In literature, steampunk falls under the genre of speculative fiction. Steampunk can refer to modern narratives set in Victorian England or the American Old West. It can also be set in a futuristic world that incorporates aesthetic touchstones of the late Eighteenth Century and early Nineteenth century periods in either country. Steampunk allows authors and readers to indulge in projections and fantasies about this particular era by using the tropes and techniques popular in speculative fiction; yet these writers are producing a thoroughly modern work. Writers (and readers) of steampunk have a chance to explore, and to expose, the influences of society and technology in the past, in the present, and in the potential future.
In many ways, writers in the Victorian Era provide an idea source of inspiration for authors who write modern-day steampunk. At that time, England was in the throes of the first industrial revolution in world history. The combination of idyllic pastoral life and overcrowded city dwelling, of horse-drawn carts next to steam-powered trains, of personal workmanship next to mass-produced goods, created tension. The warring influences of the age helped to spawn a diverse collection of literature that readers still enjoy in the modern age.
Many Victorian authors looked to the past to make sense of the present; other Victorian writers looked to the future and new technologies to help fix the problems of their time. The nostalgia and idealization of the past mixed with the ideas that industry and innovation were the only ways to improve the human condition in the culture; why wouldn’t this debate also be carried out in popular literature? Authors like Thomas Carlyle (Past and Present, 1843) and Alfred Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King, 1859-1885) looked to history to provide a panacea for their own society’s ills. Authors like H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, 1885) looked to the future and technology to address the inequality between the classes he witnessed on a regular basis.
Although the Victorian works serve as a touchstone of inspiration, Steampunk authors have moved past this style. Indeed, steampunk novels and stories have a curious hybrid temporality. The stories are not regularly set in the past—or even regularly in a future that looks like the past. Instead, many steampunk novels overtly blend various time periods. The authors create a story world where technology, culture, style, and ideas mark different times simultaneously. The answers to current issues are not found in the past or in the future—but in a combination of both.
To be continued . . .
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