Secret Histories

By John RiederJuly 11, 2011

Secret Histories

Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader by Mike Ashley
Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology by Nick Gevers
Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer
Steampunk by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer

IN THE FALL AND WINTER OF 2009-2010, a small exhibition called The Art of Steampunk at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science drew more than 70,000 visitors. Among the exhibits on display were an elegant mahogany early-twentieth-century-style telephone with a velvet cord made by James Richardson Brown; a model dirigible called the “Anglo-Parisian Barnstormer” mounted on a three-wheeled wagon and decorated with Gothic steeples and a copy of the Eiffel tower, all of it swarming with tiny action figures, by Kris Kuksi; an “Eyepod” by one “Dr. Grymm” complete with brass megaphone and a single, prominent glass eyeball; and the startling “Complete Mechanical Womb” made by Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich out of wood, copper, glass, and antique machine parts. The materials are familiar but the effect is otherworldly in a playful, cheerful sort of way. Like the steampunk subculture’s radically anachronistic fashion statements — aviator’s goggles, Victorian waistcoats, top hats, bustle skirts, leather corsets, bizarre, mechanical accessories, sometimes even a fake prosthetic limb bristling with exposed metallic gears — all of these art objects seem to delight in evoking a whimsical, baroquely ornamented cultural milieu bequeathed by some alternative historical past to a fancifully reconfigured present. Steampunk art and fashion are not sleek or streamlined, but rather richly textured and exuberantly excessive.


A pair of short essays and a roundtable interview at the back of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk Reloaded gathers together meditations on the meaning and the future of steampunk by various participants in what one of them, Gail Carriger, calls “a strange little social movement without any real objective, organization, or political agenda.” Despite steampunk’s lack of an organized program, it appears clear that one of the basic impulses of its fashion and visual arts is to rebel against the slick surfaces of contemporary consumer culture. As Carriger goes on to say,


We are living in an age where technology is trapped inside little silver matchboxes … But with steampunk fashion the inner workings of a machine become not just approachable but glorified. We steampunk DIYers force cogs and gears back out into the open.


Rachel Bowser and Brian Croxall, the co-editors of a recent special issue on steampunk in the online journal Neo-Victorian Studies, make much the same point when they suggest that steampunk visual art is a critical response to the “opacity” of contemporary technology, its imperviousness to tinkering, and its discouragement of amateur repair. Rooted in the “maker” and do-it-yourself movements, steampunk rejects planned obsolescence, and this helps explain its propensity for mixing together materials from different time periods, as in the artist Datamancer’s laptop computers fashioned out of wood and leather and ornamented with brass bear-claw feet and a large brass key as the on/off switch. Anachronism, they claim, is steampunk’s primary formal principle: “it creates a new paradigm in which technologies, aesthetics, and ideas mark different times simultaneously, instead of signposting different historical periods; anachronism is not anomalous but becomes the norm.”


Anachronism is as central to steampunk fiction as it is to fashion and visual art. The term “steampunk,” in fact, was originally coined in reference to fiction by the American science fiction writer K.W. Jeter in an April, 1987 essay in Locus magazine: “I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing,” he wrote, “as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for [them] … like ‘steampunk’ perhaps.” Though largely overshadowed by its bigger, slicker brother “cyberpunk,” steampunk fiction did become an interesting development in science fiction over the next two decades. The grand achievement of the early days of the subgenre, by most accounts, is William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1991), a novel that projects a decidedly darker vision than most contemporary steampunk art. It is set in an alternative mid-nineteenth-century London where a technological breakthrough, the invention of mechanical computing machines, has ushered in a radically secular political regime — alternate history in an anachronistic mode. Lord Byron, in this world, has become a powerful Prime Minister rather than a poet. But London’s thriving trade in prostitution is unchanged, and its air pollution is even worse. Other notable examples, ones not necessarily identified as steampunk by their authors but sometimes claimed as part of the subgenre’s genealogy, include Philip Pullman’s highly successful trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000), with its very recognizable Oxford set in a fantastic alternative universe, China Miéville’s critically acclaimed New Crobuzon trilogy (Perdido Street Station [2003], The Scar [2004], and Iron Council [2005]), which clearly models the nation of New Crobuzon on imperial-era England, and even Thomas Pynchon’s mammoth historical novel Against the Day (2006), with its elaborate play upon Victorian speculations about time travel and multiple-dimensional realities.


Four recent steampunk fiction anthologies, two published in 2008 and two in 2010, parallel the transformation of steampunk from an obscure subgenre of science fiction into a growing, increasingly visible contemporary subculture. The most consistent of these, from a fiction reader’s point of view, is Nick Gevers’s Extraordinary Engines, which consists entirely of new, previously unpublished material of high quality; the most comprehensive are the VanderMeers’ Steampunk and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, which are more concerned with relating the fiction to various aspects of the steampunk movement. The first is a “best of” collection drawing together previously published fiction dating from 1971 to 2007 along with three original essays about steampunk fiction, film, and comics. The second anthology reprints very recently published material (with a few exceptions) to represent what its editors call the “second generation” of steampunk writers. If the fiction in the VanderMeer collections is mixed in quality, that’s a price the editors were apparently willing to pay to achieve a broad, inclusive representation of the movement. (Incidentally, the trade editions of both VanderMeer volumes are very attractively designed; the interior design of Steampunk II, by John Coulthart, with additional artwork by Ramona Sczerba and Ivica Stevanovic, amounts to a piece of steampunk visual art in itself.)


Reading through these three anthologies, one can put together a fairly coherent description of steampunk fiction. Its first, most obvious characteristic is its penchant for all things Victorian, and particularly for Victorian settings. These settings are really pseudo-Victorian, of course, full of anachronistic projections of contemporary attitudes, issues, and technologies back into the later nineteenth century. Much of the time, the Victorianism seems to function as a vehicle for escape into a light-hearted world comprised partly of nostalgia for the British novel of manners (is the contemporaneity of first-generation steampunk and the spate of Jane Austen adaptations in the 1990s coincidental?) and partly of campy parody. One of the best examples is an early “classic” of the subgenre, James P. Blaylock’s “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” (1985), featured as the second, and second oldest, piece in Steampunk. In Blaylock’s story, a giant comet is on a near-collision course with early twentieth century earth, a scenario recalling, as its hero Langdon St. Ives comments, the “recent” (1897) short story “The Star” by H.G. Wells. Some crazed super-scientific villains want to set off volcanic eruptions that will shove the earth into the comet’s path. The Royal Society is devising a machine that will turn off the earth’s magnetic field and keep it from attracting the comet — while at the same time, St. Ives warns, killing off all life by cosmic radiation. They ignore him, but both disasters are averted by our British gentleman-scientist and his crew, whose aplomb and unflappability are conveyed in dialogue such as the following:


“But the stakes are high, Hasbro. We must have our hand in. It’s nothing more or less than the salvation of the Earth, secularly speaking, that we engage in.”

“Shall we want lunch first, sir?”

“Kippers and gherkins, thank you.”


The same light tone is struck in Molly Brown’s “The Selene Gardening Society,” an homage to Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) in which all the earth’s garbage is shot at the moon where it will compost and eventually make it habitable, and James Morrow’s “Lady Witherspoon’s Solution,” which involves an aristocratic women’s croquet club and an outrageous feminist revision of the plot of Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). This sort of tone is far from universal, however. The tonal extremes — some would say, the extremes of bad taste — are mapped out by two other pieces from the same anthology: the absurd comedy of Paul Di Filippo’s “Victoria,” which involves a sexually voracious newt passing as a double for young Queen Victoria and occupying her throne while she gathers life experience working in a brothel; and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel,” which presents the reader with an unrelenting onslaught of horrific, graphic, sexualized violence wrapped up in intertwined allusions to The Steam Man of the Prairies (an 1868 dime novel by Edward S. Ellis), Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), American dime-novel Westerns, and zombie splatter flicks.


As the mentions of Verne and Wells may have already made clear, steampunk fiction is swarming with literary allusions, especially to Victorian-era science fiction. A number of pieces treat characters from Wells and his contemporaries as if they were the property of a serial franchise, as when Wells’s Time Traveller becomes “The Dark Rider” in Lansdale’s horror story. This tendency is particularly prevalent in steampunkish comics and graphic novels. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) establishes an alternative history that forms the basis of one of the most popular steampunk graphic novels, Ian Edgington D’Israeli’s Scarlet Traces (2007), and Alan Moore’s series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen draws characters and plotlines from the fiction of Verne, Wells, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and half a dozen others.


Even when the stories are not explicitly set in Victorian England, there is a strong preference in these anthologies for pieces set in alternative historical pasts, or in the present day with an alternative past, or, sometimes, in alternative universes that eerily resemble our own. In contrast to science fiction’s more typical orientation toward the future, the category of the “secret history” seems peculiarly attractive to steampunk practitioners. (Although steampunk is rightly considered a variant or offshoot of science fiction, these stories encompass a great many other popular genres; the Victorian-era pieces not set in England often invoke the iconography of the American western, and detectives abound.) Steampunk Reloaded begins with Marc Laidlaw’s effectively creepy mad-scientist horror story, “Great Breakthroughs in Darkness,” a series of entries excerpted from an imaginary Secret History of Photography. The anthology’s last entry is a rollicking “Secret History of Steampunk” ostensibly composed by “The Mecha-Ostrich,” a clockwork device realized by some nineteenth-century proto-steampunks from drawings provided by a (real) five-cent novel of 1893, Electric Bob’s Big Black Ostrich. This labyrinthine “Secret History” functions as a metaphor for the steampunk movement itself, which collages quaint old popular culture with technological fantasies and revels in self-reflexive, conspiratorial constructions that collectively comprise a kind of secret history of the present.


A similar tour de force of alternate history is Adam Roberts’s “Petrolpunk” in Gevers’s Extraordinary Engines. The setting is a charcoal-and-steam-powered early 21st century in which the British Empire still rules the world and an immortal Queen Victoria still reigns over England. The steam technology is made possible by adding a chemical compound to water that makes it boil at 40 degrees Centigrade, but unfortunately also releases toxic waste into the atmosphere when the water boils. So the preposterous premise is that burning petroleum is being proposed by certain radical elements as a clean alternative to steam power — but Her Immortal Majesty Victoria is opposed to it and indeed to all desecration of Mother Earth by delving below its surface. The working out of the plot involves incursions by invaders from a parallel universe, unicellular organisms of unusual size, and a playful Freudian postscript by the fictional editor. When steampunk creates entire alternate worlds or universes rather than alternate histories, they sometimes tip more towards fantasy than science fiction, as in the bizarre atmosphere bristling with static electricity in Marly Youmans’s “Static” (in Extraordinary Engines) or the enchanted world of metallic organisms in Ian R. MacLeod’s fascinating and complex “The Giving Mouth” (in Steampunk). The two best of them, however, are interested less in fantasy than in philosophical satire. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Dream of Reason” (in Extraordinary Engines) involves a physicist who devises an elaborate experiment to ascertain what stars are made of, only to discover — for reasons that seem comically transparent to the reader but are wholly opaque to the physicist and his society — that they are made of nothing. The fictional society’s cosmology is then thoroughly rewritten on this basis. Ted Chiang’s equally impressive “Seventy Two Letters” (in Steampunk) thinks through the science of a complex, densely realized alternateuniverse with breathtaking logical coherence. “Seventy Two Letters” is, nonetheless, also recognizably a version of that oldest of science fiction plots, the Frankenstein story, and the ethical and political issues it raises cannily and provocatively resemble those involved in cloning or genetic engineering.


In many steampunk stories, contemporary issues and phenomena are anachronistically refracted through the prism of the pseudo-Victorian past. For instance, Kage Baker’s “Speed, Speed the Cable” (in Extraordinary Engines) addresses the shrinking world of global communications and the endangerment of copyright by internet filesharing via a fable about terrorists attempting to sabotage the laying of a transatlantic cable, and G.D. Falksen’s “The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday” addresses the impact of blogging by imagining a building-sized monster who both generates and then, literally, consumes an extravagant amount of miscellaneous news. Turning the same device to more somber effect, Jess Nevins, in “Lost Pages from The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana” (in Steampunk Reloaded) invents a series of elaborate nineteenth-century contraptions, including steam horses, mechanical ostriches, and robot soldiers, that fail in spectacular and disastrous fashion when attempts are made to use them for military purposes.


Like science fiction and almost any other popular fiction genre, steampunk thrives on working variations upon a predictable set of iconic figures. The most frequently used and wildly varied of these, without question, is the mechanical organism, as seen in many titles, which feature a Steam Man, a Machine Maid, a Cast-Iron Kid, and “The Mechanical Aviary of Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar.” In Robert Reed’s “American Cheetah” in Gevers’s anthology, a cyborg Abraham Lincoln becomes the sheriff of Northfield, Minnesota, where he battles automatons modeled on the James gang. The mechanical man that washes ashore in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Fixing Hanover” (also in _Extraordinary Engines_) turns out to be a spy sent to find the mechanic who repairs him. Prosthetically enhanced secret agents figure in “Speed, Speed the Cable,” while a prosthetically enhanced dance hall performer is the protagonist of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s beautifully wrought romance, “The Steam Dancer,” in _Steampunk Reloaded_. With extraordinary machines and automata such a prominent presence in the subgenre, it should come as no surprise that there are also plenty of clever inventors and mad scientists, and that many an experiment or invention comes back to haunt its inventor. Indeed, at least half the stories in Extraordinary Engines involve Frankenstein-like situations of one kind or another.


Almost as plentiful as mechanical or clockwork figures are dirigibles and other flying machines. Surrealistically elaborate mechanisms are, in general, the grand set pieces of much steampunk, as in this fine example from Tanith Lee’s “The Persecution Machine” (in Steampunk Reloaded):


I saw … a fearful thing rolling slowly and mightily down from the end of the street. It was a sort of carriage, yet it had no horses, and from it protruded all manner of pipes and coils, wheels that whirred and the nozzles of what could only be guns. Suddenly one of these flashed with a cold green fire, and a new pain lanced through my body. Atop the device was a crew of men clad like explorers in long coats, goggles, and unlikely hats.


Steampunk’s fearful dirigibles are often the tools of colonialism and imperialism, as in Michael Moorcock’s 1971 novel The Warlord of the Air (excerpted in Steampunk), and Jeff VanderMeer’s “Fixing Hanover.” Anti-imperialist themes figure importantly also in Neal Stephenson’s “Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast,” and Ramsey Shehadeh’s cunningly plotted “The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe” (in Steampunk and Steampunk Reloaded, respectively). Although there is a good deal of nostalgia in steampunk fiction for Victorian gentility and eccentricity, it does not generally embrace the racist and imperialist attitudes that pervade so much Victorian culture.


Less pronounced, and somewhat more against the grain of steampunk’s infatuation with all things Victorian, is the feminism that shows up in a pair of revenge fantasies in Extraordinary Engines (Margo Lanagan’s “Machine Maid” and James Morrow’s “Lady Witherspoon’s Solution”) and which takes explicit polemical form in Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Anachronist’s Cookbook” in Steampunk Reloaded. In Valente’s story, the lighthearted aristocratic banter of Blaylock and the grotesque sexual humor of di Filippo’s “Victoria” find a counterpoint in the pamphleteering of Valente’s imaginary Victorian radical, Jane Sallow:


Brothers and Sisters, Stand with me. We who are the Slaves of those in velvet Waistcoats and Golden Goggles, we who wash their mechanized Clothes, rear their Wailing Brats, cook their Lavish Suppers — it is in our Power to Level the Unequal World that raises them above us. Crush their Dread Devices! Level their Palaces of Infernal Science!



Mike Ashley’s Steampunk Prime is in every respect the least successful of these four anthologies, but it does offer something distinctly different, its fiction consisting entirely of reprinted public domain material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Steampunk is such a backward-looking genre that one can understand the temptation to place its emergence much earlier than Jeter’s mid-80s coinage. Steampunk Prime advertises itself as “A Vintage Steampunk Reader” on the cover, and Ashley’s introductory essay is titled “When Steampunk Was Real.” In his introduction Ashley quotes a lengthy passage from Ellis’s 1868 The Steam Man of the Prairies, which he claims as the first piece of steampunk science fiction, and argues that “steampunk was well under way by the 1880s,” only to fade out when “the wonderful visions and hopes of the Victorians became overtaken by the real world” with the coming of World War I. The fiction collected in Steampunk Prime, fourteen stories culled from popular fiction magazines of 1898-1916, is then offered as the evidence to support this premise. This, we are told, is the real, original steampunk.


Steampunk Prime should be of some interest to scholars, mostly because Ashley’s short introductory notes to each selection are quite well done and informative. Ashley is a prodigious editor, and there are few people who know the pulp fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as he, but the collection is clearly not meant as a scholarly text; the poor proofreading of the reprinted fictional texts is convincing evidence that it is not. At best, Ashley’s argument that the “real, original steampunk” belongs to the late nineteenth century rather than the late twentieth may be seen as a reasonable way to lead some new readers into the archive of popular fiction he has dedicated his career to exploring and explaining. At worst, it is a somewhat crassly opportunistic attempt to capitalize on steampunk nostalgia. In either case, few non-scholarly readers will find much to enjoy in the thin, predictable storylines and flat characters that populate Steampunk Prime. Exceptions include Owen Oliver’s “The Plague of Lights,” an eerie alien invasion story; Henry A. Hering’s “Mr. Broadbent’s Information,” an interesting Frankenstein variant; and a snappily narrated disaster-averted-and-heroine-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-death piece by Jean Jaubert, “The Gibraltar Tunnel.” But for the most part, those whom steampunk inspires with an interest in fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian periods would do much better to dig into the novels and short stories of Wells, Verne, and Haggard to which so much steampunk pays homage.

LARB Contributor

John Rieder has been teaching at UH Manoa’s English Department since 1980, the year he received his PhD from Yale University. For the first 20 years of his career he was mainly a specialist in English Romanticism, publishing a book on William Wordsworth, Wordsworth’s Counterrevolutionary Turn (University of Delaware Press, 1997) and numerous essays on the poetry of Percy Shelley. From around 2000 on his research agenda has focused on science fiction. His book on early science fiction, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2008. In 2011 he received the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pioneer Award for his essay “On Defining Science Fiction, Or Not: Genre Theory, Science Fiction, and History.” He currently serves on the editorial board of Extrapolation, the oldest journal in the field of science fiction studies.


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