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The Golden Age of Steampunk Reality v. Literary

Today, Gentle Reader, the blog has been hijacked for a bit of an intellectual debate. Occasionally this happens, I feel separated from my academic roots and . . . member of the Hypocras Club club my door with fascinating lectures, and I cannot resist.

A friend of mine from Down Under has some very interesting things to say on the Golden Age of Steampunk, not now (as in when the most steampunk is being written) but then, as in, the right time period for setting steampunk novels. Should they be in the Victorian or the Edwardian eras? Or something else entirely? Since I'm about to start reading David Constantine's new book, The Pillars of Hercules, described as Alexander the Great meets steampunk, this is a very good question.

Without further ado, I give you, Stephen (Doctor of Phlogiston) and his thoughts on the matter of steampunk settings.

I have two lines of argument I’m going to bring to the table:

1. Steampunk is at heart a romanticised pastiche, and
2. The typical technological trappings of steampunk are not chronologically contiguous.

Steampunk is at heart a pick-and-mix genre where a historical or quasi-historical setting from roughly the 18th C (usually Victorian London with fog and gaslight, but also easily Wild West, British Raj, Imperial China, you name it) has an overlay of some sort of cool antique technology. Typically, steam technology, airships, Babbage Engines or early electricity, or some pseudoscientific variation of same often using the early scientific theories now considered laughable, e.g. phlogiston.

The Golden Age of Airships is roughly 1900 to the wreck of Hindenburg in 1937 or WW2 depending on who you ask. This is effectively Edwardian, not Victorian. Also, the big rigid airships relied on internal combustion engines to drive their propellers, they’re very much a post steam era creature.

The Golden Age of Steam (confining ourselves to steam piston-engines)- 1801ish (Trevithick and ‘strong steam’) to 1920s. This gives us pre-Victorian through to post WW1. Steam powered cars and lorries were on the roads in England into the 1930s, steam trains were in common use until the 1960s (in many places even later). Steam engines operated right through the Edwardian era alongside the development of practical and cost-effective engines of other types. Steam turbines are still being built today for thermal power stations.

The Babbage Engine and Ada Lovelace’s pioneering work with what later became computing was mostly in the 1840s and a bit into the 1850s. This was a very narrow timespan and certainly doesn’t overlap with airships.

In short, there is no real historical ‘Golden Age of Steampunk’ because key technological aspects were not concurrent.

I think it actually works the other way around - each steampunk author picks a time/place as a setting and tosses onto it some Cool Stuff to make it steampunk in the current meaning of the genre. Some are very focussed on getting the history absolutely right, others less so. The re-imagining of the author’s bit of history they’re steampunking about with is no different to the worldbuilding of the swords-and-horses High Fantasy authors. Rules and histories are established, character and plot overlays the setting and so long as the story maintains an internal consistency then all is well.

How about that then?

Thank you, Dr. Stephen for giving us all something to think about.

Deportment & Deceit ~ The Finishing School Book the Second: Working rough draft.

Etiquette & Espionage ~ The Finishing School Book the First: Release date Feb 2013. In production. Have seen initial cover mock-up and it is stunning!

Manga ~ Soulless Vol. 2: (AKA Changeless) Have seen cover sketch for cover and it is fabulous!

Timeless ~ Parasol Protectorate Book the Last. Out now!

Prudence ~ The Parasol Protectorate Abroad Book the First: Release date Fall 2013.

BIG FAT SPOILER ALERT! Really, DON'T READ THE BLURB ON AMAZON if you haven't read the other books first!

Book News:
Reviews of Timeless from . . .
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"Reading means borrowing."
~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Aphorisms


That is fantastic! Thank you Dr. Stephen.
I had kind of come to this conclusion myself; that if we're writing some kind of historical mash-up in the first place the exact order in which these inventions first saw light is sort of a moot point. Especially the fictional ones.
Of course, that hasn't stopped me from flying off to Wikipedia constantly to check on stuff...
I think it might be like that other rule about "rules" for writing. You need to know what the rules actually are before you break them?
Not so much an argument, but simply a comment - I would really like to see more Dieselpunk. There's so much to draw from the historical period - an amazing range of art and style, great technology, and a nice array of counter culture and interesting social movements as well. How much more punk can you get, anyway?

I'm not anti-Victoriana, but I honestly find the extent of the neo-Victorian proliferation a little distressing, at least in the absence of other influences. YKIOK and all, but I'd really prefer a broader palette of femininity, y'know?
I'd like more punks. That is, more about the lower classes of the 19th century--especially punks (whores, not anarchists). That is a complaint I have with a lot of the '*punk' genres: no punk. No lower classes. Where's the dirt? Where's the nasty side of history? Where are the stories of the street kids, the rent boys of Piccadilly, the flower girls and pickpockets? Some of the most human people I know are of this class, I'd certainly like to read a story about them.
I think the lower classes, the dispossessed... those who are systematically discriminated against, people who are not among the colonizers, who are not from western european cultures...

There is an awful lot of literature that was written, in English, during these periods. Whose stories have not been told?
Exactly. I'm sick of what feels like only rich white people showing up in steampunk stories. One of the reasons I love Parasol Protectorate so much is because of the fact that Alexia is half-Italian (and also because it uses supernaturals as a way to explore racism). It really helped me grasp the type of racism of the era (not to mention, being half-Italian and half-English, myself, I was surprised by how much pride I suddenly had in my Italian heritage, instead of being ashamed by it as I was taught to be). I would have liked to see more with it, but more would have derailed things, I think. Still, it does make the first book my favourite, because I completely identify with the bad self-image Alexia has--and, being modern, I was not even aware of a possible connexion to my ethnicity.

Shoomlah did a gorgeous steampunk portrait for Multiculturalism in Steampunk's weekly challenge, and that's sort of what gave me a teeny, tiny bit of renewed hope in the genre--the fact that there is a blog for multiculturalism.


Edited at 2012-03-15 03:33 am (UTC)
I applaud! =D

(Oh, and some of the people who keep stomping on my old pal Maths run after sparkly vampires and domestically violent chickenwings because of their millenia-lasting faith. Not fair. òへÓ)
I love listening to people trying to rationalize steampunk because, as Dr. Stephen points out, the history of the technology doesn't work. I came to this conclusion a long time ago: it's fantasy, reality need not bother coming along for the ride. But then again I came to steampunk from high fantasy, fairy tales, and urban fantasy. If you can believe in elves, magic, and vampires, you can go along with alternative history, steam technology, and air machines.
Hooray playing with how technology works in a fictional space!

Now if only it would happen with the social structures more. Especially since those seem to worry at our bustles more often. :/
The next topic in my Anthropology class is steampunk and Dr. Stephen brings up an interesting point. My understanding was a smattering of Victorian (varying degrees of accuracy), a dose of steam technology and then the writer's choice of what to add to the brew but I never had any other way to define it.
Some are very focussed on getting the history absolutely right...

This is why your steampunk is greater.

The re-imagining of the author’s bit of history they’re steampunking about with is no different to the worldbuilding of the swords-and-horses High Fantasy authors.

Speaking as a High Fantasy author, I'd like to point out that usually, we don't pick an extant country and setting and just add dragons. Usually we start from ground up, in High Fantasy (and if you're insane, like me, you literally start with plate tectonics). The most delightful exception to this is Gordon R. Dickson, who began in an otherworld pretty typical for the genre, and gradually moved to a quite historically accurate Britain. It's why I dig his books.

I really wish High Fantasy was more often the 'pick a country and period and add dragons' genre, though. And I also wish I had the... training? Talent? Whatnot? for doing as much research as you do. I doubt I could ever handle all the emotional orchestration, though. That is crazy skilled, madam. Crazy. Skilled.

Timeless review link

Hey there,

Almost hate to break up the intellectual discussion here, but I just wanted to say thank you for linking to my review of Timeless. It's just really cool to see that authors actually read blogger reviews and I am so glad that you enjoyed my review enough to link to it here.

Thanks again!

-Amanda, Book Addict
Diary of a Book Addict

Re: Timeless review link

Ae, thanks Amanda! I appreciate your reading it and taking the time to review it!