According to Wikipedia, the term was probably coined by science-fiction writer K. W. Jeter as a humorous variation of cyberpunk—which itself is a type of science fiction described as “high tech/low life.” Steampunk is a blend of sci-fi/alternative-history/speculative fiction with a historical setting (Victorian Britain is typical) but nonhistorical features, such as flying machines, robots, heavy metal and alternative physics. Darwinism often makes up part of the philosophical framework, and Nicolai Tesla (who has become a scientific cult figure today) may make an appearance. Because of the emphasis on technology it’s more science fiction than fantasy, and could be seen as an update on Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Steampunk can be dark, but not so much in its juvenile manifestations; it’s mostly an opportunity for the old-fashioned adventure yarn. I’m personally drawn to historical settings, and a steam aficionado besides (my husband once worked on a steam-operated railroad). In our solid-state, micro-transistor age, the combination of water and heat, clank and hiss and moving parts, has a certain romance about it. (My favorite scene in the movie Titanic is that of the engine room!)
One advantage of middle-grade and YA steampunk is its appeal for boys. It’s almost always written by men and shows an exceptional fascination with machines and inventions, characterized by swift action and desperate situations and exploration into the way things work in this imaginary world. Girls (speaking for myself) can appreciate this, if it doesn’t go too much into detail. As with my series on pagan fantasy (Percy Jackson and Bartimaeus) I’ll review a fun, middle-grade-and-up example of steampunk today and hope to address a more challenging series on Monday.
The sky pulsed with stars. Some people say it makes them lonesome when they stare up at the night sky. I can’t imagine why. There’s no shortage of company. By now there’s not a constellation I can’t name. Orion. Lupus. Serpens. Hercules. Draco. My father taught me all of their stories. So when I look up I see a galaxy of adventures and heroes and villains all jostling together and trying to outdo one another, and sometimes I want to tell them not to distract me with their chatter. There’re the planets to look at too, depending on the time of year: Venus. Mercury. Mars. And don’t forget Old Man Moon. I know every crease and pockmark on that face of his.
We’re in our solar system, but hanging from the familiar stars is an alternate world in which dirigible travel dominates flight and propelled aircraft are hardly in the picture. It’s an enchanting picture: great balloons held aloft by hydrium gas (which smells faintly of mangoes, in case you ever wondered). Silently they sail the sky, ghostly galleons silvered by moonlight, carrying passengers from Paris to Constantinople to Lionsgate City–home of our hero Matt Cruise and located somewhere along the west coat of Canada.
One night while standing watch in the crows nest, Matt sees the flash and hears the muted roar of a burner in a hot-air balloon. The vessel is in distress, and by Matt’s timely warning the Aurora is able to take both craft and pilot in through the cargo bay. Little can be done for the pilot, who babbles in delirium of wonderful flying creatures. Shortly after, he breathes his last.
Fast-forward one year: Matt, now 15, is shipping out on Aurora again after shore leave. Directly after takeoff, the ship must stall in order to take on late passengers arriving via ornithopter. They are young Kate DeVries and her chaperone, the latter snooty and demanding, the former quick and intelligent, with no end of spunk as we shall see. Kate, as it happens, is the granddaughter of that doomed pilot rescued by the crew of Aurora. She knows of her grandfather’s search for the mysterious winged creatures, and has taken up the challenge of discovering them them herself.
This sets up a first-class adventure, with the improbably capable young hero and the resourceful lass and the colorful-yet-truly-lethal villain. Airborn is unabashedly old-fashioned–never mind social commentary, how about some action? And while we’re at it, let’s be transported into a vehicle so lovingly crafted we can see its feathering air cells and hear its pulsing passage through the sky. Much of the action hinges on understanding the innards of a dirigible well enough to follow our heroes and villains as they chase each other from stern to bow. The author handles this so deftly you can just see the pirates rappelling down from their craft to the surface of Aurora in the starry night. On the ground the pace is bit clunkier, but the last 50 pages, by land and air, go like lightning.
Matt and Kate are likeable heroes and their dialogue zings. Supporting roles are rather stock-ish: brave captain, wisecracking sidekick, picky chef, sheepish passengers herded this way and that by the plot. Szpirglas the pirate chief is one of the great villains of contemporary children’s literature, and he meets a suitable end. The plot moves forward by classic devices: not only pirates and shipwrecks, but young protagonists taking matters into their own hands–which first gets them in trouble, then provides a solution which gets them into deeper trouble, then clears the way for them to save the day. What more could young readers ask?
Skybreaker takes place two years later, with Kate studying to be the world’s foremost expert on high-altitude life forms and Matt studying at the flight academy. While serving as a navigator aboard a rustbucket cargo dirigible, he spots an object that may be the legendary ghost ship Hyperion. His foolhardy captain pursues it in the stratosphere, only to give up the search when the crew succumbs to altitude sickness. Matt is the only survivor who knows the coordinates. He and Kate join an expedition to track down the Hyperion, on a sleek new airship piloted by a handsome officer who becomes a rival for Kate’s affections. The mushy stuff doesn’t overcome the action, but takes the novel into YA territory.
By Starclimber, 19-year-old Matt is ready to offer Kate an engagement ring, only to find she’s engaged to another man! But that doesn’t stop them from joining forces again, this time on a vessel that literally climbs its way into outer space, boldly going where no man has gone before. And, as you might imagine, true love triumphs. Starclimber may be the weakest of the three for pacing and plot, but by this time the reader should care enough about Matt and Kate that it doesn’t matter. Getting to know them was time well spent.
Questions to think about:
- Airborn imagines a future where air travel is dominated by lighter-than-air machines, not propulsion. Might this be a possibility? Did it seem a possibility at one time? What happened?
- Is science determined? That is, does one discovery necessarily lead to another, or can scientific discovery take different paths and come up with different solutions (within God’s providence)?
- Szpirglas is a villain, but does he have some positive traits? What are they?
For the second post of this series, see Steampunk Two: Leviathan. For more boy-book suggestions, see Stalking the Elusive Boy Reader. For thoughts on where technology is taking us today, check out our podcast on ereader safety and Brave Little Digital World.