I got a kick out of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection when I read it last fall, but months went by before I realized it belongs to a niche category of fiction called steampunk.
In Berry’s book, Charles Unwin is reluctantly promoted to detective when his renowned gumshoe boss goes missing. But Unwin is determined to find his boss only so he can return to his comfortable clerkship on one of the lower floors of the massive Agency where they both work. The story is set in a perpetually rain-slicked city that is home to broken-down carnivals, manipulative dreamers (literally), and whole communities of sleepwalkers: a fantastic place for Berry to stage his large-scale crimes. In addition to this atmospheric dreamscape (and despite the modern-day language that makes it seem contemporary) the book is full of things that would tip off a seasoned steampunk reader – anachronisms such as typewriters, phonographs, wind-up alarm clocks, and even a flatbed steam truck. Readers are in for a wild ride in this twisty genre-bender that mixes mystery, the how-to manual, speculative fantasy and alternative history.
At the time of reading it, I noted that The Manual of Detection reminded me in some ways of the film Dark City and the retro-futuristic Mr. X comic books I’d enjoyed in the 80s, but I didn’t yet understand that a whole genre had coalesced around these characteristics. Since then, I have come to learn that steampunk novels are often built off the settings and technology found in the works of writers such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Victorian fashions and architecture are common, as are clockworks and other mechanical age devices including zeppelins, coal-fired trains, and steam-driven vehicles that billow their mist into these richly imagined worlds.
One of the earliest steampunk novels is The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers from 1983. For a classic in the genre, the cognoscenti might point you toward The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling from 1991. Coming some years later are Neverwhere by the ever-popular Neil Gaiman, along with Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Mieville. More recent titles include the clockwork-inspired trilogy by Jay Lake — Mainspring, Escapement, and Pinion; Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker; The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer; The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming; and 2010 Hugo Award finalist, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.
So wind the stem on your pocket watch and strap on your brass aviator goggles — the steampunk airships are here to take you away!