Before I get into talking about Alternate History and its influence on Steampunk, I want to apologize for my underestimation of the amount of material out there. Bad Matthew, yes I know. So, this Roots of Steampunk series will continue for at least two more weeks -- possibly more depending on how detailed I get. Also: We're having a very special Guest Blogger at the end of this week. And no, I'm not going to tell you who it is (more fun to keep you in suspense). Anyway, back to the Roots of Steampunk:
One of the hallmarks of traditional Steampunk is that it's a re-imagining of the Victorian Era with hyper-advanced steam technology. Or, in the case of Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, it's a re-imagining of the United States during the late 1800s. Either way, the important thing to note is that events happened differently. In The Difference Engine, Charles Babbage developed his Difference Engine in the 1820s, Lord Byron was never killed in the Greek War of Independence, and the aristocracy was replaced by merit lordship.
Suffice to say, the very heart and soul of Steampunk involves imagining a world that Never Was. Because we as Steampunk authors place highly advanced steam technology in time periods that didn't have it at the level we want it to be, the very nature of the genre is tied to Alternate History. This is distinct from being a historical revisionist in that revisionists take already existing sources and re-evaluate their place in history. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls for example, helped revise our opinion of the Hebrews of the first century AD. Someone writing Alternate History in that period, on the other hand, might decide that Saint Paul was never converted and instead managed to shatter early Christianity before it began.
One of the first tales of Alternate History was written by Frenchman Louis Geoffroy in 1836; his History of the Universal Monarchy: Napoleon And The Conquest Of The World asks the question of what the world would look like if Napoleon Bonaparte had conquered Russia in 1811 and then Britain in 1814, thus unifying Europe under one ruler. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the short story "P.'s Correspondence" in 1845, which is the tale of a "madman" who perceives a different 1845, one where the poets Keats, Burns, Byron, and Shelley still live, in addition to the actor Edmund Kean, British politician George Canning, and even Napoleon himself.
Harry Turtledove, Mark Twain, Poul Anderson -- these are a few of the authors who've made this genre their lifeblood. Steampunk authors who write in the real world are universally focused on Alternate History out of necessity; S.M. Peters's Whitechapel Gods describes the Whitechapel section of London after it was taken over by the villains of the story; Gail Carriger's Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless take place in an England where vampires, werewolves, and ghosts are an integral part of Government and Society; and I've already mentioned Priest and the duo of Gibson and Sterling.
Steampunk = Alternate History. There's really no other way to say it.
Tomorrow: Castello Holford's Aristopia