Friday, 25 May 2007

The Steampunk Genre

Anyone who has read my posts will know I am interested in 'what if?' history whether as a tool for testing history or as an entertainment. Related to that in my interests is what is called 'steampunk', which refers to novels, movies, artwork. For those unfamiliar with this, here is some background.

We have to go back to 1984 when the book 'Neuromancer' by William Gibson was published. Gibson is seen as the 'father of Cyberpunk', though others had already contributed to it, such as Philip K. Dick, publishing from 1950s onwards, who died in 1982 (many of whose books have become movies such as 'Blade Runner', 'Total Recall', 'Paycheck', 'Through A Mirror Darkly') and John Brunner a science fiction author publishing since the late 1960s. Gibson envisaged a dystopian world of the near future with two important characteristics. First that people could physically connect to the internet and send their consciousness into it in order to conduct business or hack. Second, that people would have cybernetic enhancements, such as blades coming from their fists or cameras in their eyes. This latter element Gibson did not invent but what he did was give it a 'sexier' edge. So you had the 'cyber' of cybernetics and the punk of very urban, dirty, sprawling cities. In particular, Gibson's portrayal of a high-tech world dominated by huge, amoral corporations called zaibatsu (the Japanese word for such corporations) seemed to really chime with 1980s 'greed is good' culture. Gibson continued writing with 'Count Zero' (1986), 'Mona Lisa Overdrive' (1988), 'Burning Chrome' (1986 - a short story collection) being the core of his cyberpunk work. I find Gibson's work good on ideas but rather clunky in construction.

Other good cyberpunk autors, if you are interested, include Walter Jon Williams, Lewis Shiner (a European angle on Cyberpunk with references to Michael Moorcock's work too), George Alec Effinger (whose Cyberpunk stories have an interesting Middle Eastern take on the genre) and Bruce Sterling. Sterling is an all round writer who includes historical as well as science fiction stories and I feel his writing is smoother than Gibson's. His 1980 'The Artificial Kid' predates Gibson's work, and whilst not set on Earth has many cyberpunk elements.

Right, you may ask what has all this cyberpunk got to do with steampunk? Well, in 1990, Gibson and Sterling jointly wrote a book called 'The Difference Engine' which envisaged a mid-Victorian Britain in which technology, notably Charles Babbage's computer (the Difference Engine) which in reality was experimented on in the 1840s, was a success and led to a computer age in the mid-19th century (so a kind of 'what if?' which as you know, appeals to me). [Difference engines had been proposed as early as 1786 and after Babbage, Per Georg Scheutz built a number in the 1850s including one he sold to the British Government.] The expansion of computing leads to other things like the streamlining of traction engines for racing and the British House of Lords becomes filled with inventors and explorers rather than simply noblemen who have inherited their titles. This is seen as the first steampunk book, like the cyberpunk books exploring a world where technology is key and creates turmoil in a society of conflicting pressures.

There are older roots to the genre. There was a US TV series 'Wild Wild West' which was a TV series which ran for 4 seasons 1965-9. It seems to have been set between the end of the American Civil War and 1875 and Grant is the President (1869-77) shown. The heroes' nemesis, Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, is supposed to have died in 1880. The spark of the original series was rather overshadowed by a couple of really dull TV movies in the 1980s using original cast members who were pretty old by then, and the rather failed 'Wild Wild West' (1999) movie with Will Smith and Kevin Kline, though it gives you a flavour of the original with their private train and the technology that they had. The first three series were darker and shot in black and white, but matching trends in US television at the time by the end of the run it became more 'camp' as have been the subsequent movies. However, they all included various Steampunk equipment such as concealed guns and a stage coach with an ejector seat. The attempts to dismember the USA as featured in the movie plots are common 'what if?' history scenarios (see also 'The Mask of Zorro' (1998)). After this series there seems to have been little interest in Steampunk in the USA until the 1990s.

In novels you have to mention Ronald W. Clark's 1969 novel 'Queen Victoria's Bomb' which envisages an atomic bomb being developed in the 1830s, testing in India and almost used in the Crimean War. Michael Moorcock's books 'Warlord of the Air' (1971), 'The Land Leviathan' (1974) and 'The Steel Tsar' (1981) also featured what can be termed Steampunk elements. In addition, by having Oswald Bastable as the hero of these books, a character who appears as a child in E. Nesbitt's 'The Story of the Treasure Seekers', Moorcock established the Steampunk approach of having characters from other authors' stories featuring as genuine people (alongside historical people too, as Clark had done extensively), a trend taken further by Alan Moore's graphic Steampunk novel, 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (starting 1999). The the thread goes back even beyond these novels of course.

It can be argued that the real originators of steampunk were Victorian authors themselves. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with their stories set in contemporary times to them but featuring huge airships, large submarines, tanks, flying motorbikes, a tunnel under the English Channel (as well as more fantastical devices to travel in time or to the Moon or make people invisible) built on the rush of technology throughout the 19th century and took their envisaging further, usually to look at moral issues in such a context, and like the steampunk authors, looking at the dilemmas that such technologies bring. These stories directly influence steampunk authors today, though their morals questions tend to be more direct and simpler than their Victorian predecessors.

What appeals to readers of steampunk is that it is technology but with elegance. In contrast to the sleek chrome of the model day it is brass and iron cast into elaborate shapes. Just look at any movie version of 'The Time Machine', it depicts a machine of elegance, all spinning, with inlaid knobs and polished buttons. In addition, in contrast to the cyberpunk novels which tend to portray people as playthings of vast multinational corporations, the heroes of steampunk are often ordinary people who can invent, they turn out a flying machine in the shed in the garden. Whilst this can be seen as very British, it has appeal in the USA for readers looking back to Ford or the Wright Brothers and their developments. However, the greatest success has been in Japan and from there have come notable steampunk movies such as 'Steamboy' (2005 - set in the UK) and 'Howl's Moving Castle' (2005) based on British author Diana Wynne Jones's 1986 novel of the same name.

Cyberpunk and steampunk have faded from their positions on the bestseller lists that they held in the 1980s and 1990s, but they have now effectively entered the mainstream. Graphic novelists have taken them up, notably in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentleman' (Alan Moore's novel and a 2003 movie). Cyberpunk has informed how we view the internet (Gibson is credited with inventing the word 'cyberspace') and are likely to view cybernetic implants (especially the potential for dehumanisation from them) and the position of the individual in relation to corporations. Steampunk is likely to have less impact, but my affection for it probably reflects me being British and so an in-built nostalgia for past things. Its impact is most likely to be in the style of items in the future and you can already see examples of people 'steampimping' their computers, much in the same way that people in the 1970s put their televisions in ornate wooden cabinets and those of the 1980s put their video cassettes in fake leather book covers.

In the meantime, for anyone interested in 'what if?' and 'why not?' in history, I recommend steampunk stories. To blow my own trumpet I intend to put a short story in that genre on this blog in coming weeks.

P.P. 26/10/2009: Despite my efforts at the time of writing this posting I have realised that I had missed out a vital slice of the history of the development of the steampunk genre.  This was the first use of the term steampunk, which was by author K.W. Jeter writing to the science fiction magazine, 'Locus' in April 1987, so preceding 'The Difference Engine' by four years.  According to wikipedia, Jeter was looking for an umbrella term for novels of the time, 'The Anubis Gates' (1983) by Tim Powers, 'Homunculus' (1986) by James Blaylock and 'Morlock Night' (1979) and 'Infernal Devices' (1987) that he had written himself which were set in the 19th century and took on board elements of the speculative writing naturally in the style of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and so included anachronistic technology.  Thus, of course, steampunk even in its latest manifestation predated cyberpunk, but that term was so snappy you can see why Jeter thought it was a good one to mutate for the genre he was writing in and certainly better than the description of Powers, Blaylock and Jeter writing in the so-called 'gonzo-historical manner'!  Michael Moorcock noted this year (2009) that there is actually little 'punk' in most steampunk writing and he favours 'steam opera'.

1 comment:

Aerugo said...

Fantastic little walkthrough of steam engines and metaverses! Loved it! *bookmarks blog*