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Friday, February 11, 2011

Guest Blog: Val Roberts

Our guest today is Val Roberts. Her science fiction debut, Blade's Edge, spent many weeks at the top of Samhain's best-seller list. Welcome, Val!

My friend Clarissa asked me to stop by today and say a few words about the up-and-coming genre Steampunk, which is basically historical science fiction. Sometimes Steampunk has paranormal elements, but very gadget-centric. Examples include the movies Wild, Wild West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sherlock, Van Helsing and even The Golden Compass.

The word “steampunk” was coined in the middle 1980s to describe a branch of alternate-history speculative fiction, just about the same time William Gibson popularized “cyberpunk” with the novel Neuromancer. Steampunk isn’t necessarily dystopian the way cyberpunk is, however; it’s more interested in airships, brass goggles, and giant gears.

In Steampunk worlds, beloved Victoria Regina is safe in London and nothing to do with the problem at hand, which might be a giant squid menacing the Strait of Gibraltar, or how Jack The Ripper escaped from a locked room at Scotland Yard, never to kill again. Government isn’t corrupt, and often tasks the lead character with the investigation into the initial situation.

And then there are the gadgets—giant mechanical spider transport, anyone? Or a submarine powered by giant brass coal-fed boilers, then, if spiders aren’t to your taste? I always wondered where they got the oxygen to burn the coal underwater.

Whatever a writer’s imagination can come up with given the constraints of Victorian-era science and technology is a viable steampunk gadget. They don’t even have to be practical; these were the people who put skirts on piano legs, after all.

Steampunk has spread beyond its literary beginnings, too. You can find steampunk jewelry, steampunk fashion, steampunk online role-playing games, steampunk blogs and conventions.

A few misguided souls have suggested that works by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be counted as Steampunk titles, which is roughly equivalent to confusing a 1914 Detroit Electric Car sedan with a 2010 Toyota Prius. Those venerable authors were writing ordinary speculative fiction during the age of steam (actually, they were inventing the genre, but that’s a topic for another time).

If you’re interested in reading a few books to see if you like the genre, I can recommend The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brook, Steamed! by Katie McCallister, while Samhain Publishing (my publisher) has a whole series of Steampunk novellas.


  1. great post, Val. Steampunk is one of those topics I always meant to learn more about, but never had the time. Thanks so much for giving us the highlights, and for guest blogging on the Lady Scribes.

  2. Val,

    Thanks so much for being our guest today. This is the best explanation I've heard for Steampunk. I remember hearing the term at Nationals in DC and having no idea what it meant. Since that time, I haven't had anyone be able to explain the genre to me very well. Now if only someone will blog on the meaning of "Uptown". ;)

    BTW, the phrase "historical fiction" is intriguing. Now I have a question. Would the show Firefly be considered Steampunk?

  3. Hi Samantha,
    Thanks for making me feel so welcome!

    I can't answer your question about "Uptown," but I can answer the question about Firefly: it's definitely not Steampunk.

    In Firefly, there actually *is* advanced technology (starships, for example), but it's not available to everyone. Essentially, the farther you get away from the centers of wealth and power, the lower the technology level gets.

    In Steampunk, the advanced technology is only as advanced as the scientific knowledge of the 19th century. Commercial flight, to continue from the starship example, is usually by airship--Wright Flyer's first takeoff and landing was in 1903.

    I hope this helps,

  4. Hi Val! Welcome to the ladies scribes! I've actually heard great things about steampunk and really am intrigued to learn more. So I'll be picking up a few of these suggestions, btw your cover is awesome! The genre sounds like a blast and I can't wait to read your book!

  5. Hi Val. Great post. I don't possess the imagination to write steampunk but I am in awe. Steampunk writers have the coolest imagination and fans also get to have fantastic costumes for parties. :o)

  6. Thanks for joining us today, Val. I've been wanting to read The Iron Duke for a while, because I've heard such great things about it. It'll be my first steampunk, whenever I get around to it. But I've always been a fan of the Back to the Future movies, and I understand that the third installment is a bit steampunkish, so maybe I can make the adjustment fairly well.

  7. I always wondered what steampunk was. Great post.