Friday, November 5, 2010

A Word About Historical Accuracy in Steampunk

Recently, there have been some articles and blog posts floating around lambasting Steampunk for any number of failings -- real or imagined -- that the genre seems to express. Now, there are some that I agree with, and if you've followed my Twitter back-and-forths with Paul Jessup or read his fantastic article on "The Future of Steampunk" (posted at Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders and Mad Hatter's Bookshelf and Book Review), then you already know that I'd love to see more non-European Steampunk kicking about.

However, one of the primary complaints that I seem to be seeing in regards to Steampunk is that it's not historically accurate. That people couldn't have possibly developed the level of technology some of the fiction evidences -- like airships, for example. Despite the fact that Henri Giffard first flew a dirigible in the 1850s, certain commenters on other blogs (not here) have insisted that airships were an invention of the 20th century and not the 19th, therefore you can't possibly have someone flying an airship on the level of the Graf Zeppelin if your timeframe is earlier than 1900.

All right I can see that argument -- Zeppelin developed his airship in 1898 to 1899, but he didn't fly it until 1900, so the point is valid. However, and here's the really, really big point that I want to make for people who dislike Steampunk on basis of it not being historically accurate enough:

Steampunk is Alternate history.

Alternate history, by its very definition, isn't 100 percent historically accurate because you're changing the historical record with your fiction. If I wanted to read a Steampunk novel that was accurate historically to the minutest of details, then I wouldn't be reading a Steampunk novel -- I'd be reading historical fiction.

So someone who complains about the lack of historical accuracy in Steampunk is missing the entire point of the stories. It's supposed to be an alternate history set in the Victorian period of world history. There is no reason for Cherie Priest, Gail Carriger, George Mann, or S.M. Peters to get their history 100% accurate because they're not writing historical novels. They're writing alternate histories with a Steampunk aesthetic that happen to be set in the 19th century.

This complaint about historical accuracy leads me of course to wonder if the people who use this tired old excuse hate the entire genre of alternate history. Do they despise the Harry Turtledove novels where aliens land in the middle of the Cold War? Or his stories where the South wins the American Civil War? Or the alternate history novels where the American Revolution never happened?

Steampunk, as I've said before, is more concerned with what could possibly happen in a real-world society with advanced steam power and mechanics introduced into the proverbial mix. If you can convince the reader that your world could possibly exist, then you've done your job as a writer. There's no reason for you to be overly concerned with complete historic accuracy -- if you're writing a story set in Victorian England, then focus on the aspects you need in order to create the flavor of the time. You're changing things anyway by including the advanced steam power and mechanics that you're already throwing into the society.

Main point? Steampunk doesn't have to be 100 percent historically accurate. Be accurate as it relates to your story. That's all you really need to be concerned about.


Linda G. said...

People overly concerned with historical accuracy in their fiction should stick to, you know, historicals. ;)

The Aethernaut said...

People can get like that over the costuming aspect too. But I don't want to dress exactly like a Victorian! There is so much more imaginative possibility and play to be had :)

Unknown said...

Historically accurate steam punk, if they're referring the machines, would be like asking sci-fi writers to be accurate in their advances of technology too. One of the best things about fiction, escpecially science fiction, fantasy and steampunk, is that it takes us away from what we already know is true and right and gives us new ideas to think about. I speculate while I'm reading. "What if..." is the right question to ask yourself when you're reading something that isn't perfectly historically accurate.

Matthew Delman said...

Linda -- Exactly! Those folks should leave my Speculative Fiction alone and go read their historicals.

Aethernaut -- I love seeing the Steampunk costumes that people come up with. Granted, dressing period Victorian is fun too -- but there's so much you can do with Steampunk!

Jessica -- Sing it, sister. ;)

Michelle Black said...

Readers who think Steampunk needs to be historically accurate obviously need to be educated as to what the genre is all about. The fact that they missed the point so completely is both comical and a little sad.

Though, for me, hewing as close to historical accuracy as possible and *then* giving it a zinger of a twist is the real fun. (e.g. The Difference Engine--so vividly evoked the period, the alt.history felt all the more real.)

Anonymous said...

Some of us are just stealing the tech to wander off into worlds of our own without even AH analogs.

Jack Horner said...

Steampunk currently is not the child of Verne or Wells, it is the child of Serviss and Burroughs and Hollywood's imagineers. It is the ripping good yarn that you aren't supposed to think to hard about.

I believe that it can be more. I disagree that there is no place for historical accuracy. I struggle with Mike Perschon's posit that if a story is believable then it's alt. history and not steampunk.

I hope that like it's kissing cousin, historical recreation/reenactment, there can a place in steampunk for a continuity like Ren/fantasy faire - SCA - hardcore reenactment. To each, his own, to suit his temperament. Of course the different temperaments do not get along. They aren't the same beast despite the fact that they look so similar from the outside.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post! I agree with Jessica's answer. :-)

Matthew Delman said...

Jack -- I never said there wasn't a place for historical accuracy in Steampunk. If you can get a Steampunk society like The Difference Engine, or The Affinity Bridge, where you manage to get really darn close to the historical record and twist it (like Michelle says) then by all means go ahead and do it.

However, my point is more that disliking Steampunk purely because it doesn't follow the historical record to the letter misses the fact that the genre itself has always been about changing history so the technology can exist. If you want to get really darn close to what really happened, then I am 100 percent behind you. But don't hate on stories I like because the authors have twisted history to suit their story's purposes.

Mary -- true enough.

Shannon -- :)

modernesia said...

I read and enjoy Alternate History, Steampunk, Science Fiction, etcetera, because I find it challenges my normal views and ideas. Purists should stay safely within their own genres if they do not like or appreciate (read understand) anything that does not neatly fit into their narrow conventions of thought.

Remember, you do not have to read and enjoy everything nor does it have to be perfectly explainable.

Unknown said...

Great post, Matt. I sent the link to my Steampunk writing class.

Steampunk has always been about exploring the roads not taken, which naturally means sometimes things will be different. As long as anything that's truly out of the realm of reality is clearly explained, than why shouldn't the sky be the limit? After all, it *is* fiction.

Unknown said...

To each her own, as they say. For my personal taste, there is the potential to introduce gaffs that beg the question of whether the author understands the history they are trying to twist.

Just as you can write a regency period story, for example, and not convey that the Napoleonic Wars were going on, so you can write Steampunk without needing to address every single social issue, or the timing of every technical patent.

But Steampunk as a genre, that ignores certain huge social evils of the day, will always seem a little irrelevant to me. If it is to solely be about goggles and corsets, brass and gadgets, about wealthy anglosaxons floating around in their airships, then it will have the flavor of a rennaisance faire where characters wear jeans and tennis shoes.

Example -- I saw a proposal for a Civil War story in which there was no pressure for new and better war machines. I've forgotten the premise, but it had something to do with another aspect of the times, and they wanted to freeze the technology to about 1863. A book with such a premise would beg so many questions for me, that I wouldn't be able to pick it up. the technology innovations of the civil war were so fundamental to driving technology of the 20th century as we know it. It would be like reading a book about the Silicon Valley that included a BTW - technology is frozen to the 1960s. Or a story about the West that includes a BTW there is no Chinese nor Mexican, nor Native American presence.

It's the same problem that people who write historicals have - that provide only the flavor of history as a backdrop for a mystery or romance. A lot of times those books can seem like a modern writer inserting modern sensibilities upon an historical context, and it can be filled with gaffs.

So while I understand the 'twisted' and goth nature of steampunk, I still think that care should be taken about the accuracy.

Anonymous said...

Addressing social issues is hardly the sole justification of any form of literature.

Anonymous said...

A surprising number of historians don't read historical fiction, according to a recent BBC Radion 4 programme I listened to. Why? Coz the business of history is more about annotating sources that cobbling together narratives (that's for the populists). Historical fiction inevitably fictionalises the past, by appealing to contemporary understandings of self. If historical novelists didn't do that, such novels would struggle to be accessible to ordinary readers of today.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I suspect historians don't read historical fiction because they are primed to notice and be distracted by the errors. Any area of expertise is like that.

Anonymous said...

In my (probably not humble enough) opinion, a good story is a good story, no matter the setting. I tend to believe the characters and plot are the greatest part of most novels, so great characters and an awesome plot could be set in space, in a steampunk alternate history, in a fantasy land, wherever, and still work.

Point being, you choose the background you like for your story. What's the difference if it's not historically accurate?

Icy Sedgwick said...

To me, steampunk is no different from any other brand of fantasy. As long as the world created by the author is believeable, then that's all that really matters. If it feels like steampunk, then it is. If I want my fiction historically accurate then I'll read historical fiction!

Kevin Mowrer said...

What a great comment thread. The perspectives run a broad gamut and make for such a great discussion.
For me, one of the simple truths to crafting good stories is shaping the underlying world logic so that it not only fits and hosts your story but also so that it passes the integrity smell test and allows your audience to suspend disbelief. I believe "historically accurate" is a choice that the author/creator makes dependent on whether or not that is important to shaping his or her tale and meaning. Historically influenced and historically inspired is just as valid as historically accurate in speculative fiction and I'd be very sad to see one ounce of the steampunk wonder to be contributed by the highly inventive and talented makers within this inclusive genre limited by some randomly restrictive rules.
Cheers to all.