Ok so this is my first post, “the post that hurts the most”, so hopefully it will strike a chord with someone out there and I’ll recieve some positive feedback/questions about my research into the beginnings of the literary movement of Steampunk.
Steampunk literature just didn’t pop up out of nowhere. It has its roots in Victorian fiction, most notably the authors H.G Wells and Jules Verne, with a little Mary Shelley just to spice things up a bit. It is quite obvious how these three (just as an example, their novels are very famous) have had an impact on the origins of Steampunk literature and contemporary works. H.G Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) has probably the most impact on the literature mentioned in this blog. For those that haven’t read the book (or seen one of the screen adaptions) The Time Machine follows the protagonist, simply reffered to as the Time Traveller, as he travels into the future where the remnants of humanity are divided into two groups- the lazy and disinterested Eloi and the subterranian Morlocks, who we find out cultivate and eat the Eloi. Here we see a seemingly hopeless future that characterises much of the literature associated with Steampunk.
Jules Verne is most famous for his novels Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1869) and Around the World in 80 Days (1873). The fantastical machines that are seen in his works, especially in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea are the grandfathers to machinations that the mad scientist employs in their devious schemes in contemporary Steampunk fiction.
As for Mary Shelley, not much needs to be said. As a genre that is influenced by Victorian gothorama the creation of intelligent and artificial life abounds in Steampunk literature. The main difference between Shelley’s Frankenstein monster and the modern “Frankenstein monsters” is that they aren’t generally made out of scavenged corpses. They are more “sophisticated”, a consiousness implanted in an artificial body, or a robot (mainly powered by clockwork and/or steam, obviously) that is programmed to perform a set of functions that give it realistic human traits. If the reader is interested in artificial life and its portrayal in movies/literature, I would reccomend they go see Metropolis, one of my person favorites which I’ll probably grant a post or two later, its a great early Science Fiction movie.
Early Steampunk- Michael Moorcock
Michael Moorcock is an English Sci-fi/Fantasy writer whose 1971 book Warlord of the Air could be called early Steampunk fiction. It is an alternative history of the world where World War One never happened and the Earth is dominated by Empires such as the British Empire. The beginning of the book is set in Edwardian England where the protagonist becomes lost in India following a skirmish with natives. He awakes in 1973, understandably confused. He soon falls in with the Anarchists who oppose the Imperialist and Colonialist ideals of the Empire and seek to bring an end to the rigid social structure of the time. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but I will say it is quite a twist. This book is the first in a 3 part series written by Moorcock, the other two titled The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tzar. Alternate histories are a common convention used in Steampunk fiction, and Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air is an excellent example.
I have referred to the below three writers as “The Triad” because it was these three who perhaps had the greatest effect on making Steampunk an actual literary sub-genre. The term Steampunk was first used by author K.W. Jeter in reference of his work as well as that of his two friends, Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock. Interestingly, apart from all going to College together, they all were mentored by Philip K. Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep, better known as Bladerunner, which he dedicated to Tim Powers and his wife.
The two texts that I will refer to in this post are the ones that are usually referred to as Steampunk. His 1979 novel Morlock Night is a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In this novel, the Morlocks somehow steal the Time Machine and use it to terrorize Victorian London. This novel is widely considered to be one of the first examples of Steampunk fiction. Infernal Devices (1987) is an interesting and slightly bizarre novel set in Victorian England. It relates the unfortunate adventures of George the watchmaker that rotate around the strange clockwork devices his late father created. In his adventures he encounters an automaton, an almost duplicate of George himself that posesses greater sexual abilities than the real George and a surprising competence in the violin. Again, this “monster”, whilst incorporating some of the aspects of Mary Shelley’s monster is decidedly Steampunk in excecution.
The Anubis Gates written in 1983 is a bit different to previously mentioned works as it has a bit more Fantasy aspects than the others, involving the use of magic. The Drawing of the Dark, his 1979 novel gives us an alternate history to the seige of Vienna, and is referred to as Steampunk more often than Anubis Gates.
James P. Blaylock
Blaylock’s contribution to this genre is The Narbondo Series, in which all but the first are set in Victorian London. The Protagonist Langdon St. Ives attempts to foil his hunch backed nemesis, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, and his plans to destroy the world. Think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty type stuff. Blaylock is probably my favorite early Steampunk writer, as his work is fast-paced and witty, the characters are believable and the machines are excitingly improbable.
So there you have it. Steampunk literature is a growing sub-genre still, with Scott Westerfeld and Michael Pryor being some of the most recent authors to have a go at this wonderfully creative genre. If you have enjoyed this article, please post a comment, and if you have questions please post as well, as I would be most delighted to answer. Also if you have anything you would like to see on this site, comment as well.
Until my next transmission,
Captain R. Cook