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

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About Misterkristoff

New York Times and Internationally Bestselling SciFi/Fantasy author, and master of drunken karaoke-fu. View all posts by Misterkristoff

6 responses to “A History of Steampunk – Part 4: Codification

  • Punk U | Journeys in Steam

    […] is an excerpt of Part four in his series, one to which I wish to reply. The setting (almost invariably Victorian London) might […]

  • Clara

    I am absolutely loving this series, Jay.
    Favourite part: “There’s been some dire talk of ‘steampunk’ but I don’t think it’s going to stick.”
    Ha!
    I hadn’t thought about steampunk having much to do with cyberpunk (despite the words, the eras are usually different) I keep catching myself thinking “How didn’t I see that before?”
    Excellent work.

    • misterkristoff

      Lol, yeah I’ll wager Mr Gibson probably regretted those words. 😛

      Thing is, aside from the pseudo-shared origin thing, SP and CP really don’t have much to do with each other., and never really have I wouldn’t feel too bad about not spotting the vague similarities 🙂

  • Avid

    I believe the one factor cyberpunk has in common with the modern interpretation of steampunk is that in both cases the technology is pervasive and even invasive. In cyberpunk, people have chips implanted into their brain and input jacks in their spinal columns. In steampunk people have clockwork powered prosthetics or bodily enhancements. This is also where both genres intersect with the “real world” meaning of punk – one of the defining features of punk fashion is bodily modification.

  • Stryfe :p

    Spider: “This causes it! This causes it! This causes it! Information overload! All the electronics around you poisoning the airwaves. Technological fucking civilization. But we still have all this shit, because we can’t live without it. Let me do my work.”

    You know, one day you’ll be asked by an ‘academic’ with a phd on this, “do you really think it fits the genre of steampunk?” I hope you think back on this early blogging, recall the punk tie, reach across the coffee table and go all ‘Walter Kovaks’ on them. We are always in a process of ‘building’.

    • misterkristoff

      You’re presuming said academic will view me as some kind of authority on the topic, rather than a waffling lunatic with a penchant for girls in corsets.

      But yes, I agree. Constant evolution is the key to growth. Any genre of fiction that successfully ‘defines’ itself, essentially limits itself. Which is why I kinda boggle at all the energy spent on codifying what “is” and “is not” steampunk in certain circles. But hey, that’s just me, and I’m a waffling lunatic 😛

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