Thursday, December 26, 2013

Steampunk: An Illustrated History

'Steampunk: An Illustrated History' by Brian J. Robb

'Steampunk: An Illustrated History' was published in 2012 by Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, a company specializing in books on a variety of eclectic topics. 

At 11 inches x 9 3/4 inches this is a heavy, well-made, chunk of a picture book.

Its production values are not just high, but perhaps too high; for example, each page is overlaid with a 'watermark' style graphic designed to impart a fusty, aged appearance reminiscent of a 19th century tome, but this stylization can render the text rather difficult to see.

'Steampunk: An Illustrated History' features a Forward by James P. Blaylock, one of the founders of the genre. Following an Introduction by author Robb, the book provides 9 chapters that range the genre from its beginnings in 19th century Britain, to the present time .

Chapter 1, 'The GIlded Age', is an overview of 19th and early 20th century sci-fi and fantasy and showcases Verne, Wells, and Burroughs, among others.

This chapter also devotes considerable text to the appearance of proto-steampunk in the 1970s, and the prominent role of authors such as Michael Moorcock.

Chapter 2, 'From Cyberpunk to Steampunk', primarily is devoted to the three authors who, while attending college in Orange, California in the early 1970s, would come to create the genre known today as Steampunk: Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock, and K. W. Jeter.

Author Robb also devotes some discussion to the interaction of the burgeoning Steampunk movement with the Cyberpunks, as exemplified by the release of The Difference Engine, by Sterling and Gibson,  in 1990.

Chapter 3, 'Reinventing the Victorians', covers Steampunk literature during the late 80s on through the 1990s, when, following the efforts of Blaylock, Jeter, and Powers, more authors began to embrace, and expand, the genre.

Here, Robb takes a generous view of what comprises Steampunk, including novels that I would call 'Steam fantasy', or 'New Weird', fiction.

Chapter 4, 'A Young Lady's Primer', deals with the prominent role of female protagonists in Steampunk. This chapter struck me as a contrived effort to present the argument that Steampunk plays some sort of post-modern role in female emancipation. The contents of this chapter probably would've been better utilized by being integrated into the other chapters.

Chapter 5, 'Nitrate Nightmares and Selenium Dreams', focuses on the portrayal of Steampunk in movies and tv. This is a well-written and comprehensive chapter that starts with the efforts of Georges Melies in 1902, through the serials of the 1930s, on up to today.

Chapter 6, 'Clockwork Graphics', looks at Steampunk-themed comic books, graphic novels, and video games. This is another well-organized and informative chapter, with plentiful examples of works spanning the interval from the 1980s up till today.

Chapter 7, 'An Empire Strikes Back', examines the Steampunk movement in Japan, in fiction, comics, and films.

Chapter 8, 'Of Cogs and Corsets', covers the advent of Steampunk as a pop culture phenomenon in the US during the 2000s, a decade which saw Steampunk fashion morph from cosplay unique to sci fi conventions (and other refuges for the socially awkward) to a genuine hipster movement. The chapter also looks at fandom's embrace of Steampunk-inspired music and art. 

This aspect of Steampunk has been avidly embraced by people under the age of 40, particularly young singles, as evidenced by events such as the 'Tweed Ride', sponsored by the 'Dandies and Quaintrelles' association, that occurs each Fall in Washington, DC.

The final chapter, 'Back to the Future', covers the recent history of Steampunk as a mainstream phenomenon, which - arguably - came about in May, 2008, when an article about the culture appeared in The New York Times

Steampunk now has become a dominant force in sf and fantasy publishing, and Robb covers the massive increase in Steampunk novels, comics, films, and television shows that has taken place since 2010. 

While this chapter provides a good overview of recent Steampunk, in my opinion, the author shies from the important question to whether much of this output is of good quality, or simply an effort by publishers and editors to exploit the phenomenon. 

With Steampunk novels being launched every month by publishers like Angry Robot, Pyr, and Tor, one has to ask: just how much of this material is really worth being put into print ? In my opinion, the economic future of Steampunk publishing risks collapse due to overproduction, and a diminution of quality.

Summing up, 'Steampunk: An Illustrated History' is a very good examination of the genre. While I recognized many of the comics and novels listed in the book, there were quite a few that I was not familiar with, and these seem worth investigating. 

Accordingly, I recommend this book not just to Steampunk fans, but to anyone who is a fan of sci fi and fantasy literature.

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