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On Steampunk

01/17/2013 08:40 am ET | Updated Mar 19, 2013

Despite the proliferation of the Steampunk aesthetic in popular culture, "Steampunk" is hardly a household word, and when it comes up in conversation (as it does when people ask me about my new novel, The Aylesford Skull) it most often elicits blank stares.

I point out that the film Hugo was Steampunk, as was the backdrop of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film. That conveys a clear enough picture if they've seen either of the films, although it sometimes leads to my muttering things about the glories of clockwork automata, octopi, and beaver hats, which generally causes further confusion.

Literarily speaking, Steampunk refers to contemporarily written stories and novels that are set during the Victorian era. Such stories almost always owe a debt to Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, and they often involve Victorian science (which was conveniently imaginary much of the time) and the colorful trappings and sensibilities of that era. They're often dark and dystopian in nature, although not always. Sometimes they're mash-ups that involve space aliens or dinosaurs or zombies. In other words, Steampunk is difficult to define with any particularity, which is one of the reasons that I'm fond of writing it.

Steampunk began as a whim in the minds of three young writers in the mid 1970s. I was one of those writers. K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers were the other two. We spent long afternoons in O'Hara's Pub in downtown Orange, working over plots, talking about Henry Mayhew's fascinating London Labor and the London Poor, or about London's underground rivers or the "scientific" evidence behind hollow earth theory.

I recall one conversation quite clearly. K.W. was verbally abusing me for some scientific stupidity that I'd uttered. (I'd digested a certain amount of beer and popcorn by that time). He said, in just these words, that characters in a Blaylock story would try to plug a black hole in space with a Fitzall-sizes cork. I was stupefied with inspiration, and asked him whether I could in fact have the idea. "Knock yourself out," he said.

I went home and wrote a story titled, appropriately, "The Hole in Space," which I sold to Starwind magazine for 40 dollars - the most I'd ever been paid as an author. Unfortunately the magazine went broke before they had a chance to publish the piece, conceivably because they'd overpaid me for my efforts. That was my second Steampunk story. My first was something called "The Ape-box Affair." Because that one appeared in print before K.W.'s novel Moorlock Night, or Tim's novel The Anubis Gates, the science fiction and fantasy trade magazine Locus has dubbed me the Grandfather of Steampunk, and Steamcon, a popular Steampunk convention in Seattle, regaled me with the "It's All Your Fault" Airship Award. That's glory for you. (I'd have preferred "Godfather" or "Grand Potentate," to "Grandfather," but I wasn't consulted.)

Steampunk officially became a sub genre of science fiction when K.W. coined the term in 1988, many years after those early novels and stories were published. By now, some 35 years later, it has become a cultural phenomenon that has affected fashion, architecture, furniture design, and the arts in general. A Steampunk themed condominium was recently advertised for sale in New York City, and Steampunk versions of Shakespeare plays have appeared Off Broadway. There's even a Steampunk philosophy, and, heaven help us, Steampunk porn, or so I'm told. Enormous clockwork elephants have paraded down the streets of London, and in San Francisco recently there appeared an immense, bronze, steam-powered snail automobile. Steampunk websites are doing a land office business in octopus hats, Victorian bustiers, and goggles. Steampunk conventions across the world draw thousands of people, who appear dressed in Victorian high fashion.

Perhaps sadly, the majority of those convention goers have little idea of Steampunk's humble beginnings, or that Steampunk books exist at all. In the conventions' dealers rooms there are typically 30 tables selling Steampunk jewelry, weapons, and costumes for every one table selling books. I don't mean to complain, however. It's a giddy business to be one of Steampunk's progenitors, and it's nice that publishers are buying up Steampunk novels, including my own.

I've been asked to list half a dozen titles of influential Steampunk related books, both contemporary and Victorian, which I'm happy to do, although you should keep in mind that another Steampunk reader or writer would produce a different list.

1). My own writing in the genre was largely a consequence of my having stumbled upon Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was 10 years old and monumentally impressionable. (Steampunk, by the way, was something that happened to me rather than something that I pursued). The guilty parties included Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, Wells' The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon, and Burroughs's At the Earth's Core. (The Burroughs book was not Victoriana in any way, but it certainly has a Steampunk sensibility. I've always been fond of the first sentence of the third paragraph of Chapter I: "Then Perry interested me in his invention." The invention turned out to be a mechanical mole. I dearly love a mechanical mole.)

2). Three early, seminal Steampunk novels (I include my own) are Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates, K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices, and Blaylock's Homunculus. (The Anubis Gates and Homunculus won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award in 1985 and 1986, respectively.)

3). For contemporary Steampunk, read The Steampunk Bible, by Jeff Vandermeer and S. J. Chambers or, for that matter, any of the Steampunk productions of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer.

4). Finally, for a wild and entertaining take on the genre, read Lavie Thidar's The Bookman.