Steampunk: what is it? Perhaps for many people today it is most easily recognised by (pseudo-)Victorian dress or a laptop encased in brass. The New York Times recently discussed the subject in its Fashion section with barely a reference to fiction. So it's interesting to see the arrival of two anthologies that aim to shine the spotlight on steampunk as literature.
At first glance, the definition of the subgenre would appear to be quite clear. The two books' pithy back-cover descriptions of steampunk are nearly identical: "where the grandeur of Victoriana blends with modern technology" (Extraordinary Engines) versus "Victorian elegance and modern technology" (Steampunk). However, what these collections claim doesn't cover all that they contain. How has this happened? If we can't rely on the back cover to describe the contents, what can we expect inside?
Subgenre starts with genre. Perhaps the tools for describing steampunk can be derived from the parent. If we accept Damon Knight's description of science fiction as "what we point to when we say it," then the contents of these volumes must be steampunk. Extraordinary Engines, a collection of all-new stories edited by Nick Gevers, is even subtitled "The definitive steampunk anthology," while Ann & Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk, a reprint anthology, aims to outline a steampunk canon (or at least collect representative shorter works). However, not all the stories included in either volume match the back-cover blurbs. One potential way of resolving this apparent contradiction is to consider, as Paul Kincaid suggests in his essay "On the Origins of Genre," the family resemblances which each story may display. Does this allow us to accept all the stories in these collections as steampunk?
The only element common to all these stories is that they are well-written, clever tales. The stories in Steampunk show greater variety, which may be a product of the freedom its editors have had in searching across publications of recent decades. Alternatively, the greater similarity in Extraordinary Engines may show a consolidation of the field, that those who write steampunk today have a clearer idea of what the genre is meant to produce. By this sample, the airship has fallen out of fashion—only present in one story in Extraordinary Engines, in comparison with four stories in the reprint collection—and the new stories are also less likely to be set in versions of the Victorian period, moving steampunk further away from its alignment with alternate history. Even without a Victorian setting, though, there is a tendency towards a Victorian voice. Among these stories there is a distinctive subset of "club tales," evoking the character of Pearson's Magazine or The Strand Magazine, plus a number of stories which share that distance, flourish, and self-deprecating style without sharing the form. So the second most common feature is that these stories are either set in a version of the Victorian era or take themselves as direct successors to Verne and Wells, as if the rest of literary history had not occurred.
"Lord Kelvin's Machine" by James P. Blaylock (1985, Steampunk) and Kage Baker's "Speed, Speed the Cable" (Extraordinary Engines) are very much of a piece, despite being separated by twenty years. Each is set in Victorian Britain and each involves clandestine groups working on behalf of science against the ignorant. I found that the plodding style and the murky science of "Lord Kelvin's Machine" made it the least appealing story from either book. Baker's story is lighter, but it draws on historical detail and Vernian technology in a similar manner and rather unsubtly deploys real historical characters to make its points. The other stories consciously set in the nineteenth century share this tendency to use period characters. "Steampunch," by James Lovegrove (Extraordinary Engines), is initially set on a Martian penal colony whose prisoners clearly include Jack the Ripper and Fagin from Oliver Twist. Molly Brown's "The Selene Gardening Society" (2005, Steampunk) is a sequel to Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and is filled with famous fictional inventors. Perhaps this is a key to the renewed popularity of steampunk writing. The Victorian period is long enough past that all the fictional heroes are safely out of copyright and all the historical figures are sufficiently long dead to be difficult to offend, but their names are still so familiar that they can be casually evoked to great effect. Having Charles Dickens complain about "American editions for which I have received not one farthing of royalties" (p. 131, "Speed, Speed the Cable") bears direct comparison with the anger that has swirled around the SFWA on the subject of book-legging in recent years.
This reflection of modern concerns is also visible in "Seventy-Two Letters" by Ted Chiang (2000, Steampunk). The premise of this story is a Victorian society and industry where kabbalism is the root of science. Still, human nature is familiar. Chiang works through the implications of his chosen "science" and the disruptive impacts of new technology at the same time. This draws the reader into the quest for understanding the premises of the story at the same time as his protagonist works through the challenges of being a reformer in this society. The arguments about class eugenics and industrialisation have clear contemporary echoes in modern questions about third world sweatshops and the worries of the Western worker that their jobs are all being offshored to cheaper lands. Similarly Adam Roberts, in "Petrolpunk" (Extraordinary Engines), is addressing current concerns in an inventive fashion, although his protagonists and the structure of his story are as bewildering as Chiang's are disciplined. We are presented with a world where Victoria's Empire, powered by steam technology, spans the earth. However, this steam is vastly polluting due to a Compound which reduces the boiling temperature of water. So far, so steampunk, but invaders from petrol companies in another Reality want this world's unexploited oil reserves ... and Queen Victoria is immortal. The ride gets wilder as the protagonist—one "Adam Roberts"—descends into mania and his story is wrapped up by "the editor of Nineteenth Century and After"—one "Nick Gevers."
Joe R. Lansdale's "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark God Get Down: A Dime Novel" (1999, Steampunk) exhibits a comparable mad inventiveness in a completely different vernacular. I have discussed my problems with this story before, but rereading it in the light of Jess Nevins's introductory piece in Steampunk on Edisonades and the steam-powered American west in nineteenth century fiction has given me a greater appreciation of what Lansdale is doing.
The prefatory material in the Steampunk volume is a marker of the book's desire to be authoritative. In Extraordinary Engines, Nick Gevers outlines the history of steampunk in four pages. Although Ann & Jeff VanderMeer's introduction to Steampunk is briefer, it leads into three essays which provide additional context. Jess Nevins discusses the proto-SF era and its exploitation by two generations of steampunk authors. He defines the first generation as those working in the area from the late 1970s until The Difference Engine in 1990 and describes the ways they reacted to and argued with the preconceptions and ideologies of the Victorian period. By contrast, he suggests that "second generation steampunk authors have changed steampunk from an argument to a style and a pose, even an affectation" (p. 8). Rick Klaw and Bill Baker have more work to do in providing commentary on other media. Klaw briefly describes key games, film, and television, but claiming adaptations of Verne and Wells as steampunk is a more difficult argument than discussing Space 1889, "the first primarily steampunk RPG" (p. 15). Baker is convincing in his argument that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O'Neill, 1999-present) is only part of a thriving field of "sequential steampunk."
I find myself in considerable agreement with Jess Nevins on the core of the field. His description of current work matches the majority of the stories which make up the all-new Extraordinary Engines. However, even a 10-page article can't describe all of these stories, which is where "family resemblances" come in, allowing us to recognise the outliers. How steampunk is Mary Gentle's extraplanetary story "The Sun in the Attic" (1985, Steampunk)? It sketches an agrarian society which subtly prohibits technology developing too far. The viewpoint character has two husbands and is the head of a small House. The most obvious one-word description of the story is not steampunk but "feminist" (although it is surely tiresome to think the appellation necessary when the biggest step away from familiar fantasy tropes is that the clan rulers are women). Nevertheless—as the story's introduction states—it "still incorporat[es] the steampunk signature of airships and other 'clockwork' devices" (97), and so we can identify it with the excerpt from Michael Moorcock's Benediction: The Warlord of the Air which begins Steampunk's fiction. The same technology and method must be used to tie in Jeff VanderMeer's "Fixing Hanover" (Extraordinary Engines)—an agrarian tale set in a world where one country's monopoly of airships and complex mechanology is making them masters of their planet.
None of these stories make much use of the "steampunk style," though, and neither does "The Lollygang Save the World on Accident" (Extraordinary Engines) by Jay Lake, which can only be marked as steampunk by its presence in this collection and, perhaps, by the use of a steam valve at a key point in the story. The editor's introduction seems to recognise this by commenting that the story is from "a somewhat different steam-driven world of punks" (p. 401). This looks like an attempt to offer resemblances, an acknowledgement that the "what we point to when we say it" argument is being stretched to incredulity. Lake is present in both volumes but seems to be included for his "clockpunk" novels Mainspring (2007) and Escapement (2008) rather than the works actually on show. The story in Steampunk, "The God-Clown is Near" uses the trope of the Golem, according to the editor's introduction, which thereby provides a resemblance with the Chiang story. However, the actual story reads more like Frankenstein re-interpreted through bio-engineering theory. We could squeeze a steampunk link out of Frankenstein—perhaps by claiming his monster as a golem—but the sideways view in Jay Lake's writing hasn't the slightest neo-Victorian tick, even if his core character is a lone inventor type.
The only other author present in both volumes is Ian R. MacLeod, and again, at least in the case of Steampunk, his novels The Light Ages (2003) and The House of Storms (2005) seem to make a stronger argument for his inclusion than the actual story chosen. Those novels are set in an industrial world which uses a magical substance, but "The Giving Mouth" is set in a magical world with the set dressing of industry. There are steamhorses with headlight eyes, but they eat coal rather than being mechanical things. MacLeod's powers in describing grim worlds and the dread payments for any pleasure gained are in clear evidence here, making for a satisfying read. However, few of the signifiers in this story can be safely attributed to any recognisable genre, so claiming it for steampunk seems rather brave. "Elementals," MacLeod's story in Extraordinary Engines, has many more of the family features—the style, the first person tale, the narrator has a club and a country home and a friend who is doing strange things with Faraday cages, pipes and valves.
Of all the stories included in these two volumes, "Elementals" would slip most easily into Science Fiction by the Rivals of H. G. Wells, a 1979 collection of then recently out of copyright stories from the turn of the century. "Machine Maid" (Extraordinary Engines) by Margo Lanagan would, briefly described, also seem a good match for that older volume's "The Lady Automaton" by E. E. Kellett (first published in Pearson’s Magazine, June 1901). Lanagan's story is set in the mid nineteenth century and the titular object is "adapted from her usage as an entertainer on the Paris stage" (p. 189). However, the narrator is a young woman married off to a land owner in the Australian bush. She is prim, trained by her upbringing to be "vapid and colourless like my mother, a silent helpmeet in the shadows of Father and my brothers" (p. 190) but still yearns after mechanical knowledge. When left alone in their rural abode, she begins to map the automaton's construction and is revolted when she accidentally discovers what else the "machine maid" can be instructed to do. The story works because of the precision of its details, and the utter distress and disgust conveyed by the narrator's voice. "Only a thin layer of propriety concealed my rage at my imprisonment—in this savage land, in this brute institution [marriage], in this swelling body dominated by the needs and nudgings of my little master within. I will plead, if ever I am called to account, that it was insanity" (p. 207). As for Eleanor in Adam Roberts' recent novel Swiftly, the bestial reality of sex leads towards an extreme solution. This story is the highlight of its volume. It treats its characters and its readers honestly and seriously, speaking in a clear, original voice. The result is a thoroughly modern piece of historical fiction—and yet, the voice is that of a Victorian character and the plot relies on a device typical of the steampunk imagination.
Michael Chabon's "The Martian Agent" (2003, Steampunk) has a distinctive voice also, but it is a close-mouthed period style. The writing constantly draws notice to itself—such as the modernist use of a dash to indicate speech rather than the more traditional quotes—but it is the style which we are reading for here as much as the events in the foreground. This style allows a certain knowingness in sharing "familiar" knowledge and thereby gives Chabon room to tell us anything he likes about the world the story is set in—one where Custer recently fought a revolutionary battle against the British Empire in a fragmented North America. The story is in constant tension with its title; when it moves so slowly and discursively, how is the author going to get us from its opening in the Louisiana Territories to Mars? It is also in conscious conversation with "novels for boys," detailing how they set out "possible destinies available to those who found themselves in such a grave predicament" (p. 236). In terms of steampunk artefacts, there are also airships, steam-powered "land sloops," and a famous inventor.
Chabon is principally telling us about his alternate world, the background information almost disguised as a narrative. In contrast, Rachel E. Pollock's short "Reflected Light" (2007, Steampunk) builds its impact by suppressing background. We are presented with an archival note and four transcripts of wax cylinders so fragile/valuable that playback can only be permitted by a "sanctioned government agency" (p. 311). The material present would seem to be trivial chatter about life in the factories—except that the archival notes describe the import of one of the subjects and the artifice of the recordings. The wax cylinders are footnotes to a revolution and any reader in the implied archive would know about the struggle for freedom, so the item can easily elide such "obvious" material. The result is a story which made little impression on me when I read it but which has built in my mind as the rest of the collection decays. Who were the oppressors? What was the cost? Did the narrator of the cylinders survive? Perhaps the cylinders are a false trail, a subtle origin story for the revolutionary leader.
Neal Stephenson's "Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast" (1995, Steampunk) also uses elision and assumptions of the implied reader's prior knowledge to play with the real reader. The first ploy is the title itself—which carries greater impact given that this is the last piece of fiction in the book and the first was actually an excerpt from a trilogy. Given Stephenson's prolixity, it is possible to believe he wrote a thousand pages to set up a short story, but his fans will also recognise the background from Diamond Age. This story, though, is written in a consciously Victorian style—"A respect for basic decency forbids me from detailing the dark events of the next few hours" (p. 361)—even whilst describing monster trucks and nanotechnology. The sense of righteousness, the evaluation of the "wily native," and the sudden denouement all reflect a recognisable class of Victorian adventure even as the story makes clear that these new imperialists are fighting to maintain a hierarchy of power by controlling access to nanotechnology and therefore enforcing an artificial scarcity. Given how often the progenitor novel is cited as cyberpunk/post-cyberpunk/steampunk, it is hardly surprising that this story leaves the strongest flavour of a new Victorian age, of steampunk as a path forward rather than a retread.
Another story stuffed with nanotechnology is Stepan Chapman's "Minutes of the Last Meeting" (1998, Steampunk), where the technology is a tool of oppression and control in a Tsarist Russia building nuclear weapons in 1917. There is a big steam train, but this is a grim end of the world story and neither the style nor the core themes seem close to the steampunk ethic. Even further from the core of steampunk is Jeffrey Ford's "The Dream of Reason" (Extraordinary Engines), in which a scientist/philosopher attempts to slow light down by strange means. This story seems to be more an excerpt from Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth than a member of the steampunk family.
And so perhaps we reach the fundamental problem of genre definition. The editors of both of these collections begin with an apparently clear conception of what constitutes steampunk. Yet both collections have reached beyond the edges they defined. Forcing any proscriptive definition will push away interesting work. Nick Gevers, whilst able to choose his authors, has presumably had to publish what he is given. This is not to denigrate the work in question but to recognise that Extraordinary Engines has both a higher proportion of stories which fit the narrowest definition and also more stories which stray far beyond it. The VanderMeers have the benefit of being able to choose from the early 1970s to the late 2000s. The result is a more rounded survey of what steampunk has meant in the lifetime of the term, but Steampunk still stretches definition to breaking point. Even using the tool of "family resemblances" as Kincaid suggests, repeated morphings will take us to unrecognisable works at the outer edges. How much resemblance does there need to be? We can go onward, outward from here, finding works with resemblances to these distant stories until "steampunk" colonises the whole storyverse.
Like most other discussions on the definition of genre, pushing far enough leads into a reduction to the absurd. There is a clear core of steampunk works in these two collections and a nimbus of definitionally difficult stories. But the selection ensures the collections offer variety, and there is plenty to keep the reader entertained. It is easy to recommend Steampunk to any reader unfamiliar with the stories it contains; and if you already habitually wear a pocket watch or carry a lacy parasol, you almost certainly need both these collections.
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