413. Wherefore Art Thou Steampunk

As they teach us in high school, when Juliet says, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, she means why are you called Romeo, and then goes into a long bit about identity. This post will do the same thing.

I have been writing a steampunk novel since July, and it is going quite well. I am roughly half way through the first draft, and doing my world building as I write. I am also researching what it means to be steampunk.

My justification for writing in an unknown genre is that it really isn’t all that unknown. It is a first cousin to science fiction, to fantasy, to horror, to the novels of Verne, to alternate history when limited to the near-Victorian, to Edisonade (a new name to me for a sub-genre I’ve been reading all my life — think Tom Swift), and to the old west with neo-mechanical devices (a genre that existed long before the Wild Wild West). I’ve been reading all of these, all my life.

The name steampunk was proposed by K. W. Jeter in a letter to Locus. Jetter, James P. Blaylock, and Tim Powers are three big names in early steampunk, but the genre has come a long way since then.

You would be surprised how much research into obscure subjects lies untapped in college libraries in the form of Ph.D. dissertations. I have learned to use the internet to seek them out, since so many of the things I am interested in are quite obscure.

Mike Perschon’s 2012 dissertation The Steampunk Aesthetic can be accessed at https://era.library.ualberta.ca/files/m039k6078#.WbA9kcdllBw. On that page, click Download the full-sized PDF if you want to follow me down that rabbit hole. If not, you could just try Perschon’s website http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com.

No? Neither? I don’t blame you. Not many people have that much itch, so hang on and I will quote a few of Perschon’s conclusions.

Accordingly, this is not a study of Victorians or Victorianism, but rather a study of steampunk’s hodge-podge appropriation of elements from the Victorian period.

Non-speculative neo-Victorian writing is characterized by an adherence to realism that steampunk rarely cleaves to.

Steampunk (is) not . . . historical fiction per se, but . . .  speculative fiction— science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all mixed into one—that uses history as its playground, not classroom.

The most useful thing Perschon said, from my perspective, is that steampunk is not a genre, but an aesthetic. I had largely come to the same conclusion. The question for me has become not, “is it steampunk,” but rather, “does it taste like steampunk”.

I found that the more carefully I researched the Victorian past, both historically and technologically, the more I was attempting to make my novel fit a set of limitations. I was approaching it the same way I approached Cyan, where I first created a world with certain characteristics, then worked my story around it.

Steampunk doesn’t seem to work that way. In steampunk, an author has an idea of what his world looks like, then comes up with some quasi-magical dingus to make it work. Do you want your airship to be able to lift more and go faster? Invent a gas that never existed. In science fiction terms, it’s more Star Wars than Heinlein. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

In addition to academia. I am also half-way through a half-dozen recent steampunk novels. I would be further along, but I’ve been a bit busy writing my own. I’ll clue you in on those novels as I finish them.

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2 thoughts on “413. Wherefore Art Thou Steampunk

  1. J.M. Williams

    Thanks for the links. I did check out the blog. I agree with you that Steampunk refers to a theme or aesthetic, but I think all sub-genres are that way. What’s the difference between horror and urban fantasy? The vibes, whether that be scary or romantic ones. Both are works of fantasy in a modern, usually urban, setting.

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  2. sydlogsdon Post author

    Probably so, but a writer who doesn’t want to alienate readers has to take care not to mis-label himself. That isn’t easy when the labels are vague, as they often are.

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