Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Steampunk Revolution and Victorian History

by Julian Cunningham

As a steampunk author, I enter into the lion’s den knowing the imminent peril that I face. The closest analogy for this post I could think of would be Harlan Ellison writing a blog post for Scientific America.

What could I possibly have to say about English history that would mean a hill of beans to a readership far superior in depth and detail than myself, when it comes to fact and fiction, as it pertains to the historical depths of the aristocracy and English lore? I decided to take on this daunting challenge if for no other reason than to make a case for the beauty, fun and ultimate aggrandizement steampunk brings to the glorious Victorian age.

Think of it similarly to the analogy above; how many viewers watched Harlan’s Emmy award winning Star Trek episode, then curiously thought to examine whether or not Edith Keeler was real or fictitious? For me, this is the Holy Grail of writing fiction. Whether it is pure historical fiction, or science fiction, the ability to immerse the reader beyond the point where characters are not only plausible, but also decidedly real, is a great writing accomplishment.

This has become a real winner for Hollywood lately, taking a well-researched set of historic facts and weaving fictitious characters and story around the details until the viewer is left deciding what was real and what was made up. Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, and The Patriot are the first examples that come to mind. All of these stories focus so well on the details of the history and time period as to make the fictitious characters also very conceivable. Being captured by these wonderful stories and characters lures many people into researching and becoming more engrossed with the settings, history, and real characters of that story’s timeline. I contend that steampunk as a genre really does tend to do the same things for English history as the examples I just outlined.

While many of you reading are probably familiar with steampunk, I want to take a few moments to do my very best to explain to those who are not my own elucidation of what steampunk is. To put it in its simplest form, steampunk is science fiction of the past. Most popular steampunk revolves around Victorian England and a glorious steam powered technological extravaganza that never happened, inspired in no small part by the works of H.G Wells and Jules Verne.

Imagine almost anything we use today, or even speculate we might have in the future, make it out of some spare gears and cogs, power it with steam, and you have made it steampunk.

As for the rest of steampunk, well, one only needs to visit a steampunk convention to see the allure of Victorian clothing and mannerisms which give science fiction the dapper look and taste of real class that it desperately needs. Unlike Star Trek conventions where the casual observer instantly writes off the recognizable uniforms and costumes as belonging to only the most devout of geek, people seem instantly drawn to the elegance and fantastical impressions given by steampunk clothing. In some cases the only thing separating a steampunk costume and its Victorian counterpart is the simple addition of some adventurer’s goggles, brass gears, or a gun holster. It is in pursuit of these magnificent costumes and adventurer’s apparel that I bring my first evidence to support my claims.

While getting ready to attend our last steampunk gathering just a few weeks ago, I was sewing together a beautiful skirt with bustle and a matching bolero top with flounce, when I questioned my girlfriend as to why anyone would ever want to wear a corset. That led to a lengthy and engaging conversation not only about the patriarchy and societal expectations on women of the time, but the actual history of the bustle and corset. We ended up spending many hours looking for historical references to confirm our own opinions, as well as simply matching historically accurate colors and materials for the endeavor.

I hand over this story only to emphasize that if my own questions about creating and wearing a Victorian dress prompted me to do some real in-depth research, I am sure that there are many like me who end up doing the same. The steampunk community is an avid and ravenous crowd absorbing all things, which enhances the realism and fun of their Victorian fantasy.

Of course, admittedly, the moment you add some avionics-covered leather bound bracers you have strayed dramatically from the historical nature of the outfit, but you have enabled the wearer a ticket to vicariously live out an enticing moment in history. Even if it is under a fictional pretense, the act alone adds cognizance to the historical truth. I would argue that most steampunk role-play is at least as enriching to the real history as good civil war re-enactment is.

The second point I would like to put forth involves the inherent historical inaccuracies of the genre, which I believe tend to add strength as it pertains to the story telling aspects of steampunk. Unlike mainstream science fiction where stories are typically placed in the far future, where they need only have a plausible path to their eventuality, steampunk requires a little more exposition as to the nature of how it fits into history. Agreed that not all steampunk abides by this aphorism, however, most of my favorite steampunk does.

Once again, for those not familiar with steampunk, one of my all time favorites is the old TV series The Wild Wild West with Robert Conrad. They placed wonderful James Bond-like gadgets taken out of time and wove them into a classic western on the premise of being provided by the secret service. The modern remake with Will Smith even had a giant robotic spider - definitely steampunk!

There are a few more examples worth mentioning only because you might not immediately recognize them as steampunk, like Time After Time with Malcolm McDowell or even the beloved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with its flying car. In the case of Time After Time, it becomes steampunk rather than just fiction the moment H.G Wells’ time machine is considered real in the primary plot of the story from 1888.

A nice example of steampunk that makes no particular effort to explain or justify the science fiction nature of its premise would be The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I mention this particular series and movie, only to contrast that it too is considered great Steampunk, yet simply combines many fictitious characters of the era into a single story line. While this is another one of my favorites, I recommend it for anyone still trying to get a grasp on what steampunk is. Just do so realizing there won’t be much actual history involved, which helps me get back on topic about alternative history.

By its very definition, steampunk seems to work best when given a nicely placed bit of alternative history. I can’t speak for all steampunk authors; however, I know that I put a lot of research and effort into the alternative and speculative history I create in my books. From what I have read of my fellow steampunk authors, it seems that many others do as well.

I find it particularly fun and interesting that the chains of historic detail need not bind a story or its characters into some predetermined expose of the misgivings and failings of our past. Instead, the trend I have noticed is an exploration of our own disposition in the modern tense and where that may put us in our own futures.

Picture by Ecajoe (Joe Alfano) 
Steampunk tends to imagine a past where the current technological advancements have impacted a social awareness and are put on display in contrast to our actual history, enticing a reader to perhaps examine the etymology of the time, and with it a comparison of historical outcomes to that of our own. How far would we be today if our past had actually been like steampunk books and stories where we had no need for slavery, women could be the lead investigators for Scotland Yard, and airships filled the skies as a primary means of transportation?

They say that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. I contend that bringing attention to any subject or era of history, even if done so in a highly fictitious light, only furthers the pursuit and interest in the foundations of that era.

Admittedly, the only real history involved with steampunk is reliant on the individual author’s vision and underlying message. However, the fact that steampunk has so many people interested in a period of history typically only lectured with dry idioms of industrialism, no matter how historically inaccurate it may be, it just can’t be all that bad.

An example of how a steampunk author might put a twist to standard fiction would go something like this. Find an interesting tidbit in your target era: Jul 27th 1888 - Philip Pratt unveils first electric automobile. Now, this is really an interesting piece of data and history. I am sure any good fiction writer could research and entwine this into a fascinating fictional story, but a steampunk author would probably just run with this until they were pumping out the modern Tesla Model S in 1888 like it was a Ford Fiesta. Every once in a while though, someone will hit the jackpot and get it so close to correct, that the reader will actually question if perhaps Nikola Tesla could have invented a matter replication and teleportation device as portrayed in The Prestige, a brilliantly written steampunk story and movie.

In conclusion, I don’t think you will see many people grabbing a steampunk book to look for historical facts about Victorian England, though I do predict that many people are going to enjoy some wondrous visions of a hypothetical past sparked by a captivating story entangled around exiguous historical facts. Those people will then go on to examine and question the real history surrounding these colorful tales.

Oh, and remember where I said that I explore speculative and alternative history in my series? While I might like to entice your steampunk curiosity by telling you that I put my history minor to use, making my story take place in a world where the King still rules as a tyrant and the American Revolution hasn’t happened, the truth is I never figured out how to explain all the fanciful technology. So I just added in a fantasy element where little gnome like creatures are culpable for the current state of world affairs. Hey, what can I say? That’s steampunk too!

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J. Cunningham has over 30 years of fantasy world-building and storytelling experience. He is also a decorated veteran of the special operations community, making him no stranger to combat and government black operations. His list of creative achievements include success as a songwriter, musician, film director, and RPG writer. He brings to his novels the experience, authenticity, and detailed creativity of a lifelong soldier, story teller, and science fiction fanboy.


  1. Hello,
    your post is interesting. I belong to the people who read Steampunk novels and I'm an active member in the German Steampunk community Rauchersalon. Whenever I find a date or a specific name in a novel, I try to get more information about it. Furthermore I read books which deliver more information about daily life. Recently I bought a copy of Mrs Beeton's Household Management which tells more about a Victorian household than you find in history books. I'm sure you know the excellent Dictionary of Victorian London which is a cornucopia of knowledge.

    I just added your book to my to buy list.

  2. Great explanation of steampunk and the alternative historical fiction possibilities! I just started reading Secrets and it's pretty awesome. It's like Lord of the Rings Steampunk. Right on!


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