Steampunk is a newly popular sub-genre of sci-fi that focuses on the science of the Victorian age. It is science from the age of the gentleman inventor, the lone eccentric. In many ways its brass and clockwork creations are far more visually appealing than the chrome and plastic of modern science. Major real-world heroes of the genre are the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the computer pioneer Charles Babbage.
This list is being published on March 24th as part of Ada Lovelace Day, a worldwide celebration of women in technology named in honor of Babbage’s collaborator, Ada, Countess of Lovelace. As the world’s first computer programmer and the daughter of the notorious poet and adventurer Lord Byron, Ada is the quintessential steampunk heroine.
by Bruce Sterling, William Gibson
The best known steampunk novel was written by two leading lights of the cyberpunk movement. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling speculate on what might have happened if Babbage had been successful in developing a functional computer in the Victorian age. The book is very much an alternate history, and having Ada’s father as Prime Minister is perhaps even less believable than the technological changes.
edited by Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer
For a superb overview of the steampunk genre you can’t do better than this anthology put together by award-winning fantasy writer, Jeff VanderMeer, and his wife Ann, who is currently editor of the legendary fiction magazine, Weird Tales. The book includes short stories and novel excerpts by many of the authors mentioned here.
by Michael Moorcock, illustrated by Davis Meltzer
Although steampunk as a specific, recognized genre is relatively new, the basic ideas have been around a long time. Back in the 1970s Michael Moorcock produced a series of books about Oswald Bastable, an Edwardian-era British soldier who finds himself transported to an alternate late 20th Century in which the First World War never happened and steampunk technology is the norm. The Warlord of the Air is the first volume of Bastable’s adventures. They are continued in The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar. All three books are available as an omnibus edition under the title The Nomad of Time.
by Jules Verne
Of course if you want real Victorian age science fiction, why not go direct to an actual Victorian age science fiction writer? Jules Verne was a master at creating stories about eccentric geniuses, and Captain Nemo is the most famous of all. If you are looking for the book, make sure you get a recent translation such as the one we link to. The original English translation cut a substantial amount of the text and made many changes, mainly to removes the parts of the book where Verne’s characters are rude about, or fighting against, the British.
by Jess Nevins
The ultimate steampunk sourcebook is this awesome encyclopedia by Jess Nevins. It is huge, expensive and hard to find these days, but it contains information about everything weird and wonderful from 19th Century fantastic fiction. For steampunk authors, this book is their bible.
by Alan Moore
The extraordinary gentlemen of the title are all famous men (and women) from Victorian/Edwardian fiction, including Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain, Mina Harker and Henry Jekyll. We’ve listed the first book in the series. There are now three volumes.
by Kim Newman
Someone else who is a mine of information about Victorian times is horror writer and film critic, Kim Newman. His classic sequel to the famous vampire novel assumes that Dracula survives the events of Stoker’s book and goes on to marry Queen Victoria, setting up a vampire kingdom in Britain. One of the principal delights of reading the book is spotting the walk-on appearances of famous historical and fictional characters. A copy of Jess Nevins’ book might be useful to have when reading this one.
by Tim Powers
Another early classic now hailed as a founding steampunk text is this famous novel by Tim Powers. It concerns a literature professor who travels back in time to meet the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and finds himself embroiled in a plot to restore the ancient Egyptian gods to power. As with all of the best time travel stories, what happens in the past can affect the present from which travelers come.
by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson’s Hugo Award-winning novel about nanotechnology is not set in the Victorian age, but rather in a near-future world in which “neo-Victorianism” is one of many social/political fashions that people choose to follow. Because they have access to nanotech, these people are able to recreate the beauty of steampunk technology and actually make it all work. Stephenson also postulates some very cool developments for the humble book.
by Kaja Foglio, Phil Foglio
The ultimate mad science comic is Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, which tells the story of Agatha Heterodyne, the last heir to the Maddest of Mad Scientist families. As it is a comic, you also get superb visuals of all of that mad technology. The series is available as a web comic and as graphic novels. We have linked to Volume #7. Volume #8, which appeared online last year and will be available in print in May, is a nominee in the new Graphic Story category of this year’s Hugo Awards.
by China Mieville
China Mièville’s famous novel is generally regarded as the classic text of the New Weird movement, but the steam-powered technology employed in the book, not to mention the fact that it is named after a railway station, has led to it being claimed for steampunk as well. If you like this, check out the sequels, The Scar and Iron Council. The book won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2001, which is a charming and unique achievement for a science fiction novel. It also won the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award for fantasy novels, which neatly illustrates how well it straddles genre boundaries.
by Mary Shelley
We can’t end this list without including the ultimate mad scientist story – a book that Brian Aldiss claims is the first true work of science fiction. Nothing in steampunk is quite so iconic as Victor Frankenstein using the power of a storm to bring his artificial man to life. Author Mary Shelley, of course, was a friend of Lord Byron. Indeed, the Swiss holiday during which Frankenstein was famously written took place shortly after Byron fled England in the wake of his acrimonious divorce from Ada’s mother. At the time Byron was having an affair with Mary’s stepsister, Claire. So there is a very close relationship between the mother of science fiction and the mother of computer programming, and both of them are heroines of steampunk.
Recommending books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. more...
About Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan is a science fiction critic who won a Hugo Award in 2004 for her online review magazine, Emerald City. Cheryl’s current writing can be found at her blog, Cheryl’s Mewsings, and at Science Fiction Awards Watch, which she co-edits with Kevin Standlee. Cheryl is also non-fiction editor of the Hugo-nominated Clarkesworld Magazine. This year Cheryl is a nominee in the Best Fan Writer category, which is for people who actively promote science fiction without getting paid for it – by writing articles like this, for example. Last year the category was won by John Scalzi for this writing on Whatever.
Newest book lists
All our categories