12 Classic Steampunk Books

shelved under Hobbies, Sci Fi & Fantasy, and Beach Reads

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.

The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine

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.

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Steampunk

Steampunk

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.

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The Warlord of the Air

The Warlord of the Air

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.

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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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.

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The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

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.

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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

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.

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Anno Dracula

Anno Dracula

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.

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The Anubis Gates

The Anubis Gates

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.

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The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age

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.

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Girl Genius

Girl Genius

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.

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Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station

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.

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Frankenstein

Frankenstein

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.

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