The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers: 4 Stars
Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film, and Other Victorian Visions by Brian J. Robb: 4.5 Stars
A little bit of unnecessary backstory: for Halloween last year, I tackled my first steampunk costume. I’ve always been sort of enamored with the aesthetic, but not very knowledgeable about where it comes from. Since last year’s attempt was only a partial success (my homemade goggles didn’t last more than a few days), I decided to tackle it again this year, with more attention to detail. To get ideas and also just figure out what it is about the look that fascinates me so much, I’ve been grabbing every book in and about the genre I can get my mitts on. I found The Steampunk Bible at my used bookstore, and I know Jeff VanderMeer is sort of a go-to editor for modern steampunk resources. I also located Steampunk: An Illustrated History, etc. at the library. After debating if I just wanted to read one, I decided instead to read both and do a little comparison to see which one is more helpful and/or informative.
Steampunk is still a very niche thing, with 30ish years of history under its belt at best, so it should come as no surprise that the titles have a lot of overlap. But they also have their own particular strengths and weaknesses. On the most basic level, one is more subculture-oriented (Bible), while the other has more to do with history and media (History). If you want a very basic overview of the literary and film culture, and a lot of focus on the art, fashion, and other lifestyle-related things, then Steampunk Bible is the way to go. The beginning covers the origins, like the inspiration of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, as well as the boy-genius and expedition tales of the late 19th century, through the coining of the term “steampunk” by K.W. Jeter in the late 1980s, ending with a few modern milestones (Stephenson, Gibson, Boneshaker, etc). It then shifts to other media briefly, but really picks up steam, if you’ll pardon the pun, when it gets to chapters on aesthetics and fashion. There is a lot of interstitial material, like a brief interlude on the influence of Poe, or a breakdown of the four types of steampunk fashion, so reading it straight through doesn’t seem to be the intention, but rather perusing and spot reading. It’s also chock full of illustrations and photos, including pictures of some semi-famous faces in full steampunk regalia.
Steampunk: An Illustrated History tells you its intentions right in the title. It has an overview that covers similar ground to Bible, but in much more detail and with a lot more examples. It gives more page space to film and television and much less to art or design on the amateur level. Like Bible, it is constructed as a coffee-table style book, designed for dipping in and out, with lots of smaller essays and photos spread throughout the main text. The author, Brian J. Robb, has also written extensively about Doctor Who, so it’s no surprise that there is a multi-page spread on the steampunk influences that frequently manifest in the show. Robb divides his book into smaller sub-chapters, like an exploration of women in the genre, or a look at the construction of the typical steampunk cityscape and how it manifests across mediums. There are a lot more examples of steampunk across the media spectrum than in Bible, but not much focus on “real life” steampunk.
This is getting into nitpicky territory, but physically the books are also similar but different as well. Both are hardcover, about 150-200 pages long, and printed on high-quality glossy paper. Robb’s History is wider and more traditionally like a coffee table book, while Bible is more compact (and has a gorgeous cover), which makes it easier to read since it is easier to carry around, though neither are tiny. These are minor things, but the transportability of a book always wins points in my favor. I do think History has a better layout and more interesting interior design, but both are well put together and aesthetically interesting, as well as just plain fun to read.
Bottom line: both are good in different ways. Both offer the same introductory material more or less, and a lot of the same cultural touch-points, so it really comes down to what elements interest you most. In terms of media minutiae and overall look, Robb’s book is superior, but if you are looking for hands-on makers and doers with lots of real people doing real things, VanderMeer and Chambers' Bible is the place.
(Robb's History gets an extra .5 stars for the detailed sections on ladies in steampunk and Doctor Who)