Tiffany Trent on Steampunk: A Cabinet of Curiosities

Today we welcome YA steampunk author Tiffany Trent. Her current steampunk novels include The Unnaturalist and The Tinker King.

Steampunk: A Cabinet of Curiosities

The funny thing about all of this is that I never really knew I was writing steampunk. I never realized there was a genre that included my obsession with corsets (though I never wear them) and clockwork (though I don’t own any), airships (never been in one) and octopi (been closer to one than I’ve cared to). (Not to mention my love of museums and fascination with naturalists and collectors of natural objects!) I never knew there was a genre that allowed for a past that never was and a future that still might be.

Steampunk is all these things and more—a true cabinet of curiosities. When forced to define it, aficionados often stumble, because really, it’s almost a felt thing, an experience rather than just a category of literature that has risen to prominence in the last few years. Some people accuse those interested in steampunk of glorifying the past, and while maybe some of that is true, most steampunk is an alternate past that recasts traditional roles and norms. (I will include a list of forward-thinking steampunk at the end, in case you want to look for these novels).

For this and many other reasons, steampunk seems inherently controversial. Other times, people point at it as being just plain silly—the result of when Goths discover the color brown, as Cherie Priest once jokingly said. But I submit that the reason it has become an obsession for many people is that we long for an era when things made sense, when it was easier to both live in the confines of a rigid society where the rules were known but also not to be pigeon-holed in your identity by all the things you unwisely posted on Facebook when you were too young to know better. It was also a time when you could be more than one thing—a poet and an inventor and a theosophist all at once.

Of course, we can never forget the role class played in much of Victorian society and that life was very grim for many people—this is the era of Dickens and the workhouses and imperialism and the industrial revolution and cholera. But I think steampunk gives us the chance to re-envision and/or explore these things, to hear the voices of other cultures and customs that have previously been silenced. To me, that is where the –punk of steampunk comes in. We are taking something old and looking at it through a new (and often rebellious) lens.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—what I love most about steampunk is its DIY spirit. It isn’t satisfied with the status quo. Steampunks are famous for modding cars, computers, phones, even apartments in New York to suit their eccentric lifestyles. And it also recognizes that, for all its mad careening down the tracks of progress, the pace of life can also be slowed down significantly to include time for tea and study and appreciation of the finer things in life.

When I wrote what would become THE UNNATURALISTS, I thought I was writing a fun adventure tale, filled with all the bits of history, the birth of Western science, and Chinese lore that I loved. Turns out that little cabinet of curiosities is exactly what steampunk is, and though I am perhaps the most shy and retiring of those on the current steampunk stage, I’m glad I got the chance to be part of it.

The New York Public Library has a fabulous Introduction to Steampunk page, but
here are a few novels, both adult and YA, that you might enjoy:

Tiffany Trent is the author of the Hallowmere series as well as The Unnaturalists and The Tinker King. You can find her online at her website.