Monday, June 15, 2009

Tophats and Hellfire. The Steampunk Mystique *Part 1*

KB: Steampunk is still one of those uncharted waters for me. I simply don't understand what Steampunk is. Rather than doing all the research myself, I sent out a call for someone who is knowledgeable about Steampunk or is writing a Steampunk novel, to explain this genre and why Steampunk appeals to them.

Adam Christopher, who is a New Zealand born SF author and goes by Ghostfinder on Twitter, answered my call and has graciously written a post that will be seperated into three parts:

Part 1: What is Steampunk?
Part 2: What's the appeal?
Part 3: The future of Steampunk.
I welcome all fans of Steampunk or those who are like me and interested in learning more, to stop by over the next two days as this is discussed in more detail...

Guest blogger Adam Christopher takes a swig of absinthe and dons his Aetheric Brass Writing Goggles to dive into the world of steampunk…

“So, what are you writing about?”

Cue the big grin, the far-away look, the deep breath that precedes five minutes of non-stop exposition. Hand-waving optional but recommended. Because you’ve just asked a writer their favourite question.

Well, most writers, anyway. For Those Guys it’s easy. “Oh yeah, Jack is a cop, and he’s about to retire when his young niece goes missing…”, or “Well, it’s about a princess called Mitzy who lives in magic castle…”. Those Guys, they have it so easy. Ten minutes later, your eager audience is delighted and expresses good luck and best wishes for the project. If they’re related to you in some way, most likely an elderly aunt that you don’t really know that well, then expect excited promises to buy the book when it comes out.

But then there’s us. We’re not anything special, we’re just average Joe writers working hard at our craft, just like Those Guys. Thing is, to answer the question “So, what are you writing about?”, we need more than five minutes and a wistful gaze.

“So, when Babbage designed his difference engine… you know Babbage? And the difference engine? Like a big clockwork computer. No, not 1972, 1822. No, I don’t know how it works either. Okay, so let’s skip that… so then Byron, riding a steam-powered brass horse, becomes Prime Minister… the poet, Byron? Yes, steam-powered. Like a robot. Star Wars? Erm, not quite. Steam-powered, yes. Okay, so going back a bit, you know the Industrial Revolution…?”

This goes on for some time. Eventually you’ve laid the foundation, explained the world, and you’re fairly sure Great Aunt Nelly has grasped the fact that Faraday is a time-travelling action hero, even if she doesn’t quite know that he was really a scientist who discovered electromagnetism in the mid-19th century. And then you get the seal of approval: “Well, good luck with the writing! I can’t wait to buy it in a bookstore!”. My advice at this point is to just smile and drink your tea. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t actually got to the story yet, the bit you’re actually writing. All you’ve done is given the requisite background. Get used it. As a writer of steampunk, incomprehension and potted histories of Victorian railway engineering go with the territory like gaslight and brass goggles.

What is steampunk?

I should preface this by saying I’m not an expert on steampunk. Steampunk is a vast, complex subcultural phenomenon that spans literature, fashion, and philosophy. And while I tend to go misty eyed over the thought of top-hatted Victorian explorers travelling to the moon in coal-fired brass rocket, or Sherlock Holmes packing a clockwork ray-gun as he battles the Giant Rat of Sumatra, I’m not particularly interested in wearing Edwardian frockcoats over brass breastplates decorated with clock gears. See, I really don’t know. Steampunk as a fashion statement and as a way of life is, I think, a related but somewhat distinct movement from steampunk as a science fiction/fantasy subgenre.

Steampunk itself can be broadly divided into two different sorts – ‘period’ steampunk, and ‘modern’ steampunk.

Period steampunk is set, usually, during the height of the Victorian era. Top hats and canes, gaslight and London fog, moustachioed adventurers unwrapping mummies in the British Museum. Every kind of Victorian pulp clich̩ and image, with added supertechnology. And by supertechnology, I mean technology which more or less resembles the correct period, but is floating way away into the realms of fantasy. Steam-powered robots, clockwork ray-guns, giant calculating machines that think for themselves. All related to the fundamentals of the late Industrial Revolution Рnamely steam power. Period steampunk is a vision of that period of technical achievement and invention vastly accelerated, advancing science and technology to fantastical reaches, allowing the Victorians to colonise Mars in rocket-powered diving bells, or the monarchy overthrown by a walking clockwork computer.

Modern steampunk, by contrast, is set in the present day or the future, and postulates that the steam tech of the 19th century never went away, that the developments with electricity and electronics characteristic of the early-to-mid 20th century never happened. Instead, we get a caricature of Victorian life in the present day – people still wear top hats and frock coats, gentlemen discuss matters of great import in their exclusive clubs, and cloaked detectives chase cut-throats through the gas-lit cobbled streets. But computers are clockwork, intercontinental travel is via supersonic steam-powered zeppelin, and a night at the movies is brought to you by Mebberson’s Magic Lantern, That Wondrous and Fully Patented All-Purpose Aetheric Transference Visiscope to Delight and Thrill All-Ages.

Both are alternative versions of our Earth. One is about a superadvanced Victorian age, exploring how the wonderfully inventive and eclectic society of the 19th century would use such fantastic technology. The other is about modern or future age which, despite disappearing down a steam-powered technological dead end, has flourished, using the ridiculous concepts of steam and coal for outrageous and decidedly modern achievements.

And here lies the difficulty in answering that question, “So, what are you writing?”. While steampunk is growing in popularity, it’s still a fairly specialised subgenre, and unlike mainstream fiction or even science fiction and fantasy, it relies heavily on context and historical knowledge. Sure, it’s pulpy, that’s part of the charm, but it’s also literate and intelligent to a degree that perhaps other genres aren’t. For example, in my own steampunk novel, Dark Heart (modern steampunk, I should add), you really need to know that in our universe, Prince Albert died in 1861, not Queen Victoria. Once you realise that he’s still around in 2009 while Queen Victoria succumbed to typhoid in his place 148 years ago, you can start to see how real history can be adapted, twisted, and rewritten to present a new, alternate reality of brass and leather and steam.


Part 2: Discussing the appeal of Steampunk coming...


KMont said...

This was such a great post and I'm looking forward to the rest of them. Steampunk is something I'm keenly interested in, yet like most I'm sure, was almost completely in the dark about. Thanks, Kate and Adam, for putting this up and opening the door. :)

I think the most interesting part is the need for historical accuracy even if it's a twisted about and reanimated history.I suppose that might be one element, if not the main one, that would enable some readers to connect with the story. It alos sounds like suspension of belief systems could be much more necessary in this one as well if, like you say, computers run on a more "clockwork" type system and shuttles are powered by coal.

Speaking of coal, and I hope I'm not jumping the ole shark here, but I heard another prevalent element is that everything seems dirty, from the buildings to even the people sometimes. Covered in sooty grime.

This is fun! Again, great post, you two.

Phil Tolhurst said...

I'm very aware of Steampunk and have experienced it from various angles, from Computer games, to graphic novels to books and films.

I thought this was a very well written introduction to the genre.

Maybe one day I'll venture into this realm in my writings.

Teddy Pig said...

The only "sure thing" recommendation I have in this genre is Neal Stephenson ~ The Diamond Age.

Mandi said...

Nice post!! I really didn't know what Steampunk was but now I really want to read one.

Hilcia said...

I've been researching this genre for a while (to read) and am loving this post. I have a list of books I want to read this year and already started. I love any film that that is steampunk(ish.

Can't wait for the rest of the posts on this subject. Thanks to you both! :)

meljean brook said...

Great post; I look forward to the next two.

For those still curious: I think one of the best ways to get an idea of the genre is to look at the artwork that comes out of it -- it's as varied as the genre itself, but there are elements that are similar: the "workings" of the machinery is visible, there's the grimy aspect as KMont mentioned (and I know is prevalent in my WIP) the fantastic with the historical.

A few months ago, the Society of Digital Artists had a contest where artists were challenged to present myths and legends in a steampunk way, and the entries were amazing -- and, offer quite a bit of visual storytelling with a single image.

I do agree that the fashion-steampunk and literary steampunk are two separate trends, and so just a search of "steampunk" might give the idea that the genre is about putting on Victorian clothing and punking it up, or adding wood and brass to an iPod. There is an aesthetic overlap in the two, but it feels superficial to me, personally. Other readers' mileage may vary.

Tracy said...

What a great post. I've only read 1 steampunk novel which was Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti and it was wonderful. I'm definitely interested in learning more about the genre. Thanks Adam and KB.

orannia said...

Thank you so much Adam and KB! (Fantastic idea KB!) I'm raising my hand and admitting I've heard of the genre but have yet to read a book that falls within its 'spheres of influence'. And after reading your post Adam I'm definitely going to be back to read the next two parts :)

BTW, not sure where you are at present, but just in case you're feeling nostalgic I'm in NZ and it's COLD!

C2 said...

Yay! I know nothing about Steampunk but I'm so intrigued by the idea of it.

*waiting to be educated more*


Alan said...

Great post - looking forward to the rest. Be sure to Tweet them!

Kate A said...

Great post! I've read only a couple steampunk before, but I find it can be hard to define. So I look forward to reading the next posts. I would recommend reading Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliosotti, which was one of my favourite reads from last year and Airborn by Kenneth Oppel which is a YA read, but still really good.

heidenkind said...

Yay for steampunk! I'm a fan of steampunk from a fashion and design standpoint, but I admit I've never read a steampunk novel. However, I do know Prince Albert died in 1861, so I pass the litmus test. ;)

adamchristopher said...

Hey everyone,

Wow, thanks for the kind comments, and I'm glad people enjoyed part 1!

A couple of people have brought up some things which I'd like to expand as I think I've been either too broad (or too narrow, depending on your point of view!) with my definitions of 'modern' and 'period' steampunk!

It's not quite as cut and dried as that, as you can have steampunk elements in a book which isn't steampunk, and likewise you can have a steampunk book that is nothing to do with Victorians and the Industrial Revolution.

For the first example, I'm currently reading Lamentation by Ken Scholes, which is a rather good classic high fantasy novel. Except it includes steam-powered robots called mechanoservitors, which are programmed by engraved metal scrolls.

Does this make Lamentation a steampunk novel? No, I'd certainly be happy calling it high fantasy. But it's a steampunk element - ie, a steam-powered, out-of-place piece of supertechnology.

The second example is something like Stephen Hunt's Jackelian series, starting with The Court of the Air and following with The Kingdom Beyond The Waves and most recently The Rise of the Iron Moon. The world of his novels is Victorian-esque, and mixes magic and steampunk (complete with airships!) very effectively, but it's not set in England, or even on the Earth, unless it is in parallel universe several times removed. Later books do hint at it being modern steampunk, but set in the far, far future after some calamity, but I don't want to give anything away!

Interestingly, Stephen's first novel, For the Crown and the Dragon, is actually a very good example of real period steampunk, where the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century are fought with wizardry and steam-powered supertechnology.

Also thanks for the recommendations for steampunk reading - keep them coming! I think Kate and I should compile a list of recommendations and put it online at the end of the article series. I'll also link Stephen Hunt's work properly!

Cheers all!


Hilcia said...

Adam, a list of recommendations would be wonderful and most appreciated.

It gets really confusing when purchasing books that are categorized as "steampunk" and they turn out to be "fantasy" or high fantasy.

That has been my admitedly, limited experience so far. :)

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

Adam: This post really cleared up a great deal for me. I love the Victorian era.

Michelle said...

What a wonderfully informative post. I've heard of steampunk in various conversations and wondered about it but never really followed through on finding more out. I'm quite intrigued by it on the whole and will have to look into trying to expand my reading to include Adam's novel.

Thank you.

Phil Tolhurst said...

If I am not mistaken Lyra's world in the His Dark Materials trilogy could be considered in the 'modern steampunk' genre.

Has anyone mentioned Jules Vern yet?

Phil Tolhurst said...

One other point. In the mid 90's Neil Gaimen wrote a comic book/graphic novel series called:

Mr Hero the Newmatic Man.

This features a steam punk main character in a 90's realish world setting.

Probably hard to find the comics now I have a few of them in the loft. But an interesting concept none the less.