Have you ever wondered…just what the heck is steampunk anyway? What makes a book steampunk? Today David Barnett the author of the loads of fun book, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is here to tell us all about it!
Read my review of Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
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Steampunk. Funny old thing, isn’t it? I’m not sure if there’s a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that divides people quite as much as steampunk.
When people ask me what my book is about, I might say, “It’s a Victorian-style adventure with fantastical overtones.” I might say, “It’s an alternate-history thriller set in the 1890s.” I might say, “It’s a bit like Indiana Jones with airships.” I might also say, “It’s steampunk.”
To which people will respond:
“Steampunk? What’s that, then?”
“Steampunk. Hmm.” [vomits noisily into bucket].
For those who answer with the first response, it’s understandable. Despite IBM’s predictions that steampunk will be in the mainstream as 2013 turns to 2014, the terminology isn’t yet bandied about in households across the land, though the tropes and signifiers – exaggerated Victorian dress, penny dreadful heroism, technology extrapolated from steam, gear-driven and nascent flight science – are indeed becoming somewhat more recognizable to non-genre fans, thanks to Hollywood steampunk reimaginings of The Three Musketeers and even Justin Bieber’s music videos.
For the other crew… I’ve never really understood why steampunk as a sub-genre seems to be so maligned by so many people. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s crossed from being a literary genre to a proper cultural phenomenon – steampunk gatherings, cosplaying, crafting are a huge deal. Interestingly, I spoke to some people who identified themselves as steampunks recently and they had all the kit – brass goggles, top hats, waistcoats and pocket watches – but when I asked them which steampunk books they liked they looked at me a bit blankly.
Steampunk was a lifestyle choice for them, not necessarily their chosen literature. Perhaps this is why some people in the SF world profess not to like steampunk – it’s a movement that has been appropriated by people who then sometimes abandon the source material. Maybe if the catwalks in Milan and Paris were full of models wearing stylized space-suits everyone would turn on space opera by the time the fashion percolated down to the high street.
Or, maybe not. Because people I respect do have definite views on steampunk and why they don’t like it. Just to refresh my memory, I asked the question on Twitter: “Why do you hate steampunk?”
One of those people I respect responded immediately with, “*Sits on hands. Bites down on leather belt*” Which, while not particularly helpful, was quite funny. He really does hate steampunk, you know.
I had a more interesting response from a book blogger: “I don’t hate it, but pushing the tech too far annoys me.”
That was something I wrestled with a bit with my writing. Why are there airships, that beloved staple of steampunk? I tried to answer that, at least for my own satisfaction. And I wanted my bits and bobs of steampunky technology to at least have some basis on what was possible, or probable, at the time. I didn’t, in the words of that tweet, want to push the tech too far.
But the more problematic side of steampunk is inherent in the period in which it was set. Let’s be honest, the Victorian era was not a great time to be poor, non-white, non-straight, a woman. In short, unless you were a toff with a double-barrelled surname and heaps of money, it wasn’t a very nice place. And that’s where steampunk gets up people’s noses sometimes, because the only people who can afford to go off on adventures – and thus provide the meat for a story – are generally white male toffs with double-barrelled surnames and heaps of money.
Those preconceptions were what I hoped to challenge with the Gideon Smith books. My mission was to write within the confines of the late 19th century and create something that appeals to modern sensibilities. I’m not sure how – indeed, if at all – successful I’ve been. That’s in the hands of the readers.
If you’re a steampunk fan, I hope there’ll be enough in the books to delight you. If you’ve never heard of steampunk, then I reckon there might be something here for you also. And if you’re one of those with a downer on steampunk, then know this: I wrote these books for you, too.
*GIDEON SMITH and the MECHANICAL GIRL is out now from Tor Books in the US and Snowbooks in the UK
Nineteenth century London is the center of a vast British Empire. Airships ply the skies and Queen Victoria presides over three-quarters of the known world—including the East Coast of America, following the failed revolution of 1775.
London might as well be a world away from Sandsend, a tiny village on the Yorkshire coast. Gideon Smith dreams of the adventure promised him by the lurid tales of Captain Lucian Trigger, the Hero of the Empire, told in Gideon’s favorite “penny dreadful.” When Gideon’s father is lost at sea in highly mysterious circumstances Gideon is convinced that supernatural forces are at work. Deciding only Captain Lucian Trigger himself can aid him, Gideon sets off for London. On the way he rescues the mysterious mechanical girl Maria from a tumbledown house of shadows and iniquities. Together they make for London, where Gideon finally meets Captain Trigger.
But Trigger is little more than an aging fraud, providing cover for the covert activities of his lover, Dr. John Reed, a privateer and sometime agent of the British Crown. Looking for heroes but finding only frauds and crooks, it falls to Gideon to step up to the plate and attempt to save the day…but can a humble fisherman really become the true Hero of the Empire?
David Barnett’s Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is a fantastical steampunk fable set against an alternate historical backdrop: the ultimate Victoriana/steampunk mash-up!