Steampunk: A Modern Throwback to Classic Science Fiction

As I again delve into the various genres of fiction with which my current writing intersects, I discover surprising gaps in my knowledge—and more books for my reading list.
This is hardly a bad thing. Writers are fed by writing, and not always their own. Indeed, one would hope that much of it is not their own—we learn our craft first and best by reading the works of others. That is where we discover what we like, what we don’t, and in our various reactions develop the biases that inform our own voices and styles.

I describe Rosaria of Venice—my forthcoming novel—as “steampunk,” yet I have read almost nothing that could be similarly described as such. Steampunk, as Wikipedia will confirm, is a contemporary genre of science fiction featuring steam-powered technology at the front and center. Steampunk tales typically take place in the 19thor very early 20th Century, and employ a style and aesthetic that is a throwback to the science fiction authors of that era, such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Anachronism is the dish of the day for steampunk, with steam power or more “primitive” analog technology accomplishing modern or futuristic tasks.
What is interesting about the term is that its creator seems to have coined it, though off-hand, for marketing purposes. The website “The Steampunk Workshop” traces the origin of the word to an April 1987 letter from K.W. Jeter, the author of Morlock Night. Morlock Night was a “what-if” story based upon H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and one of the first steampunk novels. At the time, only a few other authors (such as Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock) dabbled in these sorts of anachronistic, retro-themed science fiction tales of Victorian strangeness. Jeter believed that “Victorian fantasies [were] going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock, and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks,’ perhaps.”
The rest, of course, is history.
Steampunk now not only refers to a popular genre which Jeter, Powers and Blaylock pioneered, but a burgeoning subculture as well. In my neck of the woods, the San Jose-based convention Clockwork Alchemy will run concurrently with Fanime (its sponsor) Friday next. Earlier this year was San Francisco’s Edwardian Ball, which assumes its own sort of steampunk aesthetic. When you take into account the volume of art, music, film and literature the genre has inspired, steampunk proves to be a notion with a singular ability to capture the public imagination.
I expect that much of its appeal—at least, when it comes to the core of literature and film which it comprises—comes from its whimsical approach to the science fiction genre. While many people find “hard” science fiction difficult to swallow, steampunk novels can provide a more familiar point of reference for readers, as well as license on the part of the author to play with the format. The Steampunk Workshop describes how Tim Powers, in his early steampunk novel The Anubis Gates, “combines a very hard science fiction approach to time travel with some of the creepiest portrayals of black magic you will find in late 20th Century writing.” William Gibson—who earned renown as the father of cyberpunk with Neuromancer—and Bruce Sterling push the hard sci-fi angle in The Difference Engine, which, according to the Steampunk Workshop article, is “set in a parallel universe where Charles Babbage’s calculating machine was actually mass produced and used to create an information age one hundred years earlier than in our time line.” While I am not familiar with the novel, the article describes a vividness of imagery and depth of setting that likely gave it great appeal in its time, and has earned it a space on my “to-read” list.
One common thread amongst all steampunk, it seems, is its connection to the culture of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution, even when that is not the setting. Where I hope Rosaria of Venice proves distinctive is in how it transplants a steampunk premise into the Renaissance Era. I have yet to see this done—but as my studies continually demonstrate, there is much I have yet to see.

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