Example: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Scenario: In our world, Charles Babbage was working on the Analytical Engine at the time of his death. Put simply, this would have been the world’s first programmable computer had it been completed. In The Difference Engine, Charles Babbage lives to finish the Analytical Engine, ushering in the Information Age a hundred years early. As a result, 1850s London is a city of steam cars, Tube lines, mechanical cinematography and mass production. Unfortunately, this premature expansion comes at a social, political and environmental cost.
Type 2: Alternative Present
Scenario: An Edwardian soldier finds himself mysteriously transported to 1973. But not our 1973. This is a version where the First World War never happened. Heavier-than-air flight and petrol engines remain largely experimental, the world is divided between oppressive European empires and society has barely evolved beyond the Victorian era. Meanwhile, technologically-advanced anarchists believe change is long overdue…
Type 3: Fantasy World
Scenario: A world where magic and technology are combined in weird ways. It’s a place where races of strange creatures co-exist with steam trains, analytical engines and airships. Steam-powered robots are commonplace, but sound recording won’t be discovered for another two decades. The weather can be controlled by magical technology, but medicine is at barely more than medieval levels. Anything goes. It’s fair to say, though, that most steampunk fantasy tends to be set in either medieval-type worlds with steam-powered technology or Victorian-type worlds with magic.
Type 4: Someone Else’s Setting
Example: Scarlet Traces by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli
Scenario: Ten years after the invasion of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Britain has adopted Martian technology and as a result has become an even bigger industrial powerhouse. Automated factories have put millions out of work, horses have been replaced by mechanical spider-things and the heat ray is the power source of choice. It almost goes without saying that the British Empire, unrestricted and unopposed, is incredibly evil.
Other notable works with steampunk themes and elements include Wild Wild West, His Dark Materials and Van Helsing. Actually, now I come to think of it, I’m not sure there’s ever been a good steampunk film. But you get the idea.
Some also count genuine works of Victorian science fiction such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Time Machine. I don’t. Steampunk, to my mind, is a stylistic thing. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were merely writing science fiction in what, to them, was a contemporary setting. I think that to call their work “steampunk” is a bit like saying that Jane Austen wrote historic fiction. However, pastiches of or sequels to their work written by contemporary authors would be steampunk, because the author would be combining science fiction with a setting that, to them, would be historic. Clear?
I don’t know how you’d class, say, the 1960s film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I think I’ll just throw down a smoke bomb and escape in the ensuing chaos.
Now, steampunk in the sense of the article in the Evening Standard wot I contributed to is different again. It’s a dressing-up thing, a coming-together of several different trends and subcultures.
First, you’ve got your Gothic and your Industrial subcultures. The Gothic subculture has the Victorian thing going on, with the top hats and the corsets and what-have-you. The Industrial subculture heavily uses work and military clothes as well as accessories that allude to machinery and, of course, industry. There’s a certain amount of aesthetic overlap between the two subcultures already, although in my experience if you say that out loud you’re asking for some rivethead to hotly argue that no they’re not alike at all shut up.
Then you’ve got your Neo-Victorians and Young Fogies. These are people who seek to emulate the ways of an older generation, albeit usually with certain compromises to fit in with the modern era (for instance, allowing women the vote and not assuming the Chinese to be evil). Said emulation often involves wearing period costume and adopting period manners.
And then you have steampunk cosplay. Cosplay, if you’re not familiar with the term, consists of dressing up as a fictional character – you know those people who dress up as Star Trek characters at conventions? That’s cosplay, in a manner of speaking. Steampunk cosplay is, like its inspiration, a mix of Victorian and anachronistic elements, with a strong technological theme. For the cosplayers, it often has a nostalgic or adventurous feel. Characters may be created. Zeppelins may be alluded to. The chances are that you won’t get any musings on imperialism or the impact of industrialisation.
So, what you see on the streets of Shoreditch dates back some way further than Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes (which I still haven’t seen, but I’m told it’s very good). All that’s happening now is that it’s intersecting with the mainstream.
Now, where are my brass goggles?