Steampunk is science fiction mixed with historical fiction: a strange monster indeed. It’s been here since the days of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and was resurrected in the late 80’s by the likes of William Gibson and James Blaylock. Gibson, already well known for his cyberpunk stories and novels cowrote The Difference Engine with Bruce Sterling. In that seminal book they imagined Victorian society with computers; in other words, they asked: “What would have happened if Charles Babbage had, indeed, been able to create his Analytical Machine?
Other books appeared, usually set in that same time period. The novels included a lot of imagined technology, based on clockworks and pulleys and gears, instead of lasers and space exploration.
Some critics of the genre argued that it would die out. It was too repetitive, they said. How many airships can you read about, after all?
And yet, today, the steampunk category is more alive than ever. There are amazing books out under its umbrella: Corsets and Clockwork, Behemoth, Leviathan, and The Windup Girl. There are Steampunk festivals and art and fashion exhibits all over the world. It shows up in TV shows like fringe. It appears, most famously, in the video for Alejandro by Lady Gaga.
I think the reason for its renaissance is that steampunk is reinventing itself. One exciting aspect of the genre is the new multicultural works that are coming out. Recently a Brazilian collection called Vapor Punk was released; you can take a sneak peek here:
Indeed, that peek comes from Beyond Victoriana, an excellent site devoted to furthering the more ethnic side of Steampunk. There are other sites like it; http://silver-goggles.blogspot.com/ is one of my favorites. They argue that a genre cannot be Eurocentric. All steampunk novels can’t be set in London, and they can’t all feature Anglo characters. The genre would get very boring if that happened.
In fact, this multicultural aspect of steampunk excites me the most. More than any wind-up automaton holding the key to a clockwork city, the thought of the new worlds to explore amazes me.
We can write about imaginary technology in Tibet, for example, or in the Congo. My own trilogy uses ethnic characters from the Caribbean.
Of course, I took liberties with the geology, just as much as I did with technology. Obviously, that is a necessary part of being a fantasy author. And for those Anglophiles out there, novels can be centered in England and still be multicultural. In my books, the island princess comes to London in disguise and confronts the social attitudes of the time.
Another aspect that is keeping steampunk alive is the influx of YA books. I think that kids love possibilities, so if you pose the question, “What if someone discovered string theory by accident a century ago?” it starts their own cogs and wheels going. Books like Steaming, Beltbuckle, and the Girl Genius series by the Foglios are growing the genre beyond Pullman and Gibson.
Again, this makes a lot of sense. Verne and Wells, after all, were writing for children. Modern steampunk authors can do the same.
There are other variations, such as the steampunk romance novels that are appearing more and more now. And we can go in the other direction and discuss Dieselpunk, another variant. All of these growths and developments tell me that steampunk is not a corpse, not by a long shot. The clockworks in the automaton have just started to wind up.
Alison DeLuca, author of The Night Watchman Express