Category Archives: Steampunk

On the punkery of steam

This was an article I was asked to write for a college mag recently, asking me for a writer’s perspective on the steampunk genre. It borrows a little from my spittle-flecked 6 Part History of Steampunk series, found here. I don’t know why I’m considered an expert when there are folks that have been doing it far longer than me. Maybe I just charge less than the famous folks.

Anyways, enjoy. 

Before I start dribbling about steampunk from an author’s perspective, I should probably define what I think steampunk is. This is more dangerous than it sounds.

The debate about what IS and IS NOT steampunk has kicked off many a flame war in various poorly-lit alleys of the internet, not to mention several drunken punch-ups at Conventions That Shall Not Be Named. When people try to explain steampunk, you’ll see lots of vague hand-waving, and hear odd, slightly masturbatory terms like – ‘retro-futurism’ and ‘neo-Victorianism’ and ‘techo-romanticism’ being splashed about like cheap hooch at an Irish wedding. (I’m Irish, before you get offended)

But yes. Lots of ‘isms’, basically.

Some people will tell you steampunk should be set in Victorian times. Some people will tell you in should be set in England, preferably London. Some people will tell you there should be an inexplicable amount of tea-drinking and corsetry. Everyone should be well mannered and everyone should be wearing goggles, even in the shower or making sweet, sweet love to the beautiful heiress on the floor of the aether-bot workshop, an artful smudge of grease arranged on her heaving… Yes, well…

As far as I’m concerned there are four mandatories:

  1. The book needs to be set in the past (otherwise you’re writing science-fiction).
  2. The setting needs to be industrialized (otherwise you’re writing fantasy).
  3. There needs to be some kind of advanced technology that you wouldn’t normally expect to find in the setting (otherwise you’re writing historical fiction).
  4. You should be having fun (otherwise, what’s the point)

SO, this is my definition of steampunk, in so far as writer-types and readers goes:

Steampunk (noun): A sub-genre of soft science fiction, typically set in an industrialized historical period, in which anachronistic technology is present.

The pre-conceptions with steampunk harken back to its roots – the ‘scientific romances’ of HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and the man who would NEVER have to buy his own drinks at a Steampunk con, Mr Jules Verne. These authors took us on fantastic voyages to other worlds and other times, often with the aid of fantastical technologies beyond imagination, in settings that were almost exclusively British donchewnoe (hence the bias towards English settings in the genre).

Funny thing is, even though many folks look back at these writers as the fathers of the steampunk genre, they weren’t writing anything close to steampunk at all – in their day, they were writing contemporary fiction. It’s only because the works survived for close to 150 years in our collective consciousness that the label steampunk can be applied after the fact.

The real origins of steampunk fiction lie in the works of authors like KW Jeter, Tim Powers, James Blaylock and the father of cyberpunk, Mr William Gibson (all hail). Though Jeter coined the term ‘steampunk’, it was probably Gibson who gave it life, funnily enough whilst praying aloud that the label didn’t get applied to his book THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE:

“I’ll be happy just as long as they don’t label this one. There’s been some dire talk of ‘steampunk’ but I don’t think it’s going to stick.”

Ironically, Gibson’s statement probably did more to immortalize the term than anything before it. Such is his powah. Fear him.

Truth is, I think the attempt to codify and catalogue the IS and IS NOT of steampunk is the work of demon crack babies and Illuminati robots programmed to take all the fun out of life. The cool thing about the genre is that it’s still relatively unexplored and undefined. The most successful writers in the genre are those who’ve taken the few accepted tropes and turned them on their heads. Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series was set in the colonial west of America and threw in some zombie survival horror to boot. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series was half traditional Steampunk, half OTT fantasy with flying whales and genetically engineered war bears. For my part (you didn’t think you’d make it through this without hearing a plug, did you?) I set my story in feudal Japan and combined some traditional fantasy with combustion-driven technology and it’s called STORMDANCER and it’s out on MacMillan in the US/UK and AUS in September 2012 and oh my god I need to pay my mortgage if you buy a copy it will really help me out and plug, plug, plugplugplugpluuuuuuuuug.

The good news for writers who feel like playing in the steampunk sandbox  is that it’s seen as a reasonably hawt commodity by major publishers right now. Westerfeld’s series hit the NYT bestseller list and everyone involved drove home in a limousine, but there hasn’t been a book that simply broke the genre and led to a market-saturating glut of clone works (like say, that book that shall not be named but starts with ‘T’ did for paranormal romance and vampires). So there’s still some fun to be had before the ship inevitably sails.

Which is, after all, what steampunk is really all about.


Calling Bollocks

So the Mad Hatter (@MadHatterReview) sent me a link to an article over at Tor.com the other day, saying he’d love to see my response to it, probably because he knows I rant like a pantsless hobo at the drop of a hat, and everybody enjoys a fireworks show.

It was 5am, and was on the wrong side of a half bottle of Gentleman Jack at the time, which would seem like fertile ground for a full-on psychobilly freakout, but surprisingly, instead of getting all angry-face ranty-pantsed, I wrote back to the Hatter thusly:

“Feels like a flamewar waiting to happen. Post is pure antagonism, from the title on down. Point of engaging would be…?”

And then I went to bed.

(Cool story, bro.)

BUT, the thought of it wouldn’t leave me alone. I gave it the 24 Hour rule. Hell, I gave it 48 hours. And in the interest of avoiding a flamewar, I’ve decided to respond here, where people can ignore me at their leisure. But I have to say something, because straight up, folks, this article strikes me as a work of astonishing ignorance.

The article btw, can be found here.

As I said to the Hatter, it’s pure troll-face from the word go. Apparently there’s a ‘problem’ with Asian Steampunk, being that authors/gamers/cosplayers ‘limit’ themselves to a narrow set of archetypes – a habit which western Steampunk (apparently?) avoids.

I call bollocks.

Firstly, I’m baffled anyone thinks there’s enough Asian-inspired Steampunk around for there to be a problem at all, other than the problem that there isn’t enough Asian-inspired Steampunk. AFAIK, Scott Westerfeld’s Goliath (released about 30 seconds ago) is the first major release with Asian-inspired SP to hit shelves, albeit set in the 20th, not 19th century, and the Asian section is only one portion of the book. Steampunk aficionados aren’t drowning in a sea of samurai and ninja – they’re surrounded by retroVictoriana and post-colonial Americana, with bustles and corsets and parasols as far as the eye can see. A body might be forgiven for thinking that it’s actually awesome for Steampunk creators to be exploring locales other than London or the Wild West.

Nevins however, claims these creators are ‘limiting themselves’ to certain Asian archetypes (samurai, geisha and ninja). First off, I’d like to know exactly which creators he’s talking about (mainly because I’d really like to read/see them – No examples are actually cited). Secondly, even if Nevins could pull a barrow-load of examples from the aether (see what I did there?), who the fuck says those creators ‘limited’ themselves?

Maybe they WANTED to tell a story about a geisha within a Steampunk framework. Maybe they WANTED to explore the notion of a ninja cabal in a steam-mechanized age – I don’t know, again, no examples were cited.

Nevins goes onto show us his Google-fu and cites a bunch of Really Cool Shit™ that 19th century Asian people got up to. Problem is, all but one of his examples are Chinese or Indian, which doesn’t seem to fit with his beef about samurai/geisha/ninja, given those are Japanese concepts (if you were writing SP in China or India, they wouldn’t fit), but moving on…

The real issue is that his entire article is based on the misconception that Asian-inspired SP creators have ‘little knowledge’ of all this Really Cool Shit™ Asians did, and that we’re all ignorant tools who believe everyone living in 19th century Asia slung a katana or was a high-priced courtesan.

Thanks, dude. But we can fucking read.

Pirates? Explorers? Really? Like this stuff hasn’t been steampunked to DEATH already? Would treading these already well-worn western roads with Asian protagonists really make a difference? Wouldn’t it be cooler to explore concepts that are uniquely Asian? Every culture in the world can trot out the hard-nosed reporter archetype or a pirate trope. You’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on the planet that can boast the cultural tropes found in the Tokugawa Shogunate or Manchu Dynasty.

I appreciate the Wikipedia lesson, but maybe the creators who ‘limited’ themselves to these archetypes did so because they thought they might be able to do something excellent with them? Asian-inspired SP hasn’t really been done before, so almost anything they do in this sandbox is going to be new. But besides that, did George RR Martin ‘limit’ himself when he constructed a world on the same western medieval fantasy tropes (knights/kings/dragons) we’ve lived with since Tolkein? Did Patrick Rothfuss ‘limit’ himself when he decided to tell a story about a gifted man who studies at a magic university and goes on to become the most powerful wizard who ever lived? Can subject matter be considered a limitation at all, especially given the absolute dearth of Asian-inspired SP in the first place?

Is the wandering samurai trope any more ‘unimaginative’ than the wandering knight? Is an Asian sky-pirate somehow less clichéd than a white one?

Here is truth, and it is the only truth in this debate that matters: A great story is in the telling.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’m drawn to these archetypes not out of some dipshit whitebread ignorance or acquiescence to the evil influences of Orientalism. I’m drawn to them because I find them fascinating. Because these cultures contain a beauty and artistry and aesthetic unlike anything else in the world. And if some people’s stories do gravitate towards these tropes, it’d be awesome if other folks actually read them before they declared every single one of them to be ‘limited’ and ‘unimaginative’ and ‘problematic’ based on their own narrow misconceptions.

(deep breath)

Just sayin’.


A History of Steampunk, Part 6: Conclusions

In Part 5, I did the chit and chat about Steampunk’s rise through the 90’s and early 00’s, and it’s evolution from genre of speculative fiction into the beginnings of a ‘scene’. Now, I’m going to wrap this monster up with a brief discussion about the SP ‘movement’, and the latest and arguably most popular works of modern Steampunk fiction. And then I’ll shut the HELL UP about Steampunk for a while.

By the mid 00’s, Steampunk was big enough to generate its own gravitational pull on the interwebs, dragging aficionados into newsgroups, mail lists and the infant blogosphere. In 2007, we saw the creation of the Steampunk Forum; an offshoot of the Brass Goggles blog and an SP wiki called the Aether Emporium. What began as a collection of likeminded community members soon devolved into a  now legendary debate over the ‘meaning’ of Steampunk – basically, old school ‘purists’ vs newschool ‘creators’ such as Jake von Slatt and the (mind-blowingly talented) Datamancer, who wanted to incorporate the DIY and Punk aesthetics into SP.

Terribly simplified, this is ultimately the crux of the colourful (and often venomous and personal) debate waged on the SP Forum: Putting the ‘punk’ into Steampunk. What was formerly a genre of speculative fiction had metamorphosed. Where once Steampunk had been ‘punk’ in name only, now a veritable legion of community members (mostly from the rivethead, goth-industrial and DIY recruits from the early 2000’s) were applying the term ‘punk’ retroactively to the entire scene. The ‘oldschool’ (largely sci-fi and RPG fans) objected. Lines were drawn. Egos were bruised. Batches of bathtub basement napalm were brewed.

When the smoke cleared, as is the case with most Pelennor Plains scale flame wars, there was no clear winner or According the Hoyle definition. However, the newschool Steampunks continued to do their thing, regardless of Her Majesty’s refusal to declare a victor in the great debate. Steampunk began to appear regularly in mainstream publications like Wired, Spin, and even the New York Times and Forbes. As the public became more and more aware of Steampunk, these newschool SP’ers were the most visual, active and vocal members of the community. And thus, public perception of what Steampunk ‘meant’ was shaped by them, and not the sci-fi/rpg’sters. The newschool won, simply by doing rather than talking.

Of course, as soon as SP began hitting the headlines, critics began queuing to take a bite. Bruce Sterling (co-author of the Difference Engine) stood amongst them, citing the NYT article as evidence of the “death of Steampunk”, as if the movement/genre/whateveryoucallit’s recognition by the dreaded ‘mainstream’ was some kind of harbinger of its dooooom. These prognostications were met with counter-claims that SP had already been co-opted by the SP newschool, and had ceased to be what Sterling helped create years before. Furthermore, other sectors of the nerdsphere began to openly criticise elements of the Steampunk community as being self-important, egotistical and masturbatory. Published manifestos, such as the following from the Catastrophone Orchestra in ‘Steampunk Magazine’ may not have helped improve this perception:

“We stand on the shaky shoulders of opium-addicts, aesthete dandies, inventors of perpetual motion machines, mutineers, hucksters, gamblers, explorers, madmen and bluestockings. We laugh at experts and consult moth-eaten tomes of forgotten possibilities. We sneer at utopias while awaiting the new ruins to reveal themselves. We are a community of mechanical magicians enchanted by the real world and beholden to the mystery of possibility. We do not have the luxury of niceties or the possession of politeness; we are rebuilding yesterday to ensure our tomorrow. Our corsets are stitched with safety pins and our top hats hide vicious mohawks. We are fashion’s jackals running wild in the tailor shop.”

Hollywood continued to plough SP’s treasure vaults, with Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen being treated to a grade-A prison-sexing, along with Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (again, met with much stern-facery by the Christian right-wing), and Christopher Nolan’s Oscar nominated The Prestige, starring David “You remind me of the babe” Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Steampunk began appearing in video games (Thief, Ultima, Elder Scolls, Tomb Raider, the Final Fantasy series, and most notably, the Steampunk-inspired Gnomes of Gnomeregan in the ‘12million+ subscribers and counting’ behemoth that is World of Warcrackcraft). Musicians such as Abney Park, Vernian Process and Doctor Steel also began proudly proclaiming allegiance to the SP flag, and comics such as Gotham by Gaslight (from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola) and the increasingly popular Girl Genius continued the tradition in the world of ‘graphic novels’. Steampunk fashion became a regular sight at conventions, music festivals and nightclubs.

In the place where it all began, novels, Steampunk rose to grander heights. Scott Westerfeld’s WW1 alternate history Leviathan became a NYT bestseller. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker from the Clockwork Century series was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, and won the Locus award. Other writers such Mark Hodder, Caitlin Kittredge and Cassandra Clare continue the tradition, meeting with great success. The rate at which Steampunk continues to be published and consumed shows no sign of abating just yet.

So, what comes next?

Pessimists would say that, like any subculture, Steampunk will fall into stagnation and decline after its discovery by the mainstream – that the formula will become established after the initial bout of exploration and creativity, the visionaries will abandon it for something new, leaving it to scene-sters and the ‘too stubborn to quit’ crowd, until SP eventually becomes a parody of itself. More optimistic aficionados will point to the fact that modern SP was itself an evolution of the Scientific Romances and goth/rivethead/industrial scene, and insist that it will simply evolve again. How this will effect the original birthplace (and many would still say heart) of Steampunk – speculative fiction – remains a mystery.

For my part, I’m aboard the evolution train. (plugplugplug! choo!choo!)

So, if there is a conclusion to be drawn at the end of this extraordinarily rambling history, in the works of Verne or Gibson or Moore or Westerfeld, I think it is this: Good fiction defies the limitations set by precedent, codification and expectation. Fiction’s only true limit is imagination.

Aaaaaand, that’s it, we’re done. Don’t forget to tip your waitress, and thanks for reading. :)


A History of Steampunk, Part 5: Evolution

In Part 4 (if you’re wondering how long can I draw this thing out for, believe me, I’m wondering the same thing) we talked about Steampunk’s naming day, the first writers to be associated with the handle, and its nebulous links to cyberpunk. Today, I’ll discuss SP’s development through the 90’s and 2000’s, and how it evolved into the non-stop hit-machine we know today.

Steampunk had been seeing a resurgence in the world of film for years by the time it actually got itself a bona fide handle. Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes and Terry Gilliam’s (of Monty Python fame) The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen are good mid-80’s examples. Spielberg even headed back to the trough for seconds and brought us a flying, time-traveling steam-train (and a healthy serve of bustles, goggles and corsets to boot) in the third Back to the Future film in 1990.

At the end of the 90’s, we saw the birth of what is probably the most universally reviled example of Steampunk to date – the film adaptation of the 60’s TV series: Wild, Wild West. It should be noted however, that even though most serious Steampunk aficionados will hiss like some penny-dreadful vampire at the mention of the film’s name, I personally guarantee that this movie will still be cited in almost every “what is Steampunk” conversation you’ll hear. Why? Because is captures the notion of Steampunk (historical setting, with anachronistic technology) perfectly. It’s just a pity about the… well… it’s a pity about everything else in this entire film, really…

Meanwhile, back at the book-cave, Philip “IH8 C.S Lewis” Pullman published The Golden Compass in 1995 to critical acclaim and some very stern looks from the right-wing christian establishment. In the same year that Wild, Wild West hit movie goers like a diagnosis of rectal cancer, Alan Moore began his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel series. League (no, not the film, ignore the film, it never happened) took famous characters from Victorian literature (Alan Quartermaine, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, et al) and pitted them against sinister villains in a steam-powered Britannia, quickly becoming one of the greatest successes of Moore’s career, and catapulting the concept of Steampunk into the limelight. It should also be noted that an extraordinary amount of manga and anime created with a Steampunk aesthetic (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, Steamboy, Fullmetal Alchemist) began to be translated into English around this period. In the early 2000’s China Miéville began his Bas-Lag series (Perdido St Station, The Scar and Iron Council), a fantastical series in which magic, arcane technologies and alien species were combined to roars of approval from readers and Literatii alike.

Including me. Goddamn, I love China Miéville in the pants.

Bas Lag, League and the anime bomb emerged just as the internet was becoming an intrinsic part of modern society, enabling people with common niche interests to cross the geographical divides that might otherwise have prevented those interests catalyzing into something more formidable. And damn that was a long sentence…

With SP spreading across the internet like some kind of corseted, goggle-wearing virus, more and more sub-cultures began to hook their wagons to the star. Goths, Punks, Rivetheads, Japanese Lolitas and Aristo’s all found some kind of common ground, dragging their musical tastes and social views into what began to evolve beyond a simple genre of fiction and become a scene. And beyond that, lurked the moniker that many of the more vocal and prolific SP community members seemed to be striving towards like so many clockwork powered Robots of Doom:

The Movement.

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 6: Conclusion


A History of Steampunk – Part 4: Codification

In Part 3, I wrote about the Steampunk’s resurgence in the field of motion pictures and its decline in the late 1960’s. Now, at last, we get to the good stuff; the period in history where the genre heretofore referred to as “That retro-Victorian anachronistic technology bollocks”* actually gets a name.

In 1980’s, Cyberpunk was king of the sci-fi landscape, striding tall upon a landscape of burned out computer hulks beneath a dead-television sky. Authors like William Gibson and filmmakers like Ridley Scott had opened our eyes to the concept of dark futures, corrupted cityscapes and a disease within the god-machine. One of these Cyberpunk authors, a fellow named KW Jeter wrote the following letter to Locus magazine in 1987:

Dear Locus,

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in ‘the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate’ was writing in the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps…

The truth was, the groundwork for the collision of cyberpunk ideals/aesthetics with the technology of the nineteenth century had been laid down by writers like Philip Jose Farmer (Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life and The Other Log of Phileas Fogg – 1973) and Michael Moorcock (Warlord of the Air – 1971) years before. However, Jeter is widely lauded as the writer who dove in with both feet first and truly started the clockwork ball rolling.

After Jeter’s wrote Morlock Night, several of his friends and fellow authors took up the banner and ran with it all the way to the annals of geek history. Tim Powers published The Anubis Gates (still widely lauded at 3am by drunken con-attendees as one of the best SP novels ever written) On Stranger Tides (supposedly the inspiration for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean cash-in) and The Stress of Her Regard. James Blaylock, the other side of the Steampunk tri-partite pact, published Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine. However, the true contender for the Heavyweight Title in all those drunken 3am convention arguments would likely be The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and cyberpunk godfather William Gibson, in which Charles Babbage (a real-life English engineer) invents an analytical computer and ushers in the computer age 100+ years before it actually occurred.

Gibson himself was quoted as saying “I’ll be happy just as long as they don’t label this one. There’s been some dire talk of ‘steampunk’ but I don’t think it’s going to stick.” Ironically, this statement probably did more to immortalize the term ‘Steampunk’ than anything before it.

It’s in books like The Anubis Gates that we begin to see the seeds of the spirit of idealism that is commonly associated (and often criticised) with modern Steampunk fiction. The setting (almost invariably Victorian London) might have been washed with a coat of squalor and fumes, but beneath it lurked a very real sense of hope and gentility – very much at odds with the “punk” part of the genre’s nomenclature. The Victorian era began to be moulded (almost invariably by American authors) into an age of wonder, a kind of pivot-point in history, where the industrial and pre-industrial era collided and almost anything was possible. Furthermore Steampunk almost immediately began to abandon the hard, techno-fetishistic science of Cyberpunk, and replace it with a distinctly softer variant that wasn’t so much scientific as altogether fantastical.

What began as a relationship between two fond cousins quickly devolved into a complete state of severance. Future setting vs Period pieces. Iconoclasm vs Idealism. Soon it became difficult for anyone to tell what ‘Steampunk’ had in common with ‘Cyberpunk’ at all.

To this day, aside from the name, most fans of either genre would probably say “nothing at all”.

*Dramatization. May not have happened.

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 5: Evolution


A History of Steampunk – Part 3: Exploration

In Part 2, I wrote about Steampunk’s origins in the Historical Fictions of the 19th century and its great-granddaddies (Verne, Wells, et/al) in the world of literature. However, as we reach the end of the Victorian age, our perspective needs to shift from the written word, and into the wondrous new world of motion pictures.

Early filmmakers began finding inspiration in sci-fi literature almost as soon as silent film became reality. The Georges Méliès directed A Trip to the Moon was loosely based on the works of two Steampunk granddaddies – From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, and The First men in the Moon by HG Wells. An early version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea hit theatres in 1916.

However, as time wore on, the speculative Victorian fictions of Verne and Co started to become passé. The predictions they had made either came to pass (submarines and trans-oceanic balloon travel) or were debunked. The Scientific Romances of the 19th century ceased being futuristic and started looking like all those John Hughes movies I loved in the cold light of 2011 – horribly, HORRIBLY dated.

The first sci-fi film with a historical setting and anachronistic technology, and thus, by our earlier definition, the first true Steampunk film, was 1929’s Mysterious Island – an alternative history where the British reached the moon 75 years before Armstrong. Unfortunately, the film performed only slightly better than Battlefield Earth at the box office, and it would be many years before gun-shy studio execs greenlit another SP project.

In 1938, Orson Wells (only 22 years old at the time) adapted HG Well’s War of the Worlds into a now infamous 60 minute radio play, which resulted in widespread panic amongst his pre-WW2 audience. Of the 6 million listeners, an estimated 1.7 million believed it to be true.

The years after WW2 were a golden age for sci-fi, as audiences living in perpetual fear of the Atom began to explore their anxieties through tales of alien invasion, abduction and warfare. Classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and The Thing from Another World graced screens worldwide. Filmmakers began digging through the vaults for inspiration again. Remakes of Scientific Romances (such as 1953’s War of the Worlds) were produced, but the stories were re-worked with contemporary settings. Strangely, it took the creator of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney himself, to re-introduce period piece sci-fi to audiences.

1954 saw the release of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a historical sci-fi masterpiece which went on to usher in a new age of period-piece sci-fi. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Mysterious Island (animated by the legendary Ray Harryhausen) the Time Machine and Around the World in 80 Days all hit cinemas in quick succession. The Czech filmmaker, Karel Zeman, gave us The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1958 – a masterpiece of animation and film techniques, pushing the boundaries of anything created in the west.

However, by the end of the 60’s the paranoia born in the Atomic Age began to wane. By 1969, science fiction had become science fact, and man had taken his first steps upon the surface of the moon. Society was embroiled in revolutions about equality, sex, politics, and morality, and the romance of the Victorian era, with all its wide-eyed optimism and romance had never seemed further away.

It wasn’t until the late 70’s that we saw a rebirth, and eventual naming of that which became Steampunk.

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 4: Codification


A History of Steampunk, Part 2 – Origins

Not surprisingly, Steampunk’s origins lie in the very time period in which most contemporary Steampunk is set – the middle and late Nineteenth Century. It’s at this point in literature that we witness the birth of what became known as ‘science fiction’, between the covers of penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and the far more dashingly named ‘scientific romances’ of the era. Writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the man who would NEVER have to buy his own drinks at a Steampunk convention, Mr  Jules Verne began taking us on fantastic voyages to other worlds and other times, often with the aid of fantastical technologies beyond imagination.

This period in history was marked by rapid expansion, not simply in global population, heavy industry and technology, but also of mankind’s influence over his fellows. Global Empires became a reality. ‘Britannia Incorporated’ and her peers had spent decades planting their flags on any piece of dirt that wasn’t securely nailed down, proudly proclaiming to hordes of confused-looking indigenous people the world over that “All your base are belong to us”. And now it was all starting to pay dividends.

This was an age of Industrial Expositions and Great Exhibitions, of Edisons and Teslas and Babbages. It was an age of extremes. Of enormous wealth and crushing poverty, of bold exploration and child exploitation. It was an age where writers truly began to explore the limits of that question which drives the SciFi/Fantasy genre, and indeed, most any genre at all:

“What if?”

Despite the relative euphoria of the age, some writers we most fondly remember seemed reluctant to embrace it. HG Wells reduced London to smoking slag in ‘War of the Worlds’. Poe ridiculed a public besotted with technological progress in ‘The Balloon Hoax’. Verne languished in the Victorian Age’s equivalent of ‘slush-pile hell’ for years, owing to the overly pessimistic and political nature of his stories. But for every one of these, there was another writer singing the praises of technology and the spirit of adventure we’ve somehow retroactively applied to the entire age.

Probably the most well-known writings from this time, certainly where Steampunk is concerned, are Jules Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaires”: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. If printed today, both ‘Leagues and ‘Earth to Moon could be safely classified as Steampunk by our earlier definition – “Science fiction set in an industrialized historical period, in which anachronistic technology is present.”

However, it’s important to note that these works aren’t actually Steampunk at all. There’s nothing historical about the setting of 20,000 Leagues or War of the Worlds. Despite these works being held up as progenitors of Steampunk, they were contemporary fiction in their day. Ground-breaking and visionary, yes. But retro-Victorian? Most certainly not. It’s only through dint of the fact that they’ve survived for close to 150 years in our collective consciousness that the requisite historical nature of Steampunk can be applied after the fact.

For the first works that might truly be described as Steampunk fiction, in a feat worthy of any of Verne’s protagonists, we need to jump forward to the next century and a completely different medium – the wondrous world of motion pictures.

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 3 – Exploration


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