What Makes A Novel 'Steampunk'? What Even IS Steampunk?
It's, like, steam and Cockney and guns and...stuff, right?
The attraction to nostalgic and archaic settings and to the futuristic elements of science fiction have always been popular in media. From fantasy novels featuring medieval politics, to science fiction videogames that discover and explore new worlds, to the language and costumes used in historical films: many are fascinated by time periods they can never experience. Over the past thirty years authors have been trying to combine the past with the present to create the 'modern' steampunk. This involves manipulating the Victorian industrial era with futuristic inventions largely run on steam. As a sub-genre that is still growing in popularity it is hard to know what elements are "necessary" for a story to be considered steampunk. Having written a novel I consider is steampunk and ploughed through the varying opinions of leading entrepreneurs of the genre (a not-so-surprisingly incestuous circle) of 'what makes something steampunk', I have decided to interrogate how a novel fits into the genre or if it is possible to say a novel is "not steampunk enough".
In investigating the similarities between stories considered to be steampunk, largely from Nick Gevers' anthology Extraordinary Engines (2008), the first question to ask is: what are the origins of steampunk? How did this movement arise?
Almost all the images on this page can be purchased within the art book Steampunk, the art of Victorian futurism by Jay Strongman. It's a beautiful read and explains in greater length the development of steampunk. The introductory picture is also my first choice for this lens (see above-left)!
After a few requests I'm saying now: you may of course quote my lens in any academic paper, presentation or casual blog that you are writing. That's what it's avilable for! Please just reference back to this page and its sources correctly (my name is Willow Wood). I've included a bibliography at the very bottom.
Needed By Every Steampunk Lover
This book is 174 pages of 'invention and wonder' printed on glossy paper. Not only does it feature a range of artwork and eccentric gadgets spilling off every page, but it provides an exploration into the rise of steampunk. For those seeking inspiration, you could flick through this book backwards and still come away feeling better for it - ready to write.
The Origins of Steampunk
Who on earth thought Victorian sky-pirates would be a good idea?
It is possible to argue that steampunk is a part of speculative fiction, a hybrid of adventure stories that have developed over the past hundred years into a sub-cult of science fiction. The distinguished tropes and unique elements of the genre, however, place it 'outside' of speculative fiction, and the origins and development of this sub-branch can loosely be traced so as to understand its current form. The first novels now considered to be 'steampunk' were the science fiction stories of the late 1800s. Writers like Jules Verne and H.G.Wells first appeared with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Verne, 1870) and The Time Machine (Wells, 1895). As Rod Bennett explains:
They were adventure stories, yes-but built almost entirely around elaborate prophecies of future technology. When those prophecies were fulfilled [...] Verne's novels didn't seem futuristic anymore, [...] Some of them languished in this condition for over 40 years [...] But by the mid-1920s these books were passing into a new phase, a state of being wherein the very datedness itself had acquired a fascination. (1965, n.p.)
This fascination with anachronistic history did not arise from nothing. Before it is possible to discuss the various Victorian works that have been re-imagined and adapted, it is important to mention 'cyberpunk', which was first coined by Bruce Bethke in 1983.
It did more than create the Matrix
As the 20th century loomed closer; promising computers, cybernetics, microchips and advanced electronics; writers took advantage of the growing 'technophobia' that predicted humans would bring about their own destruction the more technologically advanced our civilization became. Often set in the near-future earth, culture has fermented, technology is used in unanticipated ways and the characters live in post-industrial dystopias that atmospherically echo film noir. The movement was popularised by people like Gardner Dozois, the science-fiction editor who made cyberpunk acknowledged as a form of literature, and Bruce Sterling who created the fanzine Cheap Truth, initiating himself as the movement's chief ideologue. Writers for this genre grew and influential films such as Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) and the Matrix trilogy (Wachowski, 1999-2003) can be viewed as signifiers of the cyberpunk style and theme. It did not take long, then, for writers such as K.W.Jeter to reinterpret cyberpunk.
Jeter, a cyberpunk author, perhaps wrote Morlock Night (1979) as a reaction to the pessimistic stereotypes and repetitive settings seen within cyberpunk fiction. The dystopian, gritty life-style remained but the setting was re-imagined to be set 100 years in the past rather than 100 years in the future. Morlock Night features H.G.Wells' idea of a time machine but the characters travel to the 18th Century instead of 30 million years into the future. In a letter to Locus in 1987 Jeter said: "I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term [...] Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like 'steampunks,' perhaps..." And through this letter, Jeter coined the genre's name.
What's the appeal of Steampunk?
It's not the tea and fine china
It seemed the romance of the Victorian era was difficult to escape. The concept of futuristic fantasies set within a mid-Victorian world, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, spread between authors of the 1980s. Antecedent authors of note are Ronald Clark, Christopher Priest and Philip Jose Farmer. The politics, society and language of steampunk can feel as other-worldly as visiting a distant planet but, for those with western heritage, the past-and-present pastiche can create a much more personal, nostalgic experience, which is a possible reason for its increasing recognition.
The most popular novel to inadvertently legitimise steampunk was co-written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling with, The Difference Engine (1990). By incorporating cyberpunk tropes they themselves helped create, the technology of the twentieth century met the Steam Age. Peter Nicholls described the appeal authors found in steampunk-London over cyberpunk as this: "It was a city of industry, science and technology where the modern world was being born, and a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor." (Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1979, n.p.) All of these things reflect the tones of cyberpunk.
Compared to the works of aforementioned science fiction and cyberpunk authors, steampunk is not often considered to be serious literature, despite its historical references and attempts at science.
We might look at steampunk as speculative fiction's revenge against such arguments, [that popular culture represents the past incorrectly] because steampunk is a fiction that places a premium on minutely accurate historical detail, within flamboyantly wrong imagined pasts, in order to explore the ways in which the conventional historical sensibility sometimes gets it wrong. (Margret Rose, 2010, p.1)
Of course, the growth of steampunk - which has also developed into a lifestyle (see image on the right) - can be credited to many other authors who revived the works of Verne, Wells, Jeter and more, but that is for the discussion of another lens. The History of Steampunk by Cory Gross details these pioneers further. With brief insight we can see that from 18th Century science fiction (now classed as Victorian literature), through to 20th Century science fiction and cyberpunk, the birth of 'steampunk' has arisen. It encapsulates the quirks of the former three genres and has evolved into its own category of literature. This leads us to the question: what constitutes as necessary tropes for a story to be steampunk?
What, what? Pip, pip.
One of the most recent anthologies considered by Margret Rose to be "a reasonably good sample of steampunk fiction," (2010, p.2) is Nick Gevers Extraordinary Engines, which is a book of twelve short stories he feels "explore steampunk in wonderful, innovative ways." (2008, p.11) After reading all twelve stories, one can draw attention to at least three plot devices and/or aesthetics that each author utilises.
I would personally recommend this anthology to anyone who wants to experience a range of tastes within the genre as each story is enjoyable and has a unique interpretation of steampunk. I think my favourite short stories were Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan and Steampunch by James Lovegrove, but every tale has lingered in my mind and I'll go on to explain how in the next three modules...
Amazon: Extraordinary Engines
The List Price is $7.99, not the crazy $83 shown here on Squidoo! It's lying.
Penny for a Guy, mister?
Within each story, except Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan (2008, p.183-216) and Petrolpunk by Adam Roberts (2008, p.281-337), either all the characters speak Cockney or at least one character knows how to imitate the dialect. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, Lanagan and Roberts' characters use the 'Queen's English' - an accent that is recognised as an upper-class way of speaking but is rarer today than it was during the Victorian era.
From the stories seen in Extraordinary Engines it seems that language can be the easiest and surest way to create a feel for a desired time period. Cockney slang is especially unique to Olde London and, when used, creates subconscious links to writers such as Charles Dickens and, in turn, to the smoggy, stereotypical city that breads squalor and chimney sweeps. In James Lovegrove's story, Steampunch (2008, p.15-42), the entire narrative is written in Cockney slang and can be hard to understand if the reader has no knowledge of the dialect beforehand. "No, don't look like that. I'm not some poncey mandrake, though there's a fair few of them around here, I warn you. I won't be trying to stick my Nebuchadnezzer up your jacksie. Strictly a Lady Laycock fellow, me, always have been." (Lovegrove, p.15) Only at the end does the reader discover that the characters are not in England but on Mars, despite the feeling that they have been deported to a small British port.
In stories such as Petrolpunk and Elementals (MacLeod, 2008), the plot revolves around men from an upper-middle-class society, which is also shown through dialogue for the first half of Petrolpunk: "I will not listen to treason, [...] I close my ears to you, sir!" (Roberts, p.294)
Man the airships! Fire up the trains! Pulp out that pea-soup!
It almost goes without saying that steampunk should include machinery that either experiments with the uses of steam, or involves industry on some scale; whether it is feasible or not. Every tale I have encountered goes by this rule and sometimes overlaps into the realms of fantasy. To some, such as a contributor to CyberpunkReview.com (this used to link to the source, but Squidoo can't tell spam from it's arse) message boards, this is a disgrace to science fiction literature:
I think Steampunk denigrates cyberpunk merely by it's[sic] association with it. Cyberpunk is at the hard end of science fiction, realistic depictions and intense focus on future technology. Steampunk is so much at the soft end it's falling out of the science fiction genre altogether [and] leaking into fantasy. (sfam, 2009)
Regardless of whether some steampunk inventions are "soft" or "altogether fantasy," the concept that Victorian ideas can be adapted with hindsight is a distinctive genre element. More often than not steampunk inventions do not try to create something feasible but bring to life the dreams and false hypothesizes of 19th Century thinkers. What would the world be like if their first assumptions were correct?
In the two short stories Steampunch (Lovegrove, p.15-42) and Machine Maid (Lanagan, p.183-216) androids are powered by unlikely means or are described in bits-and-pieces to uphold the suspension of disbelief that its design is conceivable. "...and within his chest burned a furnace that would've shamed a volcano and the pounds per square inch inside his pipework would've blown the mercury out of any barometer." (Lovegrove, p.23) A lot of these mechanical devices are not made to be efficient so much as they are aesthetic; as mentioned beforehand by Margret Rose. While some (like the contributors to CyberpunkReview) view steampunk's unconcern with scientific theory as 'denigrating' others such as Jake von Slatt; a well-recognised American steampunk artist and role-player; understand that the fantastical appearance of his inventions are a large part of the genre's appeal:
The Victorian era was the great age of the amateur, where nonprofessionals could contribute to the advancement of science, and because these amateurs were most often well-heeled gentlemen, great emphasis was placed on ornamental beauty in their equipment. (2007, n.p.)
[See also his video on Steampunk in America]
In an email I wrote to Lanagan I asked what she personally felt makes Machine Maid a steampunk story. She simply replied: "Historical setting + anachronistic technology" (2011) [see question 2 in My Interview With Lanagan], which leads me onto my next heading:
What if Queen Victoria was immortal?
As steampunk is a genre that plays with historical setting it is fitting that it should try to question the 'authority of history'; that is to say, it offers interrogations of famous figures, historical events, how developed or undeveloped our society has become and experiments with ever-lasting-imperialism in alternate time-streams.
Such deliberate breaks with the realism of historical representation draw attention to the fictional (and fantastic) status of the story, and by extension, to the narrative-making process at work in any representation of history. (Rose, p.5)
History is fictional, a representation, because we were not present to the event. Deliberately breaking the realism of historical representation reminds the reader they are engaging with a narrative text and not a historically accurate setting. It can express that even historical fiction from the literary canon is not set in stone and is someone's subjective interpretation of events.
This is similar to postmodern explorations that try to ask "do we even know what 'historical knowledge' is?" Linda Hutcheon argues that historiographic metafictions, like steampunk, "juxtapose what we think we know of the past [...] with an alternate representation that foregrounds the postmodern epistemological questioning of the nature of historical knowledge" (Politics p.71) This recognition of steampunk's ability to force a reader to problematise the received truth about the past shows that, while it may not be scientific, it is politically aware. As Rose nicely summarises:
Regardless of whether or not it [steampunk] adopts the alternate history format, steampunk is capable of articulating just such a critique [of historical truth], [...] the flamboyance with which these stories depart from factuality is in fact a celebration of the imaginative engagement with the past that is at the heart of all history. (2010, p.5)
Despite the anachronistic quirks within its historical settings, "...steampunk fiction puts tremendous value on the practice of engaging with the factual past," (Rose, 2010, p.7) Incorporated into the twelve stories of Extraordinary Engines are Victorian thinkers. Charles Babbage, for instance, whose surname is used as the word for an androids' brain in American Cheetah (Reed, 2008, p.337-376). In Petrolpunk (Roberts, 2008, p.281-336) an "alternate twenty-first-century reality is ruled by an immortal Queen Victoria" (Rose, 2010, p.3) who celebrates her Titanium Jubilee modelled after the Golden Jubilee of 1887. For every story in Extraordinary Engines and other works of the genre "historical details are scattered ... like the "easter eggs" of video games, which invite and reward a deeper engagement from a dedicated player." (Rose, 2010, p.6)
The real nuts and bolts of this exploration
We can use these elements to write or challenge the conformities of the genre, but in constructing my own steampunk narrative I wrote the first draft in the same way as Margo Lanagan: "I had a stab in the dark at steampunk. I knew Phillip Pullman's trilogy, and had a vague idea of what steampunk was about, but I was not, shall we say, well-read or well-informed about the genre." (2011) [see question 1 in My Interview With Lanagan]
As an annual participant of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), created by Chris Baty in 1999, I am one of many authors who feel free to experiment against our "writing modus operandi"; in this case genre; without the self-imposed pressure of 'I must get it right'. For, despite steampunk's growing popularity, it is still a niche category. Its main buyers are well-versed readers each with their own opinion of what makes a good steampunk novel. When writing my first draft however, I was unconcerned with the 'necessary elements' and assumed I knew the very basics.
My first encounter with steampunk was through photographs and artwork. Images have always been a point of inspiration for me and there is a wealth of steampunk art available on the internet. From images I envisioned my own London, the stereotypical traits of steampunk characters - such as the strong, overbearing feminist as used in Lady Witherspoon's Solution (Morrow, 2008, p.217-260) - and the style of their clothing depending on social class. I knew that Cockney was a typical steampunk trope and endeavoured to teach myself as much slang as appropriate. The more I have learnt the more I have improved the characters' dialogue and created a feel for the environment as Lovegrove does in Steampunch (2008, p.15-42).
As I continued to search for pictures throughout the writing process I stumbled upon art that blurred between science fiction and steampunk. I have always had a fascination for science fiction, which might explain why my novel progressively blurs between genres towards the last ten chapters. Upon revision, I do not think this pastiche makes my novel any less steampunk. The more it becomes science fiction, the stronger Victorian values are implemented and vice versa at the beginning of the novel; the usual science fiction attitudes that embrace all culture and freedom are used in a steampunk world. I think it shows that attitudes are not tied to technology.
While the advanced city within my novel is ahead of its time, its conceptions on freedom and equality are not as fair as it implies. Various right-wing and left-wing choices appear within the novel but the characters do not tend to outwardly justify their decisions. This is left for the reader to question rather than feel dictated to about politics. When writing steampunk I think I agree with Reed who says, "These are stories that understand "that the smartest, surest voices were often wrong, and it was foolish to believe that even the simplest question had an easy, eternal answer" (Reed 338)." (Rose, 2010, p.12) This is your chance to reflect the world we live in and start discussions - to ignite political questions many of us might feel uncomfortable asking.
In researching for this dossier - as this steampunk lens was originally my first university major project - I have noticed that historical references seem to be the most crucial part of a steampunk narrative. This used to be something my novel lacked. It has stylistic features that create a feel for steampunk, such as the floating market in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996) but this does not make his novel steampunk. It appears that for stories to be classed as 'steampunk' there needs to be historical details or parodies. This, to be honest, is half the fun as Rose goes on to say that "..."getting it wrong" becomes a major theme of steampunk fiction, whether it's the mistaken interpretation of a historian, the erroneous conclusion of a scientist, or the failure to trust a partner." (Rose, 2010, p.12)
I have decided to disregard incorporating gratuitous parallels to historical facts (although I do believe historicism is what makes steampunk stand out above the other 'punk' movements). I would say that my novel feels steampunk. The environment, the characters, the language, the inventions and the mix of past and present politics generates a fictional world that embraces one of the main ideals of the genre: "Steampunk is much more interested in the minor players in history, especially in recovering histories of anachronistic people and things." (Rose, 2010, p.7) Would you disagree with me? Tell me what you think makes a novel steampunk. There's more beneath the discussion section though! Keep reading!
What makes a story Steampunk?
Does it have to 'feel steampunk' or must it include stead-fast tropes?
I agree, it should at least feel like a warped Victorian era. Tropes are guidelines and sometimes signifiers, not rules.
My 'Interview' With Lanagan
A voice from the published side
As often mentioned in the modules above, Margo Lanagan wrote Machine Maid for Gevers Extraordinary Engines. I'm very lucky that Margo found me on Twitter and has since been willing to answer my questions and humour my antics. I put these questions to her in March 2011, and I think Margo's answers provide an interesting look into what people think steampunk is and how genre is a flexible thing that people shouldn't be afraid of experimenting with.
Here are the answers - sorry, they sound a bit dimwitted! This is because I just plunge irresponsibly into other people's genres without proper research and reading.
Best of luck with your dossier!
1) When you wrote Machine Maid did you write it trying to be conscious of steampunk conventions, or, did you write what you feel is steampunk?
I had a stab in the dark at steampunk. I knew Phillip Pullman's trilogy, and had a vague idea of what steampunk was about, but I was not, shall we say, well-read or well-informed about the genre.
2) What would you personally say makes Machine Maid a steampunk story?
Historical setting + anachronistic technology
3) What inspired you to dabble with the genre? What attracted you to it?
I was invited to contribute to Nick Gevers' steampunk anthology - that kind of invitation is usually enough inspiration. I thought I knew enough to have a go, and if I failed, the worst that could happen was Nick saying no.
I also had an idea - my stories aren't really about playing with genres, or at least, that's not at the forefront of my mind when I'm writing them. The story's germ was an old, half-worn-away sign on a building I passed on the train to work every day, an old General Electric sign advertising 'Electric Servants'. It was such an odd phrase, and it climbed into my brain and grew there. When Nick's anthology came along, I had an excuse to create my electric servant.
4) What would you say are important steampunk tropes?
Oh gee, I think you'd better ask someone more genre-savvy than me about that one. :D
Also (just to be distracting), have you heard the joke, 'Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover brown'?
[SPOILER for Machine Maid coming up!]
And purely out of my own curiosity: Did the robot kill Mr. Goverman or must I forever ponder? ;D
No, the Aboriginal maid killed him. The robot was innocent. (But the heroine was not.)
Conclusion - Feel free to disagree or discuss with me!
This research into only a few of the numerous works of steampunk fiction and opinions has developed my appreciation for the genre. It has revived the works of classic authors such as Jules Verne in a way that often critiques the "...ostensible distance between the two times [periods] [...] in order to call the very notion of culture change into question." (Rose, 2010, p.9) The expectation that historical fiction is accurate or serious can be subverted into works that iconoclast the past; dissolving the notion that society has substantially developed since the Victorian era. As a still developing genre, it is hard to declare that each of the elements I have mentioned must be incorporated for a novel to be steampunk, for it embraces nearly all elements of science fiction and cyberpunk. Overall, if there must be two things that can certify a story as steampunk, it should probably be the language and sense of historical placement. If a reader can be made to believe they are in an alternate Victorian world powered by steam, then the author has done their job.
Beneath the guest book is my bibliography of secondary sources. I hope you found this interesting!
This is a hilarious, gripping, entertaining story. It features historical figures who are easy to identify and features fantastic contraptions to ensnare the imagination. The two main characters are witty and strange in their own way as they uncover the bizarre mystery surrounding London's phantom spectre: Spring Heeled Jack.
This is another anthology and is a much better collection of short stories than VanderMeer's first book in the series. I prefer Extraordinary Engines but, again, reading this is a good way to dive into the varied world of steampunk.
This is difficult to get into and I would recommend that you don't start with this book. The plot is fascinating and rife with historical parallels, famous figures and fancy gentlemen, but it's also written in a convolutely and obnoxious manner. I suppose this is intentional, but this makes it a struggle to care for the characters. It often waffles on about nothing and it doesn't do a great job of immitating 'posh English' in narrative. All that aside, it IS a clever plot and it is considered to be one of the founding stories of the genre.
Further Reading and Bibliography
GAIMAN, N., 1996. Neverwhere. London: BBC Books.
GEVERS, N., ed. 2008. Extraordinary Engines. Nottingham: Black Library.
LANAGAN, M., 2008. "Machine Maid" In: Extraordinary Engines. Nottingham: Black Library.
LOVEGROVE, J., 2008. "Steampunch" In: Extraordinary Engines. Nottingham: Black Library.
MACLEOD, I., R., 2008. "Elementals" In: Extraordinary Engines. Nottingham: Black Library.
MORROW, J., 2008. "Lady Witherspoon's Solution" In: Extraordinary Engines. Nottingham: Black Library.
REED, R., 2008. "American Cheetah" In: Extraordinary Engines. Nottingham: Black Library.
ROBERTS, A., 2008. "Petrolpunk" In: Extraordinary Engines. Nottingham: Black Library.
BENNETT, R., 2004. "VOYAGES EXTRAORDINAIRES ON FILM: A Survey of Fireside Science Fiction, Part One - to 1965.". Cornerstone Magazine [online], n.p. Available: HERE [accessed 24 March 2011].
CLUTE, J., and NICHOLLS, P., 1999. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit.
ROSE, M., 2010. "Extraordinary pasts: steampunk as a mode of historical representation." In: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 20.3, pp.319-333. Available: Academic OneFile. [Accessed 22 March 2011].
SFAM., 2009. "Steampunk?". CyberpunkReview [online], n.p. Available: REMOVE SPACES AND BRACKETS FROM THIS LINK FOR IT TO WORK: cyberpunkreview[.] com /forums/ viewtopic[.] [php?t=21&] highlight= steampunk. [Accessed 22 March 2011].
Steampunk on BBC America, 2011[online video]. Directed by Andy GALLACHER. [viewed 28 March 2011]. Available from: HERE
BROWNLEE, J., 2007. Meet Mr. Steampunk: Jack von Slatt. In: weird sections [online]. 29 June 2007 [viewed 27 March 2011]. Available from: HERE
BRODERICK, D., 1995. Reading by Starlight, Postmodern Science Fiction. London: Routledge.
GROSS, C., 2010. A History of Steampunk, by Cory Gross. In: Steampunk Scholar [online]. 27 August 2007 [viewed 24 March 2011]. Available from: HERE