edited: Monday, November 05, 2007
By Harry Markov
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, November 05, 2007
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The main points, which define a genre unknown to many people: steampunk.
Greetings readers, writers and all in between! I welcome you to the debut article of my series “Genres and what do we really know about them”. In times such as these, where every thing develops at a really fast pace, it is hard to stay up to date with everything going on around us. Literature like everything else evolves thus weaving an intricate net of genres that mix and meld to form complex systems of subgenres.
So it is perfectly normal to not be informed about every genre that evolves. Today I am going to present you with the results of hours-long research, I did in the world wide web on “Steampunk”, the genre all of us have already seen somewhere on TV or read works written in it, but still have no clue what exactly Steampunk is.
Steampunk is in its nature a spin-off of the Sci-Fi genre and not the Fantasy genre, which is the most common mistake made by people. The action takes place in the past of human kind from Ancient Times to Middle Ages to the Victorian Era, but the characters interact with futuristic technology. This is the definition of the genre if you look it by today’s standards and its growth throughout the decades.
The prototypical Steampunk stories were essentially Cyberpunk tales that were set in the past (originally and more often the Victorian Era), using steam-era technology rather than the ubiquitous cybernetics of Cyberpunk but maintaining those stories' "punkish" attitudes towards authority figures and human nature.
As you can see Steampunk has started as a subgenre of the Cyberpunk, but gradually has outgrown it and developed as a new separate movement. Here is a neat, short and clear enough version of the differences and similarities in both genres.
- Steampunk: Sci-Fi
- Cyberpunk: Sci-Fi (no, surprise there)
- Steampunk: Steampunk is set mostly in the Victorian or the Edwardian Era, because of the highly developed and aesthetic look in fashion, manners and architecture.
- Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk is always set in a post-modern industrial version of Earth, where the setting is dark and nature is scarce, while technology is dominant.
- Steampunk: Steampunk’s trade mark is the technology, which is from the steam-era. Steam engines and clockwork mechanisms used in unbelievable ways and intertwined with the great aesthetic taste of the Victorian Era produce magnificent and beautiful machines and gadgets, which immediately catch the eye.
- Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk’s trade mark is electricity, complex wiring, cybernetics and the smooth and simple machine design in dark colors. This mix produces monumental mega polis cities with sinister desolate skyscrapers and a more melancholic feeling to it.
- Steampunk: This is where the actual evolution of the genre takes place. In the beginning it holds the heavy dystopian views of the Cyberpunk, but later on undergoes a serious metamorphose and stands on the exact opposite belief, grasp and feel. This radical change from negative depiction of society to the more utopian concept is done under the influence of the Victorian Era setting with its aesthetic view on life.
- Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk shares the ideas of highly developed individualism, anti-authoritarianism, political anarchism, free thought and ethics with a pinch of melancholy, angst and pessimistic depression. Most of the atmosphere is accomplished with the use of noir and pulp fiction techniques.
Now that we have established the main elements of the genre, we surely must delve deeper into the past of this extraordinary genre and witness its first uncertain steps on the great literary scene.
Kevin Wayne Jeter is the man held responsible for creating the term Steampunk. That happened in the late 1980’s and is the result of his long search for a definition of the work of his fellow writers Tim Powers James Blaylock and of course his own work. Although the term is invented in the 80’s the first contributions to the genre date back to the 1960’s and 1970’s.
There are a quite a few authors that influence the development of the genre, which I will list as recommended reads in the end of this article, but innovators are famous pioneers in the literature: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain and Mary Shelley.
Curious Fact: Even though some of their novels and stories fit the definition of the genre today, in those days their work was considered pure Sci-Fi back then, because the setting and time matched the real era, when these novels were published. This is extremely interesting, because you witness how with the advance of time, certain novels become outdated in their ideas and change their genre.
Speaking of fitting the definition, I am sure that you are still asking yourself, what exactly the rules are, for my work to be labeled as “Steampunk”. The list of elements placed above seems to restrict the genre too much, which takes a great deal out of the writer’s imaginative flow and freedom to create. I can relate to that on all levels possible, but in these 40 something years in the making, Steampunk has branched out and mixed with different genres to give our pretentious nature the freedom to do whatever we wish.
Historical Steampunk is basically all the things we have been talking about. Pick a particular and recognizable period in the human history (Yes, you can choose any era you may wish, although the Victorian and Edwardian Eras are most preferred.) and sprinkle it with a heavy doze of steam-based invention from before the Industrial Revolution and the inventing of electricity. We are going to view the subgenres in view of the chronological pace of the eras.
- Stonepunk: The subgenre refers to the Stone Age and a great example of it would be the Flinstones. I really have no idea how people came up with this concept, because in those days steam based technology is incompatible to use, but hey if you have the talent to make it credible, all can happen. The world wide web was really scarce on the subject, otherwise I would have added more details.
- Sandalpunk or Greko-Roman Punk: As you all might have thought is all about Ancient Greece and the world in that time. Nothing is particularly said about this subgenre either.
- Medievalpunk: As the name clearly says it, the setting is the Middle ages, where you have to handle huge and very crude machines covered with dust, filth and ashes. These details, sadly are not mentioned anywhere in the web and are a product of my logistic skills. Considering the hygiene and behavior of the nations back then it’s logical.
- Clockpunk: This is a very delicate, but beautiful subgenre, which is for the ones in love with beauty and has an aesthetic eye for the finer things in life. Placed in the Renaissance, it covers the transition from Baroque to the Enlightenment. This subgenre is inspired by the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci and restricts to the use of clockwork mechanisms. The accent falls onto intricacy and complexity of the mechanisms and the great attention to detail. This unearthly feeling of the surrounding world makes it alluring for fantasy writers to use, rather than those in the Sci-Fi.
- Victorianpunk: All of the above information from the beginning refers to this genre specifically. Victorianpunkt is the debut of the Steampunk as a separate movement and is the most developed.
- Westernpunk: This is the American equivalent of the Victorianpunk and is set in the American Wild West. “Wild Wild West” with Will Smith speaks enough about what the subgenre is all about.
Fantasy Steampunk is the other major subgenre that still hasn’t divided yet, but is diverse, because of the different fantasy subgenres that can influence this particular Steampunk variety. In its essence Fantasy Steampunk is everything the Historical subgenre is plus the mythological figures, magic systems, different races, magical creatures and so on. This is where the aesthetic, science and magic clash in environmentally friendly surroundings to produce extraordinary works of fiction. This subgenre offers freedom without limits, because you can incorporate technology with gothic fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy and so on.
I tend to get this research on a new level by saying a few more words about the three most important elements of the Steampunk. To make the story credible and solely in the spirit of the Steampunk traditional Victorian aesthetic view, your attention span must be great and you must keep a constant eye on technology, fashion and architecture.
- Technology: I am more than sure that by now you all hove got the idea that Steampunk is defined by steam-based machinery. Here are some helpful tips concerning the design of your machinery and gadgets. The tip is actually one: Try to be original and the weirder your machines look and sound the better. For those multitalented personas out there that like intense sketching I am posting a link to a site that gives detailed descriptions on how to draw machines in Steampunk style plus various illustrations.
- Fashion: This particular topic can eventually grow to be a stand alone article, but I want to keep it as short as possible. The corset is a hallmark for the women, while the more English dandy style is for the men. I am really not that good in explanations concerning clothes, so this is why I am having some sites for this purpose with sketches and enough material for you to get the idea.
- Architecture: The Victorian architecture is actually a compilation from various styles that were flourishing during the Victorian Era, which lasted around 64 years. Some examples can be the Gothic style or Neoclassicism. Here is the link to Wikipedia’s page on the subject.
IN THE END:
We are reaching the long sought ending of this article. If you have read the article from the first line, you are sure to know and understand the Steampunk and get to love it. After this research I can state with quite a confidence that this genre sounds appealing in its diversity and aesthetic beauty.
As promised, here is the list of recommended reads from this genre. I am not going to include everything, because the list is longer than this whole article. Enjoy.
Bas-Lag set books by China Miéville:
o Perdido Street Station (2000)
o The Scar (2002)
o Iron Council (2004)
Ghost Novels by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., set in an alternate present in which 19th century powers still dominate, and the human soul is a tangible thing. A world of difference engines, steam cars and de-souled zombie servants:
o Of Tangible Ghosts (1994)
o The Ghost of the Revelator (1998)
o Ghost of the White Nights (2001)
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, particularly Northern Lights (1995).
The Hungry City Chronicles, by Philip Reeve, set in a postapocalyptic world, but with steam technology.
o Mortal Engines (2002)
o Predator's Gold (2003)
o Infernal Devices (2005)
o A Darkling Plain (2006)
Morlock Night (1979) by K. W. Jeter; a sequel to Wells' The Time Machine.
The Silent Stars Go By (1991), by James White, in which a steam engine built by Hero leads to earlier technolgical revolutions and a 1492 space mission.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) contains many elements of steampunk, in that the series that involves young people struggling against great odds in an anachronistic setting, the addition, in later books, of the mysterious organization known as V.F.D. have begun to push the story into the new genre of post-steampunk (in the same way that later additions to the cyberpunk genre are now classed as postcyberpunk).
Titus Alone (1959) by Mervyn Peake (third book in the Gormenghast series).
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