Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Steampunk'd

Bad pun, yes I know, but I couldn't resist.

So the whole point of this post is to explain a little about the lovely genre known as Steampunk (because two reviewers at Public Query Slushpile asked), which is itself a subgenre of science fiction/fantasy. The simplest method of defining the style is to call it Neo-Victorian which, while true, doesn't really get across the whole point in the best fashion. Especially if you don't know anything about the technology of Victorian England (add that to my list of random bits of knowledge).

Anyway, the history of the genre goes like this ... cyberpunk came first, with its dystopian themes and cyborgs and people who have wires coming out of their heads, plugged into electronics in the near future (what tvtropes.org calls Twenty Minutes Into the Future). Steampunk resulted as a response to the harsh metallic gleam of cyberpunk by taking that technology and plopping it into Victorian England with the level of knowledge that period already had. One of the first novels was MORLOCK NIGHT (1979) by K.W. Jeter.

With steampunk, everything's made of copper, brass, wood, and steel -- and still somewhat dystopian -- but without the same metallic sterilization (ooo ... big word) of near-future cyberpunk. Charles Babbage's mechanical computer sparked the Information Age a hundred years early, steam power through James Watts and others was developed into flying machines and cars and armored tanks, and even mechanical robots than run on punchcards (THE AFFINITY BRIDGE by George Mann) can make an appearance. The cyborgs are still there, but this time they run on steam power.

Then you get into the idea of the "punk" side of the genre, which is intended to be a rejection of the system. The interesting thing about steampunk fantasy is that it sometimes doesn't even involve a dystopia. All it has is highly advanced steam technology that's capable of doing most everything we do with our technology now. Except mobile phones don't exist, nor do credit cards, or anything else that requires the plastics developed post-1920s and 1930s.

There's my brief (well not so much) explanation of what steampunk is. It's a heckuva lot of fun to write in, let me tell you. Especially because that means my random knowledge of thermodynamics is actually useful outside of random trivia. Which is always a good thing.

6 comments:

Bane of Anubis said...

Matt, this is extremely helpful b/c these are 2 genres (cyber/steam) that I was always a bit 'cloudy' about.

MattDel said...

I'm glad to be of service, Bane.

Gary Corby said...

What do you think of The Difference Engine? It seems to me that book is the one which pretty much defined steampunk, though of course it wasn't first.

MattDel said...

Unfortunately, I haven't actually read The Difference Engine yet. *hides face in shame*

I've been meaning to find a copy for quite a while, but I haven't gotten around to it. Perhaps I'll splurge today before the craziness of this weekend happens.

Adam Heine said...

This is a good rundown of the genre. I wasn't aware of its connections to cyberpunk, other than that they were spawned and christened one right after the other.

The Difference Engine made steampunk more mainstream (says Wikipedia). Before that, it was mostly obscure short stories that didn't quite fit into sci-fi or fantasy.

MattDel said...

Steampunk was actually started because cyberpunk authors began writing it. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling were accomplished writers in cyberpunk before they penned The Difference Engine. I think their names are more why steampunk got its push (well, them and K.W. Jeter).