9 Essential Steampunk Books for your first journey into the genre

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Before the word steampunk was coined, you could already go on great adventures with authors like Jules Verne or travel in time with H.G. Wells. They are considered precursors of the genre, as they wrote their stories way before Steampunk, as a word, was invented.

Steampunk is maybe more recognizable today for its aesthetics where past and future are intertwined, but it is a subgenre of science fiction that invites the reader to travel into an alternate universe where airships, submarines, and all steam-driven technologies dominate. Though, like every genre, it is often mixed with other genres, or simply, elements of steampunk finds their place among other type of stories.

If you are new along these shores, the following is a selection of steampunk books, a sort of primer of the subgenre with books that helped define and expand the genre.

A Nomad of the Time Streams by Michael Moorcock (1971-1981)

A precursor of the genre, Michael Moorcock’s early steampunk trilogy began in 1971 with The Warlord of the Air and was followed by The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar in 1974 and 1981, respectively. It is 1973, and the British Empire controls everything and has installed a new global order marked by peace and prosperity for all under unbreakable law. However, not everyone in the Empire supports this lovely equilibrium amid the shadows of jealous politics and perverted utopian fantasies. Captain Oswald Bastable is transported from the North East Frontier of 1902 to this future, when he is confronted with a serious evaluation of his deeply held principles, exposing with shock that he has become a nomad of the time streams.

Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter (1979)

K. W. Jeter coined the word “steampunk” to describe this book (as well as the works of his colleagues and friends Tim Powers and James Blaylock). Inspired by H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, the Morlocks have acquired a time machine and returned from the lonely distant future to cause mayhem and disturbance in Victorian England. However, the mythical heroes of Old England have returned in the midst of the country’s greatest need to save it from ultimate annihilation.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983)

Brendan Doyle is an expert in the literary legacy of the early-nineteenth century wordsmith William Ashbless. He finds himself compelled to accept an invitation from a millionaire to acts as a tour guide for time-traveling enthusiasts. However, his fate takes a riveting twist as he participates in a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the year 1810, becoming stranded in the vibrant tapestry of Regency London, where dark and dangerous forces know about the gates in time.

Homunculus by James Blaylock (1986)

Part of the Narbondo Series. In the foggy skies above Victorian London, there’s a mysterious airship circling around. Lots of people want to uncover its dark secrets, like the Royal Society, a fake preacher, a cruel person who dissects animals, a bad millionaire, and a group led by a scientist named Professor Langdon St. Ives. The big question is: Can St. Ives protect he alien homunculus from the villainous Ignacio Narbondo? It’s a battle between good and bad in the heart of the city.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

It is considered the book that helped establish the genre conventions of steampunk. In the year 1855, the Industrial Revolution is going full steam ahead, thanks to Engines powered by steam and gears. Charles Babbage created and finished his Analytical Engine, bringing about the computer age a hundred years earlier than expected. In the middle of this, three remarkable characters are speeding toward a meeting with both history and what’s ahead. Their journey starts when they find a box of punched Engine cards that nobody knows where they came from or what they do. But someone wants these cards so badly that they’re willing to kill for them…

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (2000)

First book in the Bas-Lag series. The big city of New Crobuzon is right in the middle of the world. People and mutants and strange races live in the darkness under its tall chimneys. The river is slow and has strange stuff in it, and factories make loud noises all through the night. The Parliament and its powerful forces have governed over a large economy for a thousand years, controlling labourers and artists, spies and soldiers, magicians, thieves, and addicts. Now a stranger has just shown in with a large amount of gold and an impossibly high demand. And something unthinkable is released. The city is gripped by an alien terror. A group of outlaws control the destiny of millions. A reckoning is due at the city’s heart, in the vast edifice of brick and wood and steel under the vaults of Perdido Street Station. There is no turning back now.

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (2001)

First book in The Mortal Engines Quartet. In a dangerous future, huge motorized cities hunt, attack and fight each other for survival. Emerging from its hiding place in the hills, the great Traction City is chasing a terrified little town across the wastelands. Soon, London will feed. As London pursues a small town, young apprentice Historian Tom Natsworthy is flung from the speeding city with a murderous scar-faced girl. They must run for their lives through the wreckage – and face a terrifying new weapon that threatens the future of the world.

Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2008)

Climb aboard a hair balloon for a journey through the steampunk genre with the anthology curated by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer that delivers a variety of stories written by some of the top names in the genre. This collection offers a good sampling of various Steampunk stories, from an excerpt from The Warlord of the Air to the brilliant 72 Letters by Ted Chiang. With also collects pop culture-fueled discussions of steampunk and essential recommended reading lists.

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds (2010)

Alistair Reynolds said that Terminal World was a “steampunk-influenced novel” about “the last human city, a vast vertical structure called Spearpoint” The city is divided into zones, each of which possesses a different – and rigidly enforced – level of technology. This is a post-apocalyptic steampunk novel focusing on the adventures of Quillon, a pathologist forced into exile from Spearpoint after a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table. But there is more at stake than his own survival as reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability.