Steampunk’d at BookExpo

Anglophenia guest-blogger Paul Hechinger is back with more from last week’s BookExpo America. This time, he reports on the majorly hot literary “genre,” Steam Punk, which was explored in a panel at the convention. First, what is it, and why has it enjoyed such a resurgence in recent years? And which hit BBC AMERICA series is a great example of Steam Punk brilliance?

The panelists, led by editor Liz Gorinsky of Tor/Forge Books, set out to define the genre, though most felt it was more of an aesthetic or artistic outlook than an actual genre. It’s science fiction, set in or concerned with Victorian technology, style and ideology, usually with a special emphasis in exploring alternate history, said Cherie Priest, author of Boneshaker.

Steam Punk finds its origins in the works of H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jules Verne. Recent examples of Steam Punk include books by William Gibson and Michael Moorcock, and movies such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and, one of my favorites, Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper into modern day San Francisco.

“It’s everywhere these days, isn’t it?” wrote one of the panelists, Catherynne M. Valente, in an essay called “Blowing Off Steam.” She cites Doctor Who as one example. (And some of you may already know of explicitly Steam Punk Doctor Who art.)

Priest said Steam Punk is partly about feeling that “technology is getting away from us” and that “we’re on the cusp of something huge” – a fear of cataclysmic, even apocalyptic changes – sentiments that we share with people of the Victorian era. At the same time, the panelists agreed, Steam Punk tempers those anxieties with nostalgia for a period when steam power, a simpler and observable technology, was dominant.

“Nobody needs to be told that the natural world has vanished and is being replaced by the technological and the mechanical,” said Felix Gilman, the author of Thunderer and Gears of the City. So, he says, in one sense, Steam Punk isn’t fiction.

“It’s not Steam Punk,” he says. “It’s actually what Britain is like.”

The panelists also suspected that some audiences may be attracted to the retro aspects of Steam Punk because of a longing for the social order of the nineteenth century, “which,” Gilman noted, “would not be a particularly attractive thing.”

Valente, the author of Palimpsest, said that she was drawn to Steam Punk partly by her interest in Victorian re-enactments but was quick to point out that it’s not all about the style or an interest in the inventions of the time – as intriguing as they are. Nor is it about turning the clock back to “arcane sets of etiquette.” The “punk” part, she says, “is all about anxiety and anger and not having an outlet for your relationship to society.”

All three authors felt that Steam Punk works didn’t even have to be set in Victorian England. Priest sets her novels in nineteenth century America precisely because of all the seismic social and historical upheavals – war, slavery, frontier expansion, the Industrial Revolution. And she pointed to the television series Wild, Wild West and the genre of “Weird West” comic books as Steam Punk precursors with similar concerns.

(Note: Those Weird West comic books are the original genesis of the upcoming Jonah Hex movie.)

Lawlessness, said Priest, spread over a huge territory and combined with some of the more fantastical elements of Steam Punk allow for a remixing of American history that’s just as legitimate as anything set in gaslight London.

Gilman himself has also set his next book in the nineteenth century American frontier because he feels it’s such rich and fertile ground – reassuring the panel that it was okay to stray beyond Victorian England, giving them the ultimate validation: “I’m an actual English person!”

The audience asked questions towards the end about what was Steam Punk and what wasn’t.

How about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

“No,” answered Valente. “But they just did Android Karenina, and that could be considered Steam Punk.”

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.

See more posts by Kevin Wicks