Essay from Worlds of Steampunk Exhibition

NOTE: UC Davis Librarian Roberto Delgadillo asked me to write this essay for Shields Library’s exhibition Worlds of Steampunk: Fiction, Art, Fashion and Culture in 2012. The online display has been taken down, so I’m reprinting it here before the C19 Conference where I’m presenting on steampunk in October 2020.

As the great folksinger John Prine once wryly noted, “We are living in the future.”  We carry powerful computers that weigh less than 5 ounces and fit into jeans’ pockets.  We load entire libraries’ worth of books onto a single, thin viewing screen.  We listen to music through pea-sized earbuds. 

What does all that have to do with steampunk?  Everything.

Steampunk celebrates an era when technology was different—ornate, intricate, just plain BIG.  It rejects our modern “smaller and sleeker is better” aesthetic.  As a result, steampunk has transcended its literary roots to become a cultural phenomenon that playfully and critically mashes up old and new, real and imaginary.

Contemporary steampunk literature developed in the 1980s, in part a reaction to “cyberpunk” science fiction tales that took an angry, edgy look at computer-generated realities.  Steampunk transplanted that attitude into the 19th-century when steam—not cyberware—powered cutting-edge technology.  In those days, locomotives and cotton gins were new innovations, and citizens dreamed of a near-future in which we’d all be criss-crossing the globe in airships that looked like giant Fabergé eggs while listening to music on wax cylinder players hand-cranked by robot butlers. 

Steampunk gave modern readers a fresh take on the cultural territory that once belonged solely to actual 19th-century science-fiction authors (Poe, Verne, Wells, et. al.).1  Writers started asking provocative questions:

What if steam had been used to power the enormous calculating machines envisioned by Victorian mathematicians, jump starting the computer revolution by 100 years and enabling Victorian-era nobility to have their own web pages and PowerPoint slideshows?2 

What if Frankenstein’s monster went to the center of the earth described by Jules Verne, or if Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson had a contraption that allowed them to visit the spirit world (and they fell in love along the way)?3

What if we were made by a God who really was the watchmaker envisioned by Deists, and our universe needed to be periodically re-wound to keep running?4 

What if child laborers staged a successful rebellion against robber baron technocrats?5

The writers who tackled these questions wanted to create stories that melded historical research with futuristic sci-fi gadgetry.  That weird blend of old and new fuels steampunk. 

Two classic novels show the genre’s range.  Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (1983), for example, emphasizes fantasy instead of technology.  The modern-day heroes use magic, rather than a time machine, to get back to the 1800s.  At the same time, however, the book has deep historical research behind it.  Powers discovered a very real, but unusual, factoid: several people in 1810 reported seeing Lord Byron around London, while the poet was actually in Greece.  The author turned this into a major plot point.  In The Anubis Gates, Byron is duplicated as a ka (a sort of magical Egyptian clone), and this double is sent to London as an assassin who must be stopped by the protagonist.  Thus, Powers’ story may present different reasons for historical events, but history itself remains unchanged. 

In contrast, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009) willfully alters the dates of the Civil War and the Yukon Gold Rush to imagine what would happen if mining equipment had released toxic gas that turned most of the population of 1860s Seattle into zombies.  If history isn’t held sacred in Priest’s work, the defining technological elements of the genre certainly are.  Her Seattle is littered with airships and giant machinery.  Citizens wear ornate goggles that make the toxic gas visible.  They carry battery-powered energy rifles with multisyllabic names straight out of Wild West medicine shows.  In Priest’s steampunk, history can be bent any which way as long as the iconography remains.

Priest in particular has promoted steampunk’s values of “salvage and customization” and its rebellion against contemporary techno-culture’s sleek design ethic and disposable mentality.  “Steampunk” has become one of the more popular search terms on eBay and Esty because of crafters who take everyday items (TVs, laptops, phones) and redesign them with neo-Victorian artistry.  Similarly, corners of the fashion world have been “steampunked,” giving us accessories such as leather top hats, brass goggles, and elegant corsets that are (I’m told) far more comfortable than their 19th-century counterparts. 

Steampunk’s mix-and-match aesthetic gives it an ability to both celebrate and critique early science fiction tropes, good or ill.  It revels in the high adventure and fantastic journeys, the mad scientists and monsters, and, most importantly, the cool, clickety-clanky technology.  It also wrestles with the not-so-pleasant elements of 19th-century western civilization, including empire carving, flagrant racism, and a huge gender-equity gap.

Steampunk frequently uses clockwork imagery and, on some level, encourages us to treat it like a brass pocket watch in the hands of a novice mechanic.  Take it apart.  Examine it closely.  Don’t worry.  You can fit it back together.  And if it doesn’t work perfectly, it will still look cool.  Maybe cooler than it was the first time.

1As H. Bruce Franklin has noted, most 19th-century authors dabbled in something they’d have called “science fiction” if the label had been around back then.  He includes Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce and many others (and that’s just the Americans).  To learn more about nineteenth-century SF, see Franklin’s Future Perfect anthology, Mike Ashley’s Steampunk Prime,  Jess Nevins’ wonderful introduction to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthology, or E.F. Bleiler’s monumental Science Fiction: The Early Years. And be sure to check out Roberto Delgadillo’s awesome Pinterest showcase made for this exhibition.

2See William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

3See Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley’s short story “Black as the Pit, From Pole to Pole” in Waldrop’s Custer’s Last Jump for the former, and Paul DiFillipo’s “Walt and Emily” from his Steampunk Trilogy for the latter. 

4See Jay Lake’s novel Mainspring.

5See Rachel E. Pollock’s short story “Reflected Light,” reprinted in the VanderMeer’s first Steampunk anthology.

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