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Friday, December 9, 2011

Steampunk: Part 1, The Early Days

Alphonse du Neuville, Captian Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1863

Posted by Alana T.

No so long ago, fiction featuring adventure, strange clockwork machines and alternate histories would be found primarily in the Science Fiction or Fantasy section.  The genre, now called Steampunk, has become so popular that it's most common elements are finding their way into mainstream fiction. How to recognize it?  Jeff Vandermeer (The Steampunk Bible) broadly defines the genre in the following way:
"STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [invention (steam x airship or metal man /baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot."

The fathers of the genre are Jules Verne (The Demon of Cawnpore, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon, A Journey to the Center of the Earth) and H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man).  We take for granted many of the inventions and adventures described in those old pages, but at the time of first publication, these ideas fostered feelings of awe that are captured in the genre today. Edgar Allen Poe is also considered an influential author in the development of the genre because so many of his fiction works feature the importance of 'modern' scientific thought and inventions.

The following give you an idea of the first and most lauded steampunk stories published before 2000:

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983). Wellsian time travel with a story of ancient gods and British rule over Egypt

Lord Kelvin's Machine (1985) a short story by Michael Moorcok. Featuring the historical Lord Kelvin, a physicist and engineer; dirigibles are a big part of the story.

The Difference Engine by W. Gibson and B. Sterling (1990).  Set in a distopian 1855 alternate reality in which Charles Babbage succeeds in building a mechanical computer. 

Part II will discuss the best of the more recent Steampunk offerings.

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