Guest Post: David Barnett – Steampunk? What’s that, then?

September 23, 2013 Author Feature, Guest Post 16

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!

Gideon bannerRead 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


Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl

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!

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl

Find: Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads

Find David Barnett: WEBSITE | TWITTER

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Tabitha (Pabkins)

When I'm in the zone I can flip book pages faster than the eye can see - screaming "More Input!" I'm a book, yarn, & art supply hoarding goblin who loves to draw, make toys and craft all sorts of creepy cute things. My current habit is to listen to audio books while I'm arting it up!
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16 Responses to “Guest Post: David Barnett – Steampunk? What’s that, then?”

  1. simonet

    I love steampunk! I actually want to make a steampunk costume for Halloween. I thought it would be fun. I’m definitely adding his book to my TBR list. Awesome guest post.

    • Tabitha the Pabkins

      A steampunk costume would be so much fun! I always see that sort of stuff whenever I go to Renn Faires and the Charles Dickens Faire in San Francisco. has quite a great set of artists that make the stuff too. I hope you’ll share your costume photo if you do decide to do it! I would love to see!

      And I think you’ll LOVE this book – it was amazing!

  2. Cait D

    I haven’t read a lot of steampunk, but it sounds awesome. I really liked Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard. That flair of old fashioned-ness with a bit of gears and gadgets? Niiiiice. I love how you explain a bit more about what the genre IS though. Very cool!

    • Tabitha the Pabkins

      I don’t know that I’ve read a lot of steampunk but I have read a handful of books with steampunk elements. It is getting pretty popular these days. When I went to WorldCon there were plenty of steampunk panels. This one was so much fun. Even though it was historical fantasy fiction it didn’t FEEL like historical fiction to me. It felt more like alternate universe to me which was wonderful because I normally don’t like historical fiction. This book is so worth a read – I hope you’ll pick it up.

    • Tabitha the Pabkins

      I definitely nominate this book as the one that you pick to give the genre another try. It was so much fun. A wonderful adventure story – just don’t take things too seriously its not quite satire but ahh I don’t know how to describe it other than I loved it.

  3. Pamela D

    I will have to try these books out. I haven’t read many steampunk books, but I did love the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. I think Barnett hit it on the nail as to why steampunk is great, “unless you were a toff with a double-barrelled surname and heaps of money, it wasn’t a very nice place.” The idea of Victorian England is great, actual Victorian England…not so much.

    • Tabitha the Pabkins

      Exactly! You know I haven’t read the Parasol Protectorate books, but I really need to especially since I own all of them. I guess I just hate knowing its going to be another long series I will need to keep up on. Sometimes that can be rather daunting as I read so many series already. I hope you read this one – it was fabulous!

      • Pamela D

        The first one in the series is the best, and you could stop just after that one (the others end on a bit of a cliffhanger). There are only 5 books in that series. Carriger is writing other series in that universe; however, from what I understand Alexia’s story is done, if that entices you a bit more. 🙂 I read the paperbacks, but I hear that the audio books are quite good too.

        I do understand what you mean about reading too many series though. I started one series with the understanding that it was supposed to be a trilogy; however, the books did really well, so more books are going to be published (The Expanse series by James SA Corey). I know I should be excited by more books, but I have a lot of other books to read!

        I officially added the book to my to be read pile. 🙂
        Pamela D recently posted…Banned and Challenged Romance Books: Banned Books WeekMy Profile

        • Tabitha the Pabkins

          That does make it much more tempting! If I love a series yes its wonderful when it is a series. I just get so bogged down with the series reading and I hate it that its a year before the next book and then I feel like I forget stuff because I’ve read so many other books. Then I feel like oh I should reread so I can refresh – but who has time to reread 5 to 10 books in a series over again when you are a book reviewer?

          I’ll definitely start the Gail Carriger ones soon because I feel like I’m missing out. My sister loved them.

          • Pamela D

            Ack! This is what happens when I don’t reread what I write! I meant read the Parasol Protectorate series first. The Finishing School series happens years before in that universe. The main character is not related to Alexia and the gang. Because this universe has immortal characters, some of the Parasol Protectorate characters show up in the Finishing School series as minor characters. It is fun to see some of their adventures before the Parasol Protectorate series.
            Pamela D recently posted…Banned and Challenged Romance Books: Banned Books WeekMy Profile

  4. Jay Riv

    Great post! Now I want to go read these books! I have been slowly getting into steampunk (mostly thanks to anime I watch) and it is slowly moving into books I read. 🙂
    Jay Riv recently posted…Kindle GiveawayMy Profile

    • Tabitha the Pabkins

      You’re an anime fan too!?? Yes!! Which ones do you absolutely recommend? Currently I’m watching Attack on Titan and Black Butler and Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood (I already watched the first one that was out – I heard Brotherhood is darker).

      I also really enjoyed Sword Art Online recently …tho really only season 1. A few Favs worth noting Last Exile & Scrapped Princess