In part one of this series, I discussed how steampunk falls under the genre of speculative fiction. Steampunk can refer to modern narratives set during the time of 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. 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.
Time is the central focus here—how different eras tend to be intermingled in works of steampunk. In this article I focus on the temporal influences of Victorian England on steampunk works. (I may discuss influences of the American Old West in future articles.)
. . . . . . . .
A Problem of Time
As much as I admire Victorian Era authors, and as much as I hone my craft of writing, I will never be able to write a work of Victorian Literature. As an artist, I can be influenced by the Victorian Era—the sights, sounds, and events described in the pages by authors like Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Alfred Lord Tennyson—but I did not live during this historical period. Thus my ability to write a work of Victorian Literature is stymied—I was born in the wrong time and place to be a Victorian author.
A writer living in the current era has a modern sensibility and sense of time, place, and culture. These aspects influence artistic choices when writing a novel. Still, given these influences, a modern writer can create a work “in the style of” a Victorian Era novel, often referred to as Neo-Victorian.
Neo-Victorian works are part of an artistic movement that amalgamates Victorian Era aesthetic sensibilities with modern principles and technologies. A.S. Byatt (Possession) and Jean Rhys (The Wide Sargasso Sea) are two authors who work in this genre. Their works are not historical novels, but instead attempt to recreate the mindset and conventions of the Victorian period. On the surface that may sound similar to the Steampunk genre, but the aesthetics differ upon closer investigation.
Just like Neo-Victorian writers, Steampunk authors create a contemporary representation of the Victorian Era, complete with cultural constructs, behavioral affectations, clothing styles, and transportation and technology. Yet Steampunk moves beyond the Neo-Victorian style and incorporates a speculative aspect that helps to produce a separate contemporary literary genre.
As a literary genre, Steampunk includes projections and fantasies about the Victorian Era and the tropes and techniques commonly seen in speculative fiction. (For an interesting list of these tropes, see Speculative Fiction Tropes at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpeculativeFictionTropes ). Most important for this discussion, the Steampunk genre also includes both anachronisms and overlapping layers of historical eras: It is these latter two aspects that create the difference between the Steampunk and the Neo-Victorian genre.
Steampunk novels, stories, movies, and other works of fiction can be set in the past, in the present, and/or in a speculative future. Anachronistic technologies can exist next to a Victorian-era steam engine and not be disruptive to a reader’s enjoyment of the story. Steampunk readers accept the idea of a computer (albeit one that runs on clockwork or steam-power) in the 19th Century just as easily as they embrace the idea of Bon Vivants in the 25th Century who wear top hats, monocles, and/or smoking jackets and engage in interplanetary travel in steam-powered starships. Indeed, many readers expect this blending of temporal aesthetics and actively seek ways to create this in Do-It-Yourself projects inspired by the authors’ imaginations and supplemented by their own creative natures.
This discussion of how steampunk authors intermingle different eras in their works leads to a particularly interesting conclusion—part of any attempt to “define” the genre needs to include a discussion of the sense of time in these narratives, just as much as a sense of place. The artwork and works of literature portray aesthetic combinations of disparate time periods and the tension created by this hybrid temporality helps to make the steampunk genre compelling to its fans.
If you are interested in this topic, please check out my other Steampunk articles:
The Hybrid Temporality of Steampunk, Part One
Victorian Influences and Modern Day Steampunk
Victorian Influences and Modern Day Steampunk
Working Toward Understanding the Steampunk Aesthetic
Why Charles Dickens Isn’t The Father of Steampunk