PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'The Steampunk Bible': Goggles and Corsets and So Much More

Its too early to predict the course of this aesthetic and literary movement but this book is a major milestone in Steampunk's self-awareness.

The Steampunk Bible

Publisher: Abrams Image
Length: 224 pages
Author: Jeff VanderMeer, S.J. Chambers
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-05

Adjust your goggles and hitch your corset tight. Jeff VanderMeer and S.J Chambers are offering an airship ride into the world of Steampunk.

Lots of fashions with a literary component end up getting encyclopedias. Often these efforts are poorly organized and heavy on prose that only skims the surface. You barely get any pictures because the project was so hastily organized that nobody could be bothered with copyright issues.

Thankfully, this is not the case with The Steampunk Bible. Its grandiose title is much deserved, as the authors and their collaborators have gathered a substantial guide to the world of retro-futurist fantasy. The text is bulging with historical allusion, provides fascinating connections, and gives a full definition of how the movement has expressed itself in fiction, film, comics, fashion, craft and ideology.

So many different kinds of materials are included in The Steampunk Bible that it has the feel of a multimedia presentation. Photographs of Steampunk cosplayers share the page with diagrams of fantastical Victorian machines. The book gives us images of the Steampunk treehouse at Burning Man and a mixed media Steampunk gas mask. There’s even a step-by-step pictorial guide that explains how to create Victorian-era etchings. Sumptuously illustrated throughout, it well captures the aesthetics of the movement.

The authors deal directly with the problem of definition. Steampunk is certainly a word becoming elastic with overuse. Goggles are Steampunk. Every film that has a clockwork mechanism or monster is Steampunk. Slap a gear or two on modern technology and you have officially “steampunked” it.

VanderMeer and Chambers work hard to slow down this word devolution. They suggest that it's a clearly definable sensibility that combines a sense of Victorian/Edwardian aesthetics with a kind of alternate futurism. Perhaps more importantly, it arises out of some specific literary sources, rediscovered and reclaimed by writers in the '80s and '90s.

There's another treat awaiting steampunk fans here. Bruce Sterling contributed a short article entitled “A Users Guide to Steampunk”. Sterling, every steampunker knows, co-wrote the classic novel The Difference Engine. Published in 1990, its an ur-text of the movement, a perfectly researched evocation of 19th century London that imagines an early coming of a steam-powered computer age and a resultant Victorian information revolution. It made use of issues of class and sexuality and wrapped it all in a damn fine adventure/mystery tale.

Sterling’s essay here is brilliant, containing advice for young Streampunk cosplayers and a biting political critique for all of us. The 19th century may have been “crude, limited and clanky”, he admits but the 20th century was “calamitously unsustainable” while the 21st century promises to be simply “dead”. He celebrates, rightly, the punk aspects of the Steampunk phenomenon, its DIY sensibility in relation to a society increasingly reliant on technocrats and experts who are helping us create an unrecyclable mountain of garbage.

It’s hard to imagine how VanderMeer and Chambers could have put together a stronger collection. It’s publication marks a significant, self-conscious moment in the history of the movement. But beyond the value of this book, there’s a lot to worry about in this movement’s future. So much of the best Steampunk writing has faced the darkness of the 19th century, and a reading of Sterling’s aforementioned essay shows that it was a period something worse than “clumsy” and “clanky”. He knows better than anybody that the 19th century was not an alternative to, but the beginning of, the “catastrophically unsustainable “ 20th century.

Revising the past has its dangers, indeed it risks taking the punk out of Steampunk. I know of at least one devotee of the movement who steampunks a Confederate soldiers uniform. Fair enough, but he’s also quite certain that slavery had little or nothing to do with the Civil War and thoroughly romanticizes the southern war effort. Darkness lies in that kind of revisionism. Dangers and confusion can come with be-goggling the past.

Of course right now, this is a movement still in formation, still not yet what it’s likely to be. There's every reason to believe that Steampunk will go down like a zeppelin in flames, guttering out in a series of costume contests and “steampunked” furniture purchasable at Target.

Its maybe just as likely that it will acquire more depth as more important works are written, as its practitioners follow VanderMeer’s lead and trace down its literary roots in Jules Verne and, maybe most importantly, as its would-be philosophers spend some time with William Morris, the arts and crafts movement doyen who is the often unacknowledged spirit guide to this movement.

And hey, I’ll even say it: serious steampunkers ought to be reading Marx. Believe it or not, some of his writing on the revival of anachronisms from within industrial capitalism actually makes more sense when read against the Steampunk movement.

My only real complaint about the tome that VanderMeer and Chamber’s have assembled is that they spend more time on the movement’s 19th century genealogy than its more recent precursors. They certainly are at their best when writing on the Victorian roots of the movement and explaining the literary sensibility of writers like Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter. What seems to be missing is a really full discussion of cyber-punk, that '80s movement represented by people like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

Cyber-punk is Steampunk’s dour older brother, sporting a mohawk instead of a top hat. Its dark rendering of techno-dystopias obviously might have more resonance with contemporary times that the generally more positive message of Steampunk. Is Steampunk an escape into the dead past, a refusal to face up to the questions cyber-punk raised? Maybe or maybe not, but I wanted to hear VanderMeer and others on this question.

But really, there’s not a lot to be unhappy with, here. VanderMeer and Chambers have done enough, and probably more than enough, to please the pickiest completist. This collection of materials will both educate you about this aesthetic and cultural movement, and give you much to ponder about the nature of modernity itself.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.