Back in the computer age, people had time to read books.
Steampunk is a genre of subversion, not only due to the actions of its characters but also for the ways its writers play with reality, creating imagined histories and technologies of science and fantasy. Inspiration can be drawn from both science fictional histories and contemporary histories. For example, in Morlock Night K.W. Jeter draws on aspects of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In The Difference Engine William Gibson and Bruce Sterling create an alternate history where Charles Babbage’s original invention of the same name is mass produced to kickstart the age of computers.
At first sight, the anachronisms of steampunk appear to be little more than the curious gimmicks of an aesthetic that is widely believed to be over and done with. Back in 2008 when I decided to write my first novel in the genre, people would say, “Steampunk? What’s that?” Five years later when I tried to sell it, a revival had not only spiked but also petered out. The common response became, “Steampunk? Not again!” Having said that, new titles continue to be published, such as James P Blaylock’s The Steampunk Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, Gail Carriger’s Defy and Defend, and Phil Foglio & Kaja Foglio’s Agatha H and the Siege of Mechanicsburg (Girl Genius #4).
Furthermore, you can find a decent list of new works at Rising Shadow.
Perhaps another revival will happen again soon. After all, that’s how fashions roll.
But why steampunk? And why is the nineteenth century the perfect era to set it in? Is it simply a nostalgic return to the past? Or is it more than that?
Back in 2013 when I completed my PhD, I argued that steampunk was a historical narrative set in the past “seen through a speculative fictional lens that has been both irreverently tampered with and ingeniously enhanced with the benefit of hindsight.”
Similarly, Bowser and Croxall assert,
“Like most science fiction, it [steampunk] takes us out of our present moment; but instead of giving us a recognisably futuristic setting, complete with futuristic technology, steampunk provides us with anachronism: a past that is borrowing from the future or a future borrowing from the past.” (“Introduction: Industrial Evolution”. NeoVictorian Studies 3:1 2010).
In this way, the kinds of technologies that many people take for granted become defamiliarised, or in other words, the familiar is made strange and at the same time illuminated. Eric Rabkin states:
“If we know the world to which a reader escapes, then we know the world from which he comes” (The Fantastic in Literature, 1976 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977): p. 73.
The anachronisms of steampunk can also be seen as a form of subversion because they are an intentional and playful revision of accepted history. Early examples include the sentient robots of K.W. Jeter’s, Infernal Devices and the 19th Century nuclear device in Ronald W Clarke’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb. Books such as these work particularly well in a nineteenth century setting because the Victorians were similar to us in many ways. They saw the establishment of the empirical sciences, the industrial revolution, the first wave of feminism, the rise of imperialism and colonialism, all of which are still relevant in today’s society. Steffen Hantke argues:
“What makes the Victorian past so fascinating is its unique historical ability to reflect the present moment.” (Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk. Extrapolation 40:3 (1999): pp. 244-254)
For us, the nineteenth century represents a turning point – a time where things could have happened differently in ways we can only imagine with the benefit of hindsight. Peter Nicholls writes,
“Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry, science and technology where the modern world was being born, and a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor. Dickens – the great original Steampunk writer who, though he did not write sf himself, stands at the head of several sf traditions – knew all this.” (John Clute & Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, 1993 (London: Orbit, 1999): p. 1161).
I loved reading Dickens even before reaching my teens. By the time I sat down to write THE ETERNAL MACHINE, I’d read most of his novels at least once.
Two or three years ago, a little before I decided to get THE ETERNAL MACHINE professionally edited, I wanted to do something different with the genre. One of my early drafts was set in an unnamed fantasy world, but the worldbuilding was lacking, so I decided to flesh it out by moving it to an alternate reality in Sydney, Australia. I decided it needed a recognisable landmark, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge immediately sprang to mind. Yep, I know the bridge wasn’t built until the early 20th Century, but Steampunk is a genre of anachronisms, and in my novel, magic and science are equally valid disciplines. This made a very corrupted version of the bridge not only recognisable but also possible.
Next I needed a magic system that was not entirely smoke and mirrors. I already had the bare bones, but I wanted something inextricably linked to character and based on as much history as imagination. Therefore I put on my subversive writer’s hat. Or perhaps took a wild risk, because instead of basing my magic on science fictional history or folk magic or myth, I chose to playfully base it on a real life obscure metaphysical theory — The Monadology — devised in 1690 (published 1714) by the philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This theory has more recently been argued by Eric Steinhart to be a description of virtual reality.
What I ended up with was an anachronism within an anachronism, or in other words, a 17th Century theory that describes a 20th Century concept set in a 19th Century alternate reality. I’m not going to try and explain it all here — and I’ll blog about it later — but the challenge was to cherry pick enough of the theory to eliminate the need for more than a few sentences of explanation, which I drip fed where the plot demanded.
Using this idea quickly became fun and most probably irreverent. If Leibniz or any professional philosophers would ever read it, I suspect they’d either be annoyed or amused 😉
The truth is: I discovered the Monadology twenty years ago, and have enjoyed reading about it ever since. Even papers that discredit its logic. After all, arguments for and against an idea are fodder for the muse, especially if that idea is controversial.