This Wonderful Novel Could Be the First Steampunk Tale

Most histories of that wonderful subgenre of science fiction called "steampunk" list Ronald Clark's 1967 novel, Queen Victoria's Bomb as the first. But was this really the first steampunk novel? Here's another possible contender.

This Wonderful Novel Could Be the First Steampunk Tale

There are certainly almost as many definitions of steampunk as there are for science fiction, but there does seem to be a few consistencies. For instance, steampunk can be rightly said to be "a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting" or "a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology."

In any case, I think we all pretty much know what kind of novel I'm talking about when I use the term.

William Pène du Bois wrote exactly such a novel in 1947.

Set in 1883, The Twenty-One Balloons tells of the adventures of Professor William Waterman Sherman, who only wants to get away from his tedious life as a school teacher. To do this, he builds an enormous balloon. Like Nadar's Le Géant, Sherman's balloon is equipped with a tidy little cabin that includes not only a kitchen and bedroom, but a veranda from which the professor can watch the scenery below pass by.

A violent storm carries his balloon across the Pacific, where he crash lands on a mysterious island. The island proves to be inhabited by a colony of fabulously rich Americans...fabulously rich in large part due to the island's diamond mines. The island is so ridiculously rich in diamonds, in fact, that they litter the ground.

This Wonderful Novel Could Be the First Steampunk Tale

On the downside, the island is Krakatoa.

The society described by du Bois is an unusual one. It is governed by what its leader calls a "Gourmet Government." Indeed, the flag features a frying pan over an erupting volcano. The inhabitants are known only by their family names, which are letters of the alphabet. Their homes are also restaurants, with the specialty being a nationality beginning with that family's letter. All the families eat at each other's home/restaurants in rotation. For instance, on "A" day everyone eats in Mr. and Mrs. A's American restaurant. On "B" day meals are served in Mr. and Mrs. B's British chop house, and so on all the way up to the T family, who run a Turkish coffee shop.

This Wonderful Novel Could Be the First Steampunk Tale

The homes are filled with super-scientific, steam-powered gadgets, such as tables and chairs that rise pneumatically from the floors, self-changing/self-laundering bed linens and electrical furniture that zoom around like carnival bump-em cars.

The children on the island amuse themselves with an incredible device that combines sailing, ballooning and a carousel.

This Wonderful Novel Could Be the First Steampunk Tale

This Wonderful Novel Could Be the First Steampunk Tale

Unfortunately, the island is not stable and, as expected, this being Krakatoa, it begins to fall apart. Fortunately, the geniuses behind the island have prepared for this. Laying is wait is an enormous balloon. Or, rather, a vast platform large enough to hold all the island's inhabitants. Attached to its perimeter are twenty enormous balloons, just waiting to be inflated by an automatic apparatus in case of emergency.

The island erupts, of course, and the islanders barely escape via their balloon-raft...though Sherman's adventures are not quite over yet.

If this isn't steampunk, I'm not sure what is!

Du Bois' scores of meticulously rendered illustrations perfectly capture the Vernian atmosphere, and often include detailed diagrams of how many of the island's astonishing inventions work.

William Pène du Bois was a prolific author and illustrator whose books for children won a Newbery Award (for The Twenty-One Balloons) and were twice runners-up for the Caldecott Medal. It's probably not surprising that one of the books he illustrated was an elaborately visual edition of Jules Verne's Doctor Ox's Experiment.