Monthly Archives: August 2011

A History of Steampunk, Part 6: Conclusions

In Part 5, I did the chit and chat about Steampunk’s rise through the 90’s and early 00’s, and it’s evolution from genre of speculative fiction into the beginnings of a ‘scene’. Now, I’m going to wrap this monster up with a brief discussion about the SP ‘movement’, and the latest and arguably most popular works of modern Steampunk fiction. And then I’ll shut the HELL UP about Steampunk for a while.

By the mid 00’s, Steampunk was big enough to generate its own gravitational pull on the interwebs, dragging aficionados into newsgroups, mail lists and the infant blogosphere. In 2007, we saw the creation of the Steampunk Forum; an offshoot of the Brass Goggles blog and an SP wiki called the Aether Emporium. What began as a collection of likeminded community members soon devolved into a  now legendary debate over the ‘meaning’ of Steampunk – basically, old school ‘purists’ vs newschool ‘creators’ such as Jake von Slatt and the (mind-blowingly talented) Datamancer, who wanted to incorporate the DIY and Punk aesthetics into SP.

Terribly simplified, this is ultimately the crux of the colourful (and often venomous and personal) debate waged on the SP Forum: Putting the ‘punk’ into Steampunk. What was formerly a genre of speculative fiction had metamorphosed. Where once Steampunk had been ‘punk’ in name only, now a veritable legion of community members (mostly from the rivethead, goth-industrial and DIY recruits from the early 2000’s) were applying the term ‘punk’ retroactively to the entire scene. The ‘oldschool’ (largely sci-fi and RPG fans) objected. Lines were drawn. Egos were bruised. Batches of bathtub basement napalm were brewed.

When the smoke cleared, as is the case with most Pelennor Plains scale flame wars, there was no clear winner or According the Hoyle definition. However, the newschool Steampunks continued to do their thing, regardless of Her Majesty’s refusal to declare a victor in the great debate. Steampunk began to appear regularly in mainstream publications like Wired, Spin, and even the New York Times and Forbes. As the public became more and more aware of Steampunk, these newschool SP’ers were the most visual, active and vocal members of the community. And thus, public perception of what Steampunk ‘meant’ was shaped by them, and not the sci-fi/rpg’sters. The newschool won, simply by doing rather than talking.

Of course, as soon as SP began hitting the headlines, critics began queuing to take a bite. Bruce Sterling (co-author of the Difference Engine) stood amongst them, citing the NYT article as evidence of the “death of Steampunk”, as if the movement/genre/whateveryoucallit’s recognition by the dreaded ‘mainstream’ was some kind of harbinger of its dooooom. These prognostications were met with counter-claims that SP had already been co-opted by the SP newschool, and had ceased to be what Sterling helped create years before. Furthermore, other sectors of the nerdsphere began to openly criticise elements of the Steampunk community as being self-important, egotistical and masturbatory. Published manifestos, such as the following from the Catastrophone Orchestra in ‘Steampunk Magazine’ may not have helped improve this perception:

“We stand on the shaky shoulders of opium-addicts, aesthete dandies, inventors of perpetual motion machines, mutineers, hucksters, gamblers, explorers, madmen and bluestockings. We laugh at experts and consult moth-eaten tomes of forgotten possibilities. We sneer at utopias while awaiting the new ruins to reveal themselves. We are a community of mechanical magicians enchanted by the real world and beholden to the mystery of possibility. We do not have the luxury of niceties or the possession of politeness; we are rebuilding yesterday to ensure our tomorrow. Our corsets are stitched with safety pins and our top hats hide vicious mohawks. We are fashion’s jackals running wild in the tailor shop.”

Hollywood continued to plough SP’s treasure vaults, with Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen being treated to a grade-A prison-sexing, along with Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (again, met with much stern-facery by the Christian right-wing), and Christopher Nolan’s Oscar nominated The Prestige, starring David “You remind me of the babe” Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Steampunk began appearing in video games (Thief, Ultima, Elder Scolls, Tomb Raider, the Final Fantasy series, and most notably, the Steampunk-inspired Gnomes of Gnomeregan in the ‘12million+ subscribers and counting’ behemoth that is World of Warcrackcraft). Musicians such as Abney Park, Vernian Process and Doctor Steel also began proudly proclaiming allegiance to the SP flag, and comics such as Gotham by Gaslight (from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola) and the increasingly popular Girl Genius continued the tradition in the world of ‘graphic novels’. Steampunk fashion became a regular sight at conventions, music festivals and nightclubs.

In the place where it all began, novels, Steampunk rose to grander heights. Scott Westerfeld’s WW1 alternate history Leviathan became a NYT bestseller. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker from the Clockwork Century series was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, and won the Locus award. Other writers such Mark Hodder, Caitlin Kittredge and Cassandra Clare continue the tradition, meeting with great success. The rate at which Steampunk continues to be published and consumed shows no sign of abating just yet.

So, what comes next?

Pessimists would say that, like any subculture, Steampunk will fall into stagnation and decline after its discovery by the mainstream – that the formula will become established after the initial bout of exploration and creativity, the visionaries will abandon it for something new, leaving it to scene-sters and the ‘too stubborn to quit’ crowd, until SP eventually becomes a parody of itself. More optimistic aficionados will point to the fact that modern SP was itself an evolution of the Scientific Romances and goth/rivethead/industrial scene, and insist that it will simply evolve again. How this will effect the original birthplace (and many would still say heart) of Steampunk – speculative fiction – remains a mystery.

For my part, I’m aboard the evolution train. (plugplugplug! choo!choo!)

So, if there is a conclusion to be drawn at the end of this extraordinarily rambling history, in the works of Verne or Gibson or Moore or Westerfeld, I think it is this: Good fiction defies the limitations set by precedent, codification and expectation. Fiction’s only true limit is imagination.

Aaaaaand, that’s it, we’re done. Don’t forget to tip your waitress, and thanks for reading. 🙂


So Stephen King said I’m Talented

“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” – Stephen King

Okay, so he didn’t say it directly or anything. But after months of back and forthing with the IRS over ITINs and W-8 forms, learning to read Government-ese, one-handed knife fights with the muppets at Australia Post and being prison-sexed by the exchange rate of the crippled US greenback with a historically high Australian dollar, there IS money in my bank account that wasn’t there a few days ago.

And while I didn’t use it to pay the light bill, I paid the mortgage, which is a like a light bill on crack.

So yes, Steve, I’m quoting you on that one, baby.

Two Minutes Hate: Sonic Screwdrivers

Dear Makers of Doctor Who,

I get that you write a science fiction program. I get there needs to be a certain amount of latitude given by your viewers in terms of setting and technology. You have a police box that can travel in time and space, and even though its nav’ circuits seem perpetually locked onto “Present Day London”, I understand a certain degree of suspension of disbelief is necessary to even get an invite to this party.

But you know, when you have a device that can re-attach molecular bonds, detect strange goings-onses, intercept and send signals, remotely operate the TARDIS, burn, cut, and ignite substances, fuse metal, scan and identify anything, repair anything, amplify or augment sound, modify mobile phones to enable “universal roaming” (lawwwwwwl), disable alien disguises, resonate concrete to precipitate the single most deviant sexual relationship I’ve ever come across in film or television, and pretty much solve any problem your writers can’t think their way out of, all without a need, or indeed, even a means by which to program or modify said device, most people wouldn’t call it a “sonic screwdriver”.

They’d call it a fucking MAGIC WAND.


A History of Steampunk, Part 5: Evolution

In Part 4 (if you’re wondering how long can I draw this thing out for, believe me, I’m wondering the same thing) we talked about Steampunk’s naming day, the first writers to be associated with the handle, and its nebulous links to cyberpunk. Today, I’ll discuss SP’s development through the 90’s and 2000’s, and how it evolved into the non-stop hit-machine we know today.

Steampunk had been seeing a resurgence in the world of film for years by the time it actually got itself a bona fide handle. Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes and Terry Gilliam’s (of Monty Python fame) The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen are good mid-80’s examples. Spielberg even headed back to the trough for seconds and brought us a flying, time-traveling steam-train (and a healthy serve of bustles, goggles and corsets to boot) in the third Back to the Future film in 1990.

At the end of the 90’s, we saw the birth of what is probably the most universally reviled example of Steampunk to date – the film adaptation of the 60’s TV series: Wild, Wild West. It should be noted however, that even though most serious Steampunk aficionados will hiss like some penny-dreadful vampire at the mention of the film’s name, I personally guarantee that this movie will still be cited in almost every “what is Steampunk” conversation you’ll hear. Why? Because is captures the notion of Steampunk (historical setting, with anachronistic technology) perfectly. It’s just a pity about the… well… it’s a pity about everything else in this entire film, really…

Meanwhile, back at the book-cave, Philip “IH8 C.S Lewis” Pullman published The Golden Compass in 1995 to critical acclaim and some very stern looks from the right-wing christian establishment. In the same year that Wild, Wild West hit movie goers like a diagnosis of rectal cancer, Alan Moore began his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel series. League (no, not the film, ignore the film, it never happened) took famous characters from Victorian literature (Alan Quartermaine, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, et al) and pitted them against sinister villains in a steam-powered Britannia, quickly becoming one of the greatest successes of Moore’s career, and catapulting the concept of Steampunk into the limelight. It should also be noted that an extraordinary amount of manga and anime created with a Steampunk aesthetic (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, Steamboy, Fullmetal Alchemist) began to be translated into English around this period. In the early 2000’s China Miéville began his Bas-Lag series (Perdido St Station, The Scar and Iron Council), a fantastical series in which magic, arcane technologies and alien species were combined to roars of approval from readers and Literatii alike.

Including me. Goddamn, I love China Miéville in the pants.

Bas Lag, League and the anime bomb emerged just as the internet was becoming an intrinsic part of modern society, enabling people with common niche interests to cross the geographical divides that might otherwise have prevented those interests catalyzing into something more formidable. And damn that was a long sentence…

With SP spreading across the internet like some kind of corseted, goggle-wearing virus, more and more sub-cultures began to hook their wagons to the star. Goths, Punks, Rivetheads, Japanese Lolitas and Aristo’s all found some kind of common ground, dragging their musical tastes and social views into what began to evolve beyond a simple genre of fiction and become a scene. And beyond that, lurked the moniker that many of the more vocal and prolific SP community members seemed to be striving towards like so many clockwork powered Robots of Doom:

The Movement.

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 6: Conclusion

A History of Steampunk – Part 4: Codification

In Part 3, I wrote about the Steampunk’s resurgence in the field of motion pictures and its decline in the late 1960’s. Now, at last, we get to the good stuff; the period in history where the genre heretofore referred to as “That retro-Victorian anachronistic technology bollocks”* actually gets a name.

In 1980’s, Cyberpunk was king of the sci-fi landscape, striding tall upon a landscape of burned out computer hulks beneath a dead-television sky. Authors like William Gibson and filmmakers like Ridley Scott had opened our eyes to the concept of dark futures, corrupted cityscapes and a disease within the god-machine. One of these Cyberpunk authors, a fellow named KW Jeter wrote the following letter to Locus magazine in 1987:

Dear Locus,

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in ‘the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate’ was writing in the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

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 and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps…

The truth was, the groundwork for the collision of cyberpunk ideals/aesthetics with the technology of the nineteenth century had been laid down by writers like Philip Jose Farmer (Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life and The Other Log of Phileas Fogg – 1973) and Michael Moorcock (Warlord of the Air – 1971) years before. However, Jeter is widely lauded as the writer who dove in with both feet first and truly started the clockwork ball rolling.

After Jeter’s wrote Morlock Night, several of his friends and fellow authors took up the banner and ran with it all the way to the annals of geek history. Tim Powers published The Anubis Gates (still widely lauded at 3am by drunken con-attendees as one of the best SP novels ever written) On Stranger Tides (supposedly the inspiration for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean cash-in) and The Stress of Her Regard. James Blaylock, the other side of the Steampunk tri-partite pact, published Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine. However, the true contender for the Heavyweight Title in all those drunken 3am convention arguments would likely be The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and cyberpunk godfather William Gibson, in which Charles Babbage (a real-life English engineer) invents an analytical computer and ushers in the computer age 100+ years before it actually occurred.

Gibson himself was quoted as saying “I’ll be happy just as long as they don’t label this one. There’s been some dire talk of ‘steampunk’ but I don’t think it’s going to stick.” Ironically, this statement probably did more to immortalize the term ‘Steampunk’ than anything before it.

It’s in books like The Anubis Gates that we begin to see the seeds of the spirit of idealism that is commonly associated (and often criticised) with modern Steampunk fiction. The setting (almost invariably Victorian London) might have been washed with a coat of squalor and fumes, but beneath it lurked a very real sense of hope and gentility – very much at odds with the “punk” part of the genre’s nomenclature. The Victorian era began to be moulded (almost invariably by American authors) into an age of wonder, a kind of pivot-point in history, where the industrial and pre-industrial era collided and almost anything was possible. Furthermore Steampunk almost immediately began to abandon the hard, techno-fetishistic science of Cyberpunk, and replace it with a distinctly softer variant that wasn’t so much scientific as altogether fantastical.

What began as a relationship between two fond cousins quickly devolved into a complete state of severance. Future setting vs Period pieces. Iconoclasm vs Idealism. Soon it became difficult for anyone to tell what ‘Steampunk’ had in common with ‘Cyberpunk’ at all.

To this day, aside from the name, most fans of either genre would probably say “nothing at all”.

*Dramatization. May not have happened.

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 5: Evolution

A History of Steampunk – Part 3: Exploration

In Part 2, I wrote about Steampunk’s origins in the Historical Fictions of the 19th century and its great-granddaddies (Verne, Wells, et/al) in the world of literature. However, as we reach the end of the Victorian age, our perspective needs to shift from the written word, and into the wondrous new world of motion pictures.

Early filmmakers began finding inspiration in sci-fi literature almost as soon as silent film became reality. The Georges Méliès directed A Trip to the Moon was loosely based on the works of two Steampunk granddaddies – From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, and The First men in the Moon by HG Wells. An early version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea hit theatres in 1916.

However, as time wore on, the speculative Victorian fictions of Verne and Co started to become passé. The predictions they had made either came to pass (submarines and trans-oceanic balloon travel) or were debunked. The Scientific Romances of the 19th century ceased being futuristic and started looking like all those John Hughes movies I loved in the cold light of 2011 – horribly, HORRIBLY dated.

The first sci-fi film with a historical setting and anachronistic technology, and thus, by our earlier definition, the first true Steampunk film, was 1929’s Mysterious Island – an alternative history where the British reached the moon 75 years before Armstrong. Unfortunately, the film performed only slightly better than Battlefield Earth at the box office, and it would be many years before gun-shy studio execs greenlit another SP project.

In 1938, Orson Wells (only 22 years old at the time) adapted HG Well’s War of the Worlds into a now infamous 60 minute radio play, which resulted in widespread panic amongst his pre-WW2 audience. Of the 6 million listeners, an estimated 1.7 million believed it to be true.

The years after WW2 were a golden age for sci-fi, as audiences living in perpetual fear of the Atom began to explore their anxieties through tales of alien invasion, abduction and warfare. Classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and The Thing from Another World graced screens worldwide. Filmmakers began digging through the vaults for inspiration again. Remakes of Scientific Romances (such as 1953’s War of the Worlds) were produced, but the stories were re-worked with contemporary settings. Strangely, it took the creator of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney himself, to re-introduce period piece sci-fi to audiences.

1954 saw the release of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a historical sci-fi masterpiece which went on to usher in a new age of period-piece sci-fi. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Mysterious Island (animated by the legendary Ray Harryhausen) the Time Machine and Around the World in 80 Days all hit cinemas in quick succession. The Czech filmmaker, Karel Zeman, gave us The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1958 – a masterpiece of animation and film techniques, pushing the boundaries of anything created in the west.

However, by the end of the 60’s the paranoia born in the Atomic Age began to wane. By 1969, science fiction had become science fact, and man had taken his first steps upon the surface of the moon. Society was embroiled in revolutions about equality, sex, politics, and morality, and the romance of the Victorian era, with all its wide-eyed optimism and romance had never seemed further away.

It wasn’t until the late 70’s that we saw a rebirth, and eventual naming of that which became Steampunk.

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 4: Codification