Blast from the past: What is steampunk?

In preparation for this coming weekend’s third annual Watch City Festival, here’s a look back at a post that didn’t get transferred from my previous blogs. Janice and I enjoyed last year’s International Steampunk City in downtown Waltham, Massachusetts, and we plan to check out this year’s events with friends.

It is a period of incredible progress and terrible destruction. Communications and transportation grow ever faster, but they also hasten the spread of wars and disease. Old tribal rivalries and nascent social consciousness challenge vast aristocratic and mercantile empires, and urbanization and industrialization make life easier for millions but condemn millions more to seemingly inescapable poverty. The arts blossom as alliances tighten and harden, leading to what many believe will be a “war to end all wars.” It is the Victorian era, the setting for most steampunk.

Gears and gadgets

Steampunk is a style of speculative fiction that has been growing in popularity in the past few years. It has literary roots, readily incorporates elements of other subgenres, and is well-represented across media.

Steampunk is alternate history. Much steampunk starts with the premise of “What if everything that authors Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about was true?” From a North America where the Union didn’t win, to humans hunting dinosaurs (and vice versa), to trips through the ether to a verdant Mars, steampunk combines their wildest dreams.

Examples: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, graphic novels by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill; Deadlands (role-playing game)

-Steampunk is romance. The novel, classical and revived folk music (the opera, waltz, and polka), Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist painting, and modern theater all took shape during the 18th and 19th centuries. The swashbuckling stories of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas reflect this era as much as the ones they were set in, as does the “noble savage” described by James Fenimore Cooper or Rudyard Kipling. International cuisine, celebrity fashion, and travel for pleasure (and the first amusement parks) are all things we now take for granted that started during that period.

Examples: Diamond Age, novel by Neal Stephenson; Castle Falkenstein and Lady Blackbird (RPGs)

-Steampunk is science fiction. Just as its sibling cyberpunk examines the relationship of humanity with technology (specifically cybernetics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology), steampunk looks at how the Industrial Revolution reshaped the world. The railroad and the telegraph are only the beginning, with anachronistic conveniences such as personal computers, televisions, and jet packs weighed down by clockwork gears, levers, and dials. Real-world advances in engineering are exaggerated for dramatic effect. Getting there is half the fun, with dirigibles the signature conveyance of the genre.

Examples: The Difference Engine, a novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; Etherscope (RPG)

-Steampunk is fantasy. Like its sibling gothic horror — another product of this era — steampunk often includes elements of the supernatural, just as spiritualism (the forerunner of the modern New Age movement), religious revivals, and utopian experiments were part of the real-world reaction to scientific advancement. Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsanay, L. Frank Baum, and Lewis Carroll inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other seminal fantasy authors. Lost civilizations still seemed possible.

Examples: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, anime by Hayao Miyazaki; D20 Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death (RPG)

-Steampunk is socially conscious. Labor unions, waves of migration, the long struggle for civil rights including women’s sufferage, and the polemics of Charles Dickens and Karl Marx are parts of the wrenching social change underlying steampunk. Unlike the real world, where racism and sexism were at their peak, people of color and women are often found among steampunk‘s protagonists.

Examples: Girl Genius, graphic novels by Phil Foglio et al.; Victoriana (RPG)

-Steampunk is idealistic. Like its cousins space opera, pulp cliffhangers, and comic book superheroes, steampunk roots for the little guy to become the big hero. The American West is full of legends and antiheroes. It’s all about attitude. Anyone can put on a pair of goggles, a bowler hat, and suspenders and attend a steampunk convention. Anyone can be a mad scientist, brave archaeologist, laconic gunslinger, or alluring spy. It’s a century and a half ago as many authors and we wish it could have been.

Examples: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (television show); Space 1889 (RPG)

-Steampunk is multimedia. In the actual 19th century, wide literacy made possible the rise of newspapers and “penny dreadfuls,” the forerunners of pulps, current mass-market paperbacks, and online fan fiction. Steampunk has taken advantage of modern media, as demonstrated by numerous Web sites, games, sculptures, and graphic novels.

Examples: Rasputina (musical band); Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (video game); GURPS Steampunk (RPG)

-Steampunk is punk. Like cyberpunk, which looks at the disenfranchised in dystopian near futures, steampunk celebrates individualism and defiance of the established order. The 1960s weren’t the first or last time a bohemian counterculture was fueled by artistic license, sexual experimentation, and drug addiction. The chaotic mashup of genres, a loose approach to history and science, and an emphasis on fun have attracted numerous fans. Many goth enthusiasts have also embraced the retro styles of steampunk. The apparent contradictions or ambivalence reflected in the idealist/punk or fantasy/science fiction strains are just fine in this genre.

Examples: Wild, Wild West (TV show), D&D4e Eberron (RPG)

-Steampunk is (pre)apocalyptic. The steampunk era roughly coincides with the growth of the U.S. after the Louisiana Purchase to the outbreak of World War I. The so-called Manifest Destiny, the growth of democracy, and the “Gilded Age” would all come to a close as Europe’s dynasties and colonial domination came crashing down after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. War machines loom on the horizon.

Just as we today look back at the Cold War or the 1990s with a nostalgia born of post-9/11 fears of terrorism, recession, and ecological catastrophe (floods, epidemics, earthquakes; with the attendant resurgence of zombies and other horror monsters), so too does steampunk look back at the 1800s through rosy lenses. In the 20th century, steampunk gives way to the pulps, noir, and dieselpunk. Who knows what else the 21st century will bring?

Examples: Sherlock Holmes (2009 Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. films); Forgotten Futures (RPG)

Note: This post originally ran on the “Vanished Lands” Yahoo/eGroup Web club in preparation for the Boston-area group‘s return to my “Gaslight Grimoire” steampunk/fantasy campaign.