My writers’ group, Redwood Writers (a branch of the California Writers Club), is conducting a Steampunk writing contest this spring. What? Who? Never heard of it! Steampunk? That’s the inevitable reaction I get when I inform people about the contest.
Steam and punk: two nouns with no obvious association, conjoined to name a worldwide happening. I’ve been on a quest myself to better understand what it is. In the next several blogs, I shall provide a brief overview for the uninformed. Merriam-Webster says it is “science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.”
The Urban Dictionary goes further: “Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan ‘What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.’ It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.” Steam-powered vehicles, clocks, zeppelins, mechanical limbs, and weapons are featured. Brown and bronze are the dominant colors.
James Blaylock, one of the original authors of steampunk, wrote in the Huffington Post January 17, 2013 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-p-blaylock/on-steampunk_b_2494561.html): “Literarily speaking, Steampunk refers to contemporarily written stories and novels that are set during the Victorian era. Such stories almost always owe a debt to Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, and they often involve Victorian science (which was conveniently imaginary much of the time) and the colorful trappings and sensibilities of that era. They’re often dark and dystopian in nature, although not always. Sometimes they’re mash-ups that involve space aliens or dinosaurs or zombies. In other words, Steampunk is difficult to define with any particularity, which is one of the reasons that I’m fond of writing it.”
In Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s anthology Steampunk II, author Gail Carriger says that she was wearing steampunk fashions years before “steampunk” existed. Calling herself a fashionista, she favors tweed jodhpurs, fancy vests, and ruffled Victorian silk blouses. She believes the attire is as vital to the steampunk movement as the literature. The clothing, not worn just at conventions, brings together the fans, the authors, and the makers. It is distinctive, recognizable, and makes a defining statement about the genre.
The Vandermeers, in their Steampunk II, claim that Michael Moorcock is the “true Godfather of modern steampunk.” Morcock is on every list of top steampunk authors. The term itself is attributed to science fiction author K.W. Jeter (Morlock Night, 1979 and Infernal Devises, 1987). He said: “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 [two sci fi authors], and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’ perhaps.” [Published in a letter to science fiction magazine Locus in April 1987.] Voilå, that was the inception of the term!
Scott Laming in www.abebooks.com says: “In 1990, steampunk was introduced to a wider audience with The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in which the mechanical computer Charles Babbage theorized in 1822 was successfully built and led to the dawn of an Information Age in the late 19th century, rather than 100 years later. Other examples of technology mash-ups that might be classified as steampunk are spring-powered robots, 22nd century zeppelins, Edwardian atomic power or a steam-powered hovercraft.”
Writing on www.steampunkworkshop.com, Jonathan Greyshade contends that Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelly were not truly steampunk authors but are “important sources of inspiration for steampunk.” He feels that Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter, 1979, “was the earliest of the novels in the newly named genre.” In addition to Morlock, Greyshade lists the eight other novels that he believes define steampunk: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, 1983; Homunculus by James Blaylock, 1986; Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy by K.W. Jeter, 1987; The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, 1990; Lord Kelvin’s Machine by James Blaylock, 1992; Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock, 1971; Land Leviathan by Michael Moorcock, 1974; and The Steel Tsar by Michael Moorcock, 1982. (Note that three by Moorcock are included in Greyshade’s list.)
Part II: More about the books, the movies, the clothing, the fairs and festivals!