Some Notes Towards a Working Definition of Steampunk
By Lavie Tidhar
“I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term…”
- K.W. Jeter, 1987
This piece is, obviously, old. I initially wrote it for an academic steampunk conference that didn’t take place – it was ahead of its time, it seemed. It was finally published in much shorter form in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, in 2005, and then in print in Apex Digest, issue 6 (2006). The field of steampunk has not only expanded and changed almost beyond recognition since then, it has mutated into new forms which owe, I feel, little to their progenitors. My own steampunk trilogy, The Bookman Histories, seems to me indebted to these earlier forms, and thus perhaps somewhat out of place in this new world. Nevertheless – on re-reading this article recently I felt it still offers some valid, and some interesting, arguments, and may therefore be of possible interest to the contemporary reader. I offer it here with the caveat that this was written almost a decade ago, with all that that entails. Still, I hope you may find it of interest.
Steampunk as a generic term seems to have originated initially in Jeter’s letter to Locus Magazine in April 1987, a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for the kind of “gonzo-historical” narratives written by the “Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate”. (Jeter qtd. in Berlyne) The term itself is partly an ironic nod to the Cyberpunk movement of the 80s, and indeed seems a suitable choice, exhibiting the inherent tendency of steampunk narratives towards a playful, ironic, sometimes (notably in the works of James Blaylock) whimsical bend.
Initially, however, the term evolved to describe a group of novels written by three California-based writers and friends, the aforementioned Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock and K.W. Jeter. In the 1992 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Peter Nicholls reasonably argues that “in essence Steampunk is a US phenomenon,” (1161) and while it could be argued this is no longer the case, it is certainly an important distinction to make when discussing what I would term “core” Steampunk. Nicholls defines Steampunk as “[a] modern sub-genre whose SF events take place against a 19th-century background”: a usefully-broad definition which – when taken on its own – fails to satisfy either the apparent requirement for the presence of the city of London (or rather, Victorian London) as almost a character in its own right, and – more importantly – the generic instability of what in his letter Jeter significantly called “Victorian fantasies.” Nicholls does go on to say that “it is as if, for a handful of SF writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to SF itself.” It could indeed be argued that, while not all Steampunk or Steampunk-influenced novels are set in Victorian London, the city, to a large extent, dominates these narratives: “a city,” Nicholls observes, where “the modern world was being born.” Modernity – together with post-modernity – are important aspects of the sub-genre, and deserve a thorough examination. First, however, I must point out a significant point of contention which, I would argue, also provides much of the narrative tension within Steampunk: that it is to a large extent a cross-genre phenomenon, that is, stories which discard the somewhat superficial distinction between “science fiction”, “fantasy” and “horror” (not to mention crime, historical fiction or romance) creating what are in effect rationalised fantasies. As China Miéville (whose work I shall be discussing at more detail further on) argues, “if the predicates for a fantasy are clearly never-possible but are treated systematically and coherently within the fantastic work, then its cognition effect is precisely that normally associated with SF.” (Editorial Introduction, 45) Or, in simpler form: “two untrue things are commonly claimed about fantasy [and] the first is that fantasy and science fiction are fundamentally different genres.” (Debate) In his article “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices”, Steffen Hantke insists on the association of Steampunk with science fiction, providing yet another “working definition” of the sub-genre:
“Steampunk constitutes a special case among alternative histories, a science fiction subgenre that postulates a fictional event of vast consequences in the past and extrapolates from this event a fictional though historically contingent present or future.” (246)
What I find particularly suggestive about Hantke’s article is indeed such a choice of works as to make his definition inclusive. Thus, he avoids the confusion of discussing Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (1983) (where ancient Egyptian magic, time travel and a homunculus all feature) or James Blaylock’s Homunculus (1986) (zombies, perpetual motion, and a skeleton appearing to pilot a blimp) in favour of, to a large extent, a discussion of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990). I will discuss The Difference Engine at more length later, but suffice it to say that not only is it outside the scope of what I term ‘core’ Steampunk, its use of Cyberpunk motifs and ‘straight’ alternative-history narrative posits it to some extent outside the active (and expanding) sphere of Steampunk, in which it is the blurred boundary between magic and technology, technology and magic which provides the germane attraction. Nor is it always correct to describe Steampunk narratives as alternative histories. It is best, perhaps, to describe Powers’ work, for example, as a series of secret histories, in which historiography’s integrity remains intact but in which the “blind spots” of history are painted in somewhat phantasmagoric colours. As Powers notes,
“The whole point is not ever to contradict actual history. Add to it, sure; provide an unsuspected background, show the secret real story, but never give the reader the opportunity to say, ‘That’s not who was there, or where it happened, or when.’” (Locus Interview Excerpt)
What I would like to concentrate upon, however, is what I conceive to be the underlying theme of all Steampunk and Steampunk-derived narratives, which can be summed up in the oft-quoted Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Hantke argues that “Steampunk focuses on technology as the crucial factor in its understanding and portrayal of Victorianism.” (247) I would argue, however, that rather than explore Victorianism, the underlying theme of all fiction within the Steampunk sphere resorts to that moment whereby technology transcends understanding and becomes, for all intents and purposes, magical. I would further argue that Victorian London represents the moment in history where that transformation happens. Not only is there an explosion of scientific and technical study, but for the first time the products of that Industrial Revolution become commodities, mass produced and thus escaping from the domain of the solitary inventor and into the public domain. This perhaps suggests why so many of the characters in Steampunk novels correspond to the “solitary scientist” archetype: Dr. Ignacio Narbondo in Blaylock’s Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine (1992); Cosmo Cowperthwait in Paul Di Filippo’s Victoria (in The Steampunk Trilogy, 1995); and, indeed, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000). The scientist of late 19th-century London is on the cusp between the Renaissance Man and the Corporation Man – a transformation perhaps best exemplified by Thomas Alva Edison (who lent his name to a sub-genre of his own – the Edisonade – as well as featuring in Powers’ novel Expiration Date (1995)). Those lone-scientist Steampunk characters share more than a silly name, for they are – to begin with at least – in control, being the modern magicians who can operate the spells of machinery. Yet what steampunk narratives repeat again and again is the inevitability of the loss of control, as technology evolves beyond the confines of one person, assuming a mythical force that – echoing theschool ofTechnological Darwinism – shapes and controls narrative causality. Narbondo must be thwarted from his plans of world domination; Cowperthwait, in trying to build the first atomic-powered train engine, kills both his parents (“When they managed to regain their feet, they saw the remnants of a mushroom-shaped cloud towering high up into the sky.” (Di Filippo, 21)) and Grimnebulin, by attempting the ancient hubris of teaching a man to fly, unleashes a Lovecraftian horror upon the city ofBas-Lag (a city which, to all intents and purposes, can be safely read as a metamorphosedLondon). It is not perhaps surprising to learn that Charles Babbage, the eccentric, mainly-forgotten inventor of the Difference and the Analytical Engine (the latter a forerunner of the modern computer) has become something of an icon to the genre.
On the one hand, technology in Steampunk has become magical; on the other, what magic there is has become highly scientific, so that reader expectations for genre stability are confounded. This could be partially traced to J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), in which “the principles of magic” are classified in a taxonomy of magical laws. “If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves [so that, for example] an effect resembles its cause.” (11) Thus, Thaumaturgy operates as a distinct science on Bas-Lag (In China Mieville’s trilogy of novels) while practitioners of magic in Powers’ The Anubis Gates and On Strager Tides (1987) must not touch the bare ground, dirt acting literally as an earthing device for magic. But the true strength of Steampunk is the way in which the two co-exist: where technology becomes magical, magic becomes rigorously scientific. The resulting tension is at the core of Steampunk.
I would suggest thinking of Steampunk as a set of nestled spheres. The first, ‘core’ Steampunk, encompasses those few works written by Powers, Blaylock and Jeter – the seed, if you will, of the genre. Expanding from that one can trace a secondary sphere of novels in this new tradition: Gibson and Sterling’s Difference Engine and Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy fit the bill. Thirdly, I would suggest a sphere of associated novels, more in the tradition of Victorian pastiche than of the post-modernist sensibilities of Steampunk proper. Here one may lump together Stephen Baxter’s Anti-Ice (1993) and The Time Ships (1995), for example, together with works of so-called ‘proto-Steampunk’ such as Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine (1976) or Michael Moorcock’s The Warlock of the Air (1971). Of course, such a taxonomy is not necessarily useful, but I endeavour to construct this expansionist image of the genre for one particular reason, which arises from the fourth ‘sphere of expansion’: the New Steampunks, which to a large part moved across theAtlantic and belong firmly in a new British setting.
Why study Steampunk? I would suggest that part of the answer resides in the monumental response – both in genre circle and, more importantly, in the marketplace – to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which was published in 2000 and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a British Fantasy Award, and has been nominated for every other major award in the field. Miéville, I would suggest, has achieved something by his use of Steampunk tropes that has prompted a corresponding note from the reading public. Other works that have been described as Steampunk since have included Chris Wooding’s Smarties Award-winning novel The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, Philip Reeve’s Smarties Award-Winning novel Mortal Engines and its sequels and Robin Jarvis’ Deathscent. It appears to me as if, in the time since the publication of the ‘core’ novels, (approx. 1979-1986) notions and ideas of Steampunk have silently taken root and finally – to extend the metaphor – flowered, transporting across the Atlantic in the process. Nor has the flowering of Steampunk been restricted to novels: the field can now boast a significant number of comics and graphic novels, role-playing games (RPGs), art and even film and television representations. Indeed, a contemporary review in a mainstream American newspaper of the Disney film Treasure Planet (2002) as Steampunk, suggesting both its mass appeal and the way in which the word coined by Jeter made its way into the public consciousness.
Perhaps one of the most interesting forms Steampunk has taken recently is in visual art, mainly in the works of several commercial illustrators. It could be argued that if the symbol of science fiction is the rocket, the symbol of Steampunk is the airship. It is there in Edward Miller’s (an alias of UK artist Les Edwards) cover illustrations for Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council (2004), in David Frankland’s cover of Mortal Engines and, naturally enough, in Mark A. Nelson’s cover for Joe R. Lansdale’s Zeppelins West (2001). Indeed, some of the art – in particular Miller’s work – has become so distinctive that his covers are commissioned for new books that fit into the Steampunk mould in order to create a visual identity in the consumer’s mind as, for example, Ian R. MacLeod’s The Light Ages (2003), the Peter Crowther-edited anthology Cities (2003) and others. I believe that the study of Steampunk-influenced artwork deserves some space in which to expand, and certainly that it is proving to be virgin soil so far.
Another interesting aspect is the growing popularity of Role Playing Games that make use of Steampunk tropes – so much so that the most recent one is simply titled GURPS Steampunk. Other notable game environments include Space: 1889, Castle Falkenstein and Forgotten Futures, again offering a fertile field for study. Comics and graphic novels again offer a tantalising glimpse at how Steampunk themes have began to inch their way into every form of medium. These include Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo’s Steampunk Comics, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and even a host of Japanese manga comics. It is interesting to see how Steampunk evolves in these different mediums, as indeed it does in its new fictional incarnation: it abandons Victorian England for the Wild West, Tokyo, “Steam City”, Bas-Lag or even outer space – but, to my mind, all these diverse elements are still bound up in, firstly, the technology/magic dichotomy and, secondly, in their use of (more often playful) post-modernist tropes, many assuming a whimsical, ironical approach to history that is one of the hallmarks of Steampunk. I believe a discussion of the relationship of post-modernism to Steampunk is another worthwhile subject, as that ability to pick and discard figures of history (and figures of literary history) and subtly play with the rigidity of “period” is an important part of the genre. While the literary pastiche has a long and respectable tradition – which verges on Steampunk most often in the large body of work of Sherlockian and Jack the Ripper pastiches – that in itself is not a sufficient criteria, just as a ‘rationalised fantasy’, in itself, does not constitute Steampunk. Where the two meet most successfully is perhaps in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series, in particular in the first two books, Anno Dracula (1992) and The Bloody Red Baron (1996), which take place in Victorian London and in World War I respectively. Newman’s masterly touch turns what is in essence an outrageous pastiche – incorporating nearly every real and imaginary character from the respective period – into what is more often than not a thoughtful, serious work of literature which is very relevant for the purposes of this paper. Later volumes – Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998 Us as Judgement of Tears) and the collection of individually published novellas such as Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1999) – move in time beyond their Steampunk origins into the late 20th-century. They represent, however, one of the most consistent alternative-history narratives in the field, one in which generic tension is always present.
Finally, space needs to be reserved for the study of such films and television programs that have been described as Steampunk. Nicholls suggests that Steampunk was “a vision that also entered the cinema, especially through David Lynch, first in Eraserhead (1976), and then in The Elephant Man (1980) [...] another, rather frivolous Steampunk movie is Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear”, while in television, Nicholls notes that “Steampunk was anticipated several times in the UK TV series Dr. Who, notably in The Talons of Weng Chiang (1977).” There was also the US television series The Wild, Wild West and a subsequent 1999 film by the same name. I have already mentioned Treasure Planet, while it could also be argued some episodes of The Time Tunnel (1966-1967 US), such as Raiders from Outer Space and others, qualify.
Steampunk, for all of its minute beginnings, seems to have quietly infiltrated the public consciousness. It is worth studying.
Berlyne, John. “Tim Powers – Published Interviews and Related Articles.” The Works of Tim Powers.02 Nov. 2004.03 Jun. 2003. <http://www.theworksoftimpowers.com/powers/related.htm>.
Di Filippo, Paul. The Steampunk Trilogy.New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.
Frazer, J.G. The Golden Bough: A study in Magic and Religion.London: Papermac 1987.
Hantke, Steffen. “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk.” Extrapolations 40.3 (1999): 244-254.
Miéville, China. “Editorial Introduction.” Historical Materialism 10.4 (2003): 39-49.
- – -. “Debate.” Pan Macmillan 2002.03 Jun. 2004. <http://www.panmacmillan.com/Features/China/debate.htm>.
Nicholls, Peter. “Steampunk”. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls.London: Orbit 1999. 1161.
Powers, Tim. “Tim Powers Interview Excerpts.” Feb. 2002. Locus Online.03 Jun. 2004. <http://www.locusmag.com/2002/Issue02/Powers.html>.
 First stated in “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”. Profiles of the Future. 1962