THE HISTORY OF STEAMPUNK is a strange one, full of odd detours and byways. Author K.W. Jeter coined the term in 1987, when he noticed similarities between his work and those of his fellow Los Angeles writers Tim Powers and James Blaylock. All three had written novels set in the nineteenth century. All three — especially Jeter and Blaylock — made use of maniacal inventors and outdated Victorian science, the technology of steam and gears and clockwork. All three wrote in what Jeter called “the gonzo-historical manner.”
But if Jeter had been trying to create a movement, something on the order of cyberpunk, he would have been disappointed; very few people answered his call. There were a few other steampunk works written around this time, notably The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and John Crowley’s wonderful novella “Great Work of Time,” but for the most part the movement slumbered or went underground for two decades. Then, suddenly, it re-emerged nearly fully grown, stronger and more popular than ever, in the twenty-first century. Almost overnight, it seemed, there were conventions, costumes, customs, iconography, artists, and musicians — and, of course, writers.
Science fiction had changed a good deal since the 1980s, though. For one thing, it had undergone a fairly serious crisis of conscience, when it had looked around and realized that, for a genre so concerned with the future, its practitioners and protagonists were for the most part male and white. Almost as soon as steampunk appeared, or reappeared, it was attacked on these grounds. Because it valorized the Victorian age, critics said, steampunk was inextricably mixed with imperialism, classism, sexism, and racism.
Charles Stross said it better than anyone else:
We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn’t want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports.... It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing [italics are Stross’s].
And of course this criticism is certainly justified in some cases. (You’ll notice that all the steampunk authors I mentioned earlier are white males.) But while the ink was still drying, or the pixels fading, on these charges, steampunk was showing just how flexible it could be, changing and reinventing itself yet again. Just because so many of its stories had been set in the Victorian era, its practitioners thought, there was no reason you couldn’t set your story somewhere — anywhere — else. Just because so many protagonists were the white male scientists of nineteenth-century England was no reason you couldn’t feature someone — anyone — else. These were alternate worlds, after all, worlds limited only by the imagination....read more