Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Steampunk & Other Science-Based Genres

Although it may seem odd to talk about literature in the niche I've reserved for sharing science resources, it's not.

Here's why. Science is our vehicle for explaining our world. And, inherent in the process of thinking about and reflecting on the hows and whats and ifs and maybes, we engage our imaginations. When scientists are dreaming up hypotheses to then prove (or disprove, as often is the case), they are engaged in a sort of futuristic, creative thinking: what will the result be if this happens? what will happen if this happens first? if this happens over a period of 100 years, how will that affect things? They project their current knowledge about how things work into the future.

Writers of science fiction or fantasy are engaged in a similar process when they create utopias or post-apocalyptic scenarios or brand new worlds: if this happened, what then.

These writers are often inspired by recent scientific discoveries and developments. And, in some ways, these literary imaginations have also shaped our world as they've opened our minds to future possibilities, inspiring scientists to push the edges of what we can do and what we know.

Within the genres of fantasy and science fiction, Steampunk provides something just a little bit more romantic and intriguing than the usual fare. These stories tend to be set in a newly post-industrial revolution society, but one without the bells and whistles of modern day -- usually during the Victoria or Edwardian eras when science was a relatively empty canvas. Inventions are reminiscent of Heath Robinson's or Rube Goldberg's creations, being overly complicated and slightly primitive, and are often designed with a beautiful aesthetic. The genre is inspired by books that predate the "steampunk" designation by authors such as Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), H.G. Wells (The Time Machine), and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein). Mervin Peake's 1959 novel Titus Alone and William Gibson's collaboration with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, both contain steampunk ambiance. Since the mid-90's, the genre has blossomed to include both novels (China Melville's Perdido Street Station) and graphic novels (The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Girl Genius). And it has also infiltrated children's literature.

The panel: "Steampunkery: Why are today's teens embracing 19th-century technologies?"
Moderator: Cory Doctorow, Author
Panelists: Authors Scott Westerfeld and Cherie Priest;
Karen Grenke, Library Manager NYPL and fan girl

(It's a bit long, so it's okay if you skip it.)

Scott Westerfield is the author of Leviathan, a steampunk tale with epic qualities. From School Library Journal:
This is World War I as never seen before. The story begins the same: on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated, triggering a sequence of alliances that plunges the world into war. But that is where the similarity ends. This global conflict is between the Clankers, who put their faith in machines, and the Darwinists, whose technology is based on the development of new species. After the assassination of his parents, Prince Aleksandar's people turn on him. Accompanied by a small group of loyal servants, the young Clanker flees Austria in a Cyklop Stormwalker, a war machine that walks on two legs. Meanwhile, as Deryn Sharp trains to be an airman with the British Air Service, she prays that no one will discover that she is a girl. She serves on the Leviathan, a massive biological airship that resembles an enormous flying whale and functions as a self-contained ecosystem. When it crashes in Switzerland, the two teens cross paths, and suddenly the line between enemy and ally is no longer clearly defined. The ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, and that's a good thing because readers will be begging for more. Enhanced by Thompson's intricate black-and-white illustrations, Westerfeld's brilliantly constructed imaginary world will capture readers from the first page. Full of nonstop action, this steampunk adventure is sure to become a classic. —Heather M. Campbell
And there is a sequel, Behemoth, which is to be released on October 5.

For younger kids who may enjoy the milieu of steampunk, there is Larklight by Philip Reeve and illustrated by David Wyatt. From School Library Journal:
This wildly imaginative sci-fi pirate adventure has tongue-in-cheek humor and social commentary on accepting those who are different, among other things. Art Mumby and his sister, Myrtle, proud citizens of the British Empire, which in 1851 includes extraterrestrial territories, live with their father in Larklight, a rambling house that just happens to be traveling through outer space. The arrival of elephant-sized white spiders sets in motion an adventure that takes the quibbling siblings across the universe to battle the forces of evil. The spiders, the First Ones, want the key to Larklight in order to destroy the Empire and rule again. Art and Myrtle, thinking their father dead in the spiders' webs, escape their home, only to be rescued by the notorious space pirate Jack Havock. His ship sails the lunar sea with its crew, including Ssilissa, a human-sized blue lizard, and a gigantic land crab named Nipper. Art is the narrator, but when he and his sister are separated, readers are treated to Myrtle's prim and proper diary entries. With the help of Jack and his merry band, good triumphs, the family is reunited, and Myrtle and Jack begin a romance. Reeve's cinematic prose describes his fantastic universe while also conveying a Victorian sensibility. Whimsical, detailed black-and-white illustrations enhance the text. Readers will eagerly suspend disbelief; they will be riveted by the exciting plot's twists and turns as our heroes face death-defying adventures and narrow escapes, all at a frenetic pace. As Art would declare, Huzzah! – Connie Tyrrell Burns
There are two sequels in the series, Mothstorm and Starcross, both as much fun as the first book.

In terms of Science Fiction, there are many fabulous choices for children. Some of my favourite authors are Ursula Leguin (A Wizard of Earthsea), Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), John Christopher (When the Tripods Came), Lois Lowry (The Giver) and Monica Hughes (The Isis Trilogy).

The Vancouver Public Library has an online site with a list of their current Sci-Fi suggestions that will get you started. A google search for "science fiction for kids" (or children) will pull up many related links and after you've looked through those, you may want to add "best" or "favourite". Also, once you start exploring on or, you'll find that the other suggested books on the page may lead you to many books your children will enjoy.

You may also appreciate looking through the online annotated bibilography at the University of Guelph: Science Fiction & Fantasy for Children (it helps if you know what you are looking for).

And, if you want to know more about what Steampunk looks like, there is an awesome online exhibit to explore at Oxford's Museum of the History of Science. This YouTube video about the exhibit provides an excellent explanation of what Steampunk is and where it comes from. Enjoy!

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