"I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing," K.W. Jeter wrote to Locus Magazine in 1987, "as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term...Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like 'steampunks,' perhaps." Initially a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for the kind of "gonzo-historical" narratives written by the "Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate," Steampunk gradually became a recognizable term, now used in the media to describe, for example, Disney's recent (2002) movie Treasure Planet. It has also moved away from its initial American core to become an unlabeled but commercially successful literary form in the UK, where much of it is written for the Young Adult (YA) market.
Initially, the term was needed to describe works published by three California-based authors and friends: the aforementioned Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter. These were works of complex fantasy, set in a never-been Victorian London inspired by the popular fiction of that period, and featuring a host of bizarre inventions and people. "In each of these romances," Peter Nicholls notes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "a Dickensian London itself is a major character." It moved into the realm of Cyberpunk with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's collaboration, The Difference Engine, and into weirder climates, combining pastiche with far-out wierdness, in Paul Di Filippo's The Steampunk Trilogy. Since then, young British writers such as China Miéville, Chris Wooding and Ian R. Macleod have all written "Victorian Fantasies," and these have a uniform feel in their packaging as publishers hurried to visually identify books as Steampunk without actually having to use the word: artist Les Edwards' alter-ego Edward Miller has been commissioned to illustrate many of these books, and his work as Miller has a distinctive feel of Victorian romance.
The underlying theme of all fiction within the Steampunk sphere resorts to that moment whereby technology transcends understanding and becomes, for all intents and purposes, magical. It could be further argued that Victorian London represents the moment in history where that transformation happens. Not only is there an explosion of scientific and technical study, but for the first time the products of that Industrial Revolution become commodities, mass produced and thus escaping from the domain of the solitary inventor and into the public domain. This suggests why so many of the characters in Steampunk novels correspond to the "solitary scientist" archetype: Dr. Ignacio Narbondo in Blaylock's Homunculus and Lord Kelvin's Machine; Cosmo Cowperthwait in Paul Di Filippo's Victoria; Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in Miéville's Perdido Street Station. The hero of late 19th-century London is on the cusp between the Renaissance Man and the Corporation—a transformation best exemplified by Thomas Alva Edison and his Menlo Park laboratories. These figures share more than a silly name, for they are—to begin with at least—in control, the modern magicians who can operate the spells of machinery.
Yet what Steampunk narratives repeat again and again is the inevitability of the loss of control, as technology evolves beyond the confines of one person, assuming a mythical force that, echoing the school of Technological Darwinism, shapes and controls narrative causality. Narbondo must be thwarted from his plans of world domination; Cowperthwait, in trying to build the first atomic-powered train engine, kills both his parents ("When they managed to regain their feet, they saw the remnants of a mushroom-shaped cloud towering high up into the sky") and Grimnebulin, by attempting nothing less than the ancient hubris of teaching a man to fly, unleashes a Lovecraftian horror upon the city of Bas-Lag (a city which, for all intents and purposes, can be safely read as a metamorphosed London). It is not perhaps surprising to learn that Charles Babbage, the eccentric, mainly-forgotten inventor of the Difference and the Analytical Engines (the latter a forerunner of the modern computers), has become something of an icon to the genre.
On the one hand, technology in Steampunk has become magical; on the other, what magic there is has become highly scientific, so that reader expectations for genre stability are confounded. This could be traced, to some extent, to J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, in which "the principles of magic" are classified in a taxonomy of magical laws. "If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves [and that, for example] an effect resembles its cause." Thus, Thaumaturgy operates as a distinct science on Bas-Lag (Perdido Street Station and The Scar) while practitioners of magic in Powers' The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides must not touch the bare ground, dirt acting, literally, as an earthing device for magic. But the true strength of Steampunk is the way in which the two coexist: where technology becomes magical, magic becomes rigorously scientific. The resulting tension is at the core of Steampunk.
Steampunk has not remained in the realm of books. Role-Playing Games (RPGs) have borrowed heavily from both the more magic-oriented worlds of early Steampunk and the steam-driven computer age of The Difference Engine: these include Space: 1889, Castle Falkenstein, and GURPS Steampunk, among others. The transition to comic books is notable in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and more than one Japanese manga or anime have used Steampunk backgrounds, as in Steam City and elsewhere. It is also worth noting that Steampunk is popular in France: some of the authors writing Steampunk adventures in the French language include David Calvo, Fabrice Colin, Francis Valéry and Johan Heliot.
The following list of books, short fiction, and film is small but choice. As Nicholls noted, Steampunk is "a subgenre to which some distinguished work attaches, though in no great quantity." Suggestions for further reading can be found in the Criticism section and Recommended Web Sites below.
The "Core" of Steampunk: 1980s California
- The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
- Probably the classic Steampunk novel, this is a complex tale of Egyptian magic and time travel to a gas-lit, foggy Victorian London which comes into glorious, sinister life with secret beggars' guilds, Long-Heeled Jack, and the poet Coleridge all making appearances. Powers' systematic magic is comparable to science, and the mixture of the two forms one of the most important cross-genre novels of recent years.
- Homunculus by James P. Blaylock
- A skeleton piloting a blimp is the least of it in this mad and riotous novel featuring the hunchback Ignacio Narbondo (setting a precedent for eccentrically named characters in Steampunk novels), the scientist-hero Langdon St. Ives, and the Trismegistus Club, a group of scientists and philosophers who meet at the pipe shop of a certain Captain Powers...Blaylock's fabulist style transforms London into a midnight carnival that is both exhilarating and scary. The other key novel from one of the three "Founding Fathers of Steampunk," as Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter were recently referred to in France, and winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. The sequel is Lord Kelvin's Machine.
- Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
- This is the earliest in terms of publication (1979), concerning the return of H.G. Wells' Morlocks to 19th century London, where they take over the sewers. Part pastiche and part homage, it didn't make quite the impact of the other novels, but its importance is undiminished.
- Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter
- A clockmaker is caught up in a plot to destroy the Earth, involving his own doppelganger automaton, many infernal devices and divers alarums. One reviewer called this "perhaps SF's definitive Steampunk statement."
- The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
- Purists would argue that since this is not set in London, it isn't quite Steampunk per se, but it's a damn good novel nonetheless, in which the poets Byron, Shelley and Keats are linked by their relation to a strange vampiric creature, the Lamia. This is another important cross-genre novel: the seeming fantastic turns into the science fictional, but the lines are artfully blurred. Powers used real conversations and events to weave his strongest Secret History novel.
Expansionist Tendencies: in 1990s America, and across the Atlantic
- The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
- This could be more accurately called retro-Cyberpunk, but for many people this is the definitive Steampunk novel. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and Victorian England is thrown into an early computer revolution. Computers here are mechanical, and gigantic, a perfect match for polluted, corrupt industrial London. This is the background; the story itself is a thriller concerning a secret computer code which may or may not lead to Artificial Intelligence. Lady Ada Byron (Lord Byron's wife and an early mathematician and programmer—the computer language Ada is named in her honour) is a character.
- The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul di Filippo
- A collection of three novellas. In the first, "Victoria," Queen Victoria is replaced by a human/newt hybrid; in the second, "Hottentots," Massachusetts is threatened by Lovecraftian monsters; the third, "Walt and Emily," imagines a meeting of minds (and bodies!) between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. They go on a fantastical journey together, meet the spirits of Pound and Ginsberg (among others), and Emily loses her virginity. All three stories are written in a mock-Victorian manner, fusing pastiche with the far-out weirdness that makes this collection worthy of its name.
- Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
- It's 1888: Count Dracula beats Van Helsing, marries Queen Victoria, and becomes the virtual ruler of Britain, while police detective (and special agent of the Diogenes Club) Charles Beauregard must track down Jack the Ripper, who is killing vampire prostitutes. Anyone and Everyone—real or fictional—makes an appearance, from the Holmes family (Sherlock and Mycroft) to Dr. Jekyll, from Oscar Wilde to the Queen herself. Sequels (moving progressively away from the 19th century) are The Bloody Red Baron, Judgement of Tears (published in the UK as Dracula Cha Cha Cha), and the forthcoming Johnny Alucard, a collection of previously-published novellas set in the second half of the twentieth century. There is a also a character guide available online (and Newman points out the name of one of the characters is borrowed from Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides).
- Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman
- Some of the most exciting writers today are children's writers, and this is especially true in the case of Philip Pullman. The His Dark Materials trilogy is second only to Harry Potter in its success, and this retelling of Paradise Lost ("In three parts. For teenagers," as Pullman is quoted as saying) is a modern classic whose appeal is universal. The first novel, Northern Lights, is also a bona fide Steampunk novel with the same intricate system of magic one comes to expect and a wonderfully realized London that is pure Penny Dreadful Victorian. Pullman is also the author of the Sally Lockhart series of books, fast-paced adventures set in Victorian London.
Migration to England: A Return to Roost
- Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
- The first and most significant of the new Steampunk novels published in the UK. The city of New Crobuzon is London by all but name: Miéville, a life-long Londoner, creates the perfect city of magic and industry, with Lovecraftian monsters, mad scientists (in this case, one Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin), and even Babbage robots roam the streets and alleyways of the city. Big, sprawling and hugely entertaining, Perdido Street Station stirred up the SF/F field when it was published in 2000. Winner of the British Fantasy and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.
- The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding
- Combination detective mystery, dark fantasy, and Lovecraftian horror, this was aimed at the YA market (it won a Silver Smarties Award) but adults would enjoy this just as much. The story of wych-hunter Thaniel, a serial killer named Stitch-Face, and a mysterious and beautiful girl, Alaizabel Cray, who appears to be possessed by a powerful wych. This is a great adventure story with a darkly-realized London; Wooding uses cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter, to good effect.
- Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
- Another novel targeted at the YA market (this won a Gold Smarties Award), it is an energetic yarn taking place in a future where the great cities of Europe travel across the plain on caterpillar tracks; London is the first "Traction City," hunting smaller cities in its path. The story concerns the adventures of Tom and Heather as they are literally thrown off of London, discover the Anti-Traction League, travel by airship and chased half-way across the world. The sequel is Predator's Gold.
- The Light Ages by Ian R. Macleod
- Up for a World Fantasy Award, this is a Steampunk retelling of Great Expectations. Aether is a magical substance mined from the ground, responsible for a new Industrial Revolution. A young boy, Robert Borrows, meets the beautiful Annalise—who may or may not be a Changeling, a child changed by aether—falls in love, runs away to London, solves the mystery of his mother's own Change and subsequent death, falls in with pickpockets, mixes with Revolutionaries and high society, and changes the world for a brief moment.
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore
- Two graphic novels, adapted into a Hollywood film, from the pen of self-styled wizard Moore. Brings together several familiar characters (including Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, and Allan Quatermain) in two adventures of pure Steampunk. In the first, the League battles Fu Manchu and Dr. Moriarty, while in the second the Earth is under attack by the ubiquitous Martians...
Steampunk is often blurred with Gaslight Romance, Victorian pastiche and Secret and Alternate Histories, but for our purposes these all fit loosely into the Steampunkverse and are all worth a read.
- The Digging Leviathan by James P. Blaylock
- Set in 1950s California, this is nevertheless a precursor to Blaylock's next two Steampunk novels, a magical exploration of childhood novels peopled by eccentric characters: the poet William Ashbless, the shared creation of Blaylock and Powers, appears as a character.
- On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
- A pirate adventure with Blackbeard, the fountain of youth, voodoo, and more in the eighteenth century. Not really Steampunk, maybe, but one of Powers' best and it touches on the same themes of magic, science, and adventure as The Anubis Gates and The Stress of her Regard.
- Deathscent by Robin Jarvis
- The novel came out in 2001 as the first in a series but no sequel has yet been published. This is Elizabethan rather than Victorian, taking place in the Reflected Realms, where mechanical creatures have replaced animal life and where the seemingly simple life of the inhabitants is underpinned by complex technology. London plays a major part. This is intriguing, but can only be fully judged when the series is completed.
- Zeppelins West by Joe R. Lansdale
- A cyborg Buffalo Bill Cody takes his Wild West Show to Japan by Zeppelin, meets Frankenstein's monster, makes friends with Sitting Bull, and encounters slightly changed eminent Victorians Captain Bemo and Dr. Momo (of the island of...). A wild steampunk adventure that re-imagines this genre for the American West.
Wild West Steampunk!
- The Western Lights series: Dark Sleeper, The House in the High Wood, and Strange Cargo by Jeffrey E. Barlough
- Set in a strangely-displaced America, Victorian in feel, in which mastodons and sabre-cats roam the wilderness and where magic and supernatural entities are effortlessly mixed into tales of Western unease.
- Pasquale's Angel by Paul J. McAuley
- Set in a Florence transformed by Leonardo Da Vinci's becoming an engineer rather than painter, this is highly entertaining story which is also a murder mystery. Features Nicolo Machiavelli.
- The Hollow Earth: The Narrative of Mason Algiers Reynolds of Virginia by Rudy Rucker
- Edgar Allan Poe on a journey to the South Pole and into the hollow Earth.
- The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
- Baxter's sequel to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.
- Anti-Ice by Stephen Baxter
- A Victorian adventure concerning the discovery of the powerful "anti-ice" eventually takes a na´ve reporter to the moon.
- The Space Machine by Christopher Priest
- Another homage to Wells, this is an early effort by the author of the recent Clarke Award-winning The Separation.
- Fata Morgana by William Kotzwinkle
- Set in and around Paris in the 1860s.
- The Witches of Chiswick by Robert Rankin
- The king of the tall tale offers another crazy adventure, this time concerning Babbage super-computers, Tesla transmitters, time machines, Martians, Jack the Ripper, the Invisible Man, and much, much more. Hugo Rune returns to the Rankinverse, as does Barry the Sprout (last seen in Elvis Presley's head). The first in a projected trilogy, followed recently by the Brentford novel Knees Up Mother Earth.
- The Age of Unreason series: Newton's Cannon, A Calculus of Angels, Empire of Unreason, The Shadows of God by Greg Keyes (J. Gregory Keyes)
- A series taking as its starting point an 18th century where Isaac Newton became an alchemist and discovered "Philosopher's Mercury"; a young Benjamin Franklin features in the first book.
- The Werewolves of London by Brian Stableford
- Werewolves, magic, and fallen angels in Victorian London.
- Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss
- American Joe Bodenland finds himself in Lord Byron's villa in Lake Geneva, with both Shelleys and a real-life Frankenstein. This was made into a film by the same name.
- Dracula Unbound by Brian Aldiss
- Dracula sends time-travelling assassins to kill Bram Stoker before he writes his novel. The vampires' "time train" is hijacked by Joe Bodenland, who teams up with Stoker to fight the author's creation: an interesting example of recursive SF.
Recommended Short Fiction
Apart from the selected stories below, three forthcoming anthologies are of possible interest: these are All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories edited by David Moles and Jay Lake, The Ultimate Pirate edited by John Betancourt, and The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures: Return to the Centre of the Earth and Other Extraordinary Voyages edited by Mike Ashley and Eric Brown. The pirate anthology will contain reprints, the other two original material.
- "The Ape-Box Affair," "Two Views of a Cave Painting," and "The Idol's Eye" by James P. Blaylock
- Blaylock's Langdon St. Ives stories, collected with others in Thirteen Phantasms.
- "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley
- Frankenstein's monster's adventures in the hollow Earth.
- "Seventy-Two Letters" by Ted Chiang
- This Hugo-winning story posits a Victorian London in which the principles of the kaballah—and in particular the creation of golems—are scientifically studied and lead to a different Industrial Revolution.
- "Swiftly" and "Eleanor" by Adam Roberts
- Gulliver's Travels taken at face value, and the resultant exploitation of the denizens of Gulliver's world. The first story is available online; both are available in Roberts' new short story collection, Swiftly.
- "A Drug on the Market" by Kim Newman
- Concerns the marketing, in Victorian London, of a tonic developed from the notes of Dr. Jekyll.
- "Dr. Pretorius and the Lost Temple" by Paul McAuley
- A spirit-hunter, Carlyle, becomes involved with Isambard Kingdom Brunel when the Thames Tunnel project Brunel is working on encounters mysterious problems. Set in 1832.
- "Jigsaw Men" by Gary Greenwood
- Novella exploring a world in which the Martians from War of the Worlds have invaded (and were defeated) and in which Dr. Frankenstein's experiments were successful.
- "The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne" by Eric Brown
- Forthcoming novella from PS Publishing: Jules Verne is taken out of his own time by futuristic dictator Robur. Flying ships and ant-like aliens also feature in this adventure across time and space.
Very little has been written on Steampunk from an academic or critical perspective. For more information it is worth looking at the Recommended Web Sites.
- Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk by Steffen Hantke
- Hantke takes The Difference Engine as his benchmark to examine technology and historiography in that and other Steampunk novels.
- "Steampunk" by Peter Nicholls
- A useful introduction to the sub-genre in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
- Definitions of Steampunk by Cory Goss
- A brief overview of possible definitions.
- The Works of Tim Powers
- An all-inclusive guide to Powers' work, edited by John Berlyne
- James P. Blaylock
- A site dedicated to Blaylock's work.
- Would That It Were
- Subtitled "The Internet's Premier Magazine of Historical SF," which says it all, really.
- Steampunk Central
- Site dedicated to Wild West Steampunk.
- A good collection of material, including some on manga and anime.
- Steampunk Chronology
- A wide-ranging bibliography of all things Steampunk, also covering non-English material.