Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can you explain steampunk to me? I have no idea what the hell is going on there.
Danielle, Capitol Hill
Admittedly, I've never read a steampunk book. I do know the genre incorporates the more playful totems of the 19-century industrial revolution, such as goggles and gears and steam-powered gadgets, while ignoring the less romantic aspects of the era, like child slavery and cholera outbreaks.
I like speculative fiction – American Gods is fantastic and Neuromancer is an all-time favorite – but I have a hard time getting enthused about books that play off nostalgia for bygone eras, and here's why: the 19th century sucked for most people – especially immigrants, women and children. Did you know, Danielle, that U.S. women weren't legally allowed to have bank accounts or take out lines of credit on their own, without a male co-signer, until the 1960s? Did you know that it was "recommended" that children work no more than 12 hours a day during the Industrial Revolution? Those are the kinds of enraging facts I think about when somebody mentions how cool Victorian bustles and top hats and pocket watches are. (This is also why I'm terrible at chit chat and a turd to bring to parties.)
But, again, I've never read steampunk because of my own personal bitchy biases. Like you, I don't get the appeal. But I'm willing to learn. Steampunk lovers, please send me recommendations for your favorite books. I promise to read them and report back.