In January I decided to write a steampunk series. This was daunting, because I’m no historian. I decided to remedy my ignorance (to a very minor extent) by reading twenty nonfiction books (and of course spending time on wikipedia and elsewhere). I also took another look at the TV series “Worst Jobs in History”, visited the National Museum, and went horseriding – as well as reading several novels of the time (especially Marcus Clark’s “For the term of his natural life”), and every modern steampunk novel I could get my hands on.
Here for your convenience are my short reviews of the twenty books I read.
These are the top three, in my opinion.
1. “Victorian London” by Liza Picard (including colour illustrations).
If you’re going to read one book before writing steampunk, this is the one you want (and, as a bonus, it’s often hilarious). The first chapter is on smells. Need I say more?
2. “Who invented what when?” by David Ellyard.
This was brief and coherant enough that even I (a bit of a luddite myself) felt that I understood everything. It includes era-defining inventions such as the steam engine and life-changing inventions like toothbrushes. If you want to have an idea of where technology was at and how people lived, this is where you should start. The thing that makes it especially brilliant is that it’s in chronological order, so you can choose where to stop.
The other technology books I read were “History’s Worst Inventions” by Eric Chaline (which was very good, with a little more depth), “Technology in Australia 1788-1988” (which was intensely dry – I only read selected sections), “The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A story of steam” by William Rosen (which was good, but rather above the heads of non-engineers, and often focused on patent law rather than the more fictionally interesting bits of steam tech).
I also read “The Aeronauts” for balloon info, which was the single most entertaining book on this list – when I write about my own balloon ride I’ll add some quotes for all of you! Oh, and “Sail and Steam” by John Falconer, which I should have read with a dictionary in my other hand (do YOU know the different between a clipper, a cutter, and a tall ship?) but the stunning pictures were well worth it.
3. “Black Kettle and Full Moon” by Geoffrey Blainey.
Blainey is a very well-known Australian historian (I wasn’t able to get “Triumph of the Nomads”, which is a huge shame), and this book is all about everyday Australian lives – so of course it’s gold for writers.
The other books that were very good for everyday detail were “Australian Lives” by Michael Bosworth, “Colonial Ladies” (lots of brilliant and entertaining letter and diary fragments) by Maggie Weidenhofer, and “Slices of Time: Australian Family Life in 1838” by Joan M. Kenny.
For general Australian history I skimmed through “The Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of Australian History” (wikipedia was way more useful for getting a grounding in things) and “A History of Victoria” by Blainey (good, but not as relevant as the other one). I also read “The Gold Rushes” by John and Jennifer Barwick (a children’s book, which suited me fine).
For bushranging I read “Australian Bushrangers” by Bill Wannan, and “Australian Bushrangers” (yes, same title) by George Boxall. Both were fascinating – especially tales of bushranging chivalry – but they were also sometimes horrifying to read (especially the second one) because of the nature of crimes committed by certain bushrangers.
For better knowledge of the convict system, I read “Commonwealth of Thieves: The Sydney Experiment” (too historically early for steampunk, but a surprisingly gripping read. . . for a little while, despite all the odds, the two cultures had a chance to actually get on), “Death or Liberty” by Tony Moore (all about transported political prisoners. . . absolutely fascinating, and something Australians should be so proud of – the influence of those rebels is still felt in some of our best cultural attributes), and “A Long Way Home” by Mike Walker (a semifictional account of the convict Mary Bryant – packed with vivid detail and real-life desperate adventure – again, too early but still extremely useful).
Last but definitely not least, I read “Savage or Civilised” by Penny Russell (an examination of early Australian manners). Fascinating, and so relevant to steampunk attitudes! I’ll never think about handshakes the same way again.
So there you have it! Some of the best books for prospective steampunk authors to read, especially if you’re writing Australian steampunk (I know I’m not the only one!)