The Joy of Steampunk

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floyd-largent-headshotby Floyd Largent

Back in 1816, during the dismal “Year Without a Summer” caused by an eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora, young Mary Wollstonecraft Clairmont was visiting in Geneva with her soon-to-be husband, poet Percy Blythe Shelley, and their friends, writers Lord Byron and John Polidori. When Byron suggested they each write a horror story, she set to work after a few days of hard thought and, in 1817, finished her story—the only one of the four to do so. It was published in 1818 as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Long considered the first real science fiction novel, Mrs. Shelley’s novel includes high-voltage mad science, a creator with a God complex, a patchwork monster, thrilling adventure, monster chases, the harnessing of gritty 19th-century technology for high concept uses, and probably the generous use of goggles. It seems fair to claim it as at least the grandparent of the steampunk genre, though the term itself wouldn’t be invented for almost 170 years.

According to author K.W. Jeter, who first used the term in a 1987 letter, steampunk is a “gonzo-historical” style of writing solidly rooted in the early Victorian era, when steam engines were the prime motive force behind contemporary machinery. He meant it as a cynical variant of cyberpunk, the term used for the high-tech worlds of William Gibson and others. In some cases, there’s more than a little of the Rube Goldbergian thrown in for spice. In this offshoot of SF/fantasy, stories may be set in the past, in alternate histories, in far-flung futures where electronic technology has been lost, and increasingly in superhero fiction, where the Mad Scientist capable of creating absurdly complicated and workable (but often irreproducible) machinery from just about anything is on its way to becoming a trope. See the enjoyable Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain series for a sterling kid-lit example of the latter.

I was moved to write this blog entry while reviewing Mortal Engines, the first book of Philip Reeve’s ambitious Predator Cities quartet. The story is set thousands of years into the future, when mobile Traction Cities—including London, where the protagonist lives—chase each other across what was once Europe, in hopes of literally devouring each other, given the lack of other resources. “Municipal Darwinism” has become a religion, with the fellow who invented it millennia before considered a god. Mechanical technology, driven by anything that can burn, has been developed to a high level, while electronics are mostly lost. That is, until the Lord Mayor’s lapdog, Thaddeus Valentine, retrieves a functional memory core for a war machine from the Dead Continent of North America…

But let’s leave the rest for you to discover. The point is that steampunk is a delightful subgenre of SF (or fantasy, if you prefer) that’s versatile and fun, deserving of more attention by writers. For great examples, see web comics like Skin Horse and Gunnerkrigg Court, both of which deserve larger audiences, and novels like K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates, and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. It works well with young adult lit, too, including the abovementioned Supervillain, the Predator Cities books, and Garth Nix’s charming (but sobering) Keys to the Kingdom series.

Alternate historians, take note. The Golden Compass and its sequels, like Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist, occur in a parallel universe. There are plenty of others to investigate—the options are essentially limitless. Supervillain’s part of the newly popular superhero parallel universe subgenre, where everything is the same as our universe except that Supers (of both flavors) are real. But tales like Phineas Fracture ostensibly take place in the Victorian past, and of course The Predator Cities books occur in the far future.

With steampunk, your science fiction need not be based on current reality any more than any other good speculative fiction—so keep in mind the alternative it offers. There’s still plenty of room to find your own niche and elaborate it, influencing the shape of things to come. So slip on your goggles, stride bravely into the retrofuture…

And Keep Writing!


Floyd Largent is a book editor whose first love is science fiction/fantasy.

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