning. Crucially, it’s also a queer city: a city where real things are queered, and a city that only the queer can really reach.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s recently retired meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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