A Collection of Steampunk Reviews, Part II: Gears Engaged

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Yesterday I opened up my short series of steampunk book reviews with five fictional offerings. Today, I’m going to share with you a collection of non-fiction books. (Can non-fiction steampunk books really be called non-fiction given the subject? Hmmm….)

One of the things I find most interesting about the steampunk genre right now is how the number of reference steampunk books is keeping pace with the fictional releases. Magazines, fashion, and even collections of essays devoted to a subject could certainly be an argument that the subject matter has reached sufficient popularity to label it as thriving. Well, examine this list of non-fiction books and ponder whether steampunk is still a fad… or if there’s enough evidence to consider it here to stay.

Steampunk GazetteSteampunk Gazette

The Steampunk Gazette, Edited by Major Thaddeus Tinker (John Naylor)

With over 700 full-color photos spread over 250 pages, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a better summary of Steampunk Lifestyle. This is the book that steampunk fans might give serious consideration as a loaner to those friends and families who want to understand. It really is a quick study of the subject, with each chapter broken into small, 2-3 page summaries that provide a brief but clear explanation of a topic along with a suitable number of images.

Consider, for example, Chapter 3, Mode. This is a chapter devoted to The Look. Consisting of 2-3 page summaries of corsets, masks, hairstyle, vests, uniforms, footwear, and over a dozen more (my favorite is the streetwear section), every page is as eye-catching as possible. Other chapters cover countries, furnishings, culture, gatherings, hobbies, and even one on taxidermy and animal companions. There’s also a great Classified section with more websites than I believe I’ll ever have time to visit… 11 pages of listing after listing.

As with most reference books, this isn’t one that I sat down and read start to finish. Instead, I flipped here… flipped there… and gradually absorbed it all. Some sections wowed me (Steampunk kitchens!) and some sections were only of minor interest (taxidermy). And scattered throughout the book are a number of interviews with some well-known steampunk creatives — jewelry makers, clock experts, tailors, and more.

The Steampunk Gazette is a well-done reference, and I don’t think I know of another book that has squeezed as much detail between two covers.

Steampunk WardrobeSteampunk Wardrobe

Steampunk Your Wardrobe by Calista Taylor

I’ve attended a few Maker Faires over the last few years, and I’ve certainly had an opportunity to see some wonderful cosplayers in attendance. (I imagine the actual steampunk gatherings would drain my phone’s battery quickly with all the photo taking I’d be doing.) I’ve seen some excellent examples of fashion for both men and women, and I give a tip of the hat to anyone who puts in the time to pull together their own Victorian ensemble.

I can sew a button on… that’s about it. I find people who design their own clothes fascinating, and just as I enjoy looking at the design plans for a nice wooden tool chest or the schematic for a fun circuit, I have enjoyed reviewing this book that shows how to put together some amazing female steampunk fashions.

If you’re looking for more than just inspirational imagery, then you’re probably going to enjoy the projects found on these pages. You’ll find instructions for creating a steam-infused charm necklace, a lace choker, pantaloons, an A-line skirt, a shoulder wrap, a miniature top hat, a Victorian purse, a leather waist cincher, and a dozen more items. You’ll find full-color photos and detailed explanations of each project’s creation along with a list of the required materials to achieve the identical look you see on the pages.

My absolute favorite has to be the Brown Capelet. I truly wish these were still in fashion for women today. When I saw the author’s instructions, I could not believe how simple and easy it was to recreate this amazing looking piece of clothing.

What amazes me the most about the book is how elegant and simple looking the projects actually are… worn individually (and seen this way in the numerous photos), most of these items probably wouldn’t draw any strange looks. (Okay, the miniature top hat will still grab attention.) The Victorian Lace Shirt, for example? It’s beautiful, and I would buy one for my wife in a second.

I’m not a cosplayer… but being a male, I’d probably lean towards goggles and an engineer’s vest. That said, I can totally appreciate the time and energy that went in to creating the fashions in this book. I’ll just put in a request to the author to consider a companion volume for men… specifically, geek dads.

Magazine1to7Magazine1to7

Steampunk Magazine, Issues 1-8

Of course there’s a magazine dedicated to steampunk! Issues 1-7 were released between 2007 and 2010 and are now available in a single paperback collection (430 pages!), and the latest issue, #8, came out in 2012, bringing a smile to many fans’ faces with 110 new pages of content.

I’ve struggled with how to review these eight issues. The subject matter, while always staying true to the steampunk theme, is all over the map! You’ve got short stories, interviews, How-Tos, comics, essays, criticisms, patterns, and even steampunk Ad-Libs! It’s simply overwhelming!

Issue8Issue8

When it comes to magazines, I have a really bad habit — I’ll sit down and read them, front to back, in one sitting. Then I have to wait for the next one — one month for Wired, three months for Make! I found myself doing the exact same thing with Steampunk Magazine. I read the first one in its entirety in one sitting, enjoying an interview with Michael Moorcock, a How-To on electrolytic etching, and some other totally off-the-wall and completely interesting writeups. I quickly realized I need to slow it down… but that failed. I tore up the remaining seven issues over a week and a half, enjoying even more craziness, more How Tos, more essays on steampunk, and more short stories. There some stuff in here I honestly don’t know how to classify… but I still enjoyed it!

One of the things that I’m most impressed about this magazine is that it’s ad free. These are labors of love, and I mean no disrespect when I say that the fanzine feel of these issues is what I personally love best. Every word, every drawing… it’s all honest and straight from folks who love (and live) steam.

Steampunk BeginningSteampunk Beginning

Steampunk: The Beginning

Steampunk fanatics know the names Blaylock, Jeter, and Powers. These three are widely considered the founding fathers of steampunk. (Yes, that statement is open to debate, but there are many solid arguments in their favor — Google it.)

There are three books that are widely considered fundamental steampunk texts — Homunculus by James Blaylock, Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter, and Anubis Gates by Tim Powers — and they’re all outstanding if you’ve never read them. (Infernal Devices is a particular favorite.)

Steampunk: The Beginning is an interesting book — it’s a collection of full-color artwork from a variety of artists that all focus on these three steampunk novels. Each novel is introduced with an essay from its respective author, and then follows a series of images that bring key scenes, characters, and plot points to life. For example, I’ve recently been re-reading some of Blaylock’s steampunk tales (including his newest release, The Aylesford Skull), and it’s quite interesting to see how different artists interpret certain parts of Homunculus. The same goes for Anubis and Infernal Devices — while the images rarely match what I had in my own mind’s eye for scenes and characters, it’s still fascinating to see how professional artists take a story’s elements and bring them to life. Some are comical, some are amazingly lifelike, and others are disturbing.

If you’re a fan of any or all of these proto-steampunk novels and their respective writers, you’ll enjoy reading the included essays by each author on their view of steampunk, then and now, followed by a short synopsis of each novel and then the artwork.

Victorian FutureVictorian Future

Steaming Into A Victorian Future, Edited by Julie Anne Taddio and Cynthia J. Miller

The English major in me just finished up dancing a little jig. I always enjoy reading essays on steampunk, but there are essays… and then there are essays. From the back cover copy, here a description of this book:

… a collection of essays that consider the social and cultural aspects of this multifaceted genre. This volume expands and extends existing scholarship on steampunk in order to explore many previously unconsidered questions about cultural creativity, social networking, fandom, appropriation, and the creation of meaning.

Oh, yeah. I enjoyed it. Every. Single. Page.

Not a book for everyone, that’s for sure. Here are some essay title examples:

1. Useful Troublemakers: Social Retrofuturism in the Steampunk Novels of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest

2. Fulminations and Fulgators: Jules Verne, Karel Zeman, and Steampunk Cinema

3. Objectified and Politicized: The Dynamics of Ideology and Consumerism in Steampunk Subculture

I’m no elitist. I’ll fully admit that out of the dozen-plus essays found in this book, I maybe was able to keep up with half of them. There are literary figures that are new to me, and I even had to look up some multi-syllable words. After finishing the book, however, I do feel that my Steampunk IQ jumped a few points. (That said, I’m probably going to have to work my way through this book again if I wish to fully understand and appreciate it all.)

If any fellow steampunk fans out there want some solid validation of our favorite genre and its literary effects, this is your book. Just be prepared to do some pondering and staring off into the distance as you digest these essays… sitting in a tall leather-back chair might help!

Tomorrow: More steampunk fiction…

Note: I’d like to thank all the publishers for providing review copies of these books.

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