James P. Blaylock was born in Long Beach, California in 1950, and attended California State University, where he received an MA. He was befriended and mentored by Philip K. Dick, along with his contemporaries K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, and is regarded – along with Powers and Jeter – as one of the founding fathers of the steampunk movement. Winner of two World Fantasy Awards and Philip K. Dick Award, he currently directs the creative writing programs at Chapman University.
It’s my terrible secret that I don’t read much contemporary steampunk. When I came up with my first steampunk stories, and also Homunculus, my first steampunk novel, I had it in my mind that I wanted to write the kind of stories that I would have written if I had been writing in 1875. I still want to do that. To get it right I had to acquire the ability to write the sort of prose that was written then, or a facsimile of it, and the only way I could figure out to do that was to read Victorian novels. So I spent my time (and still spend my time) reading Stevenson and Dickens and Conan Doyle and Thackery and a long list of dead literary geniuses. Every summer I try to reread The Pickwick Papers, and I’m constantly rereading Patrick O’Brian’s beautifully written seafaring novels (which take place too early in the Age of Steam to make much use of that commodity). I like the challenge of making old-seeming language compelling to the modern ear.
So much for the disclaimer. I’m going to recommend some books and films. One thing that I love about science fiction novels written a century ago is that spaceships and flying saucers are often contrived by stay-at-home scientists and tinkerers (makers, let’s say) who blast off from their back garden. An excellent example of that kind of book is C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. That one was published in the late 1930s, so there’s no steam in it, but it has many more similarities to the work of H.G. Wells than to science fiction novels that came after it. The descriptions of the nature of space travel and the main character’s reaction to it are absolutely beautiful – worth reading for their own sake. I read the book when I was in college and then went on to read Lewis’s That Hideous Strength – one of the 5 great fantasy novels of the world.
Steampunk aficionados should definitely watch two films, both quintessential steampunk, both written and directed by Karel Zeman, a Czech filmmaker who mashed up stop action, live action, and animated line engravings from early editions of Verne’s books in order to produce two fantastic films –fantastic in every sense of the word. The first is titled The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, and it came out in the U.S. in 1961, which is when I saw it. I was eleven years old and had read and reread a number of books by Verne and Wells, but Zeman’s film trumped them all. It put me into a sort of zombie stupor for days. I dreamed of octopi and dirigibles and finny looking submarines. My advice to you is to check out images from the film online. If you don’t outright buy the film or watch it on You Tube, I’ll eat my hat. The second film was Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchhausen, which didn’t appear in the U.S. until 1964. For years after I was guilty of setting my alarm clock in order not to miss it if it was coming on at two or three in the morning. (Maybe you’ve seen the brilliant Terry Gilliam version of Munchhausen, which came out in 1988. If you haven’t, then watch that one, too.) Zeman, to my mind, is the true grandfather of steampunk, although it’s unlikely he ever heard the term, since he died a year or so after K.W. Jeter coined it. (The two incidents, I’m pretty sure, were unrelated.)
I’m running out of space here, so I’ll hastily suggest you read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Maracot Deep. It was published in 1929 and was heavily influenced by Verne. Excerpt: “‘Well, I guess squids are too soft to hurt us.’ ‘Their bodies may be soft,’ the Professor answered, ‘but the beak of a large squid would shear through a bar of iron, and one peck of that beak might go through these inch-thick windows as if they were parchment.’” Aside from squids, one thing good steampunk books have in common is a character called “the Professor.”
Finally, I’ll go out on a limb and recommend my friends’ books. Read K.W. Jeter’s latest steampunk novel Fiendish Schemes, Tim Powers’s Hide Me Among the Graves, and my own Beneath London. Mine is due out from Titan Books — it wouldn’t be a bad thing if you bought sixty or eighty copies of it in order to give them away as gifts!