The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Steampunk: (1) A type of fiction, generally said to have emerged in the 1970s, that combines fantasy, science fiction, and a Victorian aesthetic and that features anachronistic or retrofuturistic technology (e.g., airships, gear-driven automatons, steam-powered computers). (2) A design aesthetic and subculture that grew out of steampunk fiction; gained popularity in the first decade of the twenty-first century; and encompasses areas including art, fashion, film, gaming, literature, music, television, and the do-it-yourself maker movement.

The term steampunk originated with American writer K. W. Jeter’s suggestion, in a 1987 letter to Locus magazine, that “steam-punks” be used to describe the “Victorian fantasies” that he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock were writing. These works, such as Jeter’s Morlock Night (1979) and Blaylock’s Homonculus (1986), were set in the nineteenth century and used the conventions of Victorian speculative fiction. Indeed, Morlock Night takes off on H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) — in which a time-traveler transported to the far future encounters Morlocks, a menacing species of humans who live underground — as the Morlocks in Jeter’s novel use a time machine to reach (and invade) Victorian London. The term steampunk also plays off cyberpunk, a type of science fiction featuring near-future, generally dystopic societies in which the distinction between human and machine has been blurred, if not erased. “Punk,” in both contexts, refers to the authority-challenging, do-it-yourself attitude associated with the counterculture, punk-rock movement.

As a literary genre, steampunk draws heavily on nineteenth-century science fiction, particularly the works of Wells, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein [1818]), and Jules Verne (Vingt milles lieues sous les mers [Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea] [1864]). Scholars generally identify either Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone (1959) or Michael Moore’s Warlord of the Air (1971) as the first steampunk novel. The genre was popularized, however, by cyberpunk authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), which is set in a Victorian England where the Information Age has arrived, thanks to the success of a computer conceptualized by Charles Babbage in 1822 and powered by steam, and Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999; adapted to film 2003). While Victorian settings are traditional, other common historical settings include the British Edwardian Age and the American Wild West. Fantasy worlds and postapocalyptic futures, also common, are nonhistorical but still “neo-Victorian” in that they rely on then-existing power technologies, notably steam, coal, or water. Some steampunk works, such as Powers’s The Anubis Gates (1983), also incorporate magic or the supernatural. Key works establishing the visualization of steampunk include Richard Fleisher’s Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil (1985).

As a subculture, steampunk has become increasingly influential in the twenty-first century. Philosophically, it tends to reflect optimism about the future, skepticism about authority, and the embrace of creativity and self-reliance. SteamPunk Magazine (2007—16), which exhorted readers to “Be Sociable, Share!,” also described steampunk as having “political significance” in that it “can have a profound impact on how we interact with one another and how we organize our society.” Steampunk has its own festivals, such as the Asylum Steampunk Festival in England, and is regularly featured at events such as Comic-Con and Renaissance fairs. Steampunk art, craft, and fashion make use of traditional Victorian forms, methods, and materials; hence, a steampunk costume might feature a corset or a waistcoast, a parasol or a top hat, and a steampunk maker might fashion a contraption out of brass, iron, or wood.

For further reading about steampunk, see Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers’s The Steampunk Bible (2011) and Steaming into a Victorian Future (2013), a collection of essays on the social and cultural aspects of steampunk, edited by Julie Anne Taddeo and Cynthia J. Miller.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Steampunk novels include Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992), an alternative “history” in which Dracula (of Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1897]) marries Queen Victoria and two characters, one a vampire, search for Jack the Ripper; China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), which Miéville described in a 2003 interview with 3 A.M. Magazine as “a secondary world fantasy with Victorian era technology”; S. M. Stirling’s postapocalyptic The Peshawar Lancers (2002); Thomas Pynchon’s epic Against the Day (2006); Gail Carriger’s paranormal romance Soulless (2009), “A Novel of Vampires, Werewolves, and Parasols”; Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009), which has zombies roaming an alternative-history version of Seattle; Scott Westerfield’s young-adult Leviathan trilogy (2009—11), set in an alternative World War I between the Axis, who use “clanker” steam technology, and the Allied “darwinists,” who use genetically engineered creatures; and Suzanne Lazear’s Aether Chronicles (2012—14). Steampunk anthologies include Extraordinary Engines (2008), a collection of original stories edited by Nick Gevers, and Steampunk! (2011), edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant.

Steampunk movies include Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film Tenkū no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky) (1986); Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s La cité des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children) (1995); Katsuhiro Otomo’s amine film Steamboy (2004); Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009); Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), and Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s Avril et le monde truqué (April and the Extraordinary World) (2015). Examples of steampunk in other areas include Bryan Talbot’s comic strip The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (1978—89); the video games The Chaos Engine (1993), inspired by The Difference Engine, and BioShock Infinite (2013); the online role-playing game World of Warcraft (2004— ); Art Donovan’s The Art of Steampunk (2011); and the music group Abney Park.