Brian J. Robb’s Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film and Other Victorian Visions is described by its publisher, Voyager Press, as “the definitive book on the writers, film-makers, artisans and aesthetes who created the extraordinary genre”. It’s a bold claim to make of a work about a literary sub-genre and cultural movement that continues to evolve and which refuses to be pinned down with any single definition, but Brian Robb’s book more than lives up to the hype.
Part of the challenge in defining Steampunk is that many of its exponents (writers, directors, designers, artists, cosplayers and more) typically “punk it”, taking what they need and adapting it to their own ends. (It could be argued of course that it is the absence of a strict definition that makes this all the more possible). Even so, we might be tempted to think that the task of defining Steampunk is not all that difficult; after all, most of us could quite easily pin the Steampunk label on something at a glance, so strong and distinctive is Steampunk’s retro-futuristic design aesthetic. Things simply “look” or “feel” the part.
But “knowing” that something is Steampunk is quite different from understanding why it is Steampunk or what makes it Steampunk, and if you’re interested in understanding a genre that has been described as the most influential new genre to emerge from the late 20th Century, you’ll find a compelling discussion in the pages of Robb’s book. Together with Voyager Press, Robb has crafted a book that does credit to its subject matter: a punked up history, a hybrid of seriousness and playfulness in the format of an olde worlde postmodern book (with its multi-layering of information and graphics in various formats – from text overlays to inserts).
For all its playfulness however, Robb has written a very readable scholarly work that investigates Steampunk from its literary, cultural and historical origins through to its many manifestations today in literature, film and television, video games, cosplay, and everything in between. While a single definition is not up to the task of covering all of these disparate manifestations of the Steampunk movement, Robb provides a framework within which the various expressions of Steampunk neatly fit.
The name Steampunk was coined by author K.W. Jeter in 1987, and the movement’s origins are as a subgenre of SF and Fantasy fiction, one that is characterised by an alternate history in which technology evolved differently. Ground-zero in this alternate history is typically the Victorian era when steam power and mechanical clockwork dominated technology (and it is from this that the distinctive retro-futuristic design aesthetic arises).
The opening chapters in Robb’s book undertake an exploration of the origins of SF but with a uniquely Steampunk perspective. There are of course several notable histories of SF and Fantasy which cover the same ground, but none to my knowledge does so from this perspective. And from this perspective a quite different light is cast on the beginnings and evolution of SF, and for that alone Robb’s book is a worthy contribution to the field. But with its comprehensive and thoroughly entertaining examination of the many flavours of Steampunk, Robb’s book has far more to offer than a history of SF.