TT: Punking Up the Steam

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and join me on the intertwining landscapes of Art and Craft.  After that, you’ll be in gear for Alan and my venture into the evolving landscape of that strange beast called “steampunk.”

Improbable Train

Improbable Train

JANE: Y’know, Alan, after we’d decided to make the logical move from cyberpunk to steampunk, I realized that I had a haunting feeling that the meaning of the term “steampunk” had shifted since I first encountered it back in the late 1980’s.

I decided to go check Clute and Nicholl’s 1993 The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction to see what they said and found that I was in some sense correct.

ALAN: Always a good place to start. What did the encyclopedia say?

JANE: Okay.  The article is far too long to quote in full here, but I’ll quote a little:

The term “steampunk” was “coined in the late 1980’s on the analogy of cyberpunk, to describe the modern sub-genre whose sf events take place in against a 19-century background….   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.”

ALAN: You piqued my interest with that, so I went and read the article. It goes on to claim that Charles Dickens is actually the spiritual father of the genre. That really resonated with me – I can see distinct parallels between Victorian London as envisaged in many steampunk novels and the increasingly surreal portraits  of London that Dickens painted in his later and odder novels.

Some people say that Jules Verne is the spiritual father of steampunk. But I’ve never really thought much of that claim.

JANE: I agree with you absolutely.  The difference is that steampunk looks back – or at least sideways – to how the future might have been if events developed differently or if some unpredictable element came in.  Verne was writing at the time and looking forward.  In this sense, he was much closer to being a hard SF writer, rather than a writer of steampunk.

ALAN: Of course steampunk didn’t just appear overnight. There are a lot of examples of what you might call proto-steampunk where writers were experimenting with what later jelled into a genre.

One of those books was Harry Harrison’s rather odd novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! which was published in 1972.  (Gosh – that seems such a long time ago now).  I call it odd because it’s full of jokes (as many of Harrison’s novels were) but it is based on some rather dark and disturbing thinking about the path that American history might have taken if the colonies had failed to throw off the yoke of British rule. One of the more entertaining steampunk-like inventions in the novel was an aeroplane with coal powered engines; literally coal powered – the plane had huge tanks full of the coal dust that it used as fuel. Refueling tended to put dirty streaks on the body of the plane. How annoying.

I heard Harrison talk about this book once. On its first magazine publication some buffoon wrote a long, complicated, technical letter to the editor discussing just how such a device could be made to work. Harrison was flabbergasted. “It was a JOKE! You MORON!”

JANE: That certainly sounds like a novel that should be made available to audiences today.  What other authors were writing steampunk before it had that name?

ALAN: Michael Moorcock dabbled a bit as well. In 1971, he published the first volume of what eventually became a trilogy documenting the adventures of Oswald Bastable, an Edwardian era soldier stationed in India. He has the ability to wander through alternate histories and in the first volume (The Warlord Of The Air) we find him in a time when WW1 never took place. The novel extrapolates on Edwardian technology (airships are very important in this world) and it is written in a very Edwardian style. Moorcock has more than once sung the praises of Edwardian popular novelists whose books have not stood the test of time but which seem to occupy a place of honour on his bookshelves. Perhaps this novel is an homage to the forgotten writers he admires so much.

JANE: Odd that you mentioned those books.  I was browsing through one a few weeks ago when I was looking for books to illustrate our discussion of the New Wave.  Ah, serendipity!

ALAN: And coming a bit more up to date, there’s a brilliant novel called The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling which is often cited as an example of steampunk. It was published in 1990, by which time the term steampunk was starting to come into general use, but nevertheless I think the novel was sitting on the cusp. It assumes that Babbage’s mechanical computer was actually constructed in the nineteenth century and then goes on to examine the implications. Michael Flynn wrote a novel called In The Country Of The Blind which had a similar theme.

By their very nature I think that both books had to use the tropes of steampunk – after all they were set in the real Victorian London – but in another sense, you can think of them as mainstream SF (if that’s not an oxymoron). They seem to me to be much more alternate history stories than they are steampunk stories, but there’s no doubt that they have a foot in both camps.

JANE: Interesting.  I certainly can see your point, but since I haven’t read either of those books, I can’t really respond.

Certainly, readers of the current crop of steampunk fiction would be surprised to learn that Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter were selected by Clute and Nicholls as representative of this new movement.  I decided to ask Tim Powers – whose novels The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides were among those listed – if he and his friends deliberately tried to start a new “punk.”

ALAN: And what did he say?

JANE: Tim said, “No, Blaylock and Jeter and I didn’t have any notions about starting a movement, or sub-genre, when we were writing our 19th century London SF and fantasies.  It was just that we all were using the same cool research book (Henry Mayhew’s London Labor and London Poor).  But I certainly don’t mind being listed as one of the pioneers of Steampunk!”

So what’s really nice about this is that one of those credited with helping to found steampunk is still very happy to be associated with the sub-genre all these years later. (And I highly recommend both of these novels!)

ALAN:  I recommend them as well. Wonderful books!

JANE: There’s a whole lot more worth discussing on this topic, but duty calls.  How about we pick it up again next week?

3 Responses to “TT: Punking Up the Steam”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    It’s interesting that steampunk has had much greater staying power than cyberpunk. Occasionally I go to a local gem faire, and it’s amusing to see one vendor selling ostentatiously faux-victorian watches and gear-like components for steampunk jewelry. It certainly has become about the costumes and the milieu in a way that cyberpunk never really did.

    My one, plaintive complaint is that steampunk would make an interesting, if disquieting, straight SF scenario for a post-oil future. I guess people don’t go there because it’s not Victorian enough in the cool and cloudy sense that lets the characters wear all that leather and brass. We rarely see any setting like, say, a Steampunk Raj, or any other sunny and warm locale.

    To me, it’s too bad. Setting a steampunk story in a sooty faux-Victorian industrial town in northern Greenland circa 2700 CE during the latest Arctic War with Russia could be rather interesting.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Have you tried S.M. Stirling’s _Peshawar Lancers_? Steampunk Raj…

      We’re continuing this topic next time — but I’ll say in anticipation that some of the staying power of steampunk is due to how it hasn’t become part of “real” life the way much of cyberpunk has (and as we discussed the last couple of weeks) while at the same time the fashions and such have, weirdly, made it part of “real” life.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Thanks, I haven’t read the Peshawar Lancers.

      As for the fashions, they can be neat, if very expensive. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

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