Kathy Cowley's Reviews > The Steampunk Bible

The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer
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Oct 05, 14

bookshelves: nonfiction, art, science-fiction, science, fantasy, adult
Read in June, 2012

This was a beautiful book tracing the steampunk movement, from its origins in the industrial revolution and in the literature of Verne and Wells, to its presence in fiction, fashion, art, craftsmanship, and film. When I say beautiful I mean it literally--there is beautiful photography, illustrations, and prints on almost every single page of the book, and it's worth reading just for the visual experience.

But before I talk about the other things I liked, the book definitely has some weaknesses. After reading it, I am still not sure that I buy the idea of steampunk as a "movement." Steampunk fashion may be a movement, but not steampunk as a whole. It's an aesthetic, but not yet to the movement category, and the authors almost admit as such. Almost all of the examples are from the last five years, and the authors pinpoint a 2008 New York Times article as fueling a lot of the interest in steampunk.

It's a great book, but a "bible" for steampunk won't be needed for at least another decade. There were some sections that I found rather boring, that felt a bit like space fillers. For example, I really didn't need detailed descriptions of every band that makes steampunk music, even though there aren't that many. And while some of the people highlighted are important and interesting, others were less so (great, four college students have created imaginary identities and tell stories together--I don't really care!).

That said, while it's too early for a real "steampunk bible," this book was important to be written now. It's a really interesting cultural commentary that looks across various aspects of our society and examines why we use the past in order to understand and interpret the present. It was really thought-provoking and insightful to me, to consider steampunk and other movements/aesthetics arising from a disconnect with our mass-produced, made in China, technological and virtual society, where, as the authors mentioned, even talking with someone in person can be a radical idea. The Do It Yourself (DIY) culture, which steampunk is highly invested in, is about creating things with your own two hands in order to reconnect with the world and create meaning and purpose in your life. The Victorian setting of steampunk is particularly interesting in this aspect, because Victorian science was actually rather comprehensible to the standard educated person, and by turning back to this science and time period, the world becomes more interpretable.

According to the authors, I've read two books that would fall under the "steampunk" category (Westerfeld's Leviathon and Clare's Clockwork Angel). In my opinion, they were good not because they were steampunk but because they were good fantasy/sci-fi. I've no plans to go out and embrace steampunk (though a steampunked Victorian outfit would be tempting) but it's interesting to see how this aesthetic is impacting various aspects of mainstream culture (for example, the new Sherlock Holmes' films).
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