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February, 2005 : Sub-Genre Spotlight:

Steampunk

"I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing," K.W. Jeter wrote to Locus Magazine in 1987, "as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term...Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like 'steampunks,' perhaps." Initially a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for the kind of "gonzo-historical" narratives written by the "Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate," Steampunk gradually became a recognizable term, now used in the media to describe, for example, Disney's recent (2002) movie Treasure Planet. It has also moved away from its initial American core to become an unlabeled but commercially successful literary form in the UK, where much of it is written for the Young Adult (YA) market.

Initially, the term was needed to describe works published by three California-based authors and friends: the aforementioned Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter. These were works of complex fantasy, set in a never-been Victorian London inspired by the popular fiction of that period, and featuring a host of bizarre inventions and people. "In each of these romances," Peter Nicholls notes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "a Dickensian London itself is a major character." It moved into the realm of Cyberpunk with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's collaboration, The Difference Engine, and into weirder climates, combining pastiche with far-out wierdness, in Paul Di Filippo's The Steampunk Trilogy. Since then, young British writers such as China Miéville, Chris Wooding and Ian R. Macleod have all written "Victorian Fantasies," and these have a uniform feel in their packaging as publishers hurried to visually identify books as Steampunk without actually having to use the word: artist Les Edwards' alter-ego Edward Miller has been commissioned to illustrate many of these books, and his work as Miller has a distinctive feel of Victorian romance.

The underlying theme of all fiction within the Steampunk sphere resorts to that moment whereby technology transcends understanding and becomes, for all intents and purposes, magical. It could be further argued that Victorian London represents the moment in history where that transformation happens. Not only is there an explosion of scientific and technical study, but for the first time the products of that Industrial Revolution become commodities, mass produced and thus escaping from the domain of the solitary inventor and into the public domain. This suggests why so many of the characters in Steampunk novels correspond to the "solitary scientist" archetype: Dr. Ignacio Narbondo in Blaylock's Homunculus and Lord Kelvin's Machine; Cosmo Cowperthwait in Paul Di Filippo's Victoria; Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in Miéville's Perdido Street Station. The hero of late 19th-century London is on the cusp between the Renaissance Man and the Corporation—a transformation best exemplified by Thomas Alva Edison and his Menlo Park laboratories. These figures share more than a silly name, for they are—to begin with at least—in control, the modern magicians who can operate the spells of machinery.

Yet what Steampunk narratives repeat again and again is the inevitability of the loss of control, as technology evolves beyond the confines of one person, assuming a mythical force that, echoing the school of Technological Darwinism, shapes and controls narrative causality. Narbondo must be thwarted from his plans of world domination; Cowperthwait, in trying to build the first atomic-powered train engine, kills both his parents ("When they managed to regain their feet, they saw the remnants of a mushroom-shaped cloud towering high up into the sky") and Grimnebulin, by attempting nothing less than the ancient hubris of teaching a man to fly, unleashes a Lovecraftian horror upon the city of Bas-Lag (a city which, for all intents and purposes, can be safely read as a metamorphosed London). It is not perhaps surprising to learn that Charles Babbage, the eccentric, mainly-forgotten inventor of the Difference and the Analytical Engines (the latter a forerunner of the modern computers), has become something of an icon to the genre.

On the one hand, technology in Steampunk has become magical; on the other, what magic there is has become highly scientific, so that reader expectations for genre stability are confounded. This could be traced, to some extent, to J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, in which "the principles of magic" are classified in a taxonomy of magical laws. "If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves [and that, for example] an effect resembles its cause." Thus, Thaumaturgy operates as a distinct science on Bas-Lag (Perdido Street Station and The Scar) while practitioners of magic in Powers' The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides must not touch the bare ground, dirt acting, literally, as an earthing device for magic. But the true strength of Steampunk is the way in which the two coexist: where technology becomes magical, magic becomes rigorously scientific. The resulting tension is at the core of Steampunk.

Steampunk has not remained in the realm of books. Role-Playing Games (RPGs) have borrowed heavily from both the more magic-oriented worlds of early Steampunk and the steam-driven computer age of The Difference Engine: these include Space: 1889, Castle Falkenstein, and GURPS Steampunk, among others. The transition to comic books is notable in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and more than one Japanese manga or anime have used Steampunk backgrounds, as in Steam City and elsewhere. It is also worth noting that Steampunk is popular in France: some of the authors writing Steampunk adventures in the French language include David Calvo, Fabrice Colin, Francis Valéry and Johan Heliot.

The following list of books, short fiction, and film is small but choice. As Nicholls noted, Steampunk is "a subgenre to which some distinguished work attaches, though in no great quantity." Suggestions for further reading can be found in the Criticism section and Recommended Web Sites below.

Essential Novels

The "Core" of Steampunk: 1980s California

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
Probably the classic Steampunk novel, this is a complex tale of Egyptian magic and time travel to a gas-lit, foggy Victorian London which comes into glorious, sinister life with secret beggars' guilds, Long-Heeled Jack, and the poet Coleridge all making appearances. Powers' systematic magic is comparable to science, and the mixture of the two forms one of the most important cross-genre novels of recent years.
Homunculus by James P. Blaylock
A skeleton piloting a blimp is the least of it in this mad and riotous novel featuring the hunchback Ignacio Narbondo (setting a precedent for eccentrically named characters in Steampunk novels), the scientist-hero Langdon St. Ives, and the Trismegistus Club, a group of scientists and philosophers who meet at the pipe shop of a certain Captain Powers...Blaylock's fabulist style transforms London into a midnight carnival that is both exhilarating and scary. The other key novel from one of the three "Founding Fathers of Steampunk," as Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter were recently referred to in France, and winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. The sequel is Lord Kelvin's Machine.
Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
This is the earliest in terms of publication (1979), concerning the return of H.G. Wells' Morlocks to 19th century London, where they take over the sewers. Part pastiche and part homage, it didn't make quite the impact of the other novels, but its importance is undiminished.
Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter
A clockmaker is caught up in a plot to destroy the Earth, involving his own doppelganger automaton, many infernal devices and divers alarums. One reviewer called this "perhaps SF's definitive Steampunk statement."
The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
Purists would argue that since this is not set in London, it isn't quite Steampunk per se, but it's a damn good novel nonetheless, in which the poets Byron, Shelley and Keats are linked by their relation to a strange vampiric creature, the Lamia. This is another important cross-genre novel: the seeming fantastic turns into the science fictional, but the lines are artfully blurred. Powers used real conversations and events to weave his strongest Secret History novel.

Expansionist Tendencies: in 1990s America, and across the Atlantic

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
This could be more accurately called retro-Cyberpunk, but for many people this is the definitive Steampunk novel. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and Victorian England is thrown into an early computer revolution. Computers here are mechanical, and gigantic, a perfect match for polluted, corrupt industrial London. This is the background; the story itself is a thriller concerning a secret computer code which may or may not lead to Artificial Intelligence. Lady Ada Byron (Lord Byron's wife and an early mathematician and programmer—the computer language Ada is named in her honour) is a character.
The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul di Filippo
A collection of three novellas. In the first, "Victoria," Queen Victoria is replaced by a human/newt hybrid; in the second, "Hottentots," Massachusetts is threatened by Lovecraftian monsters; the third, "Walt and Emily," imagines a meeting of minds (and bodies!) between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. They go on a fantastical journey together, meet the spirits of Pound and Ginsberg (among others), and Emily loses her virginity. All three stories are written in a mock-Victorian manner, fusing pastiche with the far-out weirdness that makes this collection worthy of its name.
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
It's 1888: Count Dracula beats Van Helsing, marries Queen Victoria, and becomes the virtual ruler of Britain, while police detective (and special agent of the Diogenes Club) Charles Beauregard must track down Jack the Ripper, who is killing vampire prostitutes. Anyone and Everyone—real or fictional—makes an appearance, from the Holmes family (Sherlock and Mycroft) to Dr. Jekyll, from Oscar Wilde to the Queen herself. Sequels (moving progressively away from the 19th century) are The Bloody Red Baron, Judgement of Tears (published in the UK as Dracula Cha Cha Cha), and the forthcoming Johnny Alucard, a collection of previously-published novellas set in the second half of the twentieth century. There is a also a character guide available online (and Newman points out the name of one of the characters is borrowed from Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides).
Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman
Some of the most exciting writers today are children's writers, and this is especially true in the case of Philip Pullman. The His Dark Materials trilogy is second only to Harry Potter in its success, and this retelling of Paradise Lost ("In three parts. For teenagers," as Pullman is quoted as saying) is a modern classic whose appeal is universal. The first novel, Northern Lights, is also a bona fide Steampunk novel with the same intricate system of magic one comes to expect and a wonderfully realized London that is pure Penny Dreadful Victorian. Pullman is also the author of the Sally Lockhart series of books, fast-paced adventures set in Victorian London.

Migration to England: A Return to Roost

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
The first and most significant of the new Steampunk novels published in the UK. The city of New Crobuzon is London by all but name: Miéville, a life-long Londoner, creates the perfect city of magic and industry, with Lovecraftian monsters, mad scientists (in this case, one Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin), and even Babbage robots roam the streets and alleyways of the city. Big, sprawling and hugely entertaining, Perdido Street Station stirred up the SF/F field when it was published in 2000. Winner of the British Fantasy and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding
Combination detective mystery, dark fantasy, and Lovecraftian horror, this was aimed at the YA market (it won a Silver Smarties Award) but adults would enjoy this just as much. The story of wych-hunter Thaniel, a serial killer named Stitch-Face, and a mysterious and beautiful girl, Alaizabel Cray, who appears to be possessed by a powerful wych. This is a great adventure story with a darkly-realized London; Wooding uses cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter, to good effect.
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
Another novel targeted at the YA market (this won a Gold Smarties Award), it is an energetic yarn taking place in a future where the great cities of Europe travel across the plain on caterpillar tracks; London is the first "Traction City," hunting smaller cities in its path. The story concerns the adventures of Tom and Heather as they are literally thrown off of London, discover the Anti-Traction League, travel by airship and chased half-way across the world. The sequel is Predator's Gold.
The Light Ages by Ian R. Macleod
Up for a World Fantasy Award, this is a Steampunk retelling of Great Expectations. Aether is a magical substance mined from the ground, responsible for a new Industrial Revolution. A young boy, Robert Borrows, meets the beautiful Annalise—who may or may not be a Changeling, a child changed by aether—falls in love, runs away to London, solves the mystery of his mother's own Change and subsequent death, falls in with pickpockets, mixes with Revolutionaries and high society, and changes the world for a brief moment.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore
Two graphic novels, adapted into a Hollywood film, from the pen of self-styled wizard Moore. Brings together several familiar characters (including Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, and Allan Quatermain) in two adventures of pure Steampunk. In the first, the League battles Fu Manchu and Dr. Moriarty, while in the second the Earth is under attack by the ubiquitous Martians...

Also Read

Steampunk is often blurred with Gaslight Romance, Victorian pastiche and Secret and Alternate Histories, but for our purposes these all fit loosely into the Steampunkverse and are all worth a read.

The Digging Leviathan by James P. Blaylock
Set in 1950s California, this is nevertheless a precursor to Blaylock's next two Steampunk novels, a magical exploration of childhood novels peopled by eccentric characters: the poet William Ashbless, the shared creation of Blaylock and Powers, appears as a character.
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
A pirate adventure with Blackbeard, the fountain of youth, voodoo, and more in the eighteenth century. Not really Steampunk, maybe, but one of Powers' best and it touches on the same themes of magic, science, and adventure as The Anubis Gates and The Stress of her Regard.
Deathscent by Robin Jarvis
The novel came out in 2001 as the first in a series but no sequel has yet been published. This is Elizabethan rather than Victorian, taking place in the Reflected Realms, where mechanical creatures have replaced animal life and where the seemingly simple life of the inhabitants is underpinned by complex technology. London plays a major part. This is intriguing, but can only be fully judged when the series is completed.
Zeppelins West by Joe R. Lansdale
A cyborg Buffalo Bill Cody takes his Wild West Show to Japan by Zeppelin, meets Frankenstein's monster, makes friends with Sitting Bull, and encounters slightly changed eminent Victorians Captain Bemo and Dr. Momo (of the island of...). A wild steampunk adventure that re-imagines this genre for the American West.

Wild West Steampunk!

The Western Lights series: Dark Sleeper, The House in the High Wood, and Strange Cargo by Jeffrey E. Barlough
Set in a strangely-displaced America, Victorian in feel, in which mastodons and sabre-cats roam the wilderness and where magic and supernatural entities are effortlessly mixed into tales of Western unease.
Pasquale's Angel by Paul J. McAuley
Set in a Florence transformed by Leonardo Da Vinci's becoming an engineer rather than painter, this is highly entertaining story which is also a murder mystery. Features Nicolo Machiavelli.
The Hollow Earth: The Narrative of Mason Algiers Reynolds of Virginia by Rudy Rucker
Edgar Allan Poe on a journey to the South Pole and into the hollow Earth.
The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
Baxter's sequel to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.
Anti-Ice by Stephen Baxter
A Victorian adventure concerning the discovery of the powerful "anti-ice" eventually takes a na´ve reporter to the moon.
The Space Machine by Christopher Priest
Another homage to Wells, this is an early effort by the author of the recent Clarke Award-winning The Separation.
Fata Morgana by William Kotzwinkle
Set in and around Paris in the 1860s.
The Witches of Chiswick by Robert Rankin
The king of the tall tale offers another crazy adventure, this time concerning Babbage super-computers, Tesla transmitters, time machines, Martians, Jack the Ripper, the Invisible Man, and much, much more. Hugo Rune returns to the Rankinverse, as does Barry the Sprout (last seen in Elvis Presley's head). The first in a projected trilogy, followed recently by the Brentford novel Knees Up Mother Earth.
The Age of Unreason series: Newton's Cannon, A Calculus of Angels, Empire of Unreason, The Shadows of God by Greg Keyes (J. Gregory Keyes)
A series taking as its starting point an 18th century where Isaac Newton became an alchemist and discovered "Philosopher's Mercury"; a young Benjamin Franklin features in the first book.
The Werewolves of London by Brian Stableford
Werewolves, magic, and fallen angels in Victorian London.
Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss
American Joe Bodenland finds himself in Lord Byron's villa in Lake Geneva, with both Shelleys and a real-life Frankenstein. This was made into a film by the same name.
Dracula Unbound by Brian Aldiss
Dracula sends time-travelling assassins to kill Bram Stoker before he writes his novel. The vampires' "time train" is hijacked by Joe Bodenland, who teams up with Stoker to fight the author's creation: an interesting example of recursive SF.

Recommended Short Fiction

Apart from the selected stories below, three forthcoming anthologies are of possible interest: these are All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories edited by David Moles and Jay Lake, The Ultimate Pirate edited by John Betancourt, and The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures: Return to the Centre of the Earth and Other Extraordinary Voyages edited by Mike Ashley and Eric Brown. The pirate anthology will contain reprints, the other two original material.

"The Ape-Box Affair," "Two Views of a Cave Painting," and "The Idol's Eye" by James P. Blaylock
Blaylock's Langdon St. Ives stories, collected with others in Thirteen Phantasms.
"Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley
Frankenstein's monster's adventures in the hollow Earth.
"Seventy-Two Letters" by Ted Chiang
This Hugo-winning story posits a Victorian London in which the principles of the kaballah—and in particular the creation of golems—are scientifically studied and lead to a different Industrial Revolution.
"Swiftly" and "Eleanor" by Adam Roberts
Gulliver's Travels taken at face value, and the resultant exploitation of the denizens of Gulliver's world. The first story is available online; both are available in Roberts' new short story collection, Swiftly.
"A Drug on the Market" by Kim Newman
Concerns the marketing, in Victorian London, of a tonic developed from the notes of Dr. Jekyll.
"Dr. Pretorius and the Lost Temple" by Paul McAuley
A spirit-hunter, Carlyle, becomes involved with Isambard Kingdom Brunel when the Thames Tunnel project Brunel is working on encounters mysterious problems. Set in 1832.
"Jigsaw Men" by Gary Greenwood
Novella exploring a world in which the Martians from War of the Worlds have invaded (and were defeated) and in which Dr. Frankenstein's experiments were successful.
"The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne" by Eric Brown
Forthcoming novella from PS Publishing: Jules Verne is taken out of his own time by futuristic dictator Robur. Flying ships and ant-like aliens also feature in this adventure across time and space.

Criticism

Very little has been written on Steampunk from an academic or critical perspective. For more information it is worth looking at the Recommended Web Sites.

Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk by Steffen Hantke
Hantke takes The Difference Engine as his benchmark to examine technology and historiography in that and other Steampunk novels.
"Steampunk" by Peter Nicholls
A useful introduction to the sub-genre in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
Definitions of Steampunk by Cory Goss
A brief overview of possible definitions.

Recommended Web Sites

The Works of Tim Powers
An all-inclusive guide to Powers' work, edited by John Berlyne
James P. Blaylock
A site dedicated to Blaylock's work.
Would That It Were
Subtitled "The Internet's Premier Magazine of Historical SF," which says it all, really.
Steampunk Central
Site dedicated to Wild West Steampunk.
Steampunk
A good collection of material, including some on manga and anime.
Steampunk Chronology
A wide-ranging bibliography of all things Steampunk, also covering non-English material.

Copyright © 2005, Lavie Tidhar. All Rights Reserved.

About Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, lived in Israel and South Africa, travelled widely in Africa and Asia, and currently lives in London. He is the winner of the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury Prize (awarded by the European Space Agency), was the editor of Michael Marshall Smith: The Annotated Bibliography (PS Publishing 2004) and the anthology A Dick & Jane Primer for Adults (The British Fantasy Society, forthcoming 2006), and is the author of the recently-released novella An Occupation of Angels (Pendragon Press, Dec. 2005), a supernatural cold war thriller which Adam Roberts called a "powerfully phantasmagoric fantasy... Sharp, witty, violent and liable to haunt your dreams." His stories appear in Sci Fiction, Chizine, Postscripts, Nemonymous, Infinity Plus, Aeon, The Book of Dark Wisdom, Fortean Bureau and many others, and in translation in seven languages. His non-fiction appeared in Locus, Foundation, Interzone and IROSF.

Lavie's web site is at http://www.lavietidhar.co.uk

COMMENTS!

Jan 31, 20:53 by Bluejack

How about this bibliography? Anything to add? Any disputes?

(Lavie Tidhar's article is here.)
Feb 1, 05:46 by Nathan Ballingrud
Nothing at the moment; I'm still too excited at the length of the list! So many new stories to track down! I've been a fan of steampunk ever since reading Blaylock's Homunculus, and I can't wait to give some of these others a look. My thanks to the author of this article.
Feb 1, 07:14 by Lon Prater
Great article, Lavie. Steampunk is a hard to define subgenre, but you've done well to clarify the overarching theme that separates it from industrial era fantasy, steam age alternate histories, and Vernian romance. I now have a much longer list of works to seek out and read than I started with. :)

Though not exactly fitting in to the "loss of control" thematic framework you specify, folks who enjoy reading about gentlemen adventurers who fight crime using late steam age technology and science-flavored magic should give Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories a chance.

I'd also recommend Gothic Steam Phantastic as a pretty good web source for steampunk related goodness.

Best,

Lon
www.Neverary.com
Feb 1, 11:32 by shawn scarber
Excellent article! I've always loved steampunk and I hope it gets more attention. Sony's Steamboy might help that along.
Feb 2, 12:58 by John Joseph Adams
Wow, Lavie, great spotlight! Editors -- if Lavie is an expert on any other sub-genres, get him (her?) to write another spotlight post-haste!
Feb 3, 09:28 by Jim Henry
I would add the anthology _War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches_. It reprints Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters", in which Wells' Martian invaders meet the Texas Rangers, and adds a bunch of original stories in which Teddy Roosevelt (Mike Resnick), Emily Dickinson (Connie Willis), the Dowager Empress of China (Walter Jon Williams), Jack London (Dave Wolverton), and others fight the Martians.

Also, note that Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters" appears in his Ace collection of the same title, and "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" appears in _Custer's Last Jump_ (Golden Gryphon). I suspect several of Waldrop's other stories would fit, too, but they aren't coming to mind. Maybe "Fin de Cycle"; my vague recollection is that it's set in an alternate historical 1900 Paris, and involves bicycles; but it's been too long since I read it to say for sure what else it's about.

Robert Reed's recent "The Dragons of Summer Gulch" from Sci Fiction should be listed. Alternate historical paleontology in the Wild West.
Feb 3, 20:15 by travitt hamilton
I haven't read any of that Global Dispatches except for the London (Wolverton) story, which I would strongly recommend, even if you're not into the steampunk thing. It is strange and moving.

Great article Lavie. Loved the bibliography.
Feb 4, 00:45 by Bluejack
I'm a little skeptical about the Reed story.

Although there is a train in it ... possibly, but not definitively, a steam locomotive ... I think the Reed story was more quirky fantasy than steampunk, by pretty much any definition of steampunk I can imagine.

Don't get me wrong, I think Reed is one of the masters of the short form currently writing, but I don't see the steampunk as anything more than a superficial resonance in "Dragons..."
Feb 4, 07:47 by Adrian Simmons
I'd also recommend Phil Foglio's GIRL GENIOUS comics.
Feb 7, 07:28 by Lavie Tidhar
I'm sorry I didn't reply to this before. It was great to get such positive feedback on the article!

If I can recommend some of the less-obvious titles on the list, Chris Wooding's Alaizabel Cray is fantastic. Jigsaw Men is great fun (and you get a nice signed limited edition) but the plot doesn't really hold up. Deathscent was one of the most intriguing titles, and I don't know why no sequels have been published. It was a good read. I can also say anything by Kim Newman is worth checking out.

If you can read French, there's a lot of Steampunk published in France that I wish I could read. The covers alone are worth the price of the book.
Feb 8, 13:43 by John Eastlake
I'll be so bold as to recomend Martha Wells' _Death of the Necromancer_ set in alternate 19th century France.
Feb 14, 00:48 by travitt hamilton
I can't believe I'm about to post this, but we just took our daughter to see The Polar Express, and it was actually pretty good. And I thought the whole North Pole setting had a steampunk vibe to it. Particularly the control room with the stack of video monitors and the candy striped "Santa Phone." It seemed to be a good example of the high-tech/low-tech dichotomy. All these seemingly high-tech gadgets supported by a neo-victorian infrastructure.

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