An Introduction to the Staring Gaze of Steampunk

An Introduction to the Staring Gaze of Steampunk
© Photograph by Gary Box

Imagine Jules Verne as an inventor instead of an author. Imagine Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, a submarine capable of speeds rivalling modern Seawolf-class attack submarines, as a reality. Imagine Frank Reade as historical figure instead of a fictional persona; imagine his steam-powered robots as a fact of the American frontier. Envision a world where the speculative dreams of Victorian and Edwardian writers like Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs were realities instead of fantasies, and you begin to see the world through steampunk lenses.

When K.W. Jeter inadvertently coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus magazine in 1987, he was ironically classifying the neo-Victorian stories he and fellow Californians James Blaylock and Tim Powers were writing.

Despite such flippant beginnings, the term has demonstrated remarkable resilience, becoming the signifier for nearly every neo-Victorian work of speculative fiction since Jeter’s own ‘Infernal Devices’ (1987).

It has been used to retroactively subsume pre-Jeter scientific romances such as Michael Moorcock’s ‘Nomad of the Time Streams’ (1971-1981), the ‘60s television series ‘Wild, Wild West’ (1965-1969), and alternate histories such as Keith Roberts’ ‘Pavane’ (1966).

Even the writings of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and their futurist contemporaries have been labelled steampunk. Online debates continue raging, seeking to define steampunk, with answers ranging from narrowly restricting and exclusionary definitions, to uselessly inclusive indefinitions.

Steampunk’s growing popularity in books, film, games, fashion, and décor, has only exacerbated the problem, as the term has evolved from a literary sub-genre of Science Fiction (SF) to a sub-culture of Goth fashion, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) arts, crafts, and maker movements, and more recently, as counter-culture.

The following study is an attempt to address the breadth of current steampunk expression while engaging in an exploratory inquiry to the question, “What is steampunk?” It seeks to answer this question with a more satisfactory and useful response than “Victorian science fiction,” “yesterday’s tomorrow today,” or some other equally vague or limited definition.

This project goes beyond the prescriptive definitions of SF scholarship, which have primarily defined steampunk based on a limited set of evidence, most often the single text of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s ‘Difference Engine’.

While the study focuses primarily on literature, the approach to understanding steampunk is a descriptive one, describing a surface “aesthetic” for steampunk. Accordingly, I augment this literary exploration with the Steam Wars series of images, which apply the steampunk aesthetic to the immensely popular and therefore highly recognizable characters and technology of George Lucas’s Star Wars series.

While my conclusions about the steampunk aesthetic are the product of reading over sixty steampunk novels and short stories, I focus on particular texts in each section, providing further examples for readers to explore each feature of the steampunk aesthetic further, beyond this study.

Again, this is necessary since so much of steampunk academia has focused on the subculture, the art, or a minimal set of texts. Much academic writing on steampunk currently relies on outdated definitions, such as the ‘Encyclopedia of Fantasy’s’ (EF), Steffen Hantke’s seminal 1999 article on steampunk, or subjective definitions from within the steampunk community, based mainly on what steampunk fans desire steampunk to be, not necessarily critical reasoning.

Since no history of steampunk has been published in academia, I begin the study with a synopsis of steampunk’s antecedents, its genesis, and subsequent growth. Unlike a number of scholars, I suggest that steampunk’s direct inspiration was far more cinematic than literary, a likely reaction to the many film adaptations, pastiches, and knockoffs of the Scientific Romances of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

While Verne, Wells, and a host of other Victorian and Edwardian writers have influenced steampunk fiction, cinematic elements from films such as Disney’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ (1954) and George Pal’s ‘Time Machine’ (1960) are ostensibly a more immediate influence on the seminal steampunk writers of the 1970s and 1980s.

In Chapter Two, I identify some of the previous problems of definition, address prescriptive definitions of steampunk which are no longer indicative of post-2000 expressions, and then show the added difficulty of drawing narrow boundaries for steampunk given its roots in the slippery genre of SF.

This is further complicated by how steampunk, while dressed in the trappings of Victorian SF, often employs fantasy elements that render it a slipstream aesthetic, drawing from a variety of sources. It would be best to understand steampunk as using elements from all manifestations of speculative literature: SF, fantasy, and horror. It is most decidedly not Victorian SF, as many steampunk adherents claim, most likely out of a desire for a simple definition rather than any critical rigour.

Steampunk is a postmodern, postcolonial phenomenon. Victorian SF is a modern, Colonial one. The aesthetic of steampunk gazes backwards, looking at a fantastic past that never was. Defining Steampunk is also complicated by the appropriation of the term by people wanting to make more of the punk suffix than was ever intended. They conflate steampunk with radical political positions, such as anarchy, and have attempted to define “real steampunk” with these radical ideologies in mind.

Eschewing these approaches, I suggest that steampunk, as a postmodern phenomena, is a type of parody. Steampunk does not seek to reconstruct the past in literature, art, or fashion, but rather constructs something new by choosing elements from the Victorian and Edwardian past to create a style which evokes those periods.

For purposes of concision, I identify this borrowing from Victorian, Edwardian speculative literature as bricolage. While that term has been used to denote serious work, I have appropriated the term to signify steampunk that lacks self-reflexivity about the ramifications of combining the disparate elements from a period of colonialism, ethnocentrism, and patriarchy.

I distinguish bricolage from detournement. In this study, detournement will be understood as the highly self-reflexive combination of these disparate elements in bricolage, which then seeks to invert the original meaning of those elements.

Instead of defining it as a genre, as earlier steampunk definitions have, I suggest considering steampunk as an expression of combined components which constitute the steampunk aesthetic.

Throughout this study, I use the term aesthetic to denote the surface style of steampunk, in agreement with Christine Ferguson’s assertion that this is “perhaps the only definitive trait shared by most steampunks” (67).

I am not using aesthetic in a philosophical sense, but as a design sensibility or “visual interface between retro-Victorian style and contemporary technology” (67). Understanding steampunk as an aesthetic permits the requisite flexibility to discuss its diverse expressions.

Employing an evidence-based approach to the study of steampunk, I have identified three components found in almost all the sixty-plus steampunk novels I have read: neo-Victorianism, retrofuturism, and techno-fantasy. These three components are best suited to describing what steampunk is, inclusively accommodating a variety of steampunk expressions while exclusively drawing boundaries to avoid rendering the term meaningless.

Imagine a pair of brass aviator’s goggles, with intricate filigree and extra lenses on levers which can slide over other lenses to adjust one’s view. These are the goggles of steampunk, nearly ubiquitous in the subculture, which one can find for sale at every steampunk convention: as prominent steampunk maker Thomas Willeford says of them in ‘Steampunk: Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos, A Maker’s Guide to Creating Modern Artifacts’, “Whether you are a dashing airship pirate (or “privateer” if you prefer to feign an air of legitimacy), skywayman (not to be confused with the more mundane “highwayman”), or simply the maddest of scientists, nothing screams STEAMPUNK! quite as loudly as a good pair of genuine brass goggles” (27).

While there are detractors of Willeford’s view, goggles are arguably the most common motif of steampunk fashion, and as such share affinities with cyberpunk’s mirrorshades insofar as they are both movement totems, to borrow Bruce Sterling’s term (ix). But whereas cyberpunk’s mirrorshades hid the eyes of the “crazed and possibly dangerous” sun-staring visionaries of cyberpunk, steampunk goggles imply a different way of seeing and revealing. Imagine three extra lens attachments to place over the top of their standard smoked lenses.

Now imagine that each of those lenses, once slid into place, will change the way you see things through the goggles. If we slide the first lens into place, you will note some subtle differences about my attire: my tie has been replaced by a cravat, my sweater vest by a waistcoat, and my wristwatch has transformed into an ornate pocket watch. This lens is the first feature of the steampunk aesthetic: neo-Victorianism.

The neo-Victorian lens reveals that Steampunk does not imitate, but rather evokes the nineteenth-century as resonant, not accurate, mimesis. In every alternate or secondary world, by fashion, architecture, or culture, steampunk’s narrative mise-en-scène is reminiscent of the Victorian era, in the broadest sense of the terms.

Steampunk utilizes a look and feel evocative of the period between 1800 and 1914, unencumbered by a need for rigorous historical accuracy. From the very first steampunk works to recent ones, the steampunk aesthetic demonstrates an elasticity concerning temporal boundaries.

Steampunk is set in the late Regency era, the Victorian era proper, and the Edwardian era. It is set in the future of those eras, and of our own contemporary one. In addition to temporal limitations, steampunk challenges geographic ones as well.

While London is considered the quintessential steampunk locale, it is not always to the London of history, but the fantastic London of an alternate world, as in Philip Pullman’s ‘Golden Compass’ (1995), with anbaric lights, compass-like alethiometers for divination, and animal-shaped daemons all causing the reader to mutter, “I don’t think we’re in Cambridge anymore Toto.” This is not the London of history, but rather, “London that Americans think about when they read fantasy, and not the actual London” (Kelleghan 16).

This focus on London should not mislead us: steampunk left London as early as Richard A. Lupoff’s ‘Into the Aether’ (1974), and has since travelled across the globe. A sampling includes the United States in two of the stories in Paul Di Filippo’s ‘The Steampunk Trilogy’ (1995), as well as Cherie Priest’s ‘Boneshaker’ (2009); Europe in Scott Westerfeld’s ‘Leviathan’ (2009); Mexico in Al Ewing’s ‘El Sombra’ (2007); Canada in Lisa Smedman’s ‘The Apparition Trail’ (2007); Japan in Joe Lansdale’s ‘Zeppelins West’ (2001) and Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Warlord of the Air’; and the skies above India, Australia, and Antarctica in Kenneth Oppel’s ‘Airborn’ (2004) and ‘Skybreaker’ (2005).

Beyond spaces in alternate versions of earth, steampunk settings increasingly include fully secondary worlds, such as Chris Wooding’s ‘Retribution Falls’ (2010) or Ekaterina Sedia’s ‘The Alchemy of Stone’ (2008). Clearly, steampunk is no longer confined to Britain, or even Ruled Britannia. How can it be, when the London of Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ (2001), is a seven-tiered, two-thousand-foot-high city on massive caterpillar tracks, roaming post-apocalyptic earth?

This brings us to the second lens. Before you look through the lens that permits a mobile-city-eating-London, focus your attention on my hand. You cannot see what I am holding, because the first lens will not permit you: neo-Victorian lenses cannot see iPhones since the technology is too advanced for the lenses to translate.

Slide that next lens in and suddenly you are seeing an object resembling a Star Trek tricorder seemingly crafted by Nikola Tesla and Charles Babbage. You are looking through the second lens of the steampunk aesthetic: techno-fantasy.

Unlike the inscrutable hard drive of an iPod, you can see wires and coils, cogs and gears exposing this device’s inner workings. However, as we will see in chapter four, this is only exposure, not explanation: the brass punch cards of steampunk analytic engines are merely an aesthetic revelation, not a technological justification.

Most steampunk gadgets and vehicles require some form of magical impulsion or cohesion to be rendered plausible. This merging of magic and technology not only permits the designs of DaVinci to be constructed, but to work; it permits safe airship travel at impossible speeds, using theoretical fuel sources such as aether or phlogiston; it permits self-actualized clockwork automatons in a world where positronic explanations are unthinkable.

While aether and phlogiston are windows into the history of science, steampunk’s use of these elements varies in adherence to their respective historical theories. Historically, the work of alchemy led to chemical discoveries that were considered as fantastic as the miraculous aether often employed as fictional fuel in steampunk.

This progression is likely why alchemy is steampunk’s preferred magical system, since steampunk fans seem remiss to admit steampunk’s connection to fantasy. Alchemy shares the appearance of the modern scientific method, appearing less frivolous than high fantasy’s inherently ambient magic.

Beyond alchemy, pure magic rears its head in steampunk as well: the scholarly “thaumaturgy” of China Miéville’s ‘Perdido Street Station’ (2000); the clockwork theurgy Hethor Jacques taps into in Jay Lake’s ‘Mainspring’ (2007), so by aligning himself to the wheels behind the worlds, he can perform miracles, transforming the frozen wasteland of the Antarctic into a blooming New England Spring; Steampunk automatons are rendered as kabbalistic golems in Ted Chiang’s ‘Seventy-Two Letters’ (2000) and Jay Lake’s ‘The God-Clown is Near’ (2007).

Stephen Hunt’s ‘Court of the Air’ (2007) contains mechomancers, fey-folk, and world-singing sorcery. This is more than just Clarke’s third law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is an often blatant use of fantasy magic masquerading as technology.

In short, the techno-fantasy lens allows you to see technology dependent on the abandonment of real-world physics. Techno-fantasy permits real world elements like steam to produce nuclear energy output, as in Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime ‘Steamboy’ (2004). It is the Wardrobe to Narnia, dressed up like Bill Ferrari’s ‘Time Machine’ or Harper Goff’s ‘Nautilus’. It looks like science, but works like magic.

So now you are seeing through a lens that evokes the past, and a lens that imagines impossible technology in that past. The third and final lens effectively combines these elements, but is more subtle than it appears. Shift the third lens into place. You will see my outward appearance hasn’t changed.

The steampunk iPod still belches steam (or aether). If I was a woman or a person-of-colour, there might be a more noticeable change at this point, but since I am a white male, there is little change on the surface. That is the retrofuturist lens you are using now, and we will direct our gaze there with rigorous scrutiny in the fifth and final chapter.

Steampunk retrofuturism is usually conflated with images of antiquated technology, of dirigibles and ornithopters, or steampunk maker Datamancer’s brass-worked keyboards.

Discussions concerning retrofuturism at conventions and online forums usually focus on technology. Yet steampunk retrofuturism is arguably more than just how the past imagined the future. Rather, it is the way the present imagines the past seeing the future. After all, it is rare the steampunk aesthetic accurately conveys the aspirations of the nineteenth-century.

Steampunk technology’s blend of past and future often ignores the ambitions of late Victorian progressives, less concerned with sky dreadnoughts and phlogiston powered rayguns than with medical advancements and human rights. The nearly myopic focus of steampunk towards technology often misses the opportunity to investigate social possibilities, not just technological ones. If the Industrial Era proved anything, it was that massive technological change results in massive social change.

Thankfully, steampunk retrofuturism can be about more than techno-fantastic anachronisms, automatons, and airships. Even frivolous steampunk fiction engages in unintentional social retrofuturism when characters view the nineteenth-century from a twenty-first-century perspective.

SF scholar Rob Latham has identified nostalgia and regret as “typical retrofuturist emotions” (341). These terms provide a polemic for understanding retrofuturism’s range of commentary on the past. As will be explored in Chapter Three, Latham’s nostalgia and regret help differentiate between what Svetlana Boym calls the nostos and algoi of nostalgia: the “return home” and the “longing” (xv-xvi).

When the impulse of steampunk retrofuturism is only nostalgia/nostos, it produces conservative expressions of steampunk where Colonial perspectives are revived, and potentially preserved. Steampunk becomes a romantic desire for a reality without the complexity of globalization. If, however, the impulse of steampunk retrofuturism is regret/algoi, there is an opportunity to rewrite the past, not in the naïve hope it can be changed, but rather that retrofuturist speculations can affect the present and future.

Recently, along with steampunk writer Cherie Priest and pop-culture scholar Jess Nevins, I have begun using the idea of a spectrum for talking about steampunk. The spectrum answers the question, “how steampunk is it?” not “is it steampunk or not?” If you look at the side of those goggles, you will see a little dial attached to each lens’ control — that is to govern intensity.

With those dials, we can intensify each feature’s presence in our goggle-gaze: if we turn down the techno-fantasy, turn up the retrofuturism, and crank the neo-Victorian, we will seeing the world of Cherie Priest’s ‘Dreadnought’ (2010), where the Civil War drags on in 1880.

Dreadnought follows the adventures of Mercy Lynch, a nurse travelling cross-country on a monstrous steam engine to see her dying father one last time. It is a steampunk Planes, Trains, and Automobiles with zombies, Texas Rangers, and a helluva heroine.

Turn the techno-fantasy up all the way to eleven, play down the retrofuturism, leave the neo-Victorian, and you are looking at the world of S.M. Peters’ ‘Whitechapel Gods’ (2008), where a huge containment wall around the Whitechapel district has created a steampunk Inferno, complete with dark deities.

Steampunk seems a diverse sub-genre of SF, but is better understood as an aesthetic that has been applied to many genres, sub-genres, and hybrid-genres. Allegra Hawksmoor, editor of Steampunk Magazine, once lamented the possibility that steampunk is an empty aesthetic.

When the aesthetic of steampunk is viewed as a lens, the possibility of emptiness is not a bad thing.

A lens must be empty in order to be seen through; we need clear sightlines to fix our aesthetic attention. The gaze is political in Moorcock, and whimsical in Blaylock.

The definition of steampunk will remain contestable insofar as the focus is on content rather than style. However, if we see steampunk as an aesthetic gaze, then we retain the choice to turn that gaze upon political position, cosplay carnivale, or nostalgic narratives, naïve or nihilistic: these are not steampunk per se, but rather what become steampunked when the aesthetic gaze combining techno-fantasy and neo-Victorian retrofuturism is applied.

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