I’ve been reading an anthology of Steampunk short stories recently (more on this later, when I’ve finished) and I’ve been turning The Dead Isle over and over in my head, with the same result I always have. Inevitably, when writing Steampunk, I come back to the issue of its definition, of how to elevator-pitch Steampunk as a genre.
An Elevator Pitch, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a short summary of a concept or plot that you could pitch to someone in the time it takes you to ride an elevator together. Presumably more than two or three floors, but the point remains, elevator pitches are short and sharp, and I’ve been told in the past that I’m pretty good at them, despite being dreadfully incapable at Twitter.
Steampunk is hard to define as a literary genre in particular, because it’s such a visual aesthetic: the boots and breeches, the goggles, the gears, the top hats and waistcoats, the bustles, the parasols, the tubes and vents. Someone once brilliantly described the visual Steampunk as “Goths discover the colour brown”.
In terms of literature, the lines blur. I haven’t actually read that much contemporary work in the genre, but the interesting element to literary Steampunk is that we have in-era examples of it. A lot of Steampunk evokes nostalgia for a bygone Victorian age, but there are novels written in the Victorian era which can easily be considered Steampunk — the works of Jules Verne being the most notorious, but also those of HG Wells and other early science-fiction writers (for more on this, I can recommend a very thorough book about the pre-modern history of Scifi called Different Engines). Oft-quoted real life examples include Babbage and Lovelace (the people, not the comic), who were some of the earliest tinkerers-about with computers.
One writer in the anthology talked about how a vital element of Steampunk is the steam engine, which restricts the setting of Steampunk to a very narrow geographic band of the Victorian era, but I think that’s erroneous. The “steam” of Steampunk originally, to me, spoke of the steam era, the era of industrial revolution, not the steam engine; still a Western, Victorian concept, but not quite so precise. And at any rate, there are records of steam engines as far back as Hero of Alexandria, twenty-two hundred years ago.
It seems to me that a better definition of Steampunk, and one which most of the writers in the anthology have consciously or unconsciously used, concerns that razor’s edge where science and history collide, and the individual’s place in it. Steampunk literature at its core is mainly concerned with people pushing the boundaries of their contemporary technology, or with how to build modern devices such as computers and futuristic devices such as time machines out of less technologically advanced materials.
For the West, the last true century of the Renaissance Man was the 19th century, as historically inaccurate as that sounds. Individuals could know a machine back-to-front and build their own out of ingenuity and a basic working knowledge of physics. The leaps and bounds that technology began to take in the 20th century made it difficult for a single person to grasp every thread of a machine; even most mechanics need a computer to help them diagnose car trouble these days. Steampunk is about technology, but simpler technology that one could understand thoroughly — and it’s about the ability of the individual to push that technology to its limit unaided. Steampunk heroes are ship builders, submarine designers, mad scientists, time-travelers, and futuristic warriors, but they are rarely team managers or build supervisors. They don’t have co-workers; they have sidekicks.
So that’s my elevator pitch for Steampunk: a genre of literature concerned with pushing the boundaries of simple technology to a complex futuristic conclusion.
Also, “mad scientists build stuff with lots of gears.” That works too.