Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk. Although he grew up in both the United States and Canada he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Romulus Buckle and the Engines of War is the second installment in his new steampunk series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. Richard has also written for film and television. He currently resides in California. You can find him online at his website Richardellisprestonjr.com and on Twitter as @RichardEPreston.

What is Steampunk?

by Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.

What is Steampunk?

Lately, steampunk is experiencing a boost in the public eye. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker novel is heading to the big screen, Parisian fashion has grabbed hold of steampunk’s retro-exotic look, the movie Sucker Punch reveled in the aesthetic and a murder in the steampunk subculture briefly perplexed the writer/detective team in the tv series Castle. But while most people do recognize steampunk’s highly visual elements they still don’t realize that it belongs to a literary subgenre of its own. And this subgenre has spawned sub-subgenres, such as dieselpunk, alchemypunk, clockpunk and so on. Steampunk wears a coat of many colors in a nebulous universe and as such tends to defy specific definition. I like to think of it as the “brave, new, dystopian old world.” My own steampunk definition follows as: “a subgenre of science fiction which tends to involve stories set in Victorian/Edwardian England or its empire where steam power and fantastic machines have become the norm.”

This time period can easily be (and often is) extended to embrace a wider swath of history than the Victorian period (1840-1900), often encompassing the late 18th century and the span of the Great War. (My steampunk series, for example, is set hundreds of years into the future, though the flavor is definitely a mix of late 18th century/Victorian). Steampunk, incorporating historical fiction and science fiction into its storylines, tends to be militaristic and dark. But doesn’t have to be, and often it isn’t.

So, if we have to put the cat in the bag, what is steampunk, really? Looking to the experts, I like Jeff VanderMeer’s fun steampunk ‘equation’ which he includes in The Steampunk Bible:

“STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [(steam x airship or metal man/baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot.”

VanderMeer feels that the equation “… does sum up the allure of steampunk,” which is “…simultaneously retro and forward looking in nature … evokes a sense of adventure and discovery …(and) … embraces divergent and extinct technologies as a way of talking about the future.” Bruce Sterling, who co-authored the first-generation steampunk novel The Difference Engine with William Gibson, plumbs a darker vein in his User’s Guide to Steampunk: “Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times … we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech.”

Kaleidoscopic by nature, Steampunk literature is an evolutionarily successful genetic milkshake containing, but not limited to, all of the aspects highlighted above. It carries the baggage of its chosen history-stage with it: the Victorian era is now often viewed with disapproving-glasses due to its racism (Kipling and the “white man’s burden”) and the brutalities of colonialism and empire. But there is no denying the great energies, miseries, triumphs and contradictions which fueled this impressive period of human history, a period which birthed the industrial revolution and was midwife to much of the cultural domination and border demarcations of the current world. As a result, this era provides an immense range of conflicts for the author and the reader to journey into: exploration vs. colonialism; the old-style hero vs. the fallible everyman; industrialization (the clock tower) vs. subsistence agriculture (the cycles of the sun and moon); idealized romantic love vs. debauchery; female suffrage vs. sexual repression; extreme wealth vs. extreme poverty; Darwin vs. the creationists; man vs. machine, and on and on.

The historic spine of steampunk also carries with it a unique Victorian optimism, an optimism encouraged by the era’s rapid advances in technology, science and medicine. Many Victorians hoped that mankind might be on the verge of a new, utopian age, a hope that was obliterated in the slaughterhouse of the First World War. The result was the great disillusionment, a negative energy which still colors the way we all look at ourselves and the world today.

In the end, all of these factors contribute to what steampunk is and what it means. Steampunk exults in dystopian adventure, in zeppelin air battles and sentient, steam-powered machines, but it is also driven along by the Victorian torch of hope, expectation and their belief in the ultimate triumph of human potential. This torch is fallen and battered, near extinguished, but it still flickers in the shadows of our terrible failures along the way.

Great Steampunk primers:

  • The Steampunk Handbook by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfield

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