Infernal Engines: Steampunk

17 Dec

Steampunk is a sub-genre of fantasy, science-fiction and horror in which the grandeur of Victoriana blends with modern technology. Futuristic innovations and anachronistic technology in vintage settings like nineteenth century London or the Wild West are the hallmarks of steampunk. Other typical trappings of steampunk include faster-than-sound airships, brass robots, wooden computers, ornate submarines, baroque time machines and a wide variety of extraordinary devices that are too numerous to mention. Although many works now considered seminal to the genre were published in the 1960s and 1970s, the term steampunk originated in the late 1980s as a tongue in cheek variant of cyberpunk. The genre’s origins can be traced back even earlier, to the scientific romances that first inspired science-fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the works of H G Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Modern standard bearers of steampunk include some highly respected authors whose work has passed into the mainstream, including Philip Pullman, China Mieville and Tim Powers. Even more intriguingly, while most of the original steampunk novels had a historical setting, later works have often placed steampunk elements in a fantasy world with little relation to any specific historical era.

We must return to the Victorian and Edwardian eras to identify the works which provided the original inspiration for steampunk. This was an age of contrasts, in which there was both a wide-eyed anticipation of the wonders science could bestow on the world and a sinking fear that the industrial age had the potential to either destroy humanity or plunge it into H G Wells’ dystopian future world of Eloi and Morlocks. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were full of such simultaneous expectancy and apprehension precisely because they witnessed the rise of steam power and electricity, railways and telegraphy, ironclad ships and even the very first primitive aircraft. As lives and living standards improved, as mental and physical horizons widened, there were also the nightmares of colonialism and mechanised warfare. The universe opened up but also disclosed infinite prospects of peril. This was the age in which several works of fiction significant to the development of steampunk were produced before the genre had a name. There was Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth; H G Wells’ The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is also well worth mentioning in the same context works which had no fantasy or sci-fi element but helped to develop the world in which later steampunk writers would set their stories. The aforementioned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle depicted a memorably gaslit London and its criminal fraternities in his Sherlock Holmes stories, whilst Charles Dickens’ vast urban mythology overshadows virtually every other novel of the era.

In writing Gormenghast in 1959, Mervyn Peake anticipated many of the tropes of the steampunk genre. Because he coined the term, K W Jeter’s novel Morlock Night (1979) is typically considered an ‘honorary grandfather’ of the genre, while Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time, from the same decade, is cited as another early influence. Brian Aldiss paralleled these with Frankenstein Unbound and Harry Harrison portrayed a British Empire of an alternate 1973 in his 1973 novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!. These and other novels full of atomic locomotives, coal-powered flying boats, ornate submarines and Victorian dialogue set the stage for what was to follow when steampunk truly started to come into its own in the 1980s. K W Jeter again made an important contribution with Infernal Devices, Tim Powers with The Anubis Gates and James Blaylock with Homunculus. But perhaps the most influential work of recent times was The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, which was published in 1990. This novel applies the principles of Gibson and Sterling’s cyberpunk writings to an alternate Victorian era where Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s proposed steam-powered mechanical computer, which Babbage called a difference engine (a later, more general-purpose version was known as an analytical engine), was actually built, and led to the dawn of the information age more than a century ahead of schedule.

Today, as a genre steampunk has arguably never been more popular in film, television, books and graphic novels. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which imagines the great characters from Victorian literature combining their talents to build a team of superheroes, proved popular enough for an, admittedly patchy, big screen outing in the noughties. On the small screen, the British sci-fi series Doctor Who is almost tailor-made for steampunk, essentially being old-fashioned science fiction in the tradition of John Wyndham and H G Wells, but with modern trappings and special effects. Philip Pullman’s bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy, which has attracted as many awards as it has criticism, features a steampunk Oxford. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station has been similarly award-winning, while contributing to the trend of  presenting steampunk in a completely imaginary fantasy world rather than simply in an alternate historical timeline. One of my favourite steampunk series of recent times is Abaddon Press’s Pax Britannia series, which imagines the British Empire still ruling the world at the dawn of the  21st century, complete with Queen Victoria celebrating the 160th year of her reign! These and other books show that at its best steampunk is a vibrant, innovative and entertaining genre – I look forward to seeing what the future holds for it.

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9 Responses to “Infernal Engines: Steampunk”

  1. worldismycuttlefish December 17, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    There’s so many categories within each writing genre. Mind-boggling.

  2. The Heretic December 17, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    I love steampunk! Metropolis both the original silent film (in its various incarnations) and the anime are my faves. As well as many novels and comics.

  3. soundscryer December 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Great post. Being a huge Gibson & Sterling fan I read The Difference Engine when it first came out, and loved Moorcock’s airship captain version of the Eternal Champion, Bastable, as well, but didn’t become re-immersed in Steampunk until the last few years. The near-simultaneous finding of George Mann’s Newbury & Hobbes detective series and Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series have definitely stoked the boiler in that respect.

    I just finished Priest’s third full-length in her series, Ganymede, and her stories just keep getting better. Start with Boneshaker, then read Dreadnought, then find a shorter novella called Clementine, and finish up with Ganymede. The way she so deftly melds the elements you described – all of the steampunkian tropes, with healthy doses of the supernatural and some significant (and believable) alternate history – without losing sight of the character-driven stories themselves is wondrous, and I can’t wait for the next trip.

  4. storiesbywilliams December 17, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    Finally, someone’s getting into defining this elusive genre! I say elusive because it’s elusive to me. I’ve tried writing two short stories set in a “steampunk” universe, and am not quite sure I got the gist of it. They both turned into alternate history tales… Oh well, steam on!

  5. FantasyNibbles December 17, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    I so very much want to be into Steampunk, and I try…and try…but it just doesn’t tend to work for me. In 2012 I will try harder 🙂

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