Steampunk is a mutt, a hybrid. It is sci fi mixed with ersatz historical fiction: a strange monster indeed. Purebred genres have their good points, of course, but sometimes readers are looking for a place to escape to in a world tired of vampires.
Is it new? No. It’s been here, after all, since the days of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It was resurrected in the late 80’s by the likes of William Gibson and James Blaylock. Perhaps those writers were tired of the slick, aseptic world of 2001 and wanted something grittier that was at once urban and urbane.
In this past year, however, steampunk has really taken off. It has been given new life in the publishing world as well as on programming like Fringe. It even appears in a Lady Gaga video:
There are amazing books that have recently come out in the genre; there are collections like Corsets and Clockwork, series like the Behemoth books, and stand-alone works like The Windup Girl. They are edgy; they are filled with cogs and wheels and drawing room manners; they are sexy, like The Girl in the Steel Corset.
Hang on – how about those corsets, though? I write Steampunk, but I write books for a YA audience. I have deliberately decided to keep my work G-rated. There are no corsets there, except for those well hidden under riding habits and tea gowns.
I’m an editor as well as a writer, so “Will it sell?” is a question I’m learning to ask. What is steampunk without the steam? Will a younger audience be interested in an antique world?
There are YA collections out there for kids and teens, the Nickie Nick vampire hunter novels by O. M. Grey, the Blackfeather Chronicles, and the Girl Genius series by the Foglios. There are stand-alone books like Beltbuckle and Flash Gold. How popular they will be, and whether they will remain on Barnes & Noble bookshelves remains to be seen.
It makes sense that some books about cogs, wheels, and automatons should cater to kids. After all, children and adolescents were Verne’s and Wells’s and Doyle’s main audiences. I do believe that there must be quality in the story, however.
Steampunk, in order to save it from becoming steampulp, needs to have the Victorian or Edwardian technology serve a purpose. The airships should be there for a reason, not just floating around in order to give the author an excuse to slap a steampunk genre sticker on her book.
The airships and automatons must be an integral part of the plot, adding to the action and even, if I dare, the character development. I believe that kids appreciate character as much as any group of readers; they are just as turned off by poorly written protagonists. The characters in the books must be real, with flaws to overcome and problems to solves, as well as human feelings and hopes and desires. They cannot, in other words, be corset-wearing automatons.
I firmly believe that we will continue to see amazing books in the genre for YA. As the interest grows (there are already Steampunk festivals and exhibits all over the world, after all,) more authors will discover the fascinating fantasy that comes from opening the door to the old factory and discovering the possibilities of the alien machinery that waits inside.
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