Monday, April 19, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Alternate History and The Road Not Taken

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


Gary Corby said...

I claim the world's first steampunk device was the bronze man called Talos, built by the Greek God Hephaistos.

Talos circled Crete 3 times a day, killing pirates by either throwing rocks onto their ships or killing them in a fiery embrace. Which presumably means Talos was fire-powered. Which makes him steampunk!

Matthew Delman said...

Gary --

Sure, we'll give the first steampunk device to the Greeks. We kind of have to anyway because they created Automatons, which are patently steampunk.

Gary Corby said...

The first of the automatons was also said to have been built by Hephaistos. Not a bad effort for a lame nerd.

L. T. Host said...

LOL at "not a bad effort for a lame nerd".

Alternate history is actually one of my favorite facets of steampunk. It's so cool to think about how the world might have been if technology had taken a different turn. I enjoy reading it far more than trying to come up with it myself, though. I admire steampunk authors for the sheer amount of thought that has to go into a novel like this.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I always feel like these posts deserve a large auditorium, a ticket price at the door, and a podium with microphone. Great job, Matt! :-)

dolorah said...

Fascinating. I'm in for the whole series; and willing to pay my ticket at the door.

I love steam punk also, but until meeting up with you, Matt, and a few others like you I haven't really read it. Watching it on TV is totally different than experiencing the actual writing.

I'm awed by the amount of work and research that goes into such an endeavor. I know I've used the word before, but fascinating really describes it for me.


Matthew Delman said...

L.T. -- Yeah, the alternate history of some Steampunk is almost better than the fantastic version of it because it's harder to make the changes viable. With an off-Earth story, you can basically do whatever you want. If you set your tale in London circa 1895, then you'd best be right on the money.

Shannon and Donna -- D'aww you guys are too kind. One of my dreams is to be a college professor teaching writing at some point in the future. Maybe it'll happen; maybe not. We'll see.