It turns out that I’ve been a fan of Steampunk for years, I just didn’t know it. First there were the offbeat tv shows and movies I liked – Briscoe County Jr.; Dr. Who; Wild, Wild West; The Rocketeer; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Sanctuary; and so many more. Add to that an amazing array of fiction, everything from Harry Turtledove’s alternate histories to Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, from Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog to Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate novels.
But until recently, I had no idea that what I thought were disparate works could be grouped under a single rubric: Steampunk. And I had no idea how huge, how vibrant, and how intriguing the world of steampunk really is.
First, a definition. Steampunk is “Victorian science fiction,” as GD Falksen summarized it in an article for Tor.com. It draws inspiration from the original Victorian-era science fiction authors, especially Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but puts a decidedly modernist twist on the Victorian period. For instance, imagine a world in which Queen Victoria occupies the throne of England and the United States has survived its Civil War – and in England, vampires freely walk the streets, while in America they are hunted down by religious extremists. That’s just one key element of the premise of Gail Carriger’s novels. Add a dash of comedy of manners, an improbable love story between a werewolf and a proper British lady, and a tangle of political machinations, and you’ve captured some of what makes Ms. Carriger’s work so fascinating.
Steampunk has been recognized as a literary genre since the late 1980s. Some of the best descriptions I’ve found of the origins and intent of steampunk are by GD Falksen, at Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century website, and at The Gatehouse. The purpose of steampunk is multi-fold, making it incredibly diverse. As VanderMeer says, steampunk is first “both retro- and forward-looking in nature. Second, it evokes a sense of adventure and of discovery. Third, it embraces divergent and extinct technologies as a way of talking about the future.” Small wonder that the books and stories that can be termed steampunk is so diverse!
But the scope of steampunk also has allowed it to expand far beyond literature. I’m especially delighted by steampunk fashions, costumes, and décor. Many of the designs are whimsical, and all of them are wonderfully original. And underlying many of them are serious philosophical considerations about craft, individuality, artisanship, the aesthetics of the handmade, and using technology to improve rather than degrade our world. Some of the best websites I found for learning about steampunk design are the Steampunk Workshop, Clockwork Couture, and Steampunk Empire. Steampunk Scholar takes an especially interesting look at steampunk aesthetics within today’s cultural milieu. I particularly enjoyed the Steam Wars work – a fun and thought-provoking take on Star Wars with a steampunk twist!
Finally, nearest and dearest to my own interests, Voyages Extraordinaires, takes a comprehensive look at Victorian and Edwardian era “scientific romances” and a slew of related literature, such as Retro-Futurism, Neo-Victorianism, and Pulp Fiction. A lot of the steampunk I’ve found so far seems to be a lot more about the social and technological potentials of a reimagined Victorian era. But what about the romance?!? Because one thing is certain, wherever people gather, and for whatever purpose, sooner or later someone will catch another’s eye, someone will come to treasure the curve of another’s smile, sparks will fly, and love will be in the air. Happily, I’ve discovered that Voyages Extraordinaries is the place to go for in-depth discussions of romances that either fit within – or could inspire new – steampunk literature.
A similar website is Edwardian Promenade, which focuses more on the Edwardian period (1900-1915) than the Victorian, but draws inspiration from both. Blogger Evangeline Holland, a romance writer herself, has posted a wealth of information about Edwardian history, customs, and social mores. This is a site to get lost in for hours!