Buyer beware, there is no steamship ark piloted by Noah in Jeff Vandermeer’s Steampunk Bible. Nor to the Hebrews cross the desert in calculometric ornithopeters, and Jesus certainly does not wear a top hat with Da Vinci glasses on it.
No, the Steampunk Bible is not as gaslight romance version of the Old and New Testaments, but instead an overview of the subgenre and it’s emergence as a full-blown cultural movement. What started off as a science fiction sub category, taking the motifs and trappings of authors such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells and repurposing it with the attitudes and social perspective of the late 20th century, has exploded over the last decade to encompass a full-cultural spectrum from music to fashion to even cookbooks.
Written and edited by author/editors Jeff Vandermeer and S. J. Chambers, the Bible covers everything you could want to know about steampunk from the surfaces glamours of fashion to the philosophical underpinnings of the works that birthed the concept. Vandermeer and Chambers are more than suitable as guides to the terrain; Jeff has co-edited the anthologies Steampunk and Steampunk Reloaded with his wife Ann, as well as the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, while Chambers is a senior editor at Strange Horizons and a member of the Poe Studies Association.
Starting with a background history of the differences between the work and character of Wells and Verne, the Bible spends the first quarter of its pages on the actual published stories. Michael Moorcock’s seminal novel Warlord of the Air is discussed, as is his own dissatisfaction with it’s influence. “The very nostalgia I attacked was being celebrated!” Authors in the subgenre, both old and new get their moment in the gaslamp spotlight, from the “Three Men of California” –K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock– to the class-crossed novels of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest.
Other authors from within the amorphous field of the genre get a few words in edgewise. New York Time Bestselling author Cathrynne M. Valente addresses the flaw in works claimed as steampunk that lack any steam, or indeed any punk either. Bruce Sterling, who co-authored The Difference Engine with William Gibson lays down a user’s guide for the movement, and extraordinary librarian Jess Nevins fills us in on the impact Verne’s works had on Japanese SF. Not to mention the interviews with author Scott Westerfield, and music group HUMANWINE’s Holly Brewer and M@ McNiss, among many others.
Steampunk comic books also get a good look at. There’s modern day favorites like Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, the story of, well, a girl genius; and Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which began as pure unadulterated steampunk, crossing over characters from Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, and more, before expanding into a vast intra-literary crossover. Also discussed are Bryan Talbot’s incredible work on his Luther Arkwright books, set in a Moorcock-influenced multiverse, and the anthropomorphic detective saga, Grandville.
The book itself is just gorgeous, with big, full color pages of photos, illustrations, and stylish design. Rayguns, corsets, and airships abound, and the whole thing has been designed as something very fun to just flip through looking for neat stuff. Beyond the surface accoutrements and literary heredity, the book also explores the work of those who are working, living, and making as steapunks in real life. Such as Tom Every, who created Forevertron Park, a massive outdoor art installation made of repurposed metal and industrial refuse, or Mike Libby whose work involves filling insect carapaces with clockwork. One chapter even includes instructions on how to make etched tins with saline solution and the power of electricity.
Most importantly, the Bible isn’t intended as a capstone on the culture. Vandermeer and Chambers as just as concerned with where steampunk’s going as to where it came from, with a look at multicultural steampunk fiction and how the genre’s DIY ethos is adding a bit of style and aesthetics to the sustainability movement. Steampunks may be planning for an apocalypse, the book may seem to say, but it’s an apocalypse they’re planning to survive if not negate.
Greg Baldino owns neither a top hat nor a corset, but he does love taking apart time-keeping devices, and he’s worked with Steampunk Chicago’s daguerreotypist Lisa-Marie Ogle for Bleeding Cool before. He can be collected by electrotelegram at email@example.com