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This, By Definition, Does Not Define Steampunk

December 1st, 2011

In Sept. 2010 Locus Magazine did a special Steampunk edition and this was my contribution, which later became the bones of the introduction(!):

A couple of years ago my wife Kelly Link and I realized we knew quite a few young adult authors who were writing steampunk novels—or, in the case of Cassandra Clare and Scott Westerfeld — steampunk series and, while driving up from New York City to Massachusetts with Holly Black and Cassandra, we came up with the idea for an book: Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. (I’m not sure if my enthusiasm for the exclamation mark will make it through to the final published book—we’ll see what the acquiring editor, Deborah Noyes at Candlewick says.) [I’m very glad that it did make it through!]

That subtitle became the editorial statement that we sent to writers in response to their question: “But what is steampunk?” We mined movie (Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, Caro and Jeunet’s City of Lost Children) and literary history (The Difference Engine, The Golden Compass, etc.) but what we asked for were explorations and expansions of the genre.

If steampunk is only a design aesthetic, then surely any story can be steampunk if enough brass goggles (or brass Googles) are added? Almost, but not quite. Because what attracted us to the genre was something else: the DIY/maker/Etsy/individual artist contributors who were making the genre up out of whole cloth (and, yes, brass widgets) as they went along. Is there anyone who saw Mary Robinette Kowal’s 2007 Kowal Portable Typewriter and Adding Machine who didn’t want one of their own? Mary wasn’t just dropping a twenty at Borders for a sticker: she made her own. Is there anyone reading this who doubts their coffee table will not soon be weighed down with the VanderMeers Steampunk Reloaded? Jeff and Ann have gathered new and reprint stories, but they’re also including a lot of original art.

What we loved about the genre was that openness to new interpretations and to new contributions from unexpected places. If every steampunk story is set in nineteenth century London, readers will soon start looking elsewhere. Which is one of the reasons it has been fun to see writers such as Cherie Priest take the genre and remake it from the ground up (and combine it with a few others) in a new location.

So we took this rather wide-angled and definitely non-specific request for stories to writers whose work we loved, some we knew, many we didn’t, and what we were hoping for is that they would show us sides of the genre we couldn’t have imagined.

What did we get? Steampunk stories set in Canada, New Zealand, Wales, Ancient Rome, future Australia, alternate California, and even a post-apocalyptic steampunk story—how’s that for genre crashing?—from authors including M.T. Anderson, Holly Black, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Knox, Garth Nix, Delia Sherman, Ysabeau Wilce, and others. A genre, by definition, is defined by what it includes so this book will be steampunk but it is also, we hope! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories that readers within the genre will enjoy beside other favorites and that readers (of all ages) outwith the genre can use as an introduction to a genre that’s getting it’s brassy paws all over every other genre it can.

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