Just Glue Some Gears On It and Call It Steampunk

What is steampunk?  Take it away, Sir Reginald Pikedevant, Esquire:

There a million blogs out there discuss what steampunk is, and I don’t want to linger on the point too long – so, to paraphrase Sir Reginald, ‘Steampunk refers to a type of science fiction about alternate pasts (not future prediction), often set in Victorian Britain but the history of technology is being rewritten.’

Some of the most famous examples of steampunk are books that were written during the Victorian times: H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, for example, or Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Some more modern examples are Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve and Northern Lights by Philip Pullman.

I’d heard of steampunk before I got to uni, but it was only when I was at uni that my boyfriend, Mike, was able to take me over to Southampton every other weekend to meet with Krakensoc (short for Kraken Society), the steampunk group he’d helped put together.

The first time we met, Mike and I had ridden over on his motorbike.  We had normal clothes on under our leathers, but we were the only ones: we were greeted with hat tips and salutes by a group of lads (the girls took longer to join up) in top hats, shiny brass goggles and military coats.  After that, I remember a lot of bike trips with my leather trousers digging corset bones into my hips.

Krakensoc was mostly run by engineering students back then, like Mike, and several members also had a background in the sea cadets or similar.  This meant our events, on top of the general film nights and trips to antique fairs, had a leaning towards Victorian invention.  We visited HMS Great Britain to look at Brunel’s work, among other things.

Group ye olde(I’m at the front on the left: at the far right is Mike, back when he still had long hair)

There were also plenty of events to keep a girly English dork happy: a masquerade ball featuring lessons in Regency dance and tea duelling sticks out in my mind.

tea duelling(Tea duelling such serious business I removed my mask, if not my tiny top hat.)

Over the last few years of going to Krakensoc – and going less recently, since Mike graduated and is no longer able to cart me over on the bike whenever we please – I’ve wanted to write a steampunk book.  I’ve been hoarding ideas (‘What about steampunk assassins!’) for years and just letting them fester without touching them.  Sometimes that’s what you have to do!  Eventually, all of the little ideas and short stories can come together into a novel.

And that is exactly what I’m writing right now: a steampunk book that took a month to plan out and will probably take another three or four to write and edit, but which took years to slowly grow in my mind, at the same time as my corset collection slowly grew in my wardrobe.

Basically, this whole post is a giant thank you note to Krakensoc, for letting me trail along looking baffled at all the techie talk, even as I frantically scribbled down the few bits and bobs I did understand.  And for that one time you all explained Schrödinger’s cat to me and I didn’t sleep all night.

Cinder

I’ve ignored this blog long enough and it’s time I actually did something with it.  I’m going to kickstart with reading: with a review of Cinder, by Marissa Meyer.

Quite a few people have recommended Cinder to me in the past, either because they know I like science fiction or because they know I like fairy tales.  It wasn’t until Booze Your Own Adventure talked about it, though, that I decided I really should pick it up.  And, lo and behold, I loved it.

The story is best summarised as ‘sci-fi Cinderella’: set in Beijing in the distant future, cyborg-girl Cinder works as a mechanic for her wicked stepmother.  Cyborgs in the future are loathed and distrusted, but not as much as the ‘Lunars’: strange, psychic people who live on the moon and who are preparing to attack Earth, if the Commonwealth’s Prince Kai won’t meet their demands.  Add to this a deadly plague sweeping the world and wow this book had me hooked.

There are so many recreations of fairy stories these days (Angela Carter is probably glaring at me from beyond the grave, considering how many essays I’ve written about her) but I really felt like Cinder was something new.  The language wasn’t particularly flowery or beautiful, but it was expertly crafted and extremely comfortable to read.  After a long line of coursework books – several of them, unnervingly, about cancer – Cinder was a pleasant reminder that I actually enjoy reading.

The book had so many great little twists on the original legend: one of Cinder’s stepsisters is actually very kind and friendly; instead of losing her shoe at the ball, Cinder loses her entire prosthetic foot; the story is less about one girl marrying a prince and more about saving the entire world from a combination of a deadly pandemic and the evil Lunar queen.

Actually, I had only two complaints with the book.  The first was brought up by Booze Your Own Adventure: the story didn’t seem to be set in Beijing for a reason.  Characters were sometimes described as ‘auburn’ or otherwise having light hair, and many were suggested to be white.  For a story set in China, this was … weird.  Chinese culture and religion didn’t play into the story at all, either, and I’m curious why Meyer decided she wanted it set there.  On the other hand, I can’t complain too much: I am also fed up with every book ever being set in New York.

(Beijing in the 2013 smog)

My other complaint is something I’m fairly certain was completely out of Meyer’s control: the cover of the book.  Cinder is not much of a romance story.  There’s romance in it, but both Cinder and Prince Kai are far more involved with the fate of the world than their own love story.  It’s a sci-fi story.

And yet, emblazoned on the back of my library copy?

A FORBIDDEN ROMANCE.

(Cue me, rolling my eyes to the sun).

The front cover is inkeeping with an eerily recognisable theme, too.  Black background with a red and white image on the front … where have I seen that before?  Oh.  I remember.

I understand the urge to appeal to a certain demographic: YA books for girls follow this trend for a reason.  It’s recognisable.  You see those colours and you know it’s a YA book for girls (usually some kind of paranormal romance).  But god it is so boring to see it over and over again, especially on books that are most definitely not paranormal romance.  Also  frustrating is the fact that the foot on the cover of Cinder is delicate and pretty, with machinery hidden inside, despite the way that Meyer describes Cinder’s prosthetic as clunky, rusty and extremely visible.  Also, Cinder never wore red heels.

But never mind that – Twilight!  I strongly suspect the author’s surname being ‘Meyer’ had something to do with this, too.  Perhaps the publishers hoped she’d be mistaken for Stephanie Meyer if their books looked similar enough?

To summarise: ignore the cover of Cinder.  It is an excellent book.  Today I picked up the next two in the series from my library (Scarlet and Cress, which appear to be inspired by Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel respectively) because I couldn’t stand not knowing what happens next.  If you like science fiction and you like fairy tales, you’ll love it.


Coming up in future, probably:

  • Me nattering about steampunk, and in turn the steampunk book I’m working on
  • Me comparing the arts of pantsing a novel and planning
  • Reviews of Scarlet and Cress
  • Me complaining more about book covers and/or showing off book covers I really like