Why I Love Steampunk

nanna2This picture isn’t a dress-up. It’s my great-grandfather with my grandmother (his 13th daughter) taken sometime in the late 1890s. I adore their outfits and especially Nanna’s boots, though I wonder how much she enjoyed wearing them at the time.

For me, steampunk isn’t just about dressing up, even though I’m currently finishing off my own costume to wear at the next opportunity. For me, steampunk is also a different way of writing about the now, drawing on the past, present and future with the benefit of hindsight, foresight and a good deal of playfulness. As Eric Rabkin states in The Fantastic in Literature,

“If we know the world to which a reader escapes, we know the world from which he comes” (Princeton University Press, 1977: p.83).

In the theoretical component of my recently completed PhD, Steampunk: Imagined Histories and Technologies of Science and Fantasy, I argued that literary steampunk is not limited simply to texts representing steam-driven machinery, but also includes fantastical texts that rely on pseudo-Victorianism often set in imaginary worlds characterized by anachronism, pseudoscience, technofantasy, magic, hybridity and imagined events inspired by science fictional history as well as real history.

In my PhD’s creative component — my novel Heart Fire — I drew on common steampunk tropes such as automatons, mad science and air ships. At the same time I remained aware that, in the past decade, steampunk has gained increasing popularity as both a literary genre and an aesthetic. As a result I sought to subvert clichés by combining them with fantasy elements that are unusual to steampunk, using them to compare and contrast science with the occult, taking the stance that in Victorian times both were considered to be valid disciplines. In this respect, I do not see my work as crossing genres, but instead as imitating the Victorian worldview.

With this in mind, I combined science and fantasy in Heart Fire, posing the questions: what if the occult were real and how would a world function if magic could either enhance or destroy science-based technology? My aim was to use old clichés in unexpected ways, showing repercussions from the misuse of technology from the perspectives of both the upper and lower classes. This allowed me to follow the steampunk tradition and at the same time aim for originality through tropes that are generally seen to fall outside of what is expected within the genre.

In other words, steampunk allowed my imagination to step outside the laws of physics that dictate purely science fictional texts. In Heart Fire, I created my own laws, part real, part myth and part dream. To make them believable, I explored their repercussions from many perspectives, reinforcing them with realism, detail and the fantasy technique of internal consistency within the text.

This not only added up to a whole lot of fun, but also enabled me to create an imaginary world in which to set new books as well as a handful of short stories.

4 responses

  1. Hiya Carol, Just read your piece on my facebook page. I’ll have to read it a few more times. You’ve inspired me to look more into steampunk literature. Thanks, Jeanne

    • Thanks Jeanne, some titles I’ve really enjoyed that would be a good entry into steampunk are: Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (magic)’ Worldshaker by Richard Harland (alternate history), The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia (fantasy), The Scar by China Mieville (fantasy, weirdnesss) The Parasol Protectorate Series by Gail Carriger (fantasy and mostly fun)’ The iron Dragons Daughter by Michael Swanwick (fantasy and sf), The steampunk Trilogy by Paul DeFillipo (weirdness, fantasy), Whitechapel Gods by SM Peters (fantasy,sf), The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling (alternate History

  2. You’re right, Venetia. Getting the right balance of details is the difference between overwriting and underwriting. It’s a juggling act which can make or break a scene’s pacing.

  3. A very interesting summation of your thesis and book, Carol.
    Your comment about the importance of detail rang particularly true for me. In my not-so-humble opinion, in fiction, whether contemporary or historical (or steampunk it seems), the little details make a huge difference. They both convince the reader that the author REALLY knows what they’re talking about and effortlessly sucks the reader deep into the ‘reality’ of the storyworld. Of course, one must be judicial in application of detail and keep it brief, incidental, and poignant or risk the reader getting bored.
    I can’t wait to absorb the pseudo-Victorian detail in your book!

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