Science meets fantasy in steampunk

Rather than a science column this week, I have a science fiction column--because I’m currently in Reno at the 69th World Science Fiction Convention. And it truly is a sight to behold.

The self-respecting steampunk hero hails from an age where the lines of science and alchemy still remained blurred

The self-respecting steampunk hero hails from an age where the lines of science and alchemy still remained blurred

Rather than a science column this week, I have a science fiction column–because I’m currently in Reno at the 69th World Science Fiction Convention.

And it truly is a sight to behold.

You can’t go far around here without seeing someone wearing goggles, leather coats, high laced boots and aviator caps, carrying strange devices of glass, brass and leather.

They look old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time.

They’re aficionados of a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy known as steampunk, which has given rise to an aesthetic that has even moved beyond the SF ghetto into the world at large.

Way back in the 1980s, the hot movement in SF was cyberpunk, of which Canada’s own William Gibson was one of the top practitioners.

Cyberpunk was all about tech-savvy geeks in mirror shades hacking and surfing computer networks.

Steampunk has pretty much nothing in common with it — except for the name, coined by science fiction writer K.W. Jeter.

According to Wikipedia (not always a reliable source, but trustworthy when it comes to all things geeky), Jeter wanted a general term for four concurrent novels set in the 19th century and imitating the conventions of early SF writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, Homunculus by James Blaylock, and Jeter’s own Morlock Night and Infernal Devices.

In a letter to the SF newsmagazine Locus, Jeter wrote, “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term . . . something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps . . . ”

His prediction proved perspicacious: in 1990 cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote The Difference Engine, about an alternate Victorian era in which the steam-powered mechanical computer proposed by Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage was actually built, and ushered in the information age a century early.

None of these novels were actually the first of this sub-genre, though. There had been many others with steampunkish elements before them, and who can forget the 1960s CBS TV series The Wild Wild West, featuring U.S. secret agent Jim West as a “James Bond on horseback,” armed with all kinds of technological tricks and gadgets and facing villains similarly equipped?

These days, there’s historical steampunk, set in a recognizable historical period, typically post-Industrial Revolution but pre-electricity, resulting in lots of steam-powered or clockwork gadgets; fantasy steampunk, incorporating both old-fashioned technology, but elements of magic (like Jeter’s Morlock Night, about an attempt by Merlin to bring back King Arthur to save 1892 Britain from an invasion by the Morlocks of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine ), and future steampunk, set in a future whose technology developed in a different way, one that involves a lot more brass and rivets. (And airships! Nothing says steampunk like airships.)

Then there’s the sub-sub (possibly sub-sub-sub) genre of “gaslight romance” or “gaslight fantasy,” drawing inspiration from Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and so forth.

Steampunk has shown remarkable staying power. Although we live in a cyberpunkish world where anonymous hackers regularly steal data, as a sub-genre cyberpunk is stuck on the blue screen of death, while steampunk chugs along undaunted.

Writing at the website SF Signal, Jeff Vandermeer, an editor and author who rarely writes steampunk himself but writes about it quite a bit, gave what I thought the best explanation: steampunk persists because it has become its own sub-culture, focused not just on fiction but on the aesthetic as a whole (hence those costumers mentioned at the beginning of the column).

When the boilers of steampunk fiction begin to lose pressure, the subculture stokes the fires again, so that, as Vandermeer writes, “The subculture reanimates the impulse to create steampunk fiction, the fiction energizes the subculture.”

The cross-pollination among websites, books, magazines, artists, sculptors and costumers creates an atmosphere in which “steampunk” books sell well . . . which encourages publishers to publish more steampunk books.

The result, says Vandermeer, is that “steampunk is rapidly creating a safe haven for very, very interesting material that might not otherwise enter the world through commercial publishers, or even through indie publishers . . . It isn’t the bleeding edge in terms of innovation in fiction by any means, but it is in general practical, more and more progressive, durable, and beautiful.”

And let’s face it, airships and goggles are cool. Which is why I have both in my next fantasy novel, Magebane (written under the pseudonym Lee Arthur Chane).

What can I say? Steampunk is in the air, and even I am not immune.

Edward Willett is a Regina freelance writer. E-mail comments or questions to ewillett@sasktel.net. Visit Ed on the web at www.edwardwillett.com.

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