Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

Thoughts on Steampunk


Prompted by a discussion elsewhere, citing The Difference Engine as the start of the steampunk subgenre, I thought I should post my responses here:

– While Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine is a key steampunk influence, earlier books by James Blaylock, KW Jetter’s Infernal Devices and Morlock Night, and Tim Power’s The Anubis Gates (all excellent by the way) would be better described as the seeds around which steampunk formed.
– It is not insignificant that The Difference Engine was written by two of Cyberpunk’s greatest writers.
– The nearly complete absence of discussion of the great unwashed proletariat necessary to keep a steampunk world operating – more accurate renditions of what a realistic victorian/edwardian world would be like can be found on recent TV shows such as Ripper STreet and Peaky Blinders – just shows its failure to engage with reality. Early works like Morlock Night didn’t do this.
– That Steampunk continues as a discernible movement while cyberpunk does not speaks volumes for the fact that the latter was a better description/prediction of the world, and that steampunk is a in large part a nostalgic failure to engage with reality. The cyberpunks became the world, the steampunks take holidays from it.
I won’t say I don’t enjoy Steampunk at times – after all, who can fail to like cog-laden ray guns and stainless steel boned corsets – but I feel it is usually an entertainment with an emptiness where its heart should be.

Author: davecl

Astronomy, science, science fiction

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Steampunk

  1. Steampunk is way older than that! I read ‘The Chronicles of Luther Arkwright’ in the 80s, and Michael Morcock’s “Nomad of the Timestreams” trilogy, and short stories like ‘The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius’ date from the 70’s (I think a lot of his Jerry Cornelius stuff passes the bar too, but I’m not totally sure of that).

    People often say that things like “Warlord of the air” is proto-steampunk, but I don’t see that. It has airships, a world where the sun never set on the empire, major historical figures playing cameos, where’s the ‘proto’? Some people claim that steampunk has the same class aesthetics as cyberpunk, but I can’t say I’ve had that impression from much of the steampunk I’ve read. On this basis, I can’t see any reason to rule out these works from being steampunk.

    It’s the same thing as people claiming that ‘science fiction’ started with Hugo Gernsback, thus claiming that Verne, Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and most of all Mary Shelly are ‘not science fiction’. Gernback may have coined the name, but a rose is still a rose before you name it such.

    I think there’s normally some political motive behind such claims. People have some line of argument that won’t work if SF or steampunk didn’t start in the ‘right’ place and time, so they just declare that it did, and carry on.

  2. Morlock Night was published in 1979, while The Annubis Gates was 1983, which mean they predate or are contemporary with Luther Arkwright. I’ll agree that LW is a key steampunk influence, and that it draws a lot from Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series.

    I’m not so sure that Warlord of the Air was intended to be more than a homage to some of Verne’s pieces. I’ll agree it’s proto, but is it actual steampunk?

    I bought Frankenstein as SF when I read Trillion Year Spree, but then I’ve also seen a case made for the Epic of Gilgamesh being SF 🙂

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