Steampunk Inspirations

From This City of Nightmares . . .

In 1987 K.W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus magazine. Jeter used the term to qualify the neo-Victorian writings that he, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers, were producing. This term was in part a play on the term “cyberpunk,” which was a popular genre in the late 1980s. Steampunk is a genre of speculation, whether it is set in an alternative version of Victorian England, in an alternative American West, in a future where steam power rather than electrical current runs the world, or in a fantasy setting where steam power is in mainstream use. It owes a debt of gratitude for its creation to such authors as Jules Verne, Mary Shelly, and H.G. Wells: Their works are speculative and include many of the aspects that readers now associate with modern steampunk novels. In terms of world building, though, the genre owes an even larger debt to Charles Dickens and his depiction of Victorian England.

. . What dreams may come?

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Gustave Dore Seven Dials

In 1987 K.W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus magazine.  Jeter used the term to qualify the neo-Victorian writings that he, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers, were producing.  This term was in part a play on the term “cyberpunk,” which was a popular genre in the late 1980s.  Steampunk is a genre of speculation, whether it is set in an alternative version of Victorian England, in an alternative American West, in a future where steam power rather than electrical current runs the world, or in a fantasy setting where steam power is in mainstream use. It owes a debt of gratitude for its creation to such authors as Jules Verne, Mary Shelly, and H.G. Wells: Their works are speculative and include many of the aspects that readers now associate with modern steampunk novels. In terms of world building, though, the genre owes an even larger debt to Charles Dickens* and his depiction of Victorian England.

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute (2014) writes:

It is as if, for a handful of sf writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry, science and technology where the modern world was being born, and a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor . . . These recall not so much the actual nineteenth-century as a nineteenth century seen through the creatively distorting lens of Charles Dickens, whose congested, pullulating nineteenth-century landscapes . . . were the foul rag-and-bone shop of history from which the technological world, and hence the world of sf, originally sprang. Somewhere behind most steampunk visions are filthy coal heaps or driving pistons.

To Clute’s definition I would add an emphasis on the idea of the “turning point.” Victorian literature is filled with examples of a culture on the verge of reinventing itself. In the 19th century, Britain had moved from a primarily agricultural system to one based in manufacturing. Technological change was a way to improve the standard of life for all citizens. The lower class were abandoning the farms and moving to the cities in droves in search of a better life. The country was in the throes of the first industrial revolution in world history. The smokestacks from the mills and engineering works pumped noxious chemicals into the air.

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Gustave Dore Under the Arches

In the slums, as Richard Altick (1973) notes, the cities’ density and expanse bred a sense of captivity. Vice, pollution, and disease filled these areas. Unlike the small towns of the past, where people would know their neighboring families for generations, rootless, indifferent strangers who were focused on their own survival crowed on top of one another. Altick (1973, pp. 77-78) explains:

“Paradoxically, the closer people were brought together physically, as in mill or slum, the farther apart they drifted in any social or spiritual sense; in the midst of crowds they were alone. . .There was a grim appropriateness in the fact that Gustave Dore, having done a set of illustrations for The Divine Comedy, should have gone on to portray mid-Victorian London in terms powerfully suggestive of Purgatory and Hell.”

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Gustave Dore Victorian London

The over-crowded buildings were covered with soot, pitted, and eroded by fumes. In this situation, is it no wonder that some people looked to the past and life in the small towns and countryside as a panacea? Yet those who would abandon the overcrowded cities and new technology seemed to forget the poverty and starvation of those who had previously lived the pastoral life. It was a culture being pulled in two opposite directions and this was reflected in the literature of the time, particularly in Dickens’s most famous works.

In the Victorian Era the nostalgia and idealization of the past mixed with the ideas that industry and innovation were the only ways to improve the human condition. Many modern day steampunk works have the same diametric opposition that the Victorians explored, especially those who look to the novels of Charles Dickens as inspiration for world building. This type of tension leads to multiple story inspirations. To miss-quote another English author**: From this city of nightmares, what dreams may come?

*Steampunk writers (and readers) owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Dickens for his vivid descriptions of London and other cities during the Victorian Era. More than any writer listed in this article, he helped to create the background setting for the genre. Yet it is important to remember that his works have only influenced the genre; he did not write any steampunk novels (unless I am completely miss-remembering Bleak House and Little Dorrit.)

**Shakespeare of course.

References

Altick, R. D. (1973). Victorian people and ideas. New York: Norton.

Clute, J. (2014). Steampunk. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Retrieved from http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/steampunk

Note: Article originally published on The Pandora Society.

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Praise for Heart & Mind:

“The author has managed to weave an intricate web about being true to yourself. One shouldn’t be guided or led by others. Above all, feel the magic in your own heart. As the fairy godmother believes sometimes it is best not to mess with destiny.” –Chief, USN Ret…VT Town—a Top 500 Reviewer on Amazon.com

Praise for The World In Front of Me:

“Picked up this short story because I noted it was previously published in Penumbra, which was a pretty high quality publication. And this story lived up to my expectations for a professional quality piece.

The story’s main idea reminded me a lot of the Lakeside community in Neil Gaimon’s American Gods, but I won’t say anymore about that for fear of giving away spoilers. But fans of Gaimon should really enjoy this story. Fans of strong women who make tough choices should enjoy this as well”—KSluss—Review on Amazon.com

Praise for Going Home:

“This is an excellent short story that is full of surprises for the reader. Martial law is about to be imposed in the colony.

A secret room, trips on a train and a clandestine meeting are all part of this superb short story.

Most highly recommended”—Off Grid . . . And Loving It—a Top 500 Reviewer on Amazon.com

Praise for Wonderland:

“The writing is beautiful, the characters are complex and thoroughly developed and the story is fascinating. All of it together creates a world you don’t want to leave when the book ends. I am so glad I discovered this author and I cannot wait for her next book”—Mary—Review on Amazon.com

Read excerpts from all of the books written by Chris Pavesic on Amazon.

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