The Golden Age of Steampunk Reality v. Literary (Intellectual Salon Special Extras)

Today, Gentle Reader, the blog has been hijacked for a bit of an intellectual debate. Occasionally this happens, I feel separated from my academic roots and . . . member of the Hypocras Club crowd my door with fascinating lectures, and I cannot resist.

A friend of mine from Down Under has some very interesting things to say on the Golden Age of Steampunk, not now (as in when the most steampunk is being written) but then, as in, the right time period for setting steampunk novels. Should they be in the Victorian or the Edwardian eras? Or something else entirely? Since I’m about to start reading David Constantine’s new book, The Pillars of Hercules, described as Alexander the Great meets steampunk, this is a very good question.

Without further ado, I give you, Stephen (Doctor of Phlogiston) and his thoughts on the matter of steampunk settings.

I have two lines of argument I’m going to bring to the table:

1. Steampunk is at heart a romanticised pastiche, and
2. The typical technological trappings of steampunk are not chronologically contiguous.

Steampunk is at heart a pick-and-mix genre where a historical or quasi-historical setting from roughly the 18th C (usually Victorian London with fog and gaslight, but also easily Wild West, British Raj, Imperial China, you name it) has an overlay of some sort of cool antique technology. Typically, steam technology, airships, Babbage Engines or early electricity, or some pseudoscientific variation of same often using the early scientific theories now considered laughable, e.g. phlogiston.

The Golden Age of Airships is roughly 1900 to the wreck of Hindenburg in 1937 or WW2 depending on who you ask. This is effectively Edwardian, not Victorian. Also, the big rigid airships relied on internal combustion engines to drive their propellers, they’re very much a post steam era creature.

The Golden Age of Steam (confining ourselves to steam piston-engines)- 1801ish (Trevithick and ‘strong steam’) to 1920s. This gives us pre-Victorian through to post WW1. Steam powered cars and lorries were on the roads in England into the 1930s, steam trains were in common use until the 1960s (in many places even later). Steam engines operated right through the Edwardian era alongside the development of practical and cost-effective engines of other types. Steam turbines are still being built today for thermal power stations.

The Babbage Engine and Ada Lovelace’s pioneering work with what later became computing was mostly in the 1840s and a bit into the 1850s. This was a very narrow timespan and certainly doesn’t overlap with airships.

In short, there is no real historical ‘Golden Age of Steampunk’ because key technological aspects were not concurrent.

I think it actually works the other way around – each steampunk author picks a time/place as a setting and tosses onto it some Cool Stuff to make it steampunk in the current meaning of the genre. Some are very focussed on getting the history absolutely right, others less so. The re-imagining of the author’s bit of history they’re steampunking about with is no different to the worldbuilding of the swords-and-horses High Fantasy authors. Rules and histories are established, character and plot overlays the setting and so long as the story maintains an internal consistency then all is well.

How about that then?

Thank you, Dr. Stephen for giving us all something to think about.

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“Reading means borrowing.”
~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Aphorisms

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Posted by Gail Carriger


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  1. Lisa Shafer said:

    Thank you for summarizing what had already been sort of bothering me about the "rules" of writing steampunk! After all, it IS fiction, so it should be okay to mix things up a bit.

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