The deeper I delve into this genre, the more I find to love. There is such a variety of things to see, wear and do, and so many different ways that people have found to be creative within the aesthetic. When I decided to write a “how to” series, I sat down and had a good think about everything I have learned about Steampunk since starting this blog, and I came up with 12 different ways that I have encountered to give the steam era a twist. So strap on your goggles and hustle your bustle, because I will be bringing you a new How to Punk your Steam article every month during 2015. You can check out the other parts of the series here.
Bringing the Future into the Past
The early movers and shakers in the genre of science fiction set the stage for contemporary authors to dream big when it comes to the kinds of technology one could find in the 18th,19th and early 20th centuries. Jules Verne brought us the Nautilus, H. G. Wells took readers to the moon, Mary Shelley woke the dead, and R. L. Stevenson introduced a concoction that let out Dr. Jekyll‘s dark side, just to name a few. Technological innovations were being developed at an incredible rate, and these new innovations had a deep impact on society. Science fiction grew out of a natural tendency to ask “what if?” and to project the effects of these changes into the future. Steampunk authors also do this, but the “future” is often in their own past. With the benefit of both hindsight and foresight, they can draw from the world of early science fiction as well as from their own lives to create interesting twists on the Industrial Revolution and the greater implications of the Age of Enlightenment.
The Age of Enlightenment (aka The Age of Reason or just The Enlightenment) spanned the mid-1600s to the late 1700s. Due to innovations in printing technology the century before, philosophers like Sir Francis Bacon and Rene Decartes, as well as scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, were able to share their ideas with unprecedented speed. Literacy was spreading, due in a large part to the use of the vernacular in both religious and popular texts. As printing technology improved during the Industrial Revolution, moving from hand crank operated to steam-powered, it became less expensive, and the demand continued to grow. This, in turn, lead to an explosion of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and its subsequent consumption on a mass scale. The world would not see such a leap in communication capabilities again until the World Wide Web arrived in 1989 (the “internet” was invented 20 years earlier but did not offer access to the average person). It should come as no surprise that Steampunk also came into being around the same time, drawing from the past to inform the present and the future.
One popular trope in Steampunk literature is the introduction of fully functioning automatons. They are often at the behest of the forces of evil and the heroes must overcome a foe (or in many cases an army) that is practically immortal. Some are run solely on clockwork or steam power, and others are an amalgamation of biological and mechanical elements. Anyone reading these works is aware that this kind of technology has never come to be even centuries later, but that doesn’t stop it from being an interesting game of “what if?”
In the case of automatons, the creators are taking something that has never happened and put it into an earlier time. In other instances, they may only be taking liberties with a few decades. It only takes a clever character (with the right funds and circumstances) to take technology that was really available during their time and modify it to fit a need, like the use of sonar in Murdoch Mysteries for instance, or be the first to create an innovation that we do have a basis for in history. A good example of the latter is the world of The Difference Engine, where the completion highly sophisticated computers leads to something resembling the internet centuries before it really came to be. The “futuristic” technology cannot help but have a large impact on society, and the authors carry the implications to a logical conclusion.
I won’t address the issue of time travel in this post because I have a whole article devoted specifically to time travel planned for another month, but this of course offers interesting opportunities to mesh the past with the future as well. If you are looking for resources to help inform the level of technology available to your own creations based on the time period, here are some places to start:
18th century (1700s) Timeline of Inventions
19th century (1800s) Timeline of Inventions
20th century (1900s) Timeline of Inventions
Bringing the Past into the Future
Another genre of science fiction that sometimes dovetails with Steampunk is post-apocalyptic fiction. In these stories, authors postulate that some kind of event, be it natural or human-made, causes society as we know it to crumble. Often, humans have exhausted the materials, like petroleum, the power our world now and need something to replace it with. The heavy, durable materials of the past have a lot more staying power than the flimsy plastics we use today, which leads to the human race falling back on earlier forms of technology, such as steam and clockwork, in the face of political or ecological disasters.
One good example of a post-apocalyptic setting with a steampunk feel is the world of The City of Ember. The tragedy that befell the earth is not elucidated until later installments of this four-part book series, and the timing is difficult to pinpoint. The citizens of Ember exist in a strange limbo between past and present, where they have access to electricity but have lost the knowledge of how or why the generator that powers the city functions. As I was doing my research I also ran across Terminal World, which came out in 2010. In this scenario, the human race has been confined to a single city with different “zones” that support different levels of technology, and includes a military comprised of airships.
On the other hand, there doesn’t need to some huge, tragic event to facilitate people living with less technology far into the future. Firefly, for instance, is a wonderful space-western where the people inhabiting “the border planets” have much less access to technology than the central ones. By expanding to new planets and moons, people find themselves living once again like pioneers of the old West with space ships instead of covered wagons. Another good example of this approach is The Iron Jackal, where readers follow a crew of space pirates on their adventures. The massive territory and lawlessness of space creates perfect opportunities to draw parallels between the future and the past.
Do you know any other examples you’d like to share? Please comment below!