Not surprisingly, Steampunk’s origins lie in the very time period in which most contemporary Steampunk is set – the middle and late Nineteenth Century. It’s at this point in literature that we witness the birth of what became known as ‘science fiction’, between the covers of penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and the far more dashingly named ‘scientific romances’ of the era. Writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the man who would NEVER have to buy his own drinks at a Steampunk convention, Mr Jules Verne began taking us on fantastic voyages to other worlds and other times, often with the aid of fantastical technologies beyond imagination.
This period in history was marked by rapid expansion, not simply in global population, heavy industry and technology, but also of mankind’s influence over his fellows. Global Empires became a reality. ‘Britannia Incorporated’ and her peers had spent decades planting their flags on any piece of dirt that wasn’t securely nailed down, proudly proclaiming to hordes of confused-looking indigenous people the world over that “All your base are belong to us”. And now it was all starting to pay dividends.
This was an age of Industrial Expositions and Great Exhibitions, of Edisons and Teslas and Babbages. It was an age of extremes. Of enormous wealth and crushing poverty, of bold exploration and child exploitation. It was an age where writers truly began to explore the limits of that question which drives the SciFi/Fantasy genre, and indeed, most any genre at all:
Despite the relative euphoria of the age, some writers we most fondly remember seemed reluctant to embrace it. HG Wells reduced London to smoking slag in ‘War of the Worlds’. Poe ridiculed a public besotted with technological progress in ‘The Balloon Hoax’. Verne languished in the Victorian Age’s equivalent of ‘slush-pile hell’ for years, owing to the overly pessimistic and political nature of his stories. But for every one of these, there was another writer singing the praises of technology and the spirit of adventure we’ve somehow retroactively applied to the entire age.
Probably the most well-known writings from this time, certainly where Steampunk is concerned, are Jules Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaires”: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. If printed today, both ‘Leagues and ‘Earth to Moon could be safely classified as Steampunk by our earlier definition – “Science fiction set in an industrialized historical period, in which anachronistic technology is present.”
However, it’s important to note that these works aren’t actually Steampunk at all. There’s nothing historical about the setting of 20,000 Leagues or War of the Worlds. Despite these works being held up as progenitors of Steampunk, they were contemporary fiction in their day. Ground-breaking and visionary, yes. But retro-Victorian? Most certainly not. It’s only through dint of the fact that they’ve survived for close to 150 years in our collective consciousness that the requisite historical nature of Steampunk can be applied after the fact.
For the first works that might truly be described as Steampunk fiction, in a feat worthy of any of Verne’s protagonists, we need to jump forward to the next century and a completely different medium – the wondrous world of motion pictures.
Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 3 – Exploration