‘Steampunk’—have you heard the word mentioned around? According to Google Trends, a search engine that tracks how often a term gets used on the net, there’s been an exponential rise in the usage of ‘steampunk’ since 2007. Anyone who doesn’t know the meaning will become a social outcast soon! So here’s my definition …
Steampunk fiction is fiction that’s in love with old-fashioned gadgets and machinery. All those fiddly little bits of brass and glass and shiny metal! Picture the cogs inside a clockwork clock, or the wires and valves inside a pre-transistor radio—sheer poetry! Someone has said that steampunk is ‘the intersection of technology and romance’ (Steampunk artist Jake von Slatt probably said it first). Yes! it’s when you stop thinking of machinery in terms of its function and start thinking about its look and aesthetic quality. An intricate, perverse, often ugly sort of beauty—but a beauty nonetheless!
Contemporary machines lack steampunk appeal because the inner parts are all boxed away, and the outer casings are bland and homogenized. Harking back to past technology is a harking back to machines that look like machines, with the real feel and mystery of all their working parts.
It’s like Ironbridge and all those early industrial sites in Britain that were once shunned and are now popular tourist destinations. Real honest-to-goodness industrial ugliness has its own special fascination.
The ‘steam’ in ‘steampunk’ points to steam-age machinery, though any pre-WW I, maybe pre WWII, technology can have steampunk appeal. In steampunk fiction, the appeal is heightened by divorcing it from the real technology of the past and making it even more romantic, even more fabulous. Steampunk fiction creates the machinery that might have been, past possible inventions that never quite made it into reality. Often bigger (as the Worldshaker juggernauts are bigger), usually more intricate, and always more eccentric, more oddball.
Here's the video version - me talking about steampunk (recorded at Bialik College)
GOES WITH …VICTORIANA
My shorthand description for Worldshaker is ‘steampunk/Victoriana’—and the two categories mingle very naturally. When I say ‘Victorian’, I really mean ‘Dickensian’—the imagination rather than the reality of the 19th century.
What Charles Dickens discovered was a way to take the dark, brooding atmospheres of gothic fiction—Mary Shelley and Mrs Radcliffe, castles and ruins, tunnels and prisons, storms and mists and craggy rocks—and recreate them in a contemporary urban setting. (I used to be a lecturer in English Literature, so I know this stuff!) Especially 19th century London: the poetry of the docklands, dark mills, cul-de-sacs, blank windows and stone walls, gaunt derelict shapes, dirt and grime and fog. It may look like a long step from isolated wastelands to teeming, chaotic urban life—but Dickens managed to evoke a similar uncanny feeling from the anonymity of the city.
A fascination with past technology goes hand in glove with this kind of setting. Invented mechanical wonders are the hand, and Dickensian atmospheres are the glove that fits around them! Often grotesque, eccentric, larger-than-life Dickensian characters too. The characters in Worldshaker descend from Mervyn Peake descending from Dickens.
GOES WITH … ALTERNATIVE HISTORY
How does a fictional steampunk/Victoriana world relate to our own real world? At the historical extreme, steampunk fiction may be a ‘secret history’ where remarkable events happen that our official history never found out about. At the imaginary extreme, steampunk fiction may belong in an out-and-out otherworld, like China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. Other possibilities are the retrospective future, as in Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, or the multiple-realities scenario that Philip Pullman uses to justify Lyra’s world in The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights).
Probably the most common and natural connection uses the alternative history rationale. That is, the world of the novel used to be the same as our own real world until, at some point in the past, history took a different turn. The Spanish Armada conquered Elizabethan England, the South won the Civil War, Hitler and Japan defeated the Allies in WW II. On this rationale, the world of the novel can still adopt many features from the not-so-distant history of our own real world, whilst also incorporating features that never actually existed.
Alternative history doesn’t have to be steampunky. Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in High Castle isn’t, and nor are most of the novels of Harry Turtledove. However, alternative history is perfect for generating the similar-but-different worlds that steampunk/Victoriana fiction needs.