Words are funny things. What a word conveys to one person is different from what another person hears. The good old dictionary provides a more-or-less reliable definition, yet the word carries weight, power and color that often go beyond the “true definition”.
Also, words change their meanings over time; taking on new meanings long before the dictionary catches up to the new meaning.
Take the word ‘steampunk’, for example. Even though the term has been around for about twenty years I was unfamiliar with it.
How did I learn I might be a steampunk fan? I had been venturing into the areas of fantasy and alternative history in my mystery reading. Mike Resnick’s Fable of Tonight series was right up my alley. In the first, Stalking the Unicorn, the detective, Mallory, was a classic hard-boiled detective. It had all the ingredients of a noir mystery. A valuable object is stolen (remember the Maltese Falcon?) and Mallory is hired to find it. Then the fantasy world comes along. The theft has taken place in an alternative New York City and the object stolen is a unicorn. I loved it. In fact, I bought the series.
Recently my wonderful librarian handed me her personal copy of The Buntline Special also by Mike Resnick. (She reads sci-fi like I read mysteries.) This is a wonderful alternative history of the Wild West, with the Earps, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterston. It would have made a great dime-novel back in the old days of the Wild West. It was fantastic. It was so much fun. When I had finished I turned the book over, read the back cover, and found to my confusion that the book was a ‘steampunk’ tale.
When I was younger, the work ‘punk’ had a very negative connotation. Punks were losers – big time; one step away from juvie hall. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was a ‘steampunk’ fan. It was rather a shock because I didn’t have the foggiest idea what ‘steampunk’ was.
After investigation, I learned that ‘steampunk’ was a sub-genre of science fiction. I do read sci-fi once in awhile, but not often and certainly not often enough to know about all the sub-genres it offers. (Much like mysteries!) Steampunk is set in the time period (the 19th century) when steam was the major source of power. It has elements of fantasy, and/or alternative history, which usually involves futuristic inventions. (Think Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.)
If you are unfamiliar with this genre a couple of movies might ring a bell ~ The Wild Wild West and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I am still very unfamiliar with the genre and find it hard to tell if a book is, or isn’t steampunk. One series that I enjoyed was Gregory Keyes’, The Age of Unreason, which might belong to this genre as well as Matthew Pearl’s upcoming book, The Technologists and Catherine Webb’s wonderful series beginning with The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventure of Horatio Lyle.
Perhaps I am only a border-line steampunk fan, but I can hardly wait until The Doctor and the Kid, the next Weird West Story from Mike Resnick, is available.