Required Reading: Seminal Steampunk for Genre-Sensitive Snobs


Steampunk’s distinctive blend of Victorian age sci-fi/fantasy and steam-powered modern technology has shed some of its geeky connotations in recent years with unexpected mainstream recognition. Emerging from literary origins in the ‘80s, the movement’s artistic subculture has since taken on music, art, movies, fashion, and DIY gadgetry — all in the name of dark, neo-Victorian fun. But with Dexter Palmer’s buzzed steampunk-inspired alternate reality The Dream of Perpetual Motion

out this week, there’s no indication that the original literary movement has lost any of its, ahem, steam. To get caught up on the action, be sure to check out these essential steampunk books.

(1983) Codifying steampunk’s obsession with all things H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, The Anubis Gates positions itself around seemingly impossible journeys. When a summoning of ancient Egyptian gods accidentally opens a space/time portal, a 20th century professor is swept back through several centuries, settings, and bodies only to discover the circular surprises of his transported state. Featuring a murderous clown-magician, an unknowingly self-fulfilled poet, and a body-swapping werewolf, Tim Powers’ award-winning novel is as intriguing as it is utterly engrossing.

Homunculus from The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives

(1986) Though published as the second volume of a trilogy, Homunculus has the distinction of introducing Langdon St. Ives, one of steampunk’s most archetypal and well-written heroes. A scientist, explorer, and unheralded savior of mankind, St. Ives embodies all the unselfconscious amusement and entertainment of the genre and its forebears. In Homunculus, a mysterious airship over Victorian London attracts ambitions of good and evil among a motley crew of aliens, inventors, mad doctors, toymakers, and quite possibly the only heroic tobacco seller in all of pop culture.

(1987)Infernal Devices, K.W. Jeter’s clock-spence classic, fulfilled what he had begun exploring in earlier gems like


. The novel follows an unwitting second-generation watchmaker swept up in a surreal conflict between meddling armies of brutal zealots and supposed freethinkers, all of whom seem hellbent on tinkering with the inner workings of mankind. The story solidified central steampunk tropes and transgressions that had started percolating in the aforementioned work.

(1990) Where earlier steampunk novels played with elements of the emerging style, The Difference Engine defined the genre’s emphasis on social and technological revisionism, alternative histories, and entertainment-driven satire. Authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling — who pioneered the genre’s big brother, cyberpunk — focus their novel on the search for a set of powerful computer information cards, but the Bizarro Victorian setting and interlinking stories of the main characters ultimately takes center stage.

(1995) The first book to incorporate the word “steampunk” into its title, Paul Di Filippo’s The Steampunk Trilogy is a devilishly funny parody of cultural expectations and staunch literary genres. The tome’s three novellas include a poetic love affair between the ever-reclusive Emily Dickinson and the libidinous Walt Whitman, a world in which Queen Victoria has become a cloned newt, and a monster invasion of New England that seems to come straight from the nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft.

(1995) Philip Pulllman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of the most probing coming-of-age stories ever written. Beginning with The Golden Compass, the story follows two children’s adventures through various parallel universes as they become entangled in the backdrop of epic goings-on. Often described as an inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the series borrows elements of steampunk for a grander scale of philosophical, theological, and literary entertainment.

(1999) In his multi-award winning comic book saga The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore exploits steampunk’s setting and historical rule-breaking conventions to create a world where all works of fiction can simultaneously coexist. Featuring central characters from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the series offers one of the most innovative literary mash-ups to ever hit the page.

Further reading:

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s unrivaled anthology offers a seminal overview of the genre.

Though it predates the steampunk movement by several decades, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone features many of the tropes and conventions that would later define the genre.

Perdido Street Station is arguably more fantasy oriented than traditional steampunk, but China Mievilee mixes and matches his genres to a compelling end.

Described as both steampunk and clockpunk, Mainspring chronicles a surreal subterranean journey directed by the angel Gabriel.

In The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson blends cyberpunk, steampunk, and nanotechnology into an unconventional picaresque narrative.