Book Review: The Steampunk Bible Should Be On Every Nightstand

Reading Time: 4 minutes

One hundred years from now, when graduate students begin specializing in early-2000 history, I imagine that The Steampunk Bible written by Jeff Vandermeer and S. J. Chambers will be a standard reference for those wanting to understand more about a unique subset of individuals who chose to dedicate a portion (or majority) of their lives to mimicking a time period another 100 to 200 years earlier.

I’m making a fairly large assumption here that you’re familiar with steampunk. (If you’re not, then I’d like to point you to the subject of this post, a book titled The Steampunk Bible that will be of much more assistance that I can ever provide.) Love it or hate it, you cannot argue that it’s a movement/lifestyle/hobby/interest that has no trouble getting attention — from lovely ladies in corsets to top-hat clad gentlemen with canes to goggled engineers in oil-stained overalls, steampunk is like that old definition of pornography — you’ll likely know it when you see it.

My first run-in with steampunk was in 1992 when I read The Difference Engine — I was already a huge fan of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, having discovered Neuromancer and Islands in the Net years earlier, so I purchased the book based solely on the authors and not on the back cover blurb. I read it, loved it, and wanted more. Unfortunately, this was pre-Internet and searching for similar books was difficult. It would be many years later before I would rediscover steampunk.

Jump forward 20 years and my bookshelf is full of steam — Leviathan (and sequel), Affinity Bridge (and sequel), Boneshaker (and sequel), and the list goes on. But it’s not just books any more. Steampunk has moved into fashion, music, movies, and art, placing itself directly in the path of mainstream audiences (and picking up more fans in the process).

Like I said, love it or hate it, steampunk is here. Yes, there are rumors of decaying interest, but isn’t that the case with all pop culture? Interests come and go, but given that steampunk is (typically) based on the already long-gone Victorian age, I think it’s safe to say that the steampunk culture has some staying power.

That’s why I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Steampunk Bible. Authors Jeff Vandermeer and S. J. Chambers aren’t preaching Give Steam a Chance, but by the end of the book, most readers will be able to say that they’ve crossed paths at some point with steampunk whether they knew it at the time or not, either via a movie or book or other steampunk-inspired product or event.

While the book takes a wide look at the subject of steampunk, with coverage of the inspirations, the fashions, the fiction (books and comics), the movies, and the art, for me… it’s all about the essays. Wonderful essays on everything steampunk, written by well-known names in the movement who are living steampunk every day – Jake von Slatt, Sean Orlando, Catherynne M. Valente, and more.

I knew going into the book that I had only scratched the surface of steampunk with my reading, so the discussions on music, fashion, and art were new and interesting. But it was really the history lesson on Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, and influences on the steampunk movement that I enjoyed. (That, and finding a whole new slew of books that I was unaware of, including some Japanese possibilities if I can find translations and a new Newbury & Hobbes adventure from George Mann to be released in September 2011.)

The Steampunk Bible could not be done in black and white, so you’ll be happy to know that this hardbound volume is in full-color. You’ll see some great costumes, beautiful jewelry, and rayguns… lots of rayguns. Artwork and book and magazine covers are reproduced as full-page spreads. The book shines as reference material, but can really be considered a collectible in itself.

My only concern with the book is that although the authors have done a good job of presenting a wide range of topics related to steampunk, there are undoubtedly going to be omissions. But before we go shaking our fingers and saying what about, we need to remember the book’s companion website at steampunkbible.com — the authors have stated they intend to use the website as a collect-all-site for content that didn’t make it into the book. The site is a bit thin right now (mainly announcements about the book and tour dates), but I’ll be patient and give them time to build it up.

As for me, the book has inspired me to not only consider a costume idea for next year’s Maker Faire in San Francisco, but also a redesign of my office that I’ve been growing bored with — I wonder if I could get gaslight fixtures to work properly?

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