Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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A term applied more to Science Fiction than to fantasy, though some tales described as steampunk do cross genres. Steampunk stories are most commonly set in a romanticized, smoky, 19th-century London, as are Gaslight Romances. But the latter category focuses nostalgically on Icons from the late years of that century and the early years of this – on Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and even Tarzan – and can normally be understood as combining Supernatural Fiction and Recursive Fantasy, though some gaslight romances can be read as Fantasies of History. Steampunk, on the other hand, can best be described as Technofantasy that is based, sometimes quite remotely, upon technological Anachronism. Steampunk tales are thus often placed in an Alternate World, to allow their premised anachronisms full imaginative play.

As a marriage of Urban Fantasy and the alternate-world tradition, steampunk can arguably be traced back to the influence of Charles Dickens, whose vision of a labyrinthine, subaqueous London as moronic inferno underlies many later texts. Dickens's London, somewhat sanitized, also underlies the Babylon-on-the-Thames version of the great city created by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and G K Chesterton in their fantasies – tales whose uneasy Theodicy underpins much contemporary gaslight romance. The two categories, steampunk and gaslight romance, point to two ways of rendering closely linked original material.

The term steampunk did not come into use until the late 1980s, and derives from the usage cyberpunk. Many examples of steampunk were, therefore, written before a word existed to describe them. Christopher Priest's The Space Machine (1976) combines steampunk and gaslight romance; his later The Prestige (1995) incorporates a strong steampunk subplot in the course of which Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) invents a matter transmitter. K W Jeter's Morlock Night (1979), a sequel to H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895) which depicts Morlocks rampaging through the sewer system of Victorian London, may be considered the first genuine steampunk tale, while his later Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy (1987) is clearly written deliberately as steampunk. Further early texts include The Crisis in Bulgaria, or Ibsen to the Rescue! (graph 1956) by Jocelyn Brooke (1908-1966), Herbert Rosendorfer's The Architect of Ruins (1969), Harry Harrison's vigorous alternate history A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1972), John Mella's Transformations (fixup 1975), Michael Moorcock's 1970s Bastable sequence (assembled as A Nomad of the Time Streams rev omni 1993), "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" (1977) by Stephen Utley (1948-2013) and Howard Waldrop (1946-    ), which chronicles the adventures of Frankenstein's Monster in a Hollow Earth, and William Kotzwinkle's Fata Morgana (1977).

Similarly early are the influential tales by the two authors who have become most identified with the term, which may have been invented to describe their work. James P Blaylock's steampunk novels include The Digging Leviathan (1984) and the later St Ives sequence: Homunculus (1986) and Lord Kelvin's Machine (1992). Tim Powers's steampunk titles include The Anubis Gates (1983), On Stranger Tides (1987) and The Stress of Her Regard (1989). These are colourful, fast-paced Science Fantasies involving anachronistic inventions and their eccentric inventors, occult Wainscot conspiracies, and Underground criminal cabals. They share an essentially nostalgic vision of a crowded, hyperreal 19th-century London in which science, still mostly pursued by amateurs, has not yet lost its innocence to mechanized warfare, the Holocaust and the atom bomb.

Other steampunk texts – most essentially sf – include The Difference Engine (1990 UK) by William Gibson (1948-    ) and Bruce Sterling (1954-    ), The Hollow Earth (1990) by Rudy Rucker (1946-    ), in which Edgar Allan Poe has adventures in a Hollow Earth, Brian Stableford's The Werewolves of London (1990) and its sequels The Angel of Pain (1991) and The Carnival of Destruction (1994), closely argued metaphysical fantasies set in 19th-century London, though his The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires (1996) is gaslight romance, Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary (1991), Anti-Ice (1993) by Stephen Baxter (1957-    ), which ends the Crimean War with a Hiroshima-like Armageddon – Baxter's The Time Ships (1995), more gaslight romance than steampunk, is a sequel to The Time Machine that is perhaps more faithful to the intentions of Wells than Jeter's Morlock Night – Paul J McAuley's Pasquale's Angel (1994), set in the Italy of Leonardo Da Vinci, Colin Greenland's Harm's Way (1994), which expertly pastiches Dickens's style in a space-opera technofantasy in which the British Empire has extended its hegemony throughout the Solar System using sail-powered spaceships, Joan Aiken's Is (1992) and The Cockatrice Boys (1996 US), and The Steampunk Trilogy (coll 1995) by Paul Di Filippo (1954-    ), collecting three tales which subvert 19th-century rationalism and much else with fantastic inventions and Lovecraftian apparitions: one describes substitution of a giant newt for Queen Victoria, another a romance between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

Not strictly steampunk, but echoing in gaslight-romance terms Steampunk's dense reworking of 19th-century London, Kim Newman's Anno Dracula (1992) is an alternate history in which a triumphant Dracula forcibly marries Victoria and presides over a brutalized London in which the living and the undead uneasily mingle; the sequel, The Bloody Red Baron (1995 US), is set in the battlefields of World War I. The Dickensian squalor and child-labour of the Dragon factory at the opening of Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993 UK) likewise echoes the spirit of steampunk's retro technofantasies. [PJM/JC]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.