Those who watched Doctor Who’s season premiere this August were confronted with something strange—and it wasn’t just the striking new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. The episode, “Deep Breath,” was set in Victorian England…but there were robots. And not futuristic-looking robots, either—ones full of gears, pistons, and other old-fashioned mechanisms, the sort of technology that actually existed in the 1800s. These robots were patently impossible, far more advanced than anything an engineer could have created back then. They were also peculiarly plausible. They were, in short, steampunk.
As a sensibility, steampunk—a word that evokes old-timey aviator goggles, brass machinery, and, of course, steam engines—is nothing new. It’s trickled into the mainstream on numerous occasions over the years, from the frontier gadgetry of The Wild Wild West (both the ’60s TV show and the ’90s movie based upon it) to 2010’s “Punked,” the steampunk-themed episode of ABC’s hit show Castle. That said, it’s never fully broken through to a broader audience the way, say, epic fantasy has, thanks to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. (Or the way quirky science fiction has with Doctor Who, for that matter.) But a handful of steampunk writers—some humble, some ambitious—are currently working to change that.
Although it’s bled over into everything from film and TV to fashion and music, steampunk is primarily a literary genre. It stretches as far back as Jules Verne; contemporary bestselling authors like William Gibson and Alan Moore have explored it as well. Now three new books are seeking to expand steampunk’s boundaries—and to make it more inclusive and diverse.
The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, written by Rod Duncan, came out on August 26. The novel subtly tweaks the steampunk formula: It’s set in an alternate-history version of Victorian England, i.e. steampunk’s default setting. But from there, the book’s detective-hero Elizabeth Barnabas—who cross-dresses as her own twin brother in order to evade the sexism of the era—feels fresher and more engaging than the typical steampunk protagonist.
The Victorian Era may have been a romantic age, but it was also rife with injustice—and those societal problems (sexism, racism, economic disparity) are part of the reason the genre has never really appealed to a wider crowd. But Beth Cato’s debut novel, The Clockwork Dagger—out this week—features a female main character, much like The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter. Instead of being a sleuth or a fighter, though, she’s a healer.
It’s an intriguing approach, and a rewarding one. While Octavia doesn’t use violence to solve her problems, she’s no pushover. She’s empathetic and strong of spirit, a believer in the ancient ways of alchemy—which puts her at odds with the encroaching science of her world’s steampunk revolution. And it is her world, not ours; like other steampunk works, The Clockwork Dagger is set in a completely fabricated universe rather than an alternate version of our own. This makes for some dazzling, uniquely detailed backdrops. It also frees Cato from having to haul around the Victorian Era’s real-world baggage—and it helps level the playing field for those who aren’t as familiar with steampunk’s particulars.
What steampunk has most glaringly lacked in the past is a range of voices and perspectives. As a genre, it’s not only predominantly white but also predominantly Anglocentric. Steampunk World, a collection of short stories edited by Sarah Hans, demonstrates beautifully that steampunk can work just as well in retro-futuristic settings based on Asia, Africa, or South America. The book, which came out last month, was funded by a massively successful Kickstarter campaign. Clearly, there’s a hunger for steampunk literature that looks through a different pair of goggles; Steampunk World is a strong step in the right direction. It doesn’t hurt that the book’s featured authors include Ken Liu, who’s won almost every major award in science fiction and fantasy, and S. J. Chambers, co-author of The Steampunk Bible with acclaimed novelist and editor Jeff VanderMeer.
VanderMeer, meanwhile, has his own new project on the way. The Steampunk User’s Manual, due October 7, is not a novel but a combination reference guide and how-to manual. VanderMeer and co-editor Desirina Boskovich have packed their book with hands-on exercises and practical tips to help readers—steampunk fanatics and utter newbies alike—be more than passive consumers. Everything from designing your own steampunk cosplay to crafting your own steampunk musical instruments is covered in the User’s Manual’s lavishly illustrated chapters. The genre’s deeper themes—everything from biotechnology to the beauty of anachronism—are examined as well. But generally, VanderMeer and Boskovich keep things grounded in a simple, basic truth: Steampunk is not only beautiful and useful. It’s also fun. And at heart, it’s as relevant to the here-and-now as it is to any imaginary, clockwork world.
“Steampunk’s appeal continues to be its startling versatility across so many kinds of creativity,” VanderMeer recently told EW. “When the energy’s low in the fiction, it perks up in the making of fashion. When fashion’s become too usual, you see energy in the fiction again. And against that backdrop of many threads and approaches, creators can use steampunk as the toolkit for social commentary, for green energy futures, or for more stylized and ritualistic expressions of the imagination.”
Granted, VanderMeer’s a preacher when it comes to steampunk, as are Duncan, Cato, and Hans in their own ways. But he has reason to be idealistic. Steampunk may seem specific, even narrow, but it’s bursting with potential. After all, it can incorporate any variation of the past or future, and any culture that has or might exist. In steampunk fiction, magic rubs elbows with technology. What seems like a subset of sci-fi and fantasy might just be as universal as both smashed together.
That all-encompassing scope—the idea that reality can be a playground of possibility—is similar to the way Doctor Who has always approached science fiction and fantasy. A sense of wonder infuses it, even when things grow dark or dystopian. Will Doctor Who circle back to steampunk at some point soon? The show has been there before, so it’s a safe bet it will again. Steampunk has even been fitted into this season’s title sequence, clockwork gears and all. And if this season’s crop of steampunk books helps bring more curious onlookers into the retro-futurist fold, all the better.