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Rated: E · Article · Steampunk · #2081411
Being an exploration and detailed examination of this particular genre of Retro-Futurism
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What is Steampunk (or where is my dratted ballon when I need it)?


Toward a Comprehensive Philosophy of Steam Powered, Gas Lighted, Victorian Retro-Futurism

The great airship turns majestically into the wind, descending slowly, as it approaches the air-field with its mooring mast. Shadows play across the squat shapes of the land tugs, their boilers steaming, ready to gather the dropped lines from the great zeppelin and winch it down to the ground. It is a process that could take the better part of half an hour, as the thick hawsers are wrestled onto the land tugs capstans and the big mechs began to draw the airship down to a firm anchorage.

As the airmen drop their hawsers, a thinner line plays out and falls to the ground followed, almost immediately, by a figure in a standard flight suit and leather jacket. The man seems to plummet out of control, but as he nears the grass of the landing field he slows, deftly adding pressure to the line, so that his landing is light as a stepping off a city curb.

Below the waist the figure is garbed as might be any military man, close fitting slacks with a marshal red stripe down each side of the trousers. His jacket and headgear are brown leather, the later an odd skullcap that covers his ears and has ties hanging down on each side. Above his face are bug-eyed goggles, glass set in a leather housing.

Captain Horatio Klankenthrope joggs up to you and without introduction begins to tell you all about it:

It's a wonder you've made it, what with all the kerfuffle, but you have, and that's the important bit. Steampunk is on the tree of Speculative Fiction and is closely aligned with Science Fiction except that it isn't. Well, it was, mind, but now it isn't so much. You see, before there was a "Steampunk" genre there was already Jules Verne, HG Wells and ER Burroughs and so on. These forerunners of Steampunk were actually writing old-timey Science Fiction. Jump forward in time to when a few chaps, looking back, imagined stories as they might have been written in Vernes day except they weren't. Clear enough? Well I expect not. Let me explain.

The above is an attempt to embed the topic in some sort of entertaining Steampunk framework. It is not appropriate for an article.

If you haven't read Steampunk or Gaslight, why not? There is much to recommend the genre for readers, and while other sub-genre may be cluttered, Steampunk is good place to put down some writing roots as well. There is nothing in the genre that excludes it from being an apt setting for almost any brand of speculative fiction.

The Roots of Steampunk are the Roots of Science Fiction

Verne and Wells looked forward, from Victorian or Edwardian days, with perspicacious clarity and wrote stories with relevance to today though the details of their visions of the future have been proved somewhat incorrect by present day reality. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Steampunk looks back at a past that is known and, from our more modern perspective, authors are able to imagine a different past leading to a far different future as well.

Published in 1895, the Time Machine (https://http//http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35), by H. G. Wells, is a prime example of just what this sort of literary device allows us to do as Steampunk Authors. In our machine we can travel back in time to a world that was experiencing the rapid changes associated with colonialism and industrialization. We can imagine differences to the known history of the past, we can accelerate progress, we can place our observers at the very cusp of the events that change our created world.

So it is right and should have been anticipated that the imaginers of air travel and undersea travel and even time travel sit firmly at the root of the genre that claims them, though it came long after they had imagined and then gone. We labor in their shadow though they sit at the root of what we do.

The Steampunk, versus Gaslamp, versus Retro-Futurism controversy

The important thing is the story. Dress your characters in Victorian finery, place them in airships or submarines, present them to morlocks or torment them with airship pirates, but they are still people who must effectively relate to your audience or the fiction falls flat.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote of savage Tarzan, adventurous John Carter, and even sent Tarzan to the Earth's core (http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601071h.html) in a vacuum dirigible, the Pellucidar that was first visited by a tracked earth boring machine. I found great entertainment in the action adventure of ERB's heroes in various settings. I'm not sure it matters what you call it, but setting does seem to have something to do with the Steampunk genre, or what some call Gaslamp or Gaslight. I like the term Retro-Futurism, but I'm not sure that it is at all properly descriptive of some of what falls under those labels.

So it is really labels that we are talking about. In many ways this brand of speculative fiction, within the Science Fiction and Fantasy realm, IS defined by a setting and an asthetic. Neo-Victorian is a label that applies. It is often somewhat technical though the geewizery is decidedly oily and smoke stained. Originally, I think, the punk of Steampunk was only a wordplay relating to another genre, Cyberpunk, but whether, chicken or egg or roosterwise, some of the non-comformist and anti-authoritarianism has worked its way in. Still, the elite are mostly the heroes, men and women of quality and breeding. One wonders if more American influence will allow that long to endure.

Anyhow, it was an effort to find a descriptive name that didn't involve the steam-power elements of Victoriana that led to Gaslamp and Gaslight as labels for something Neo-Victorian but conforming to Fantasy or, to a lesser extent other Sci-Fi, tropes. Depending on what you intend to write or actually do, the label should be an aide to identification for the consumer's convenience and not what drives your writing. The important thing, after all, is the story.

Looking into Steampunk here on WdC

Old has become new. Retro-Futurism offers many opportunities for readers to be entertained and for writers to create. If you aren't convinced of the potential for reading and writing Steampunk, perhaps a little reading would close the deal. Steampunk is relatively new on WdC, but there are writers and stories that are worth a look.

The Steampunk Author's Guild (StAG) might be a good place to start. See: "The Steampunk Authors' Guild

Some Steampunk Author's, new and old, have put up a few things in the Steampunk Reading Room that might tweak your fancy, or perhaps inspire you to do them one better. See: "Steampunk Reading Room If you've something to promote in the genre you might consider adding it to this growing list.

Cerulean Son has a nice story that has a lot that immediately identifies it as steampunk. Have a look at:
The Swift  (13+)
The steam-powered superhero pursues his arch-enemy, Professor Delirium Tremens.
#1879638 by CeruleanSon

Adventure with Room to Breath.

I don't think it is by accident that Victorian/Edwardian England is a common setting where Steampunk finds its characters and starting place if not backdrop for adventure. Steampunk London (let's put a pin in it) sits in time and location at the nexus of the Industrial Revolution and British Imperial Expansion. While mercantilism transformed the continent, it was Industrialization and Sea Power that spread British interests around the world so that the Sun never set on the British Empire.

Today, Google Earth reduces Terra Incognita to a few blurry patches. It is damn hard to get yourself lost in the sense that one could in those days when it might be said that no human had ever seen etc. There is no room for lost gold encrusted civilizations sacrificing virgins to say nothing of your betrothed, miss Penelope Parsons. Writers today must take people through interstellar space to find new and different. Perhaps you can see the appeal of time travelling back two centuries when an airship could take you where a leopard breach clout is formal wear.

Rapid industrialization and the invention that drove it, along with Empire, makes fertile ground for heroes to make their mark on a world become small because of technology but wildly varied and insular until bureaucracy and the advance of the same technology gobbles up every possible discovery and tames every possible adventure.

The Wild West inhabits a similar slice of time. It is a generation or two, but no more, like the Pony Express that figures large in legend, but survived only a few months before (as, really) the telegraph lines made their way across America. Steampunk inhabits such a place in the fictional world where the advantages of the new have not fully impacted the imaginary world with too civilizing an effect. There really ought to be a word for this effect, I'll be pleased if I can think of one. Labels you know. But as to what it actually is, perhaps it is a manifestation of a heroic generation who can not help but make an epic of the challenges and opportunities of their time.

Technological Advancement You Can Count On

One of the most daunting aspects of Science Fiction is the relentless progress of Technology and Scientific Discovery. Cutting edge science is often displaced by new discoveries even before it has been accepted by the scientifc world of the particular discipline to say nothing of Science at large and we dabblers limited to popular science for our understanding. Textbooks are moldering piles of bureaucratic compromise that have little whatever to do with what is really cutting edge. It is false on the publication date and likely will be shown to be absurd in a generation.

What is a Science Fiction writer to do? We, after all, are burdened with the task of believably imagining a future from incomplete and demonstrably wrong information as our basis. Sometimes the solution must be the Alternate Universe. This is speculation, certainly, but these fantasies at least allow for an author's authority, thus the word. What if Pi is 3.2 or 3 or 4, not by way of inaccuracy, but by means of imagination? Alternate Universe, Alternate History, Post Apocalypse, all these strategies can be bound up in a Steampunk world with the advantage that we have a model that we can refer to instead of one that must be imagined from whole cloth. Steampunk offers a literary Time Machine where a host of knowns can be bent to adventure.

That is not to say that if you write Steampunk you are freed from all the constraints of science, rather it affords one a static "Known World" that the author can compare his alternate fictional world to. Setting your adventure in a known and agreed upon past can make your good research remain relevant whereas the best scientific research and the prognostications based on current best knowledge create a product that ages badly. Starships plotting their courses on slide rules, spacemen wear tight fitting suits not realizing the need for insulation to avoid freezing or parbroiling and imagining a future world where your fictional future technological amazement is already superceeded by what we have today.

In short, retro-futurism affords a stable framework for fiction and the Victorian milieu an excellent backdrop from which to explore technological change, and the social implications of progress. Not only that, but steampower, submarines, and airships are just so cool. Have a look at this story by Cerulean Son: "The Swift

On the Politics of Steam and Empire

There is always an elite. Even on the Enterprise there were Kirk and Spock and McCoy, the United Nations (Chekov, Uhura, Sulu, and Scott), and the poor bastard on the landing party who was going to die. There is always a group at the top fighting for supremacy, or hanging on to supremacy, or feeling entitled to supremacy and being damn sure they figure out a way to what they are entitled to have. Those that have more are both likely to accumulate more (compounding interest) and be willing to use various strategies including collusion and conspiracy to continue to hold more. This is not a conspiracy theory, rather it is an immutable conspiracy law. I shall call it the Law of Compounding Elitism. I imagine there are many possible formulations of the law, but torn down to the studs I think it can be expressed: the Elite sucks.

Everyone knows that the boss is an idiot. Just ask them, everyone that is. Politicians are all rotten. This may be closer to the truth. The rich don't pay their fair share and many of them don't deserve what they have, they're just lucky. I imagine that the rich are aware of this perception and are taking steps to maintain their privilege.

But before I get all... ...even though I've already gone all class warfare bla bla bla, let me blow all that up. The action is in the middle. Sure the elite seem to be holding everyone down, but in reality they are on top and just trying to stay there I think, for the most part. The rich are conservative and I don't mean politically. There is a lot farther to fall and, though they may have a lot of rich guy experience, they don't know much about the hard scrabble life. They would as soon avoid it. What they do have is resources that they parlay for security. They have married well so they likely have looks or the money necessary to manufacture beauty. They have education and value it because they know it is key to accessing the advantages that their birth has afforded them. It's all about keeping them up and not so much keeping you down. This is the great mass of the upper crust, they just don't want to get trod on, they are careful and not at all adventurous or particularly ambitious.

That's not to say that the odd mad scientist couldn't be a member of the elite, or that the conservative upper crust might be relieved to know that advancements in scientific technology have rendered their fellow (though inferior) human beings obsolete and therefore they find themselves in a position to remove the danger of revolt by the underclasses by their complete removal from the face of the earth. It's only rational, they might say. These would be minority views, likely, and not that of the larger portion of the elite. But then I don't go to the meetings or get the newsletters so I might be wrong.

Movement from the Middle

However, in the middle you have movement, and it is a compounding factor in the world of Steampunk because of the expanding horizons of technology and empire. The middle is where an individual's pluck and hard-work, not to mention talent, can let them rise. In truth it may only be the bottom five percent of the top ten percent so the middle is a misnomer, but the point is, that within a fairly pronounced caste system the focul point of the Steampunk universe allows for social rise. It is a time and a place where competence allows advancement.

In all these things you can focus on a theme, like class, by presenting current thinking or indeed your own views against the prevading views of an earlier age. The contrast of the new idea set against the alieness of the old idea will make them all the more stark. I'm developing a steampunk story that has themes of classism, sexism, and materialism all set in a post-apocolyptic Western Empire that encompasses much of the European Union, though that wasn't the political landscape at all in REAL Victorian era Europe. It's got much that reminds one of the Victorian while the politics are a bit more like today.

This next part is very "inprocess" and I've copied some elements directly from Evil Eggs list. Likely that is clear, but I want to make sure that you know that my reordering and comment is not done. I want to give him credit, but I'm not sure I will agree with all his points and I don't want to take credit for his excellent work. I'll remove this notice when I feel that I've accomplished the process and likely passed it by Evil Egg as well to see how he wants to be credited or if he wants nothing

An Exploration of What is Called Steampunk
The Nuts and Bolts and Gas Bladders of What We Enjoy

EvilEgg has come up with a delightful list:
SteamPunk: A List of Themes  (E)
The Themes, Settings and Devices of the Sci-fi Sub-genre, SteamPunk
#1249132 by EvilEgg

I will draw from his alphabetical list and lay out a frame-work for Steampunk that explains and examines some of these themes or tropes without regard to their alphabetical order. This will be an organization bred of their relationship to each other and may give rise to ideas and themes that are not on EvilEgg's excellent list.

The Nuts and Bolts of Setting

The first category I'd like to look at is setting. You get a definite feeling of "Other Place" when reading Steampunk, at least I do, and yet it is familiar. Victorian England or wherever it is set in a newly industrializing world where people can access the top level of advancement, the cutting edge, often provides the initial setting for Steampunk. That's not to say that before long characters won't be launched to the ice and snow of the Arctic, bursting through the ice in a submarine, or rise on the air in a zepplin and soon find themselves in far Timbuktu, or even, more conventionally, board the night train and hurtle through the stygian darkness and find themselves in Constantinople or even deep into the sub continent, Patna by the Ganges. Likely they will, but In every case, regardless of the destination or the setting of the initiating incident, home is civilization and our heroes bring it with them to the barren ice, the desert steppe, or the steaming jungle.

Part of this assumed civilization is transportation that makes accessing the exotic much more rapid. In Steampunk the world is becoming a smaller place.

Alternate Universe

Technically speaking, SteamPunk is always an alternate universe. That being said, and in particular having mentioned the word "technically" you often find that scientific development, at least where its application has led to technological advancement, has occurred somewhat quicker than in the world you know. To some extent this may be due to characters being privy to the bleeding edge of alternate tech. Perhaps developments have arisen that never made the newspapers. Still, there is an old-timey techiness that seems to prevade the genre. Sometimes a post apocalyptic senario accounts for technologies variance from the normal. Have a look at Fever Crumb for this kind of story: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6839020-fever-crumb

Antiquities-Victorian items like eye glasses and pocket watches really set the mood for a steam punk story and give you a little information about the character who owns them.

City States- City States are possible in times of war and chaos, easily envisioned in SteamPunk, or they may be the result of a city leader becoming so powerful, in terms of charisma, science, and military, that the city is actually able to declare independence

Class Divide- The oldest and most intense conflict is the conflict between rich and poor. Workers in the Victorian era had it pretty rough, working in dangerous conditions with low pay,(32) and anarchists and socialists sometimes committed acts of indiscriminate violence against the rich upper classes.

Colonialism- Colonialism was presented mostly as a positive thing in most of the early adventure novels that SteamPunk draws from.(5) If this is brought up in SteamPunk it is usually in parody or with the expansionists as the villains lifted up as heroes by society.

Gas Bladders and Steam Pistons

Transportation is a very

Balloons- Hot air balloons and zeppelins.

Flying Machines- These can be blimps or hot air balloons, something resembling modern planes, rockets, gliders, clockwork helicopters, or machines that flap wings like birds to achieve lift

Ironclads-Those metal battleships that got their start in the American Civil War. They inspired war fiction of the period and are common in modern SteamPunk as locations for a story or weapons of war.

Rockets- More like bottle rockets than modern gas propelled rockets. SteamPunk fiction uses rockets as military equipment and high speed transportation,(9) either flying through the air or attached to a land vehicle.

Submarines- The first American Submarine was invented during the civil war. The small object was designed to get under English ships and drill holes in the bottom, but none of the attempts succeeded.(23)
Submarines in SteamPunk fiction are yet another reason to thank the great Jules Verne. In “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” Verne's character Nemo designed a massive submarine to explore the ocean depths and survive giant squid attacks.(30)
Submarines in SteamPunk fiction either deal past speculations of the unknown or the technical problems of relying completely on a machine to protect ones life in an ocean environment.

Trains- The importance of trains for the SteamPunk genre can not be over stated. Trains were the first form of mass transportation, connecting whole continents and diffusing culture and information.
In SteamPunk fiction trains serve as mobile bases as in Wild Wild West,(2) a means of long range transportation, especially in a SteamPunk Western, and a dramatic, if overused scene for the final showdown between the hero and the villain.

Body Modification- Mechanical body parts

Chemistry- Modern chemistry came about in the beginning of the Victorian era

Clock Work-Quite a bit older than steam technology
Difference Engines- Or Analytical Engines. Difference engines were mechanical calculators designed to calculate complex polynomials.

Dystopia- The Victorian era had a lot of social, economic and political problems, hidden by adventure novelists of the past but highlighted by modern political SteamPunk writers who have things to say about society, usually as a thinly veiled parody.

Giant Machines- Towering titans blotting out the sun with smoke. Typically the invention of a mad scientist, a secret society, or countries at war.

Grease- A small touch, greasy hands and clothes for the tinkers, but it's so necessary with SteamPunk fiction that it deserves it's own place in the list.

Little Gizmos- Cute little mascots made from old broken clocks or sinister swarms of predatory metallic insects. The smaller machines tend to be clockwork instead of steam.

Mad Scientist- The classic super villain. This sort of character has a wide range of possibilities in SteamPunk. The Mad Scientist may heartlessly perform nightmarish experiments in pursuit of his or her goals

Mech Suit- More of a futuristic cyber anime concept, but a mech suit in a SteamPunk story would probably be big and slow, requiring room for the steam engine, levers, and gears.

Neo-Victorianism-More of a form of modern goth fashion, but the mood works well in SteamPunk stories, role playing games, fashion and cosplay.(15)

Nobility- Class was very important in the Victorian era. Nobles in Victorian England were even less likely to get in trouble with the law than rich people today. Nobles in SteamPunk can be heroes, using their wealth and education for the benefit of the lower class or arrogant villains, doing for themselves at the expense of the poor.

Old Technology- Any old idea used in an imaginative or fantastic way, like zeppelins with cannons or insanely complex difference engines.

Pollution- Burning coal causes smog and ozone depletion (if you believe the theories regarding that). In a fictional world where basically everything runs on steam power, pollution would be an excellent conflict or side conflict. Realistic, such as species extinction and ocean pollution, or more fantastic conflicts with mutants and monsters.

Print Media- “Extra, extra, read all about it!” SteamPunk stories usually do not feature television sets or even radio, so most media in the stories are books, pamphlets, and newspapers.
Newspaper media also meshes well with political subversiveness in SteamPunk stories. Several lines in The Declaration of Independence were taken from Thomas Paine's political pamphlet “Common Sense”(18) and a sensationalist article by William Randolf Hearst accusing the Spanish of bombing the USS Maine was the most direct cause of the Spanish American War.(19)

Pseudoscience- Old or persisting theories with little or no supporting science and usually a ton of science that contradicts the theory or proves it completely wrong.

Realism vs Fantasy- SteamPunk, like all science fiction, can be divided between stories that try to be realistic with the ideas and inventions in the stories and those that ask the reader to “just go with it.” Comics tend to “just go with it” while novels, novellas, and even short stories have a bit more room to explain why something works.
Of course there's only so much one can do with steam power and springs, but a creative person can actually convince a person that a determined and brilliant person can design a difference engine advanced enough to rival early computers.(7)
Both “hard” SteamPunk and “Fantastic” SteamPunk have their strengths and weaknesses, but an avid reader can be a fan of both, depending on the mood, and not feel ashamed.

Retro-Futurism- This means looking at the pasts idea of the future, either in fiction or educated predictions, and making a story about it. These can be done for comedy or nostalgia.
To be considered true Retro-Futurism a story must keep to the future expectations of the time used as reference. That means abandoning many favorite SteamPunk themes such as steam computers.(20)

Secret Societies- Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the idea of Secret Societies was very scary and not just for conspiracy theorists. There was actually an “Anti-Masons” political party formed in 1826 in response to the disappearance of a self professed member of the Free Masons who disappeared after promising to publish a book exposing the secrets of the secret society.(22)
Secret Society plots fit with the political subversive side of SteamPunk. Secret Societies are thought of as run by the rich and politically elite making them fun villains, but Secret Societies can also be the heroes of a SteamPunk story, opposing a repressive government.

Sword Fights- It is a lot easier to find an excuse for a sword fight in SteamPunk fiction than in most fiction set in present or future times. In the Victorian era gentlemen still dueled each other with well laid out rules and if a pistol is out of reach or out of ammunition

Tinker's Workshop-A likely setting in a story with a tinker or inventor as the protagonist. Tinker's Workshops in SteamPunk fiction are typically cluttered, dusty, greasy and littered with gears and springs.

Verne and Wells- Two of the founding fathers of all science fiction. Their novels and stories were written in time periods that SteamPunk stories are typically set in, the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, giving them a slightly different perspective than SteamPunk writers. Verne and Wells envisioned things that were not known to be impossible at the, such as complicated surgery on animals to make them able to speak and walk around like human beings in Wells' “The Island of Doctor Moreau,”(30) and other things that predicted future technology such as in Verne's “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
SteamPunk draws heavily on the works of Jules Verne and H.G Wells in terms of fantastic inventions and adventures.(30)

Wonder Kid- A Wonder Kid character is a child genius, similar to characters in anime. A Wonder Kid is able to create fantastic things, usually with few resources.
In the '60s and '70s these characters tended to be male and the more common name for this theme is “Boy Genius,” like Tom Swift, the adolescent main character of the novel series named after him, who created motorcycles and flying machines.(31)
Times are changing though, and you now see more female Wonder Kids, especially in comics and anime like the online comic “Girl Genius” who's main character Agatha Clay creates steam powered and clock work machines in her sleep.(10)

More Philosyphising to Come:
© Copyright 2016 L. Stephen O'Neill (sonofniall at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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