Fellow steampunk enthusiast Phoebe Darqueling joins my blog today discussing the history of steampunk. Phoebe recently collaborated with a group of authors on Army of Brass (more details are listed below) to celebrate the 31st “birthday” of steampunk.
Take it away Phoebe!
Welcome to our second stop in our journey through the history of Steampunk. 2017 marked 30 years since the word “Steampunk” first appeared in print on April 27, 1987. During that year, I coordinated and contributed to an amazing collaborative novel called Army of Brass. To celebrate Steampunk’s 31st “birthday,” the Collaborative Writing Challenge is releasing this high-flying tale of conspiracy, love, and giant automatons. You can check out the launch announcement over at Steampunk Cavaliers, and at the bottom of the post you can find links to other awesome stops on the blog tour going on until May 13 (including a chance to win FREE BOOKS!). Army of Brass is available for pre-order now and will be delivered to your e-reader April 27!
If you’d like to get to know what came before the word “Steampunk” a little bit better, you can read part 1 of this series on Steampunk Journal. For this article, we’ll be focusing on the mid-1980s through 1996, and especially on the literature that serves as the foundation for a genre that has since branched into fashion, music, and more. Tomorrow, you can find the continuation of the series on author Penny Blake’s blog, where she has also posted a review of Army of Brass.
(The images in this article were part of the 30 Years of Steampunk exhibit created by Phoebe Darqueling and P.R. Chase.)
This quote came from an editorial Jeter sent in to Locus Magazine. “Steampunk” is a play on the name of the genre called “Cyberpunk” that was very popular at the time. (If you need some background into why “punk” is in the name, you can get more info in this Steampunk Journal article I wrote last year.)
When I saw Jeter speak at the 2017 International Steampunk Symposium, he shared that it came as a complete surprise when others started using the word in the following years. It was actually his wife who first noticed and brought it to his attention. He’d more or less forgotten about it by that time.
Who are Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter?
Despite the Victorian London setting so often associated with Steampunk, these three “pillars” of the literary canon are all Americans. Perhaps this is why they could so readily and masterfully “punk” the steam era; they felt less loyalty to the history they were playing with. The story goes that the three of them would get together to bounce around ideas while attending California State University in the 1970s. All three of them shared an important resource that helped shape their Steampunk books, London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew.
Though Infernal Devices is most often pointed to as Jeter’s Steampunk work, he also had a “sequel” to HG Wells’ The Time Machine called Morlock Night published in 1979. If you’re not familiar, the “morlocks” are the segment of humanity that live underground and work on behalf of the Eloi, who are both childlike in their innocence and intelligent. The time traveler in Wells work encounters them far into the future. I loved Jeter’s book that asks the question “What if the Morlocks used the time machine themselves?” He paints them as every bit as smart as the Eloi, but far more dangerous than Wells ever did.
Anubis Gates by Tim Powers followed in 1983. This book has not only time travel, but a healthy dose of Egyptian mysticism that was incredibly popular during the steam era. It begins in the 1980s, but quickly turns into a man’s quest to return to his own time to escape the (quite authentic) squalor and exploitation of urban life .
Homunculus came out in 1986 and was written by James Blaylock. If you aren’t familiar with the term, a “homunculus” is a term from Alchemy that refers to a little person created from scratch by an alchemist. In this case, it refers to a tiny alien. It is actually the second book in Blaylock’s loosely related Steampunk trilogy that includes The Digging Leviathan (1984) and Lord Kelvin’s Machine (1992). But the first book garnered less attention than books 2-3 in the series.
So as you can see, even early on there was a huge variety of subjects and styles within Steampunk as it gained traction with publishers and readers in the 1980s.
The Difference Engine, AKA “Cyberpunk set in the Past”
Even though many would place this book by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling squarely in the Steampunk camp, when they wrote it they had another idea. The story focuses on computer technology, the basic mechanics of which were created during the steam era. In their tale, the internet and highly sophisticated surveillance systems already exist. They use this premise to explore what “Big Brother” would have looked like in the past. For this reason, it is rooted in Cyberpunk, which takes a largely dystopian and grim view when it comes to the influence of computers on society. On the other hand, it takes place in Victorian-era London and uses references to historical figures to situate it in the same way many Steampunk books do.
1995 Was a Great Year for Steampunk Books
All of a sudden, several books hit the scene at the same time. The Golden Compass (AKA Northern Lights to British readers) was the first book ever to be described outright as Steampunk as it was being marketed. This indicates that the term had become popular enough by this time to mean something to the reading public. This first installment in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series takes place in a parallel universe, but later in the series you meet people from our own world as well. The books center on a truth-telling device and the religious authorities who will stop at nothing to keep the truth away from the general public.
The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo came out soon after. It consists of a trio of novellas called “Victoria”, “Hottentots” and “Walt & Emily.” Reviewer Antonia Urias put it this way: [The Steampunk Trilogy] “contains three bizarre and occasionally humorous novels taking the reader from Queen Victoria’s amphibian doppelganger to racist naturalists and black magic, and finally the interdimensional love story of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.” I haven’t had the pleasure yet myself, but this sounds like an amazing collection that belongs on any Steampunk fan’s ‘to-read’ list.
The third 1995 release was called The Diamond Age. It carries the subtitle “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” which references a book that is central to the story. In it a father risks his life to get the book for his daughter even though it is reserved only for the elites. He soon finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy and he has no choice but to keep going down the rabbit hole if he is to protect her from the consequences of his actions.
Steampunk in Other Media in the First Decade
It didn’t take long before Steampunk started to permeate visual and interactive media as well as literature.
The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
The early 90’s saw the birth of an awesome TV series that like so many other of Fox’s creations, was cancelled far too soon. It aired between 1993-1994. “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” may be most accurately described as “weird West,” but the two genres are intertwined. “Brisco County,” as the program is often called, shares several traits with the series and films in the Wild Wild West franchise from the 1960’s and 70’s. A man gives up lawyering to become a smart-talking, anachronistic bounty hunter in the American West circa 1893.Several of the episodes feature a futuristic device called The Orb, and this tech plus the emphasis on humor thanks to the fabulous Bruce Campbell help to secure its place in Steampunk.
On the big screen, we have to look to France to find Steampunk at this time. In 1996, the surreal nightmare Les Cite des Enfants Perdus (The City of Lost Children) came out. It centers on a “mad scientist” who is unable to sleep, so he steals the dreams of children. It doesn’t much in the way of steam tech per se, but the scientific mind run amok is a tried and true trope taken straight from the 19th century.
For people looking for something a little more interactive, they didn’t have to look any further than Space 1889. This tabletop game has a suite of miniatures that players can use to stage combat on Mars. It was first released in the early 90’s, but since then there have been several sequels and expansions to the original game.
Which brings us roughly to the end of the first decade of Steampunk. In tomorrow’s continuation of the series, we’ll dive into the late 1990’s through the mid-2000’s. During this time, Steampunk expands even more to include fashion and the first online forum for connecting like-minded fans. So tune into the Army of Brass blog tour again tomorrow to find out more!
Not sure if it’s for you? Take a sneak peek at the full Chapter 1, or read another exclusive excerpt. Plus, we’ve got interviews with writers Jason Pere and Jean Grabow. If you want to find out more about collaborative writing, Army of Brass contributors and CWC veterans Crystal MM Burton and Kathrin Hutson shared articles for the tour about the pros, cons, and rewards.
Plus, Join us on Facebook April 28-29 for our launch party to meet the writers, participate in giveaways, and more! If you have questions about collaborative writing, it’s a great time to connect with people who have experience across genres.
And speaking of giveaways, we’ve got one going on for the entire blog tour, so between April 13-May 13, enter to win ebooks from CWC writers.