The Steampunk Bible: Mecha-Elephants, Raygun Rocketships, and Great Stories
What’s over 30 years old, encrusted with clock parts, and only now reaching its peak of popularity?
If you guessed rapper Flavor Flav, guess again--it’s Steampunk, possibly the only literary movement to take three decades to go from a sputtering spark to a full-on raging fire. A retro-futurist perspective fuels Steampunk, which leans heavily on the influence of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as well as outdated tech from the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
The term was first coined by K.W. Jeter in 1986 to describe his novels Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, just reissued this year by Angry Robot. Since then it’s been picked up by comics, movies, the maker movement, fashion, music, and more. Indeed, you could say that the current revival in the commercial fortunes of the fiction is mostly due to a burgeoning subculture that is into aspects of Steampunk other than the writing.
Which brings me to The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature, which I coauthored with S.J. Chambers. It’s the first comprehensive overview of all aspects of Steampunk, with over 150 full-color images. In addition to chapters on everything from Origins to Movies, we wove in a number of sidebars, including a feature on Sean Orlando, talking about his Raygun Rocketship (part of the “raygun gothic” subgenre of Steampunk), an interview with the band HUMANWINE, and the Steampunk Workshop’s Jake von Slatt showing readers how to etch tins with saltwater and electricity.
In all of the art and machines associated with Steampunk, there’s a pleasing “reveal” of the gears and showing the way things work that pushes against the seamlessness of most modern technology. So, in the spirit of that very Steampunk idea of showing the cogs, I should note that this was my first coffee table book, and the process was really interesting—starting with the interplay between images and words. Prior nonfiction books required me to describe everything to some extent. With The Steampunk Bible, the most important thing was to continually balance the controlling influence: either the text or the image. In some cases the image did almost all of the work and in other cases the text did the heavy lifting.
Another consideration was whether to make The Steampunk Bible encyclopedic or representative. We decided on the latter approach. Why? First of all, we wanted the room to tell good stories. Secondly, in the internet age any attempt to capture everything would be doomed to failure: each hour a thousand clockwork flowers bloom on the web, the rate of new Steampunk creation astounding. (We also are in the midst of cataloging more Steampunk creations at the steampunkbible.com website.)As a result, we were able to devote space to documenting the charming tale of four students who bonded by pretending to be the crew of an imaginary airship (which we had an artist create a picture of for the book). We also were able to chronicle the full, at times contradictory story of how Jeter, along with Tim Powers and James Blaylock spearheaded the initial Steampunk movement. In the fashion and fiction sections it seemed more useful to interview various creators with different approaches than to chart from point-to-point the development of the aesthetic. As a result, we’ve got fascinating conversations involving, for example, novelists Ekaterina Sedia and Cherie Priest, as well as fashionistas Libby Bulloff and Last Wear.
We also took care to preserve relevant eccentricities like Russian artist Vladimir Gvozdev’s story about being inspired by a mad German mechanic from the beginning of the twentieth century. The mechanic, from a lunatic asylum began inventing what he called “vengeance weapons” that might have won World War I if used. Says Gvozdev, “I never saw the blueprints, but I liked the story so much I tried to make via my blueprints a sort of portrait of the inventor himself—to create a little museum out of the mind of the German mechanic.”
At the layout stage, both conceptual and practical issues came into play. The flow of the text must precisely match image placement, so in one chapter we needed to cut a paragraph, and in another we had to add text by creating a new sidebar. During that phase, we learned quite a bit about the value of both concision and expansion because in both cases the constraint actually made the final text better than the original.
Conceptually, the idea of recurring motifs came into play. For example, there are quite a few mecha-elephants in the history of Steampunk, starting, of course, with Jules Verne’s own clockwork pachyderm from his novel The Steam House. So readers will notice the evolution of the mecha-elephant throughout the book, ending with French artist Sam Van Olffen’s version. (Van Olffen’s version cheekily refers back to one of the original automata, Vaucanson’s Duck—the elephant’s actually shining a light on said duck in the image.) Feeding into this motif are representations of all kinds of mechanical animals, including the work of the aforementioned Gvozdev and the intricacy of clockwork beetles by Mike Libby.
In the end, everything came together in a way that now seems predestined, but represents a lot of revision by me, my coauthor, and our editor Caitlin Kenney, as the original layout was very different from the final. The cover may have been the easiest part of the process—it’s based on my suggestion that the publisher simply repurpose an old Jules Verne cover. What could say “retro-futurism” more than updating the old to express the new? The result, we hope, is a beautiful book that anyone who loves good art will enjoy.