An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film and Other Victorian Visions
by Brian J. Robb
Aurum Press (Voyageur Press in the US), out now
A lavishly designed and illustrated book about the origins and permutations of the literary subgenre famous for goggles, airships, and other trappings of a stylized Victorian era.
In his comprehensive text, Brian J. Robb traces its origins from the classic works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to the American triumvirate of James P. Blaylock, K. W. Jeters, and Tim Powers, who established much of Steampunk’s sensibilities in the late 1970s and throughout the following decade. It was Jeter who coined the term, playing off the popular Cyberpunk genre of the period. Steampunk took a similar modern viewpoint and turned it backward on a steam-powered Victorian world that never was, showing a curious mix of exuberance for science and nostalgia for a simpler time.
Thematic chapters cover the many manifestations of Steampunk both before and after the label was coined. The Martian stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, films such as The Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman graphic novel series, computer games including Myst and Final Fantasy VII, and manga and anime interpretations are touched upon in the wide-ranging text. The impact of Steampunk on music, fashion, cosplay, and modding are also covered, including the interesting twist that for some these lifestyle elements have become detached from the literature that inspired them.
Robb analyzes Steampunk’s subtext (without becoming pedantic), discussing its connections to and commentary on class, empire, and traditional roles of men and women. This allows a discussion of when Steampunk is used as mere set dressing versus being an integral part of a given presentation and the measurement of differing degrees of Steampunk, as well as how all of this may affect future expressions of the subgenre.
Although the thematic arrangement entails a certain amount of repetition of references from chapter to chapter, and a book this detailed would have been well-served by a bibliography and an index, these are small issues compared to the breadth and depth of material covered. On at least three occasions I thought “but what about…” only to turn the page and find my example mentioned.
Verdict: Whether you’re a Steampunk fan interested in learning more of its history or are a newcomer looking for a way to find out what all the fuss is about, Steampunk is an enjoyable read. 8/10