Punking the Past: The Steampunk Aesthetic

Helena Esser studied Anglophone Literature and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen, from which she graduated with a BA thesis on retrofuturist feminism in steampunk literature and an MA thesis on female identity in WW1 memoirs. She is currently busy trying to coordinate her many research interests, which include steampunk subculture, cityscapes, cyborgs, and airship pirates, Ouida, WW1 history, Terry Pratchett, and cyberpunk. You can find her on Twitter @EsserHelena


What is steampunk?

In recent years, a peculiar phenomenon has flourished and populated our culture with steampunk novels, short stories, music, films, cosplays, festivals, sculptures, and fashion. Yet it seems both easy to identify and difficult to define: what is steampunk?

This is a question steampunks (and aspiring literary scholars working on the field) are asked constantly – and one that they often ask themselves. In 2007, Steampunk Magazine’s first issue was launched with this question as its leading article. The Catastrophone Orchestra claimed, in a since much-discussed essay, that steampunk was ‘a re-envisioning of the past with the hypertechnological perception of the present’, that it was a ‘non-luddite critique of technology’ inspired by the ‘smog-choked alleys of Victoria’s duskless empire’ and the ‘opium-addicts, aesthete dandies, inventors of perpetual motion machines, mutineers, hucksters, gamblers, explorers, madmen, and bluestockings’. Bruce Sterling called steampunk a ‘funeral theatre’ that selectively resurrects ‘the dandified gear of aristocrats, peculiar brass gear, rather stilted personal relationships, and elaborate and slightly kinky underwear’, concluding that ‘the past is a kind of future that has already happened.’ In Byrd McDonald’s documentary Vintage Tomorrows, members of the movement describe steampunk as ‘a subculture, a creative community, and an aesthetic movement’, as ‘the science fiction of a future that never happened’, as ‘adventure, excitement’, a ‘whimsy play with the past’, and as ‘made of awesome’. The movement’s favorite band Abney Park simply explains, ‘We’ve darted back to 1886/ Don’t ask us why; that’s how we get our kicks/ Out with the new/ In with the old’, or: ‘We saw the past and it looked like fun/ We took their clothes and we took their style/ And the rest is history/ We bolted brass and we kicked some ass/ Wrote some songs by the lamplight’s gas/ Soon our history we did defile/ And made a past that couldn’t be’.

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Asylum Festival 2016, © by Helena Esser

Quite evidently, these numerous attempts at interpretations come in varying degrees of clarity and confusion, but they share some underlying ideas; Steampunk re-imagines the 19th century imbued with anachronism, science fantasy, or a playful irony. It is inspired by an imagined Victorian age full of romance, adventure, and invention, yet this often romantic vision of the age can be mobilized for critique, for example of technology, and lastly it creates a vivid dialog with the past that steampunks hope may impact the present and future. The examples above suggest that steampunk’s relationship with the Victorian age can oscillate between reverent nostalgia and good-humored vandalism, and that there exists an array of ‘Victorian’ archetypes which function as steampunk’s chief inspirations. I therefore want to keep in mind, during my endevaour to render an overview of steampunk’s history and attempt to illustrate its key features, the questions: What does it mean to punk the past – and which ‘past’ is that?


Phileas Fogg, Around The World In 80 Days, Jules Verne 1872

The Steampunk Bible, along with many others, cites as steampunk’s ‘grandfathers’ the writers of fin-de-siècle fantastic fiction Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, whose scientific adventures can often seem like ‘proto-steampunk’. Quite assuredly, Verne’s prophetically envisioned machines assembled from feasible technology of the day, along with gentleman adventurer Phileas Fogg or rebel Captain Nemo have had a traceable impact on pop culture, science fiction and the steampunk imagination.

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Captain Nemo, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Jules Verne  1875



Harper Goff’s iconic design of the Nautilus for Disney’s 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attests to this: It is often cited as an example of a beginning nostalgia for the Victorian age in the twentieth century, and a major inspiration for steampunk designs, seeing that it combines a Victorian industrial aesthetic with the organic. Likewise, Well’s more Gothic visions and fantastical inventions inspire the steampunk style, foremost of course the ray guns and the time machine. Yet, both Verne and Wells are firmly embedded in their historical context and cannot therefore be described as being ‘steampunk’, since that is a purely neo-Victorian phenomenon.

What we might call ‘actual steampunk’ began as a subgenre of science fiction literature in the 1980s. It has often been suggested that steampunk developed out of the cyberpunk movement, but Mike Perschon has recently suggested that they rather co-evolved. Certain is that the writers now canonised as First Generation steampunk authors were involved in both genres; Michael Moorcock, whose Warlord of the Air trilogy is seen as a genre pioneer (and certainly influenced by Well’s Time Machine), California trifecta Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter, and James Blaylock, who coined the term ‘steampunk’, and William Gibson, whose 1984 Neuromancer trilogy launched the cyperpunk genre and who co-authored steampunk’s seminal novel, The Difference Engine together with Bruce Sterling. These early works were inspired by Verne and Wells, but also Dicken’s social commentary and Mayhew’s journalism, particularly London Labour and the London Poor. These early works synthesize Victorian science fiction with the social problem novel and punk the past by often shifting focus on rebels and social outcasts, using archetypal Victorian intertexts to create a resonant setting.

Steampunk as a term came into being when Jeter, in an interview with Locus magazine said only half in earnest: ‘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 steampunks,’ perhaps…’ Although the neo-Victorian science-fantasies now known as steampunk did not become the ‘next big thing’ until around 2007 and the genesis of the Second Generation, he inadvertently inspired a whole movement.

Since this internet-fuelled boom of steampunk’s second wave, the term ‘steampunk’ has circulated through discussion boards, etsy keyword searches, fashion manuals, maker conventions, and publishing houses. It has long become a popular label for anything historical yet vaguely anachronistic, or, in the area of marketing books, anything with zeppelins. Suffice it to say that this is not necessarily helpful in identifying what steampunk, after all, is. Even in the realm of scholarship, no conclusive definition has established itself yet. Personally, I find Mike Perschon’s descriptive approach the most useful: He suggests that steampunk is a tripartite, cross-media aesthetic that is comprised to varying degrees of the the following elements: neo-Victorianism, technofantasy, and retrofuturism. This definition of steampunk as a style that is not limited to any medium (literature, costume, film) or genre (crime, romance, comedy) and that combines three key features is flexible, yet productive enough to help ‘spot steampunk in the wild’. It also substitutes the exclusionary binary of ‘is it steampunk or not?’ with the more practical ‘how steampunk is it?’, implying that steampunk can be a spectrum. I would like to illustrate Perschon’s definition by a cursory reading of The Difference Engine, a novel that contains many of steampunk’s core ideas and has been described as ‘the closest text that steampunk has to a canonical novel’.


The Difference Engine, © by Helena Esser

The novel co-written by Gibson and Sterling in 1991 imagines the social implications of information technology on urbanised, industrialised Victorian London and speculates on the impact of a computer-powered Britain at the heart of the Empire in an alternative past. Neo-Victorianism (although Perschon has also suggested the term ‘hyper-Victorianism’) is the element that re-assembles the Victorian era as a resonant, yet not necessarily accurate collage: The Difference Engine sends familiar archetypes such as the gentleman explorer and the spy, as well as characters from Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations, along with historical personalities such as Lord Byron and his daughter Ada on vastly different, fictional pathways, making Sybil a prostitute, Lord Byron leader of the Radical Industrial Party and Prime Minister, and Ada Lovelace a celebrity mathematician, the ‘Queen of Engines’. Babbage, Huxley and Darwin become revered ‘savants’, and Scientific Palaces such as the Palace of Paleontology transform Exhibition Road in London into a setting that feels quite Victorian, but has become defamiliarised.

This defamiliarisation is certainly intensified by steampunk’s second feature: Technofantasy, which is the application of anachronistic, fantastic, or even supernatural technology to the hyper-Victorian collage. Here, steampunk mobilizes a perceived enthusiasm for progress and sense of curiosity in order to create fantastical contraptions that can trigger social change. In The Difference Engine, we have punch-cards and coding alongside Babbage’s Analytical Engine as a functional, widely used device, engine-directed printing, or the ‘kinotrope’, a fictional proto-Power Point, but also photo IDs, data transmission via telegraph or a credit card system, together with hints at domestic surveillance. The technofantasy  element can therefore paint a steampunk universe in hopeful or fatalist tones, and can use our own experience with technology and history to re-project it into a formative past. This is where the third component, retrofuturism, comes into play: steampunk more or less consciously re-imagines a Victorian past from a 21st century perspective that is imbued with more than a century of pop culture, cultural turns, and post-colonial awareness. As Victorian scholars, we are quite aware that neo-historical fiction inevitably ‘contaminates’ the past to some degree with our own perspectives, but not only does steampunk not even try to be historically accurate, it also often imagines entire alternative timelines, creating numerous forgotten futures of this ‘past that couldn’t be.’ This means that steampunk fiction can feature and foreground marginalized identities, imagine hopeful alternatives or call into question Victorian narratives about race, age, or gender and do so without having to answer for its anachronisms. In Gibson and Sterling’s novel, a Socialist uprising is staged during the Great Stink by the infamous Captain Swing, and the boundaries between civilized Londoners and colonial savages collapse when London succumbs to anarchy. Unfortunately, the 1980s novel, while featuring two interesting female characters in Sybil and Ada Lovelace, fails to portray them as women with agency or women not continually defined by the angel/whore binary.

This deliberate re-centering of the 19th century from our present perspective allows steampunk to trace ideas about gender, progress and degeneration, wealth and exploitation, or social emancipation and misery back to their perceived roots in the Victorian era, and call them into question: Mayhew’s picturesquely sentimental East Enders become revolutionaries, gamblers, and mutineers, and timid debutantes turn into feisty bluestockings, inviting us to reconsider how we see both the Victorians and ourselves.

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Asylum Festival 2016, © by Helena Esser

If this is what it means to punk the past – resisting, contesting, and satirizing established narratives of cultural memory – then it is certainly interesting to examine which past it is that is being punked. The Victorian era provides the basis for steampunk fictions, but it is a popularly imagined Victorian era inspired by Dickens, Verne, Wells and Stoker, by Conan Doyle, the Brontes, Stevenson and Wilde, alongside various notions about travel, exploration, colonialism, industrial design, Arts and Crafts, or socialism, and archetypes like the Angel in the House or the New Woman. The Victorian past is perceived as a productive setting that contains a variety of resonant debates about capitalism, imperialism, gender, industry, artisanship, otherness, sustainability, or urbanity, and these social currents are identified, synthesized through a century and a half’s cultural evolution and then re-projected onto that age through the prism of 21st century concerns. Of course, one can always also explain steampunk as: ‘We’ve darted back to 1886/ Don’t ask us why; that’s how we get our kicks.’


Works Cited:

Greg Broadmore, The Unnatural Selector, via http://drgrordborts.com/products/the-unnatural-selector-ray-blunderbuss/

Marcel E. Mercado, Verne and Wells, via http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.de/2010/06/technofantasy-verne-vs-wells.html

Steampunk Bible, by James VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers


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