The Steampunk Bible, Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers

‘The Steampunk Bible’ Is Much More Than Just Goggles and Corsets

The Steampunk Bible bulges with historical allusion, makes fascinating connections, and shows how the movement has expressed itself in various mediums.

The Steampunk Bible
Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers
Harry N. Abrams
May 2011

Adjust your goggles and hitch your corset tight. Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers offer 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 fully defines 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 captures the aesthetics of the movement well.

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 Steampunk is a definable sensibility that combines a sense of Victorian/Edwardian aesthetics with a kind of alternate futurism. Perhaps more importantly, it arises from 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, it’s 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 Steampunk 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 rightly celebrates the punk aspects of the Steampunk phenomenon, its DIY sensibility in relation to a society increasingly reliant on technocrats and experts helping us create an unrecyclable mountain of garbage.

It’s hard to imagine how VanderMeer and Chambers could have assembled a stronger collection. Its publication marks a significant, self-conscious moment in the movement’s history. But beyond the value of The Steampunk Bible, 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; it risks taking the punk out of Steampunk. I know of at least one devotee of the movement who steampunks a Confederate soldier’s 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 goggling the past.

Of course, this movement is still in formation and is 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.

It’s just as likely that Steampunk 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.

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 makes more sense when read against the Steampunk movement.

My only real complaint about the tome that VanderMeer and Chambers 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 movement’s Victorian roots and explaining the literary sensibility of writers like Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter. However, a full discussion of cyber-punk, that ’80s movement represented by people like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, seems to be missing.

Cyber-punk is Steampunk’s dour older brother, sporting a mohawk instead of a top hat. Its dark rendering of techno-dystopias might resonate more with contemporary times than Steampunk’s generally more positive message. Is Steampunk an escape into the dead past, a refusal to face up to the questions cyber-punk raised? Maybe, but I wanted to hear VanderMeer and others answer this question.

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

RATING 9 / 10