Dark dirigibles glide over a Victorian skyline. Fog swirls along the dark cobbles where a man in a cravat and tall silk hat passes with a tap, tapping of his goosehead cane. Mighty Engines huff in a subterranean labyrinth, from which pipes spread outward and upward, pipes upon pipes. At the turn of a dial, the lamps rush into gas-jet life. High on a tower of skeletal girders, a girl named Sparks Mahoney clambers upward, hand over hand, checking her progress through the telescoping brass goggles on her headgear. On the platform above her, urging her to greater speed, waits Mixmore, the faithful robot assistant she assembled in her father’s workshop — a robot with fire at his core and nary a microchip, his metal limbs powered by steam, which escapes from his elbow- and knee-joints in hissing gusts. But time is of the essence, for below the tower, swarming through the city, are the ever-hungry servants of Baron Doom. . . .
It’s a fashion in clothing and jewelry; it’s a literary movement; it has spawned radio shows and rock bands; it seems to transcend boundaries of age, ethnicity, and geography. Above all, its practitioners feel it’s fun and quintessentially cool.
I’m talking, of course, about steampunk. A year ago, I don’t think I’d even heard the term. (If I had, it hadn’t registered yet on my consciousness.) Then for awhile I was hearing the word and didn’t really know what it meant. Then someone told me, “It’s The Golden Compass. There are dirigibles. There’s no electricity.” Oohh.
At this year’s World Fantasy Convention, there was a fascinating and very informative panel on the subject. One panelist even came dressed in steampunk clothing, which to me looks a lot like goth but without the spectre of death. As I learned more, something occurred to me: without realizing it, I’ve been writing a form of steampunk for years.
Take Dragonfly: we’ve got the balloon, powered by a gas that flows through hoses and ignites. We’ve got gas flames that light up Hain’s Tenebrificium — which also has a giant, whirling, walk-through kaleidoscope powered by the weight, on pressure plates, of the people walking through it. We’ve got pumphouses — again, their machinery driven by twisted automatons (of a sort) who push and pull on levers that turn the gears. Chains slide and rattle behind the walls. We’ve got (scientifically impossible) coaches designed to crawl up and down stairways, the wheel-rims equipped with stair-fitting teeth. And as luck would have it, the Harvest Moon denizens dress, for the most part, like Victorians.
Power provided by pushing and pulling. . . . Doesn’t that sound like a more recent story of mine? The Thunder Rake in “The Star Shard,” with its Pushpull Chamber?
And how about The Fires of the Deep? Loft works for an organization called Watchworks (which name is nothing if not pure steampunk!), where a giant pendulum marks the passage of time. And the subterranean skies of Loft’s world team with airships, their furnaces burning solid krale to fill the balloons — krale, dug with leather-bladed scoops wherever the fuellists can find it — leather-bladed, to avoid cutting into a squirming meeval which could, if panicked or injured, strike a spark with its posterior pincers and blow the whole operation sky-high.
And the aspect of mechanical but non-electric things: the wind-up weapons of Loft’s world — the crickets and nailers — and his own weapon of proficiency, the shikanth, a separating handle, a cable, and a blade.
I could go on, but I think the point is made-and-then-some. But anyway, steampunk.
The panel at WFC was moderated by Deborah Biancotti; the other panelists were Liz Gorinsky from Tor, who edits a lot of steampunk; Ann VanderMeer, who with her husband Jeff has edited a voluminous anthology of steampunk stories; and writers Michael Swanwick and Nisi Shawl. So, here are some things they said:
They made the point that steampunk takes us back to an age when machines were understandable. In many ways, we’re afraid of the world today, a world that is increasingly incomprehensible to the average person. Steampunk is born of the desire to make something ourselves, to manipulate physical objects — to go back to brass screws and twine and lengths of pipe. The movement is all about making things.
Interestingly, one of the panelists found that people who have come into steampunk from the fashion end are often not aware that it’s a literary movement, and vice-versa! But the fashion folks design their clothing and accessories, and the literary folks read and write stories about characters who put things together.
It offers us a world put together partly from the old, partly from the new.
Panelist Shawl talked about how the fashion world of steampunk is very multiracial, but the literary world of steampunk, not so much; she theorized that steampunk “is a reaction against writers of color in the genre,” and, as such, is a trend to watch with caution. (Cyberpunk, she said, is largely a reaction against feminism.) But she added that there is a book by S. Barnes called Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart, which is steampunk featuring characters of color. So far, the published writers of steampunk are mostly of a white/European background, but the fandom is much more distributed. Shawl made the point that people who were limited and disadvantaged by the Victorian era are now enjoying, through steampunk, an imaginary Victoriana without the baggage of the real thing. In fiction, we can use the best parts of an era. (John Fultz and I talked about this after the “dirty Middle Ages” panel — in our medieval fantasy, we want to keep things realistic, but we don’t really want to go on for pages and pages about lice and offal in the drinking water.) So anyway, with steampunk, you can have the fashions and the atmosphere, the clockwork and the gas lights of Victoriana without the prejudices and repressions.
The panel said that steampunk is much like the Society of (for?) Creative Anachronism (SCA) in that it tries to recreate an era as it should have been, not as it actually turned out.
Steampunk is still in its infancy.
The panel was divided over whether it’s a young person’s thing or an old person’s thing — it’s very likely both.
Someone said The Anubis Gates was more or less “the birth of steampunk.” (That’s Tim Powers, right? Or will I be coming back to correct this? I’m pretty sure that book was written by Powers . . . who said hi to me at the con, probably thinking I was someone else.) So it’s a very new genre. I’m sketchy on the details of this (maybe someone who knows can help me out here), but apparently in the mid-to-late eighties, there was a letter written to LOCUS that coined the term “steampunk.”
Michael Swanwick made the point that “punk” usually means a reaction against something. The Hippies, he said, were anti-technology, and were in favor of getting back to the magical land, the mystical Earth. Steampunk, then, may be seen as a reaction against that. It brings back the technology, but it’s “technology made good, done right.” Wholesome technology.
Steampunk is usually hopeful, fun, and optimistic, but it can have a dark side. At its beginnings in the eighties, it was almost entirely done in novels. Now we’re seeing steampunk in short fiction, too.
A great many writers of steampunk are computer people. Ann VanderMeer brought this up — she’s a computer person herself, who installs systems, etc. Back in the seventies, she said, computers themselves were much more physical. If you dealt with them at all, you dealt with code. You ran punch cards through slots. Today, computer use is much farther removed from the codes. Steampunk lets computer people get back to the hands-on, physical machines. (So it awakens nostalgia in computer geeks. [My words, not hers.])
“Punk” today has mostly a positive meaning — it conveys “edgy and stylish.” But the original punk was a reaction against style, against forms — the first punks were just having fun (with music, for example) — just seeing what would happen. Steampunk recaptures that sense of unfettered adventure, unlimited possibility. [For awhile, Ann played in an all-girls’ band called “The Guise.” Isn’t that a great name for an all-girls’ band?]
Liz Gorinsky said that, for the first time in a long time, we’re seeing huge masses of enthusiasm for something in speculative fiction. Many people who don’t necessarily read fantasy are going from the steampunk fashion world to discovering the literature.
The modern increased concern for the environment is reflected in steampunk: reduce, reuse, recycle. Make your own clothes. Put things together from parts you find lying around. Take things that you love — features of Edwardian clothing, architecture, etc. — and make it your own. There are dark fears in our present society: we’re running out of materials. Steampunk is, in part, an expression of our need to develop physical skills for survival in a dark time; perhaps we’ll have to make our own furniture, our own clothes, our own tools and basic machines.
Swanwick noted that there is great potential in steampunk — but to maintain the genre, we need to keep the deep, political underpinnings of the best steampunk writing. The real enemies of the movement are books that only scratch the surface: they take the trappings of it but have no substance; those are the works that will make it seem like a flash in the pan. Since it’s so early, we may still be waiting for the Great Steampunk Novel that will absolutely define the trend.
You can find this last part on the Weird Tales website, but it’s so good, I’ll try to summarize it here. This is by the Weird Tales editorial director Stephen H. Segal, from his article “Five Thoughts on the Popularity of Steampunk.” (And by the way, the site also has a very pithy definition of steampunk: “science-fictiony stuff built on Victorian-era technology and aesthetics” — now, isn’t that simple and to the point?)
Anyway, Segal says:
1. Steampunk is geekery that the genders can share. It’s “a way to masculinize romance. That is to say: Steampunk takes something stereotypically feminine that most boys hate — Victorian lace and frills and tea and crumpets — and says, ‘Hey, how about some robots with that?'”
2. It’s an aesthetic response to the science fiction in the culture. The point here is that the eighties and nineties (Star Trek: TNG) gave us science fiction that was clean, smooth, glossy, happy, and user-friendly — but not, according to steampunkians, exciting. It was predictable. Steampunk interjects grittiness, unpredictability, and spectacle. [Go and read how Segal says this — he says it a lot better and more funnily.]
3. Steampunk is like being goth without scaring your parents. Adults fear that goths take vampires too seriously and may want to make someone bleed. “Steampunks are — what? Weirdoes who take pocket-watches too seriously? What are they gonna do, vehemently tell you what time it is?”
4. It bridges the subgenre gap. More and more, writers and artists, filmmakers and musicians are mixing in elements of other types of fantasy, horror, and superheroics. “Steampunk is helping to bring us back to the days when the subgenre categories didn’t matter so much and it was all just a big lurching conceptual mass of ‘weird fiction.'” So now we’re seeing steampunk fairies, steampunk vampires, even steampunk Cthulhu. [Hee, hee — doesn’t that sound like fun? “The Shadow of a Dirigible Over Innsmouth” . . . “The Call of Cthulhu Through the Speaking Tube”. . . .]
5. Steampunk says: “The future: UR doin’ it wrong.” The future we were promised in earlier science fiction isn’t here and isn’t coming. “We were expecting Star Trek and we got Blade Runner: all the quirky little bits of science fiction have come true, but we lost the big dream.” Our scientific solutions have often not only failed to solve problems, but have ended up creating bigger, scarier ones. Steampunk lets us go back and try again.
I’ll close with this quote from Stephen H. Segal:
“Whether you’re reading and identifying with Girl Genius or making yourself a pair of functioning telescopic brass goggles, the fact is that when you have to get your hands or brain dirty puzzling out how stuff works, you can’t be blase about technological miracles — you’re forced to realize what miracles we’ve actually wrought. And once you’ve got that sense of appreciation, once you’re not taking all our modern-day scientific accomplishments for granted because you finally understand deep down that people had to sweat them out, experiment by experiment — it seems to me you can’t help but approach the world around us, here, today, with fresher eyes and a more adventuresome spirit. / I think that’s where a lot of the young people jumping on the steampunk bandwagon right now are coming from. It’s not just cool because it’s trendy — it’s cool because it’s inspirational. You know . . . like science fiction at its best always has been.”