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Steampunk: An Overview
Posted August 26, 2009 to photo album "Steampunk: An Overview"
In anticipation of the release of Shane Acker’s steampunk-influenced animation 9, Jeff Vandermeer presents a primer on the fantasy subgenre.
Slide 4: The Rise of Modern Steampunk
The Godfather of modern Steampunk is clearly Michael Moorcock, whose Nomads of the Airseries (1971-1981) features amazing battles between opposing fleets of airships, along with complex political and military intrigue. The novels were, Moorcock says, “intended as an intervention, if you like, into certain Edwardian views of Empire...They were intended to show that there was no such thing as a benign empire and that even if it seemed benign it wasn't. The stories were as much addressed to an emergent American empire as to the declining British.” In a political sense, then, Moorcock’s novels supported Verne’s cautionary posture toward the role of technology in the world.
But it wasn’t until 1987 that K.W. Jeter coined the term “Steampunk” to describe his new novel Infernal Devices. In the pages of Locus Magazine (#315, April 1987), Jeter rather blithely wrote, “I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term...like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps.” Jeter, along with fellow writers Tim Powers (Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (the novella “Lord Kelvin’s Machine”), spearheaded the Steampunk literary movement, despite being largely forgotten by the Steampunk community today.
Blaylock and Jeter in particular are to Steampunk what John Fitch was to the Steamboat. Fitch created a working steamboat, but Robert Fulton made the steamboat commercially successful. In the case of Steampunk, the iconic cyberpunks Bruce Sterling and William Gibson together play the role of Fulton. Their The Difference Engine (1990) is most often cited as the seminal Steampunk novel.
The Difference Engine could be seen as “historical cyberpunk,” another term for Steampunk. Set primarily in 1855, The Difference Engine posits an alternate reality in which Charles Babbage successfully built a mechanical computer, thus ushering in the Information Age at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. Juxtaposing Lord Byron, airships, and commentary on the unsavory aspects of the Victorian era, the novel’s many Steampunk pleasures include a vast and somewhat clunky mechanical AI housed in a fake Egyptian pyramid. Sterling and Gibson, like Moorcock, also comment on the negative role of new technology in propping up regimes, with a powerful British Empire facilitating the fragmentation of the United States into several less powerful countries, such as the Republic of California and the Republic of Texas. However, The Difference Engine, by positing a premature information revolution, also focuses on repression through invasion of privacy caused by an all-seeing mechanical "Eye."
But regardless of whether a particular Steampunk fiction addressed political or social concerns addressed, a focus on perceived “Victorian” technology would remain a constant.