Guest post–Of Alternate Nineteenth Centuries: The Enduring Appeal of Steampunk

by Nader Elhefnawy

Steampunk steam engineEver since the coining of the term “cyberpunk” in the 1980s, it has been common practice to slap the suffix “punk” onto the end of another word to generate a label for every new, “newish” or even potential subgenre of science fiction. In fact, Wikipedia has actually devoted a full page to the listing of “Cyberpunk Derivatives.” (1)

One of the few that has bloomed into a genuine subgenre is “steampunk”—science fiction set in the nineteenth century, particularly that part incorporating anachronistic technologies and world-views. Many of the biggest names in English-language science fiction, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, K.W. Jeter, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Paul Di Filippo, China Mieville, Ian MacLeod, Philip Pullman, Michael Chabon and Alan Moore, have produced steampunk or work with steampunk elements. (2)

Indeed, last year Ann and Jeff Vandermeer presented a sampling of that output in an anthology by that name doing for the subgenre something of what Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades did for cyberpunk (and James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel did for post-cyberpunk with 2007’s Rewired). (3)

While not quite as evident outside print, steampunk does appear regularly on television (starting with The Wild Wild West in 1965, but also more recently in 2000’s The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne and the ongoing web and television series Sanctuary) and in film (recent examples including 2004’s Van Helsing, 2006’s The Prestige and 2007’s The Golden Compass). It has even given rise to an art and design movement, and the entire phenomenon is covered in its very own magazine which also gives this application of the label a nice official ring in its choice of name (Steampunk, of course). (4)

Why does the era exert such a hold on the imaginations of science fiction writers and readers? Part of it may be that the nineteenth century is not so far behind us as we often think. (5) There is a theory positing that it takes a hundred and fifty years before the influence of a period’s being on the living passes, this being (more or less) the furthest distance against which two human lives can touch each other directly. A hundred and fifty years back from 2009 would, of course, take us back to 1859, right in the middle of the nineteenth century. Think of it this way: unless you are very young, your grandparents’ own grandparents probably grew up in the Victorian era, giving them a direct contact with that generation, so that the era represents a horizon for living memory. (Indeed, until quite recently, centenarians were necessarily children of this era.)

It is also more accessible to us than earlier eras because of its relative closeness and its comparatively prolific informational output of artifacts and documents, so that “more” of the nineteenth century may be said to have survived, in contrast with earlier periods. The relatively short distance between the language and outlook of today, and that of the 1800s (compare the average literature student’s responses to, for instance, Shakespeare and Dickens) is also a factor. This makes it easier to investigate historically, which in turn makes it more likely to be investigated, in a feedback loop of familiarity that is one of the ironies of both historiography and publishing (lamented by some, but never denied). Yet, this would not seem to be all of it, and actually points the way to other explanations.

The Allure of “Machines That Don’t Suck”(6)

Few would argue against there being a substantial aesthetic component to the attraction. The roaring furnaces, the masses of gears and valves, the sheer weight of steel in so much of the visual media of steampunk-themed films, comics and television shows appear wonderfully tangible next to the molecular technologies of today, too small to be seen, their workings too abstruse for a non-specialist to have a true “feel” for them. Someone who is not a trained engineer can easily wrap their mind around an explanation of how a steam engine works—but not very much after that, the distance between steam and internal combustion engines (let alone atomic power) being an important break point in the relationship between science and culture. (7)

Besides, nineteenth century design, all the pre-plastic leather and wood and brass, retains a wide appeal, not only visually but psychologically as well. As Gavin J. Grant put it,

part of [steampunk's appeal is]…the pride of work well done. In steampunk you know that Captain Nemo’s submarine isn’t going to have a faulty starter: it will be a handmade, beautifully tooled piece of equipment. Maybe in our shoddy-mass-marketed-world of ever-lower-prices leading to ever-lower-quality there’s an attraction to handmade materials? (8)

Of course, one has to admit that this is not perfectly accurate, historically speaking. The nineteenth century was already an age of mass production—in the view of its critics, shabby, soulless mass production. Without such feelings, after all, there would have been little call for the famous Arts and Crafts Movement.

Where science fiction specifically is concerned, it is well worth remembering how Captain Nemo actually arranged the manufacture of the Nautilus in the Jules Verne novel. As the famous captain informs his prisoner Pierre Arronax,

“The keel was forged by Le Creusot, its propeller shaft by Penn & Co.’s, London, the iron plates for its hull by Laird’s of Liverpool, and its propeller by Scott & Co. of Glasgow. Its tanks were made by Cail & Co. at Paris, its engine by Krupp of Prussia, its cutwater by the workshops at Motala in Sweden, its precision instruments by Hart Brothers of New York, and so on…” (9)

In short, the famous submarine was built out of parts outsourced from a “Who’s Who” of the era’s most prominent industrial firms in the kind of “production sharing” we tend to associate with twenty-first century globalization.

Of course, historically accurate or not, what really matters is that the idea (admirably captured by Grant’s words) resonates with a sizable audience, which it clearly does. Part of this is likely because, compared with an earlier and more thoroughly handcrafted era, a return to the late 1800s or early 1900s does not mean having to give up all the most basic modern conveniences. Most of these, including indoor plumbing, electric lighting and even air conditioning, had been invented and put into use by this time—in the main by the privileged, but then it is their lives (and not those of common men and women) that are the stuff of historical fantasy. (10) Travel no longer meant riding in cramped stagecoaches over dirt roads or wind-and wave-tossed sailing vessels, but in luxurious automobiles and handsomely appointed cabins aboard trains and steamships, glamour epitomized on the big screen by the recreation of the Titanic in the 1997 blockbuster.

It helps too that while some find yesteryear’s version of high-tech dull, others find it quaintly charming. Additionally much of what is today commonplace, or at least unsurprising—a machine gun, an aerial contraption, a submersible—become novel and intriguing again in their new-old form, especially when that touch of old-fashioned craft discussed above is applied to them.

And of course, there is also the attraction of technological paths not taken—for instance, the romance of the airship denied its chance in the twentieth century because of military considerations that made swifter, less vulnerable heavier-than-air planes the aircraft of choice. Michael Moorcock presents plenty of these in the stories of his multiverse, notably in The Warlord of the Air. (11)

A (More or Less Fond) Remembrance of Things Past

Of course, aesthetics are not the sole object of nostalgia the nineteenth century has to offer. Conservatives often find in the Victorian era a period more satisfactory to their social and moral ideals (in its laissez-faire economics and standards of sexual restraint, for instance), and for those who skew Patrick Buchanan’s way, an age of Western self-confidence they much prefer to the more pluralistic world of today.

For the British in particular the nineteenth century represents the height of national glory, the era in which “the sun never set” on a British Empire formally ruling a quarter of humanity, and informally over much of the rest. For Americans, it is the age of the Civil War, the frontier of the “Wild West,” the headlong industrialization that made the United States an economic superpower. Together these experiences constitute what Milton Friedman called a “golden age in Great Britain and the United States” in the book he famously used to present his ideas to a popular audience, Free to Choose. (12)

It is worth noting that the conservative turn of world politics in the 1970s was spearheaded by vocal admirers of the nineteenth century, like Margaret Thatcher (who declared Friedman, along with another celebrator of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Von Hayek, her economic heroes, and was well-known for calling for a return to Victorian values). More recently the advocacy of an imperial path for the United States by neoconservatives like Niall Ferguson, Robert Kaplan and Max Boot, all of whom are given to quoting Rudyard Kipling in their propagandizing, is strongly tied to their glorification of the nineteenth century British Empire. (13)

Those on the left of the political spectrum generally do not share those affections. For them the “golden age” of which Friedman wrote was merely a gilded one; the pictures of economic and imperial expansion are quite a different thing when looked at from the bottom up, with the mystifications and self-congratulation of “gentlemen’s history” stripped away; the “order” and “morality” merely hypocrisy, prudery, repression, oppression, exploitation, and prejudice—or simply a latter-day oversimplification of a past era’s more complex realities. (14)

When they invoke the nineteenth century in comparisons, it is more likely to be for the purpose of criticism than the holding up of a model or ideal. Yet, this translates to a powerful intellectual interest. As historian Eric J. Hobsbawm put it in the masterfully written introduction to his classic The Age of Capital,

[t]he author of this book cannot conceal a certain distaste, perhaps a certain contempt, for the age [the third quarter of the nineteenth century] with which it deals, though one mitigated by admiration for its titanic material achievements and by the effort to understand what he does not like. (15)

Additionally, this was an era when rationalist, revolutionary and even utopian hopes seemed fresher and more vibrant. As Hobsbawm notes in the very same introduction, this “age of capital” was also the time when “the major work of capitalism’s most formidable critic, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867), was published” and

the revolutions of 1848 were the first and last European revolution in the (almost) literal sense, the momentary realization of the dreams of the left, the nightmares of the right. (17)

While that revolution died and disillusioned many in its death, after the world wars, fascism and the Soviet tragedy, its era seems a comparatively innocent, optimistic time—and a logical place to look when wondering “What went wrong?”

It is hard to overstate this view of the nineteenth century as a time of lost greatness, sanity or possibility, and the extent to which it has pervaded culture ever since. While we are accustomed to thinking of apocalyptic calamity as a fear for the future, it is possible to actually think of our world as “post-apocalyptic,” strange as that may sound to those unfamiliar with the period. The 1969 film The Assassination Bureau, a translation of the James Bond-style spy story to the Belle Epoque, is particularly worth remembering in its touching on that idea. There the villain’s world-destroying plot is—an assassination which would start a continent-wide war in Europe. (19)

While the protagonists succeed in stopping that plot in the movie, a few years after the film’s fictional events a real-life assassination (Sarajevo, 1914) did ignite a World War (I). In the physical destruction it caused, its shattering of the pre-existing order, and its showing up of earlier illusions (both directly, and in the other wars and turmoil that followed in its wake), that war ended life as much of humanity had known it before. (20)

Indeed, as much as anything else it produced the widespread sense that modernity didn’t work as advertised, and that ever since then we have been living “after” the modern (a position made explicit in modernism and postmodernism) in a state of continuous, existential crisis. Under such circumstances, what could be more natural than to look back to life before the deluge?

The Invention of the Modern World

While we are no longer living in the Victorian world, it would be a mistake to overlook the continuities between that time and our own, which in many cases are even more important than the differences. As the discussions of personal, economic and political life in the previous sections implies, we can also find in the Victorian era the earliest recognizably “modern” period.

It may seem strange to say this, given that we usually use the term either to denote the immediate present, or the whole era after 1500 as a whole. Modern in the latter sense means “post-Middle Ages,” with humanism, individualism, nationalism, democracy, commerce, reason, and science prevailing over “other-worldliness,” theocracy, aristocracy, feudalism, monarchy and all the rest of the Medieval package, while the European colonization of the Americas (and later, Oceania) made the world economy truly global in scope. The advent of printing presses and gunpowder-based weaponry and oceangoing sailing ships; the state-building of absolutist princes and the rebellions that checked the process (as with England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution); the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment; the Scientific Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution; all were important steps in this process, and they all long predate the period covered in any useful definition of “the nineteenth century.”

Yet, before the Victorian era much of what we think of as modern was nascent or exceptional, or simply the stuff of philosophers’ speculations (as in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle). They offered no true precedent to the “cataclysmic change of life” the nineteenth century wrought for the vast majority of humanity, realizing those earlier ideas tangibly in ways that made the fundamentally and unmistakably different world we now inhabit. (21) Industrialization and urbanization; a technology based on the application of theoretical science (particularly in the chemical and electrical fields); the existence of the institutions of the business corporation and the nation-state as the dominant actors in economics and politics; a planet tied together by mechanized transport and near-instant communication systems (railroads and steamships, telegraphs and telephones); a secular world-view; the belief in progress—they were all unquestionably in existence in the Western world, and rapidly being extended through and beyond it in a process not yet complete. (22)

Our thinking about science and technology is also remarkably nineteenth century. While there is no denying the advances that have occurred since then, particularly in physics and genetics, the major theoretical innovations of the time continue to occupy us, not least of them the workings and implications of evolution and electromagnetism and thermodynamics. Indeed, the word “scientist” itself was only coined at this time, as Hobsbawm notes in his own listing of the words and usages coming out of this period. (23)

This time also saw the “invention of invention,” the “qualitative transition from a world where innovation is infrequent and haphazard to one where it is continuous and systematic” in the hands of professionals rather than amateurs. (24) Naturally this change quickly saw innovation become a matter of national policy, the production of large numbers of scientists and engineers a process deliberately pursued through comprehensive national education systems up to the Ph.D level and large, well-funded research institutions (universities, corporate R & D departments, government agencies). (25) Britain’s “red brick” universities and the land grant colleges of the United States are both early examples of those efforts.

In the social, political and economic realm this era saw the emergence of recognizable (and still directly relevant) understandings of conservatism, liberalism, utilitarianism, capitalism, socialism, Marxism, Social Darwinism, anarchism, feminism, and—well, lots of “isms.” It might even be said that the lines along which our political debates are carried out remain those established at the time (in the U.S., the current version of the two-party system goes back to 1860). Not surprisingly, whether the issue is economic globalization, international power politics or terrorism, the era offers no shortage of easy precedents (one reason why students of international relations get a big dose of the era in their classes).

One would be remiss in overlooking art and culture, nineteenth century practice continuing to define our expectations, particularly of what is conventional and mainstream in “high culture.” This was the last time that avant-garde painting and sculpture “actually looked like something.” The thought-world of elite literature was not yet defined by the stylistic experiments (like the stream-of-consciousness writing of Virginia Woolfe and James Joyce, or the kaleidoscopic poetry of T.S. Eliot) that make “capital L” literature nearly unreadable to more people than are willing to admit it. The canon of classical music and opera was largely completed by this time, too, and for much the same reasons (the breach between the artistic cutting-edge and the tastes of even an up-market audience), the “Second Viennese School” never approaching the renown of its predecessors in the First. Our ideas about the artist and artistic creation were likewise born in this century, the idea of the genius coming out of Romanticism, the term “Bohemian” from Henri Murger’s 1845 Scenes de la vie de Boheme (better known through the operas and musicals spun out of it, most recently Rent).

And of course, the “capital F” Future against which we continue to compare the past and present, and our expectations of things to come, is a nineteenth century idea too. (26) It is commonplace to say that we live in “the future” but the claim has been made before, and perhaps never as sincerely as in those days—a time that many observers today reasonably regard as having entailed a far more radical transformation of life than the arrival of the “information age.” (27) The familiar fears about the pitfalls in the way of that future, from eco-catastrophe to civilization-shattering wars, from oppressive high-tech oligarchy to some repeat of the obscure course the Roman Empire was thought to have taken to its “decadence,” were all already in circulation. (28) Equally, there were early stirrings of the idea of transcending the world’s limitations in a transhuman movement to a posthuman existence. (29)

All of this makes writing about the Victorian era a viable way of commenting on our own, as Moorcock did in his Nomads of the Time Stream novels, and Paul Di Filippo did in the stories comprising his Steampunk Trilogy collection, though that far from exhausts this dimension of its interest. Part of the attraction to this approach likely lies in the fact that what is taken for granted today was new back then, and that to return to this era is often to look at these things with a fresher perspective, a lost sense of surprise, wonder, novelty, and even hope.

A Return to Literary Roots

The world with which science fiction must deal aside, the roots of the genre are more Victorian than anything else. Yes, there are those who look at the speculations of writers like Francis Bacon in his classic The New Atlantis, the satires of Jonathan Swift and Voltaire (or even the Gothic horror story like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and many other places for antecedents, and do so with good reason. However, it is not until Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and other authors of the mid- and late-nineteenth century that the story of the future, the story driven by physical and social science as we know them—science fiction in the strict sense—becomes something more than an occasional novelty in the forms of proto-genres like the “scientific romance,” the socialistic utopias of writers like Edward Bellamy, the invasion stories popularized by George Chesney. (30)

Most of the genre’s fundamental concepts (time machines, space travel, alien attacks on Earth, progress and its discontents, etc.), off which we have been working ever since, got their first really serious, significant fictional treatments here. And its earliest heroes and villains—Captain Nemo and Allan Quatermain, Phileas Fogg and Dr. Jekyll—generally come out of this period’s fiction.

The “steampunk era” was also the last time when a good many well-established concepts were still usable, science having made the world a smaller place in some ways (as well as a larger one in others). After the coming of the air age and the space age, it became very difficult indeed to imagine that the Earth’s land area still harbored Erewhons and “Lost Worlds.” If any more lost cities remain to be found, they cannot be lost redoubts of fallen civilizations, but dead places drowned under the sea or buried under the ground, like Atlantis or Ubar. If there are any dinosaurs roaming the Earth, then almost surely they came out of our labs. Much the same applies to the nearest of heavenly bodies—not just the moon, but Mars and Venus as well, less romantic places for being better-known. (31) Going back in time, however, at least lets the writer pretend this is not the case. Simply put, a certain amount of fun can be had in toying with scientific ideas that have become outdated, but yet have interesting speculative potential. Steampunk lends itself to this as well, as in Rudy Rucker’s 1990 The Hollow Earth.

That the nineteenth century was in ways also a more individualistic era than our own is also relevant. The “American cult of the scientist and the lone inventor,” epitomized in what has been called the “Edisonade,” had its roots then. While “big science” had already arrived the changes were not as sharply evident as they later would be in the age of the Manhattan Project. (33) Simply put, more room existed for the image of science as the work of solitary geniuses producing revolutions with their tinkering in their private workshops. (34)

And of course, it should not be forgotten that science fiction has never existed apart from the rest of literature. The detective story, the spy story, the military “techno-thriller,” the Western, and historical fiction have their beginnings here, the development of all of which has been intertwined with the life story of the science fiction genre. (35)

Indeed, particularly important where print science fiction is concerned, the novel in general enjoyed a heyday as realized by authors like Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, and perhaps with no real parallel since from the standpoint of the literary canon. If what sets the novel apart from other prose fiction is its offering the reader an “epic depiction of life,” its creating (or recreating) a world on paper (as so much science fiction strives to do), then this era has hardly been exceeded in sheer ambition to accomplish just that. (36) Whether the intent is to remember, revisit, parody, subvert, or simply loot it, there is so much of the era in science fiction’s collective memory that far from straining to find it, writers have a hard time escaping its influence.

Simply More Driven to Look Back?

The relative closeness of the era; the aesthetic appeal of nineteenth century creations (actual and fictional); the intellectual and nostalgic interest provoked by the similarities and differences between that era and our own; its special place in the history of science fiction (and modern literature generally)—all of these make the age with which steampunk deals a natural source of interest for genre writers, illustrators and other artists.

It is also worth noting that science fiction writers may simply be naturals at historical fiction, as Lou Anders recently suggested. The popularity of alternate history, a category with which steampunk often overlaps (and which recently received a fresh dose of respectability from the works of Philip Roth and Michael Chabon), does not hurt this. (37)

Yet, all of this may be reinforced by our simply being more inclined than before to look back in general, not only in the social, political and economic spheres, but the cultural one as well, with science fiction simply happening to be included in this tendency. One can see it as partly reflective of the ever-more intense revival, recycling, remaking, rebooting and spinning off of yesteryear’s stories and characters, or the chugging along of the nostalgia factory.

That tendency admittedly says more about the mentality of those running the media-industrial complex than anything else, but deeper processes may also be at work. In an article last year I considered the effect of a number of factors on the genre’s vitality, the most significant of these including: (38)

  • The absence of paradigm-shattering developments in the sciences in recent decades. (Journalist John Horgan famously argued that we may be looking at “The End of Science.”)
  • A slowdown in the development and proliferation of significant new technologies.
  • A slowdown in economic growth which, along with ecological and other concerns, is contributing to the sense of pessimism about the future. (39)
  • The special imaginative and literary challenges raised by the place the “technological Singularity” has in the genre, which I argue is not just “another trope.” (40)

All of these (perhaps along with the “natural” aging process of the genre) would make a “retro” approach to science fiction more attractive than it was before and, as it happens, after a lengthy immersion in the future, today’s writers commonly turn to something else—often the past—in a way that an earlier generation of science fiction writers (Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, for instance) did not. Cyberpunks William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, after the early, defining years of the movement (and in Gibson’s case, the completion of the Sprawl trilogy) presented The Difference Engine. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (which alternated between World War II and the present) and the eight novels of the Baroque cycle followed his hits Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (the latter, a story of “Neo-Victorians” in an age of nanotechnology) in a similar course.

Of course, the writers named above eventually came back to writing about the future, but the trajectory is noteworthy nonetheless, and I find myself at times wondering if sheer idea exhaustion—and with it, a shift in emphasis from innovation to “virtuosity” (to use John Barnes’s choice of words)—is not an issue. (41)

Still, a more positive reading of the tendency is possible. As Alan Moore wrote around the turn of this century,

Comic book creators…[are] subject to twin, conflicting impulses…[the] urge to plunge headlong into the future…[and] the weighty knowledge of the glittering rubble that we leave behind at our backs… Many of us seem to have the feeling, only mistily defined, that it is some element in comics past that will provide the key with which we can unlock the medium’s future. As if in order to move forward, we must also somehow simultaneously move back, however paradoxical that may appear. (42)

What affects comics may be said to affect science fiction in general, where one can hope that this simply means the road to the future lies partially through the past.

Footnotes

1. “Cyberpunk derivatives,” Wikipedia—The New Encyclopedia, May 25, 2009. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberpunk_derivatives. While including such obscure examples as “biopunk,” “clockpunk,” “dieselpunk,” “elfpunk” and “mythpunk,” it is far from exhaustive—just off the top of my head I can think of several proposed labels that were not mentioned, including “crusaderpunk,” “agri-punk,” “neuropunk” and “plasmapunk.” Incidentally, “crusaderpunk” appears in the editorial introduction to Bruce Sterling’s “The Blemmye’s Stratagem,” The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan. 2009, p. 97; “agri-punk” appears in the editorial introduction to Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man” in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology (San Fransisco: Tachyon, 2007), p. 335; “neuropunk” is a suggestion by Peter Watts on his blog, No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons, in response to my review of Scott Bakker’s Neuropath and Watts’s Blindsight for Strange Horizons (accessible at http://raritania.blogspot.com/2009/02/neuropath-by-scott-bakker-and.html); while writer Tom Ligon recently discussed “plasmapunk” in the forum of The Fix short fiction review.

2. There is, of course, plenty of excellent steampunk produced outside of the English-speaking world, including an abundance of it in Japanese manga and anime. See the listings of Aidan Doyle, “Japanese Science Fiction,” Internet Review of Science Fiction, Jul. 2008. Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10437; and Cynthia Ward, “Giant Robots, Schoolgirl Superheroines and Space Samurai: Science Fiction Anime,” Internet Review Of Science Fiction, Apr. 2004. Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10038.

3. A review of the anthology appeared in IROSF last year. See Robert Bee, “DIY Tinkerers, the Steampunk Subculture, and a New Anthology,” Internet Review of Science Fiction, Aug. 2008. Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10446.

4. For a more comprehensive listing of work in the steampunk genre, see Lavie Tidhar’s February 2005 Internet Review of Science Fiction article “Steampunk.” Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10114. Also see Rick Klaw, “The Steam-Driven Time Machine: A Pop Culture Survey.” In Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, eds., Steampunk (San Fransisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008), pp. 349-357; and Bill Baker, “The Essential Steampunk: A Modest Survey of the Genre in the Comic Book Medium.” In Vandermeer, Steampunk, pp. 359-368.

5. Those unsure what to make of fiction set in the early years of the twentieth century should keep in mind the “long nineteenth century” interpretation, in which the period extends through 125 years from the French Revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. This analysis originated with the influential historian of the nineteenth century, Eric J. Hobsbawm, in his classic three-volume study encompassing The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848; The Age of Capital, 1848-1875; and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. He subsequently added a fourth volume covering the twentieth century to the set, The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991. Steampunk, however, is also frequently associated with the narrower range of the Victorian period (1837-1901).

6. Charlie Jane Anders, “Our Love for Machines That Don’t Suck,” io9, May 28, 2009. Accessed at http://io9.com/5272114/our-love-for-steampunk-is-a-longing-for-machines-that-dont-suck.

7. Certainly the increasingly messy, counterintuitive nature of “newer” science—for instance, quantum physics as it compares with classical dynamics—diminished its accessibility. “Modern science has stretched the cognitive capacity of humans to the breaking point, according to [Noam] Chomsky. In the nineteenth century, any well-educated person could grasp contemporary physics, but in the twentieth century ‘you’ve got to be some kind of freak.'” John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (New York: Broadway Books, 1997), p. 153. For a broad-based discussion of the rupture of the earlier relationship between science and culture, see Christopher P. Toumey, Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996).

8. Anders, “Our Love.” Robert Bee also discusses this aspect of the phenomenon in his August 2008 IROSF article.

9. Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, trans. William Butcher (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 87.

10. And before there was electric lighting, there was gas lighting, which is surrounded by its own romance.

11. The first novel in his Oswald Bastable (or “Nomads of the Time Stream”) trilogy (which also included 1974’s The Land Leviathan and 1979’s The Steel Tsar), the book was not just an affectionate homage to Victorian-era fiction, but a founding work of the steampunk genre.

12. Milton & Rose Friedman, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (New York: Harvest, 1990), p. 3.

13. The title of Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace (New York: Basic Books, 2002) is derived from Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.” More generally, the admiration of Britain and the British Empire is something toward which conservative thinking frequently trends outside Britain, particularly in the United States, but this is also seen outside the English-speaking world (much as conservatives today are more likely than liberals to tilt in favor of the U.S.).

14. The title of Jack Beatty’s excellent recent history of the Gilded Age, Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) sums up a different view of this part of American history fairly well. For an alternative view of the consequences of the nineteenth century British Empire—and in particular, its economic policies—on the lives of its colonial subjects, see Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (New York: Verso, 2001).

15. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), p. 5.

16. Hobsbawm, Capital, p. 1.

17. Hobsbawm, Capital, p. 2. It is worth remembering, for instance, that prior to 1914, it was hoped by many socialists that the workers of the world would not be willing to shoot at each other in bourgeois-imperialist wars. Of course, they were disappointed.

18. As it happened, Diana Rigg—the “Bond girl” in the film—and Telly Savalas—who played the “Bond villain”—would fill those exact roles in that year’s actual Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

19. Notably, this basic plot—”saving the world” by averting a war that actually did happen a few years later, more or less—has been repeated since then, notably in the 2003 film version of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

20. One need only remember, for instance, the response of John Maynard Keynes to the situation in the early pages of The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920), pp. 3-26. Accessible at http://books.google.com/books?id=tKPtCDFb28AC&printsec=frontcover&dq=economic+consequences+of+the+peace#PPP8,M1.

21. Hobsbawm, Capital, p. 4.

22. It is often calculated that 50 percent of Britons were living in cities by around 1850, a then-unprecedented figure. China is today only approaching this level of urbanization, not the only way in which it seems comparable to the Britain of that time. Its model of industrial development, in its disregard for labor and the environment, and its high human and ecological costs, has made such comparisons a commonplace. See Tristram Hunt, “Lessons for Beijing Emerge From the Dickensian Smog,” Guardian, Jul. 28 2006. Accessed at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jul/28/comment.china.

23. Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (New York: Mentor, 1964), p. 17.

24. Morgan Kelly, “The Invention of Invention,” Working Paper Series 2005, Centre for Economic Research. Accessed at http://www.ucd.ie/economics/research/papers/2005/WP05.15.pdf.

25. This is what a Marxist might call the “socialization of science,” socialization in this sense meaning not government intervention per se, but the increased role of society-wide organization, and the application of resources far above the level individuals can bring to bear, in production, whether this is done on a private or public basis. From this standpoint, a multinational corporation, commonly viewed today as the epitome of capitalism, is actually a highly “socialized” entity.

26. Even posthumanism has its roots here, though this is less widely understood and appreciated.

27. For a sampling of such thought, see Bob Seidenstecker, Future Hype: The Myths of Technological Change (San Fransisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Press, 2008); and Jonathan Huebner, “A Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation,” Technological Forecasting & Social Change 72.8 (2005), pp. 980-986. Huebner’s article may be accessed online at http://accelerating.org/articles/InnovationHuebnerTFSC2005.pdf. Those who take the view that science fiction was a response to an experience of rapid technological change should also note that by some measures the nineteenth century saw the peaking of invention—which would be yet another reason for science fiction writers to take a special interest in it. Huebner, p. 981.

28. For a broad, though ideologically very tilted, survey of such thinking, see Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History (New York: Free Press, 1997).

29. Writers from Samuel Butler (Erewhon) to Ambrose Bierce (“Moxon’s Master”) wondered at the line between the mechanical and the human in ways that we tend to think of as very contemporary. Perhaps more profoundly (if less well-known in the English-speaking world, though more influential than generally realized) Nikolai Fedorov and the Cosmists were developing a far-reaching vision of trans- and posthumanity. An English translation of a large part of Fedorov’s writing by Elizabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto can be found in What Was Man Created For? (New York: Hyperion, 1990). A summary of Fedorov’s ideas in this area can also be found in Nader Elhefnawy, “Nikolai Fedorov and the Dawn of the Posthuman,” Future Fire 9 (2007). Accessed at http://futurefire.net/2007.09/nonfiction/fedorov.html.

30. Nader Elhefnawy, “Revisiting the Victorian Techno-thriller,” Strange Horizons, Feb. 23, 2009. Accessed at http://www.strangehorizons.com/2009/20090223/elhefnawy-a.shtml. 31. A prime example of this is the Farewell, Fantastic Venus anthology edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison as a direct response to what was learned about that planet from the first space probes (which proved it was not the place for alien life once imagined), pieces which do go back to the nineteenth century. Michael Moorcock offered a more recent remembrance of that earlier vision of the solar system in his “planetary romance” Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel “for an audience that knows better but is still willing to indulge in it.” It can be found in David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds., The Space Opera Renaissance (New York: Orb, 2006), pp. 802-822.

32. Jeff Nevins, “Introduction: The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk.” In Vandermeer, Steampunk, p. 3.

33. Where much early science fiction anticipated a lone scientist mastering nuclear power in an Edisonade—this is even the case in H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914)—in real life this happened only when a full generation of scientific superstars were combined with the industrial resources of a superpower under conditions of wartime emergency.

34. Arguably, something of the Edisonade’s view of invention remains alive and well in any number of places, from the Sci-Fi Channel television show Eureka, to the rather confused hero-worship of Bill Gates.

35. Lou Anders recently noted the “degree of crossover on the readership of science fiction and historical novels,” which he attributed to their both evoking “another time and place in the minds of the reader,” a point highlighted in time travel tales and alternate history. Lou Anders, “Introduction: Worlds of If.” In Lou Anders, ed., Sideways in Crime (London: Solaris, 2008), p. 12.

36. Additionally, though literacy was actually less common, and less printed matter was produced and consumed, there is a tendency among some to think of this as a more print-oriented, literate age when a bourgeois sitting in their den or traveling by train did not turn to an Ipod, cell phone or laptop for media, but opened a book instead.

37. The American Civil War is, of course, the second-most popular subject of alternate history, coming only after World War II—the popularity of that theme discussed at length in Nader Elhefnawy, “Two Dooms and the Memory of World War II in Alternate History,” Internet Review of Science Fiction, Aug. 2008. Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10452. Along with the science fiction Western, these two subjects would by themselves seem enough to keep the nineteenth century a common genre theme.

38. Nader Elhefnawy, “‘The End of Science Fiction': A View of the Debate,” The Fix, Sep. 1, 2008. Accessed at http://thefix-online.com/features/end-of-science-fiction-p1/.

39. I refer, of course, not to the recession which began in 2007, but the broader deterioration of economic growth since 1973 extensively discussed by professional economists, and almost never mentioned to the broader public. Nader Elhefnawy, “Space and the End of the Future,” Space Review, Mar. 12, 2007. Accessed at http://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com/2008/10/space-and-end-of-future.html.

40. “More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future. Now they saw that their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable…soon. Once, galactic empires might have seemed a Post-Human domain. Now, sadly, even interplanetary ones are.” Vernor Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” paper presented to the VISION-21 symposium, March 30-31, 1993. Accessed at http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html. 41. Of course, the issue of “exhaustion” needs to be qualified. If today’s writers are more prone to literary exhaustion than their predecessors, it should also be considered that they also face greater demands in some ways, like the pressure to write longer books, or the higher expectations with regard to world-building and technical rigor. “Reading for the Undead” is no longer available online (it was published in Helix, which shut down amid, but perhaps not because of, the scandal surrounding a rejection letter that was covered in Nick Matamas’s article “Life After Power” in IROSF last August), but I discussed Barnes’s idea at some length in the Fix article mentioned above.

42. Alan Moore, “Introduction.” In Warren Ellis, Planetary 1 (New York: Wildstorm Press, 2000).

This article originally appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Nader ElhefnawyDr. Nader Elhefnawy has taught English at several institutions, including the University of Miami, where he was a visiting professor for the 2007-08 year. In addition to his Ph.D in Literature, he holds a B.A. in International Relations, and has published widely on both literature and international affairs. His reviews and articles on speculative fiction have appeared in a number of forums, including Foundation, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons, and in October 2008, he also began publishing a blog, Raritania.

A fiction writer himself, his story “The Transmigration” appeared in Future Fire, and he is currently seeking publishers for his science-fiction novel and anthology Surviving the Spike.

8 Responses

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  4. Nader Elhefnawy

    Thanks for writing Mr. Van Pelt; it’s good to hear from you again.

    It seems odd at first to think of our world as post-apocalyptic, but the whole issue of steampunk aside, it can also be a useful way of approaching a lot of twentieth century literature (as well as the history of the 1914-1945 period).

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