Thursday, February 9, 2017

Steampunk: Beyond Victorian

Episode 1 of All Things Punk, a weekly post about PUNK - what it is and why it's AWESOME

Guest Post by: Jeffery Cook and Katherine Perkins

Victoriana and Steampunk are often considered interchangable. However, even aside from the major difference between the stories and aesthetics of steampunk and the real technology, sociology, and colors of the actual Victorian era, steampunk can go distinctly beyond that period.

To begin with, steampunk, even at its most basic level, is a significant departure from the real world. Steampunk draws a great deal of its aesthetics not from the real Victorian era, but from the sepia toned photographs we have of the time. When people say steampunk now, there tends to be thoughts of a lot of browns and sepia tones. At least one common joke is "Steampunk is what happens when goths discover the color brown." In truth, the real Victorian era was extremely colorful, if not gaudy. The world was discovering all sorts of new dyes -- and they wanted to use /all/ of them. One of the commonly cited inspirations for the look of steampunk was Disney's 1954 movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which made the choice early on to base its look on old photos, rather than historical accuracy.

The second consistent point of steampunk, outside of look, is the technology. While there are a lot of types of steampunk, the gadgets, goggles, mad science, and general spirit of invention and technological paths not-taken are also at the core of steampunk. Most of the technology that really defines steampunk, though, wasn't invented in the Victorian era—improved upon and/or proliferated during the reign of Queen Victoria, yes, but predating even her birth.

Steam engines (1st century AD, made much more functional in 1698), trains (first functional model in 1784, and used to transport coal out of mines on 300-yard tracks long before it was practical for long distance travel), steam boats (first functionally used in 1783, but theorized and patented as early as 1729), theories of flight (functional balloons and navigation go back to ancient China, but there were functional, manned flights in balloons, and a lot of ambitious theories on advances in flight by 1783), and even things that would become foundational to rocketry and space exploration (Erasmus Darwin, 1797) -- all had their foundations noticeably before Victoria. Similarly, the clockwork that so influences the look of Steampunk dates back to ancient times in both China and Japan, and to centuries before the Victorian in Europe.

One way of reframing some of the ways we think about steampunk eras is by discussing what some historians call the Long 19th Century, which spans from the late 1700s until the First World War. This includes three different reign-based eras: The Regency (the time of Jane Austen), the Victorian Era (the time of both Charles Dickens and Jules Verne), and the Edwardian Era (the time of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess and The Secret Garden). While easily confused with each other, they have their own rich cultural aesthetics to draw on and can equally inform Steampunk settings.

We ourselves have an emergent Steampunk series (Jeff as the primary author, Kate as the series editor) set in the Regency era—at least, as we'd call it. In the timeline of the Dawn of Steam series, George III never needed a legal Regency, as he met with an ...unfortunate airship accident. But the style of writing in the letters and journal entries that make up the epistolary work is what the real world calls Regency.
Additionally, with all of the reimagining of the world already present in steampunk, it's not surprising that a number of steampunk worlds might depart further from history, and certainly aren't recognizeable as Victorian. The Foglios' Girl Genius is a good example, with its remarkably different European governments and society.

Similarly, as many steampunk works delve into fantasy (such as Gail Carriger's Petticoat Protectorate series, with its vampires, werewolves, and other paranormal elements), others go well beyond Earth. This trend is well supported by one of the very first steampunk works, Keith Laumers Worlds of the Imperium from 1961. In modern times, works like Disney's Treasure Planet, or Lindsay Schopfer's The Beast Hunter take steampunk off of Earth entirely, while maintaining the look and feel of 19th-Century sci-fi.

These are all distinct ways the steampunk genre spans and can span beyond being Victorian.


Author Jeffrey Cook lives in Maple Valley, Washington, with his wife and three large dogs. He was born in Boulder, Colorado, but has lived all over the United States. He's contributed to a number of role-playing game books for Deep7 Press out of Seattle, Washington, but the Dawn of Steam series are his first novels. When not reading, researching or writing, Jeffrey enjoys role-playing games and watching football.

Katherine Perkins lives wherever the road of a Visiting Assistant Professor's family takes her, her husband, and one extremely skittish cat. She was born in Lafayette, Louisiana, and will defend its cuisine on any field of honor. She is the editor of Jeffrey Cook's Dawn of Steam series and serves as Jeff’s co-author for the YA Fantasy Fair Folk Chronicles (beginning with Foul is Fair) and various short stories, including those for the charity anthologies of Writerpunk Press. When not reading, researching, writing, editing, or occasionally helping in the transcription of Braille songbooks, she tries to remember what she was supposed to be doing.

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