Steaming back to a retro future


Once a minor sub-genre of science fiction concerned with Victorian-era technology, Steampunk has transcended its origins to become a fully fledged subculture, with its own fashion, art, films and music, writes GARETH L POWELL

OVER THE PAST decade, a quiet revolution has been taking place amongst the fans of speculative fiction. Ladies have been squeezing into corsets, petticoats and bustles; gentlemen have been ditching their black T-shirts and jeans in favour of military uniforms, waistcoats, top hats and aviator goggles; and once-shiny gadgets, such as laptops and mobile phones, have been resplendently decked-out with antique-looking mahogany and copper cases. The cause of all this has, of course, been the rise in popularity of Steampunk.

Steampunk first came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, with the publication of books such as The Difference Engineby William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; Victoriaby Paul Di Filippo; and Alan Moore’s comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. As a literary genre, it draws inspiration from the work of writers such as HG Wells, Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, WE Johns and Mary Shelley, and its stories often feature the use of Victorian era technology, such as steam engines and airships.

Some Steampunk tales take part in an alternate history where Victorian scientists have improvised modern devices using 19th- century tools. For instance, in The Difference Engine, the construction of Charles Babbage’s steam-powered mechanical computer ushers in the information age a century before its time; and in Stephen Baxter’s Anti-Ice, the discovery of anti-matter gives Britain nuclear power and space travel in the 1850s.

Tales, such as Kim Lakin-Smith’s short story Johnny and Emmie-Lou Get Married, a 1950s retelling of Romeo and Juliet, take place later but posit a world where petrol and diesel were either never discovered or somehow fell out of favour. In a similar vein, further stories portray a post-apocalyptic landscape, where our modern technologies have been lost and the survivors are forced to rely on brute-force steam-powered engineering solutions to their problems.

This DIY aesthetic plays a strong role in both Steampunk’s literary and cultural manifestations. Many fans of the genre devote huge effort to “modding” everyday objects, such as computers, musical instruments, and pocket watches, embellishing them with a Neo-Victorian mechanical style, often represented by the addition of brass cogs and glass valves. They even make and improvise their own costumes, harking back to the days when men and women could spend the day grappling with iron and engine grease, and yet still find the time to dress for dinner. In our modern world, where it’s easier to junk a piece of mass-produced electronic technology than it is to fix it, the idea of being able to build, maintain and repair your own bespoke machinery seems somehow subversive.

In cinema, this hands-on approach has been expressed through films such as the Oscar-nominated 2004 Japanese animated fantasy Howl’s Moving Castle; Wild, Wild West, starring Kenneth Branagh and Will Smith; and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemenstarring Sean Connery and based on Moore’s comic book series, and influenced by older films such as From The Earth To The Moon; The Time Machine; and even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

At heart, the Steampunk ethos seems to be one of self-reliance and personal freedom. Steampunk bands take to the stage in homemade costumes, sporting heavily customised instruments; amateur jewellery designers produce their own ornate Steampunk finery; artists proudly display their paintings and sculptures at exhibitions and conventions; and fans swap modding and costume tips online.

Yet despite this apparent community spirit, some critics have attacked the genre for its empire worship and its focus on adventure and derring-do rather than the hard realities of life in the 19th century, such as slavery, child labour, lack of women’s suffrage, starvation and widespread disease.

Such criticisms, though, seem to be missing the point. While Steampunk’s roots are deeply sunk in history, it is not in and of itself an historical genre. It deals in ripping yarns rather than social commentary and, like much Victorian literature, it has more than a whiff of the fantastical about it.

In many Steampunk stories, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, this manifests in the form of gothic eruptions of vampirism or zombification which challenge the fortitude and resourcefulness of the main characters. In others, such as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Stationand Stephen Hunt’s The Court of The Air,the action takes place in baroque fantasy settings, where magic and technology sit side-by-side and mythical creatures roam the landscape.

While hard and fast definitions of Steampunk vary, there’s no denying its commercial success, even if some of its tropes, such as Zeppelins and brass goggles, are already well on the way to becoming clichés. As well as the aforementioned books and movies, there are now young adult Steampunk novels, role-playing games, computer games and graphic novels. Steampunk even thrives as a musical genre, with bands such as Abney Park, Rasputina and Vernian Process bringing the glamour of the Victorian age to their albums and stage shows.

As with most things in life, what you get out of Steampunk depends on what you put into it. If the dressing up and DIY don’t appeal to you, you can still enjoy the adventure stories, which superficially at least, share some of the same sense of wonder and excitement as the ripping yarns and romances once read by our great-grandparents.

Gareth L Powell is a British science-fiction author. His second novel, The Recollection, will be published by Solaris Books next year.

Steampunk milestones:

1. The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson

In the novel which first brought Steampunk to a wider audience, the two masters of Cyberpunk collaborate to produce a story imagining what the effects on world history would have been had Charles Babbage been able to complete construction of his mechanical computer, the titular Difference Engine.

2. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

When inventor Leviticus Blue activates his mining device, the Boneshaker of the title, he unwittingly releases an underground gas which transforms many of the inhabitants of Seattle into zombies. Sixteen years later, Blue’s widow is forced to enter the infected zone when her teenage son disappears in an attempt to clear the inventor’s name.

3. Infernal Devices by KW Jeter

In Victorian London, George inherits a repair shop from his father, a gifted watchmaker skilled in the building of all sorts of clockwork devices. Over the course of the book, George comes across several devices constructed by his father, including a time machine and a lifelike clockwork replica of himself.