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Steampunk: Learning the Genre

Nathan Fillion in Steampunk GarbA popular subgenre of science fiction and fantasy is known as steampunk. It features steam-powered technology with the decorative sensibilities of the 19th century Victorian era. Steampunk stories can also be considered a sort of alternate history where the British Empire continued on to be a major power in the world and their empirical style of culture and manners still hold sway in a future world.

It is often thought that the origin of steampunk as a genre began with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The stories of the adventurer explorer or the gentleman inventor who travels through the world or in time via their abilities and education and bring British culture to other peoples is a trope that is common in many steampunk stories. While Wells and Verne were certainly part of the inspiration of steampunk as a genre, they were writing alternate history or true science fiction of their times. In other words, looking to how the future may be based on the technology of their own times, much as science fiction writers do today.

The origins of steampunk was actually back in the late 1980s with a trio of authors in Southern California. Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter were a group of friends that met to talk about their writing. They developed a style of science fiction that was influenced by victorian fantasies of the past and taking it to the next level. The name for what they were doing came about when Jeter wrote a letter to Locus Magazine in 1987.

Dear Locus,

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.

—K.W. Jeter

If you look at the “gonzo-historical” books of these three authors, such as Power’s Anbuis Gates, Jeter’s Morlock Night, or Blaycock’s Homunculus, you will see that while all the novels are flavored with the Victorian era’s culture there is no fixed time period or even technology. Steampunk is not about the aristocracy, although they are often present and it is not always about steam powered gadgets either. Sometimes the Victorian idea of the supernatural takes precedence. If you tire of Steampunk stories that feature nothing but airships, goggle wearing heroines or characters that go around with steampowered batman belts, fear not. Look at the origins of the genre and you will discover that these conventions did not appear until much later.

Today, the term steampunk can refer to any of the clothing fashions, jewelry, and art objects that have a particular Victorian flair. Steampunk design emphasis’s a balance between the form and function, somewhat like the arts and crafts movement did, there is a blur between the line of tool and decoration. Examples include computers keyboards and electric guitars that are redesigned to employ materials such as polished brass, wood, iron and leather with Victorian conventions, rejecting the norm of current day industrial designs. Many of the costumes feature corsets and goggles, the color brown, or antiqued British military uniforms.

The best way to learn more about the genre is to read books by the three original authors and then expand out to newer authors of the genre. It will gain you a better balance about the genre and help you avoid falling into the cliches that have developed over the past ten years since the genre has gone more mainstream. Below are some of the places that I frequent to keep up to date with the steampunk movement.

The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles
This is an active forum where all aspects of steampunk are discussed. Clothing, art, music, writing and events. If you are looking for examples in costuming or simply want to know where the local steampunk groups hang out, this is a good place to start.

The Steampunk Empire
This online community is one of my favorites. The forums, photos and places to connect with fellow steampunk enthusiasts are many. I learn about new conventions from this site all the time.

The Gatehouse: Online Dieselpunk and Steampunk Magazine
I’m new to this magazine, but I like what I see. It covers more of the literary side of steampunk and goes into what steampunk and dieselpunk are. I find it a good resource for writers wishing to enter into the genre and for readers who want to learn more about the origins of what they are reading.

Book Review: The Anubis Gates

Book Name: The Anubis Gates
Author: Tim Powers
First Published: 1983

Tim Powers studied English Literature at Cal State Fullerton. It is where he met his friends and fellow authors, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, both of whom he collaborates with. The three of them are all active Steampunk authors. Powers teaches part-time at the Orange County High School of the Arts, where he is considered a Writer in Residence and at Chapman University. He often serves as a mentor author as part of the Clairon science fiction/fantasy writer’s workshop. He currently lives in Muscoy, California with his wife, Serena.

Powers has won the World Fantasy Award twice and his 1988 novel On Stranger Tides was optioned for adaptation into the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Most of Powers’ novels are about “secret histories” where he uses documented events featuring famous people, but weaves these facts so that occult forces heavily influence the motivations and actions of the characters.

The Anubis Gates begins in 1801 when the British have risen to power in Egypt and are suppressing the worship of the ancient Egyptian gods. A dissent group of magicians want to drive the Empire from their land and use their mystical arts to bring the old gods forward in time to be unleashed upon the people of London. However, they fail to summon the god Anubis and instead open a gateway that remains stable across time and space.

In 1983, sickly J. Cochran Darrow discovers the stable gateway through time. He charges admission to a group of millionaire to lead them back to 1810, the draw is an innocent one: to attend a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Darrow hires Professor Brendan Doyle to come along and provide his expert commentary on the journey. The tourist trip begins well, but the time travelers are discovered by Dr. Romany. He is one of the magicians that helped to open the gateway. Dr. Romany kidnaps Doyle, preventing him from returning to his own time. While Doyle escapes the doctor in the end, he is still trapped in the 19th century.

Doyle manages to join a beggars guild in order to provide for himself, he befriends a fellow beggar named Jacky. Due to his knowledge of history, he plans to meet and befriend a wealthy poet named William Ashbless in the hope that the man would become his benefactor. As time passes, Doyle discovers that Darrow has not gone back to the future after all, but has remained behind in 19th century London to search for a man known as Dog-Face Joe, a body-swapping werewolf. Darrow hopes to bribe Joe into granting him a new healthy body. Doyle becomes the target of Dog-Face Joe and is swapped into the body of Darrow’s former bodyguard.

Examining his new body, Doyle realizes that he looks exactly like the wealthy poet he had been seeking as a benefactor and comes to the startling conclusion that he IS that historical figure himself. Doyle copies down Ashbless’ poetry from memory and uses his knowledge of the poet’s life to deduces his own future. By using this knowledge, he is able thwart the plans of the magicians in London. Eventually, Dr. Romany discovers another gateway through time, this one leading to the 17th century. Doyle follows the doctor through the gate and stops his attempt to change history. However, Doyle is once again kidnapped and this time brought to Muhammad Ali’s Egypt. The magicians tempt Doyle with the promise to resurrect his dead wife if he will tell them the secrets of the time-gates. Doyle refuses their offer and manages to not only kill the master magician, but escapes back to the 19th century.

While Doyle is busy in the 17th century, Darrow finds Dog-Face Joe and arranges a deal in which Joe will provide Darrow with a series of healthy bodies that will allow him to live forever. The beggar Jacky is onto the scheme and plots to kill Darrow and Dog-Face Joe. When Doyle returns to London, the last magician of the cabal kidnaps Doyle, Jacky and Samuel Coleridge. The three fight back and secrets are not only revealed, but Doyle discovers that fate has a strange way of working out in ways that he could not foresee.

The Anubis Gates Book CoverIn The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers uses many historical facts from 1810 and stirs them together with a touch of magic, a bevy of famous poets, and a dash of superstitions from the time period and comes up with a three-dimensional puzzle that sticks with you due to its fast-pace and rich details. While the Anubis Gates is credited for starting what is now known as the modern Steampunk genre, the story takes place in Regency times and there is no steam involved. I believe that the original flavor of Steampunk finds its home here, that of a professor who goes to the 19th century and meets famous people from that historical time period. Later, other authors would move the genre more firmly into the Victorian era and center more of the stories around the steam engines of that time period. I’m a huge fan of time travel stories and I believe that this novel is one of the main influences that led me to want to write Steampunk myself. While the novel was written decades ago, you’ll find that it is just as fresh and lively as any novel you would purchase today.