What Is ‘Steampunk’?



Welcome to the first of an occasional series, exploring Science Fiction’s various ‘Punk’ sub-genres!

NOTE: Many readers object to pigeonholing literature, and reject such labels as ‘Steampunk’ and ‘Dieselpunk’ as pointless and ridiculous. I have no problem with applying labels to fiction, as long as those labels are not taken too seriously.

In 1984, Neuromancer by William Gibson was published, and this inspired the literary genre that came to be known as ‘Cyberpunk’, the precursor to ‘Steampunk’. In many ways, Gibson’s fictional creation predicted the society we live in today, particularly the rise of the Internet, and he was responsible for coining the term ‘Cyberspace’. One of his later novels, The Difference Engine (co-written with Bruce Sterling), was a literary experiment that helped to popularize Steampunk, and led to the Sargasso of sub-genres that floats across today’s ocean of literature, a tangled mesh of concepts such as Dieselpunk, Cowpunk, Seapunk, Biopunk, Clockpunk and many others.

How was Cyberpunk  connected to the creation of Steampunk? Cyberpunk is a Dystopian genre of literature that combines SF with film noir. It blends high technology with grinding poverty and a chaotic view of human nature, where most of the population is zonked out on the new techno-drug of Virtual Reality. Most of the Cyberpunk look has been attributed to the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner – which actually came out two years before Neuromancer, but has become firmly associated with Cyberpunk in the cultural consciousness. In this genre, governments are useless and mainly ignored, and the world is run by giant multinational corporations that are generally depicted as evil. In the Cyberpunk world, these vast conglomerates are trying to monopolize or suppress new technology; the protagonists are aggressive, lonely anti-heroes surviving on the outer fringes of society, trying to bring down the evil Big Business while on the run from its legions of amoral hired bounty killers.

Interestingly enough, Gibson modeled his fictional corporations on the giant zaibatsu groups of post-war Japan. This was the age of the Japanese bubble economy, when sharp-suited, inscrutable salarymen were buying up huge chunks of California and the Gold Coast. This was the age of Ridley Scott’s Black Rain and Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun. Now, after twenty years of recession has left Japan as the Sick Man of Asia, that looks pretty ironic. Also, Gibson set the first part of Neuromancer in the ‘high-tech wilderness’ of Chiba, which most Japanese people (and anyone who’s been to Japan) find extremely odd. Chiba is a seedy, dull, terminally un-cool prefecture on the west side of the capital, which most Tokyo residents refer to as ‘the boondocks’. It’s like opening your techno-thriller in Wisconsin, or having James Bond hunt super-villains in Milton Keynes.

But still …      

 Neuromancer has gone on to inspire a whole culture. The Matrix. Johnny Mnemonic. Freejack. The Lawnmower Man. K. W. Jeter. Richard Kadrey. Jack Womack. Max Headroom. Akira. The Ghost in the Shell. Pat Cadigan. Richard K. Morgan. Most people, even if they don’t know these names, have heard of the term ‘Cyberpunk’, and as for Cyberspace and the Internet – I rest my case.

The term “Steampunk” was coined by author K. W. Jeter to describe the speculative fiction stories in a Victorian setting that he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock were writing in the early 1980s in contrast to the cyberpunk stories like Neuromancer that were saturating media. The Difference Engine came about when Gibson and Sterling collaborated on the short story “The Angel of Goliad” in 1990, which they soon expanded into the novel-length alternate history novel.

TDE posits a Victorian Britain ca. 1855 in which a great wave of technological and social change has occurred after entrepreneurial inventor Charles Babbage succeeded in his ambition to build a mechanical computer (actually his Analytical Engine rather than the titular Difference Engine). Among the many various changes that arise as a result of this innovation are an even more powerful British Empire, a Divided States of America, an early Communist Revolution in Manhattan led by Karl Marx himself, steam-powered gurneys (this timeline’s equivalent of cars), and the premature invention of “camphorated cellulose” (aka celluloid – the first thermoplastic).

The story follows Sybil Gerard, a political courtesan and daughter of an executed Luddite leader (she is borrowed from Benjamin Disraeli‘s novel Sybil); Edward “Leviathan” Mallory, a paleontologist and explorer who comes into a lot of money thanks to a good bet on an advanced steam gurney model; and Laurence Oliphant, a historical figure with a real career, as portrayed in the book, as a travel writer whose work was a cover for espionage activities “undertaken in the service of Her Majesty”. Linking all their stories is the trail of a mysterious set of reportedly very powerful camphorated cellulose computer punch cards and the individuals fighting to obtain them; as is the case with special objects in several novels by Gibson, the punch cards are to some extent a MacGuffin.

I’ve posted a review of the book on Amazon and Goodreads, and just to repeat some of my observations … Visually, the story is remarkable, and really conveys a tangible sense of the alternative London of 1855. The sense that this is London in 1855 is very strong visually. Gibson and Sterling’s respect for their readers shines through at nearly every moment, and the characters show us what’s happening through their actions, not by telling us. Gibson and Sterling understand that Victorians dealt with internal emotions in a different way to our generation aso they find more interesting ways to show characters expressing flashes of grief that have an emotional impact without being emotionally exhausting or overwrought or off-putting.

As well as the main protagonists, alternative-history versions of Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Benjamin Disraeli, and the poets Keats and Shelley make appearances. The novel certainly doesn’t drag, because of the fascinating details that leap out from every page. The Great Stink and the Swing Riots were real historical events, although they are considerably altered here. The plot is most certainly coherent, and reliant on plot twists, so … no spoilers. A number of Amazon reviewers have complained about the meaning of the punch cards; well, traditionally the purpose of a MacGuffin is to move the plot, and Gibson has always included at least one in his novels, so there’s no grounds for complaint there.

The Difference Engine does have a couple of weaknesses that offset its major strengths, but the general impression I got from TDE is that with the benefit of hindsight, this was a turning-point in Science Fiction literature. It’s an interesting thought that Gibson and Sterling didn’t return to the Steampunk genre after this; maybe they felt that they had made their point.

Further examinations of Steampunk … coming soon!





About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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