Since I have some extra time today, I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite lesser-known genres. Like urban-fantasy, Steampunk is one of the creatures which has grown up in recent years as a counterbalance to more traditional science-fiction and fantasy storytelling settings. But what is Steampunk?
K.W. Jeter (Morlock Night, the Infernal Devices) apocryphally coined the term in a letter to Locus magazine:
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 'steam-punks', perhaps.
Cyberpunk was very clearly defined by William Gibson as a near-future dystopian style of fiction designed around the idea of being mankind literally ****ed by technology. Steampunk would, by its literal definition, be the Victorian equivalent and there has been numerous works written in this regard. After all, the 19th century is the hey-day of imperialism and the culmination of technology's rapid advancement during this period was the Great War.
|Not period appropriate attire.|
In short, Steampunk is retro-science fiction set in the period of time from the 17th to early 20th century with Victorian England and the Wild West being the most common settings. Variants on Steampunk include fantasy worlds resembling the Industrial Revolution and post-apocalyptic situations where humanity has returned to an earlier but still technological level of development.
Retroactively, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are the fathers of this style of science fiction. While they were simply writing for their time, the two men laid the foundations for all future imitators. Amusingly, given the heavy amount of social satire both men put into their writing, you might suggest they were the kind of individuals to focus on the 'punk' element themselves.
|Frankenstein is one of the original steampunk creations.|
Those interested in writing Steampunk should choose what exactly they wish to say about the time-period and/or modern situations. It's entirely possible to write surface Steampunk, making use of the concepts of it without actually getting too in-depth on the ramifications of the technology involved but I think this is a poor use of the genre. Part of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea's fun is Jules Verne's examination of what the electrical submarine does--specifically, provides an unstable man with unlimited ability to murder the rest of the world's sailors. A similar effect is resulted from Robur the Conqueror's airship.
Despite this, writers should not constrain themselves from going all out when creating their alternate Early Industrial settings. While examining the consequences of one element is good, you can also create a wholesale fantasy-land of clockwork and coal-powered devices. Realism has no necessary relationship to the genre and should never stand in the way of a good story. The Time Machine, after all, is a tale which uses travel to distant centuries in-order to examine the issues of class in the 19th century. Besides, if giant transforming robot-trains are wrong, I don't want to be right.
|Wish we had these now.|
It's also possible to include Steampunk elements in settings which are not actually of the genre. TSR's Dragonlance setting added flavor to Gnomes by making them capable of creating Industrial Age devices, merely ones too dangerous for common use. Likewise, Firefly is a science fiction series which thrives on adopting 19th century values, clothing, and attitudes to provide contrast.
It should be noted steampunk has inspired other retro-future settings as well. There is now "Dieselpunk" covering the 1920s and Flash Gordon meets Pulp futurism as well as "Clockpunk", highlighting the introduction of unimaginable inventions into Renaissance or earlier time-periods. I suspect this will continue as the spirit of adventure will always find new settings for the introduction of machines. In this respect, Daedalus of the Icarus wings and mechanical bull was the first Steampunk hero.
|Yeah, it's kind of like that.|
Thanks for reading!