It is a world of imagined histories and alternate timelines. Here, below strange airships floating in the sky, people go about clothed in an outlandish garb of hats, goggles, cravats, corsets, boots, and leather accessories, suggestive of the aesthetics of the Victorian era. The retrofuturistic technology of this world, built from a gleaming assemblage of brass, copper and steel pistons, gears, pinions and valves running on steam or clockwork, seem to have been influenced by the ticking, clacking, and clanging machinery of that same Industrial Age.

This is the world of a past that perhaps could have been had Jules Verne’s and HG Wells’s novels turned into reality. Seen in numerous books, films and TV series, this is the world of Steampunk, a cultural movement that has been, over more than two decades, gathering, well, ahem, steam.

What explains Steampunk’s obsession with an improbable uchronia powered by steam and empowered by intricate clockwork gadgetry? Perhaps it comes from a subconscious yearning for the Newtonian-Laplacian worldview in which the universe was modelled in the likelihood of a well-oiled machine, organised, and mathematically predictable.

Maybe it stands for the lost land we had to abandon when Einstein questioned the absoluteness of time, Heisenberg raised the flag of uncertainty, and Schrödinger let loose his cat among its pigeons of naïve determinism. Or perhaps it comes from a reflective nostalgia for a romanticised past, when technology was not yet the undecipherable enigma that it has become to the twenty-first century man.

A past where gentleman tinkerers could aspire to build strange machines in their quaint little workshops hoping to unravel the mysteries of nature and bind her to the will of civilisation. A time when the tyranny of mass production was yet to enforce a minimalistic Bauhaus utilitarianism, and the machines built painstakingly by hand were each an opportunity for functionality to be celebrated alongside the individualism of craftsmanship.

Perhaps it arises from a growing estrangement with the interpretation of modernity as a temporal ideology that deifies newness and demands a ruthless rupture from the past as the precondition for progress. Whatever may be the underlying cause, it is undeniable that a literary subgenre that emerged towards the end of the twentieth century has since then metamorphosed into a subculture with a range of expressions from literature and craft to film and computer games.

Caricature by HT Alken (1831) from Dorothy George's 'Hogarth to Cruikshank' (1988) | Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

What is Steampunk?

Given Steampunk’s journey from a literary subgenre of science fiction to a subculture, and its subsumption of ideas, elements, and aesthetics from many subcultures such as the neo-Gothic, neo-Victorian and cyberpunk, minimal definitions such as “Victorian Science Fiction” or “Retrofuturistic subgenre of Science Fiction”, can, at the same time prove both exclusive, as well as ambiguous. Rather than limit our understanding of Steampunk by them, a look at its broad structure may provide us with a clearer insight.

We may view Steampunk as a novum that re-envisions a past where inert metal has gained the vigour of life through man’s mastery of steam, and the functions of futuristic technology have been recast into the forms of archaic machinery of the industrial era, resulting in a cornucopia of fanciful and anachronistic contraptions ranging from functional differential engines to sapient clockwork automatons. A past that is reimagined as “could have been” or “should have been” rather than ‘as it was’.

Or we may take recourse to the framework that author Mike Perschon proposes in Steampunk FAQ, theorising that Steampunk lies at the confluence of the three cultural elements of the hyper-vintage, techno-fantasy, and retrofuturism. Whereas the hyper-vintage imbues Steampunk with an exaggerated feel of the nineteenth century aesthetics in fashion, culture and art, providing its visual appeal, techno-fantasy permits the fusion of technology with magical elements.

By making it possible for impossible machines and gadgets to draw their motive power from imaginary magical sources such as thaumaturgy and phlogiston, techno-fantasy allows them to exist and function in the world of Steampunk. As for retrofuturism, which Perschon describes as the “way the present imagines the past seeing the future”, infuses into Steampunk the emotions of nostalgia and regret. Nostalgia for a past that no more will be, and regret for how it could and should have been.

But at the end one must acknowledge that over time many other cultural expressions have merged their currents with Steampunk’s and have repeatedly redefined it. These include, among others, the neo-Gothic – with its challenge to class hierarchies, patriarchy, gender binaries, and traditional standards of beauty and the body – cultural hermeneutics – with its attempt at a dialogic cultural translation of the past in order to gain an insight into the present – and design fiction – with its effort to weave tales around fictional constructs.

This means that just as with any subculture, Steampunk has not been immune from hybridity and cross-cultural blending, and any canonical and essentialist approach in defining it is likely to fail in doing it adequate justice. Let us, instead, explore its history and genesis by examining a few critical literary milestones of the Steampunk genre, to give us a sense of its evolution.

Early roots of Steampunk

The works of Verne and Wells are often cited as early examples of Steampunk. However, not only is the rationale of their inclusion in a genre which would emerge only a century or more afterwards is questionable, but they also lack an essential ingredient of Steampunk. This is retrofuturism, for the events they refer to takes place in a time period contemporary to the authors, rather than in an imaginary, historical past conjured up by them.

Nonetheless, given that these are tales narrated against the backdrop of a world that ran on steam, it would not be inappropriate to examine these “scientific romances”, as they were popularly called then, to seek the early inspirations for steampunk.

As Jeff Vandermeer points out in The Steampunk Bible, both Verne and Wells may have been influenced by the existing tradition of contes philosophiques or philosophical stories, based on the works of Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler, which introduced two important literary devices, the imaginary voyage and the dream story. It is, however, Verne, who makes extensive use of the voyage narrative to take us on his voyages extraordinaire to the bottom of the sea, to the centre of the earth and across the globe.

It is on these adventures that we encounter strange machines like the Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and the steam-powered elephant in The Steam House, that would one day inspire much of Steampunk. And along with this heady brew of adventure and scientific realism of his tales, Verne bequeathed to his later day acolytes contrarian characters like the rebellious Captain Nemo and the scientist adventurer Phileas Fogg, whose spirit of defiance also be reflected later in a host of protagonists in Steampunk literature.

Wells, unlike Verne, avoids detailed scientific exposition, treating the ambiguously defined inventions of his stories as facilitating devices for building his narrative. As Vandermeer points out in The Steampunk Bible, he “was not interested in technological possibilities, but in human beings’ social and political potential”. The social questions that he raised, such as class conflict in The Time Machine, or imperialism in The War of the Worlds, retain their validity today, and have, not unsurprisingly, been echoed in a multitude of modern works of Steampunk.

The foundations of Steampunk

The body of literary work cited as the first definitive blooming of modern Steampunk would make their appearance more than a century after Verne and Wells. The 1980s would see the release of Tim Powers’s Anubis Gates, James Blaylock’s Lord Kelvin’s Machine, and KW Jeter’s Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, tales of mystery and adventure set in an alternate Victorian world.

Powers, Jeter, and Blaylock, a group of Californian writers with a background in Edwardian and Victorian literature, were influenced by Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, and the narratives in their books looked beyond the allure of the privileges and accomplishments of Victorian society to include the poor and the underprivileged who formed its bottommost rungs. Looking for a term to collectively describe their literary circle, Jeter coined the term “steam-punks”, mentioning it for the first time in a letter to the Locus magazine.

In Anubis Gates, magic and time travel find place in a tale where the protagonist travels to a nineteenth century London and confronts magicians from old Egypt attempting to overthrow the British suzerainty of Egypt. Lord Kelvin’s Machine features a scientist adventurer protagonist chasing a villain who wants to destroy the world, while experimenting with time travel to prevent the murder of his wife.

Morlock Night reintroduces the Morlocks from Wells’s The Time Machine – they have invaded nineteenth century England using the device of the original time-traveller with a reincarnated King Arthur, the only challenger standing in the way of their conquest. Infernal Devices weaves a tale featuring hybrid men, clockwork automatons, and strange terms like “Aetheric Regulator”, “Cataclysm Harmonics”, and the “Hermetic Carriage”. Going beyond Wells and Verne, in these books we see the emergence of narrative elements that would one day stand out as defining markers of the Steampunk genre.

Jeter, Power, and Blaylock’s tales of adventure were followed by a piece of more serious Steampunk literature, The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Published in 1990, The Difference Engine delivers a tour de force of an alternate Britain where Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer, the difference engine, has ushered in an Information Age alongside the Industrial Age, letting loose in society great “tumults of the mind, when like the great convulsions of nature, all seems anarchy and chaos.”

The narrative explores, from the viewpoints of a courtesan, a palaeontologist, and a government spy, this dystopian landscape of steam-powered computers programmed by clackers, where the Industrial Radical Party led by Lord Byron has seized power by crushing both the landed gentry as well as the working class. The novel examines themes as varied as political insurrection, government misuse of information technology, and the plight of the underprivileged. Sterling and Gibson’s use of this novum of intertwined Industrial and Information Ages as a backdrop for political and social critique opened the doors to yet another possibility for later Steampunk authors to explore.

Expanding the boundaries of Steampunk

A decade after The Difference Engine, the confines of the Steampunk genre would once more be challenged and expanded by the publication of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which not only recast the protagonist from the traditional romanticised gentleman scientist into a disreputable “scientist-outcast”, but also relocated the spatial element of the story from Victorian London to the fictional city of New Crobuzon.

This was a “dusty city dreamed up in bone and brick, a conspiracy of industry and violence, steeped in history and battened-down power”, where at night it would not be uncommon to find “sleeping beggars that clutch each other and congeal for warmth like lower creatures, forced back down evolutionary strata by their poverty”.

Here, bracketed by a brutal government that rules with the iron fist of its secretive militia that “emerged in their dark uniforms at night”, and an equally brutal organised crime syndicate, live not only humans, but also a menagerie of other races that seem to have descended from some impossible phantasmagoria.

They include the khepri, whose feminine anthropomorphic forms are surmounted, not by a human head, but by a scarab beetle, the amphibious vodyanoi, the cactii people, the garuda, and the Remade, individuals who have been turned into grotesque hybrid beings, most likely as a punishment for some crime, by a cruel restructuring of their original forms.

This detailed racial milieu of Perdido Street Station not only raises questions about xenophobia and alienation, but about the very amalgamated anatomies of some these races, hideous to the human eye, and the issues of hybridity. The city itself, and its many regions, each characterised by its distinct race, architecture or even squalor, holds up a mirror to the heterotopia inherent in urban living spaces.

Perdido Street Station, weaving its tale in “the oscillating, violent, disingenuous and repressive political atmosphere of New Crobuzon’’, whose institutions, when it came to the underprivileged, kept “crushing them in layers and hierarchies…until their choices might be between three kinds of squalor”, stands apart as an antipode to the sensitised Victorian romance.

Nearly an entire decade after The Perdido Street Station came the successive release of critically successful novels by three women authors who would contribute another set of elements to Steampunk, further extending its confines – Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, and Gail Carriger’s Soulless. Each of these novels would see not only the introduction of a female protagonist, but each of these protagonists, unique in their own way, would represent a fresh perspective on stories that could be told, and themes that could be visited, within this genre.

In The Alchemy of Stone, Sedia, like Miéville before her, chooses to use a fictional city as the setting of her story. This city, where a power struggle between alchemists and mechanists threatens to destabilise the political climate, is home to a unique protagonist – a clockwork automaton. Created by a mechanist in the form, and with the sartorial elegance, of a woman and working as an independent alchemist, she does not doubt her femininity – yet the presence of a woman and “her abundance of flesh” does make her “conscious of her own small, long-limbed body of metal and wood, jointed and angular”.

The dissonance between her and her creator, who, though he has emancipated her, withholds the only key with which she must be wound up periodically in order to keep functioning, serves as a harsh reminder of the deep insufficiencies in her liberty. Through her, we find the author probing at the themes of inherent asymmetries in gender identity and the creator-creation dialectic.

In Boneshaker, Cherie Priest shifts the spatial element from Victorian London, not to any imagined locale, but to an alternate Civil War era Seattle, which has been walled into isolation in order to contain the toxic gas which was accidentally released due to “a terrible malfunction of equipment running amuck”, namely, a subterranean drilling machine termed the Boneshaker. The wall also keeps confined the zombies that the erstwhile inhabitants of the city have turned into from an exposure to the gas, “a thick, slow-moving substance that is killed by contamination.”

The protagonist, a single mother struggling against poverty, has to leave her former life behind and step into the poisoned enclosure of the walled city to rescue her son who has secretly entered it to search for evidence that would exonerate his father, the creator of the Boneshaker machine. In the novel the overt application of heterotopia, in the form of a sealed enclosure with little or no means of access or egress, as a backdrop for the narrative, the individuation of a piece of technology as its core element, and the maternal instinct of the protagonist as its motivational driving force are forged together to provide a new perspective to the genre.

With Gail Carriger’s Soulless, we travel back to an alternate Victorian era London, where the skies are filled with “Giffard-style steam-powered airships with de Lome propellers”, and where humans coexist with other supernatural beings such as vampires and werewolves, their affairs managed by the “estimable Bureau of Unnatural Registry, a division of Her Majesty’s Civil Service.”

The protagonist, an unmarried woman in her mid-twenties, and lacking a soul, a preternatural immune to the powers of supernatural, must battle the stifling values of Victorian society, while at the same time attempting to thwart the designs of an evil scientist who intends to eradicate the supernatural. And though of such disposition that a first meeting with her was comparable to “downing a very strong cognac when one was expecting to imbibe fruit juice – that is to say, startling and apt to leave one with a distinct burning sensation”, she would nonetheless find enough space in the narrative for a romantic liaison with a supernatural being.

In spite of having moved away from the gothic and the noir, the light and quirky tone of Soulless nonetheless manages to convey critical issues such as xenophobia and hybridity, while at the same time, its narrative, set out as a fantasy romance, brings in another fresh outlook.

Steampunk comics

Novels may well have helped build the structural boundaries of Steampunk, but comics, through their visual storytelling, have played no less a role in popularising the genre, and a couple of noteworthy ones amongst them merits a quick mention.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill began as a comic book series in 1999, and featured a team of heroes drawn from nineteenth century literary sources such as Captain Nemo, Alan Quatermain, Dr Jekyll and the Invisible Man. The team is led by Mina Murray, the estranged wife of Jonathan Harker, the protagonist of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and works for British Intelligence to solve mysteries and battle villains like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty.

The graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, that initially appeared as a webcomic in 2009, is a result of the author, as she confesses in the introduction, having been “bewitched by that marvellous, mysterious, nonexistent Analytical Engine, concatenations of contraptions and labyrinth of gears.” Though set in an alternate Victorian age, where Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace have a series of adventures around a functional Analytical Engine, the book nonetheless is replete with researched information, from historical facts to the logic and mechanics of the Analytical Engine.

The ongoing metamorphosis of Steampunk

Having started off as a literary subgenre of science fiction, Steampunk has belied the expectations of its critics, and has refused to die, instead showing tremendous resilience and elasticity, shifting its temporal and spatial elements to incorporate cultures from around the world and refusing to be restricted to exotic Victoriana alone.

It has also radiated out from a pure literary tradition to find expression in a variety of cultural forms, including, cinema, exhibitions, theme parks, art, craftsmanship, and fashion. In short, it has metamorphosed into a subculture, asserting itself as a non-Luddite challenge to the entrenched beliefs about civilisational progress.