Steampunk

Tagged: Theme

Item of sf Terminology coined by K W Jeter in a letter (April 1987 Locus) – by analogy with Cyberpunk – to describe the modern subgenre whose sf events take place against a nineteenth-century background (see also Malachronism). It is a subgenre to which some distinguished work attaches, though initially in no great quantity. There are a number of works of proto-Steampunk, some by UK writers, such as Christopher Priest's The Space Machine (1976), in which H G Wells himself plays a Recursive role, and Michael Moorcock's Oswald Bastable books, beginning with The Warlord of the Air (1971), which are at once a critique and a nostalgic expression of the technological optimism of the Edwardian era. Oddly, though, books like these do not sort well with the kind of book later described as Steampunk, perhaps because in essence Steampunk is a US phenomenon, often set in a London which is envisaged as at once deeply alien and intimately familiar, a kind of foreign body encysted in the US subconscious. Three more works of proto-Steampunk, only borderline sf Fabulations, were by US writers: William Kotzwinkle's Fata Morgana (1977), set in 1871 Paris, Transformations (fixup 1975) by John Mella, and "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" (in New Dimensions 7, anth 1977, ed Robert Silverberg) by Steven Utley and Howard Waldrop, in which latter the Frankenstein Monster descends into a Symmes-style Hollow Earth. These recall not so much the actual nineteenth-century as a nineteenth century seen through the creatively distorting lens of Charles Dickens, whose congested, pullulating nineteenth-century landscapes – mostly of London, though the industrial Midlands nightmare exposed in Hard Times (1854) is also germane – were the foul rag-and-bone shop of history from which the technological world, and hence the world of sf, originally sprang. Somewhere behind most steampunk visions are filthy coal heaps or driving pistons.

It was a vision that also entered the Cinema, especially through David Lynch, first in Eraserhead (1976) and then in The Elephant Man (1980), and even – inappropriately enough – in much of the mise-en-scène of his sf movie Dune (1984). Another, rather frivolous Steampunk movie is Young Sherlock Holmes (1985; vt Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear), produced by Steven Spielberg. Beside Sherlock Holmes and others from the Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, characters seen as a natural part of the Steampunk ambience include William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki from fiction, and Nikola Tesla from reality. Steampunk has entered sf Illustration through the work of UK artist Ian Miller. Macabre sf adventures in a Dickensian London have even entered television: Steampunk was anticipated several times in the UK television series Doctor Who, notably in The Talons of Weng Chiang (1977). There was also a much earlier proto-Steampunk sf television series set in a nineteenth-century USA, the eccentric The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969).

In sf books it was at first largely in the work of three Californian friends, James P Blaylock, K W Jeter and Tim Powers, that the Steampunk vision became obvious, the first being Jeter with Morlock Night (1979), in which H G Wells's Morlocks travel back in time and invade the sewers of nineteenth-century London. Powers followed with a historically earlier and even more malign Magic-Realist London in The Anubis Gates (1983; rev 1984), and then Blaylock with Homunculus (1986). In each of these romances a Dickensian London itself is a major character. All three have written at least one more novel along similar lines: Jeter's Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy (1987), Blaylock's Lord Kelvin's Machine (1992) and – not precisely Steampunk, but evoking some of the same alchemical madness – Powers's On Stranger Tides (1987) and The Stress of her Regard (1989). In most of these works the vision is Gothic and the city, despite its horrors, a kind of seedbed where mutant life stirs even in the oldest and deepest parts, the cellars and sewers.

Other writers have worked in similar vein, perhaps closer to rationalized fantasy than to sf proper, such as Barbara Hambly with her alienated race of Vampires co-existing with humans in Those who Hunt the Night (1988; vt Immortal Blood 1988) and Brian Stableford with his rationalized werewolves in The Werewolves of London (1990). It is an irony, however, that one of the strongest Steampunk works to date should actually have been written by the prophets of Cyberpunk, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in The Difference Engine (1990), set in an alternate nineteenth-century London even more Dystopian than Dickens's (though clearly modelled on it), the imminent collapse of which under the weight of Pollution (and reason) is watched and perhaps controlled by an AI evolved from Charles Babbage's calculator.

It is as if, for a handful of sf writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a Jonbar Point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry (though there was actually more industry in the midlands and the north), science, Technology, commerce and above all finance, where the modern world was being born. At the same time it was a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor. Dickens – the great original Steampunk writer who, though he did not write sf himself, stands at the head of several sf traditions – knew all this.

There were small but steady accretions to the list of Steampunk books during the 1990s. Among them were Paul Di Filippo's The Steampunk Trilogy (coll 1995) and several young-adult novels by Philip Pullman, including the first three novels of the Sally Lockhart series, published between 1985 and 1990, and set in an ebulliently conceived Victorian London. The setting of Pullman's Northern Lights (1995; vt The Golden Compass 1996) has also been called Steampunk, though it is the sort of novel that resists being pigeon-holed. The complex generic mix of China Miéville's King Rat (1998), Perdido Street Station (2000) and several later works shows a debt to urban fantasy generally, and Steampunk in its darker aspects particularly. Although no great critical attention has been paid to him, Philip Reeve, a Young-Adult writer, was arguably one of the prime movers in what followed, with at least seven very popular steampunk novels, from Mortal Engines (2001) to Scrivener's Moon (2011). These are all in the Mortal Engines series.

What few people would have predicted (and it happened twenty years after the term was coined in 1987) was that "Steampunk" began to enter the vocabulary of young people with a much broader application. It happened quite quickly, as if gently glowing coals had suddenly flared up for no obvious reason. There is not very much evidence of this before 2006, but by 2008 there were dedicated Steampunk Conventions. One of the earliest was Steam Powered: the Californian Steampunk Convention, which began in that year and was followed by Britain's The Asylum in 2009. Steampunk was not just books and films, though books had something to do with it. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer published two anthologies, Steampunk (anth 2008) and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded (anth 2010); anthologies like Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion (anth 2014) edited by Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall, which treat the genre as an assumed backdrop, became more common. Young-adult authors like Scott Westerfeld and Cherie Priest, who had worked in other genres, smelled something in the air and turned to Steampunk – Westerfeld with the Leviathan series starting with Leviathan (2009), Priest with the Clockwork Century series starting in the same year with Boneshaker (2009).

Steampunk by circa 2007 was also becoming a genre of couture, describing a clothing style with retro elements, most commonly from the Victorian era with such retro-tech accessories as motorists' or pilots' goggles (preferably brass-framed) and clockwork components. This design aesthetic fed back into art objects, paintings, and more books – often young-adult – which attracted more young writers. Steampunk in this expanded sense became a widespread phenomenon that is still current. Even the Cinema industry joined in, its most laudable example being Hugo (2011), about the supposedly dead film-maker Georges Méliès, directed by Martin Scorsese; this is visually stunning if intellectually a little less so. From being an insignificant and very small subgenre in 1987, by 2011 Steampunk had developed into a way of life, just as comparable terms for style, such as "punk" and "goth", had done before it. [PN]

see also: Mecha; Space: 1889; Worlds of Ultima.

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