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STEAMPUNK: Ooooo, Look. Shiny! by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer
SFRevu Essay  
Date: 01 September 2010 /

Steampunk is a difficult topic to define in absolute terms because in steampunk (SP) there are no absolutes. Isn't SP just brass and glass and gears and shiny stuff with mechanisms that operate via steam-power? While these components are a part of much SP fiction, they are certainly not the only characteristics of SP. Practically endless options and combinations of other subgenres of speculative fiction are included as part of defining and understanding SP. Said to be rooted in H. G. Wells and Jules Verne as far as style, technology, and storytelling, SP offers a reader a modernized tone to older ideals. Other influences include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries with Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Charles Dickens’ depictions of urban London giving grit and a harsher nuance to the settings offered in many SP pieces.

Cover of Machines infernales by K.W. Jeter

Much SP is set in a created world, often a kind of parallel earth, where technology developed differently than our world's technology. Steam-driven mechanisms often play a key role, hence the “steam” in Steampunk. The term Steampunk is attributed to K.W. Jeter in a letter to Locus magazine in describing the kind of SF that was being written by he, Michael Moorcock and James Blaylock. The “punk” part is a tie-in to both cyberpunk – as a literary movement coming into its own at about the same time – and musical punk; all share a charismatic and revolutionary or reactionary core and a nose-thumbing attitude at the establishment. While Jeter may have created the term tongue-in-cheek, it stuck.

Is SP Alternative History? While it is often set in a Victorian/Edwardian England or Europe, it is not exactly alternative history. Often real persons of the era are integrated into the story/plot – Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes. The actual events of history may be played with, adapted, or changed entirely, leading one to the idea that SP is a kind of Alt History. Further, it may not be set in Victorian England; stories may take place in the North American frontier or the Australian outback (“Machine Maid” in Extraordinary Engines) but still generally set during the time period loosely corresponding to the Industrial Revolution. In reality, more often than not, the SP storyline and setting is unique unto itself; it is not based within a real-world historical context nor does it amend or twist history as Alternative History pieces do. Steampunk is its own kind of fiction apart from Alternative History.

Cover of Blameless

Time travel may be incorporated in some manner, often in a way honoring H.G. Wells. Exploration may be a primary focus with a nod to Jules Verne and the lost worlds of many Victorian authors. SP is not exclusively time travel- or exploration-oriented although both elements can figure prominently. Other classic story elements may be incorporated; Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker brings together the quest story, mad scientist, and zombie tropes in a SP novel.

Boneshaker cover

Some SP allows for alchemy and magic as part of the created world. Does this make it Fantasy? Maybe. Maybe not since alchemy is scientific – sort of. That is why the focus is on SP as speculative fiction, embracing multiple possibilities.

What about airships? Doesn't SP have airships? Well, yes, dirigibles are considered a key feature of SP tales but are not required. Of course, Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air (part of the A Nomad of the Time Streams series) offers impressive air battles. While written and published before the term was created, Moorcock's works contributed heavily to the genre of SP. More recently, in Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld and Keith Thompson, the dirigibles are biological – huge genetically manipulated whale-based airships.

Like other fictions, SP may illustrate a social injustice or issue. While the story may be confined to the social structure of the Victorian/Edwardian or 19th century Industrial Revolution eras, the author uses and adapts that social structure to his/her purpose. For example, a story may address women’s rights. Specifically “Lady Witherspoon’s Solution”, “Machine Maid” (both in Extraordinary Engines) and “TickTock Girl” (found in Prime Codex: The Hungry Edge of Speculative Fiction) have strong female characters driving the action and make commentary on the social world of women then as well as addressing current issues.

cover of Moorcock's Warlords of the Air

While brass and glass and leather and wood are the foundations for the technology of Steampunk, this is not an exhaustive list. Other scientific advances beyond steam-driven analog computers or humanoids are often touched upon. Genetic Engineering and cloning in “Victoria” (Extraordinary Engines) and “The Clown-God is Near” (Steampunk); alchemy in “Elementals” and “Static” (EE); and alterations in space-time in “The Steam-Man of the Prairie….(SP).

Well suited to graphic novels, SP has been a part of several, for example, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – which also became a film highlighting SP elements. Manga and anime have their share of SP as well. For a more in-depth discussion of these elements, see the essay by Rick Klaw in VanderMeers’ Steampunk anthology.

Interestingly, Steampunk is not only a literary genre but also a social/cultural phenomenon. Differing from reenactment groups where the goal is exact reproduction of the period addressed, SP culture often adopts the dress and styles of the Victorian/Edwardian era while maintaining its own focus. The goal is not exact reproduction of an era or a specific event; the goal seems to be to explore the possibilities of brass and glass steam technology and its trappings within the culture of today. For some, SP is a way of life where the integration of Victoriana and the modern world meld.

Want to dive into Steampunk head-first? For anthologies, your full-flavor introductory options include: Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology edited by Nick Gevers; Steampunk and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded (release date set for October 2010) edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; Steampunk Prime anthology edited by Mike Ashley with a foreward by Paul DiFilippo.

Other options include electronic issues of Steampunk Tales, original fiction pieces, or on-line issues of Steampunk Magazine, available at www.steampunkmagazine.com, which includes fiction, fact articles, essays, poetry and art.

Steampunk Magazine cover

Suggestions – apart from books noted above: Michael Moorcock trilogy The Dancers at the End of Time; Brian Aldiss Frankenstein Unbound; K.W. Jeter Infernal Devices; Tim Powers The Anubis Gates and The Stress of Her Regard; James Blaylock Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine; William Gibson and Bruce Sterling The Difference Engine Paul Di Filippo The Steampunk Trilogy; Philip Pullman The Golden Compass series; George Mann Ghosts of Manhattanand The Affinity Bridge; Mark Hodder The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack; Mike Resnick The Bluntline Special.

Steampunk is an elusive sub-genre of Science Fiction and/or Fantasy, kind of an enigma – as in, it is hard to pin down but one generally knows it upon reading it. While potentially superficially simplistic, it is artistically complex. Alternating between mostly serious homage to Victoriana and tongue-in-cheek extrapolations of steam/brass/glass technologies, SP presents readers a very different kind of adventure in storytelling. SP offers an engaging and entertaining ride through familiarly flavored created worlds viewed through sepia-toned goggles.

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