A Steampunk's Guide to Sex was the subject of a recent successful Kickstarter campaign, and I now hold the finished book in my hands. As such, I can say (mostly) unreservedly that you should buy this book. Allow me to tell you why, before I get into the nitty-gritty about the book itself.
Sex is something of an odd topic in America because it's perfectly legal, and yet taboo. Unlike things that are illegal and not taboo, like drug use, murder, theft, etc. What this means is that children can grow up watching people get slaughtered en masse on television and learning how to cut people up and hide the bodies, but having no idea how to safely and conscientiously have a sexual relationship. If that isn't ridiculous, I don't know what is. However, those very issues are addressed in this book, A Steampunk's Guide to Sex, from Combustion Books.
Doesn't sound very Steampunk, does it? Not if you think of Steampunk as being a Victorian phenomenon that's been transplanted into present day. But if you think of Steampunk like I do, as a thoroughly modern phenomenon that's a reaction to contemporary society, then this book makes perfect sense. That does jibe with the introduction to the book, written by Margaret Killjoy, which says, "Steampunk, it seems to me, is the combination of an obsession with the 19th century/Victorian aesthetics with the desire to be firmly rooted in the present."
My first question upon hearing about this book was, "What is it?" I mean, what exactly is Steampunk sex, and how is that in any way different from non-Steampunk sex? Is it like the infamous-but-now-defunct christwire.com article about Steampunk, which humorously described so-called "Steamtracking" as a multiple-partner engagement in which the men smoked pipes in order to simulate the steam exhaust of a locomotive?
As it turns out, no, it's not about Steamtracking or any other such nonsense, and thank goodness. This is not a silly book, a humorous book, or even a titillating book. The key word in the title isn't "sex", but "guide". It combines information about modern sexual practices with historical facts, practices, etc. to make a volume that would be an excellent read for any Steampunk.
Historical topics range from Victorian homosexuality to pornography, sexually transmitted diseases, and even genital piercings. Modern topics include such topics as making sex toys, becoming a stripper, rules of consent, and more. As I said, it's a collection of historical facts that are of interest to Steampunks, as well as modern tips and techniques that may be of direct (or indirect) use.
Additionally, the book is decorated with tintype images taken by Margaret Killjoy, which is pretty appropriate because as he says, "the process was used to shoot a lot of smut back in the day."
The book itself is nice and well-designed, though I was very mildly disappointed to find that it was in black and white, though given that the images are tintypes, nothing was lost by them not appearing in color. I was, however, expecting it to be a bit bigger. For some reason, I was expecting a book that was larger both in length and in width, as this is only a little bit bigger than a paperback novel, and only about 150 pages. Still, that may be my fault, as I conceived of the thing as a coffee table book while it very clearly was designed not to be perused, but to be read cover to cover.
The length was a real issue for me, though, as I felt like many of the contributions were too short. The majority of contributing authors only have two or three pages per article, when I felt like the subject matter warranted at least twice that. Though when "It was too short!" is your worst complaint, it's usually a good sign.
I do have a few other issues worth mentioning, though. While I'm a big fan of Alan Moore's work, two of his three essays in the book were sub-par. The first one was simply a summary of a book he'd read, and in the second one he constantly undermined his own authority. That said, his third essay on From Hell was one of the most fascinating essays in the book.
There were a lot of references in the book to other works, but there was no formal bibliography included. As a scholar, that really drove me crazy, but a casual reader probably wouldn't even notice if I hadn't pointed it out. It also sort of bugged my scholarly self that the subject matter jumped around a lot, though that would again probably be fine for someone looking for more of a survey of the topics.
Overall, I was very pleased with the book. I thought it handled the subject matter well, and at no point did I feel like it was cheap or like it was trying to capitalize on Steampunk. Some of my favorite bits were the sections on Victorian sexually-related slang, but I enjoyed almost every article I read.
Several of the articles could stand to be read by nearly everyone on the planet, such as "The Joys and Challenges of Enthusiastic Consent" by Luna Celeste, and "How to Deal With, and Not Be, a Creep" by KC Crowell.
There are important things to learn in this book, and you'll be doing yourself or someone else (or both!) a favor if you buy it for them.
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