Steampunk Science Fiction or Fantasy

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

Crazy World of SteampunkJules Verne Nautilus

I have touched the realm of steampunk science fiction and fantasy for most of my reading life. Initially this was through the classics such as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Now this is a great book and, although the term had not been coined at that time, the steampunk fantasy and science fiction and fantasy really kicks in here. If, as the name suggests, this was the depth travelled at in ‘real’ life the Nautilus would be travelling in space at a distance less than half way to the moon.

In actuality this is the distance travelled; down, up and along; under the seas and oceans. As the distance travelled would be anywhere from two to four times around the world this would have been an amazing feat at that time, for an electrical/ mechanical invention.

The reason this novel is able to fall into the ‘steampunk’ genre is its incredible resemblance to the submarines developed in the mid twentieth century, ninety years after it was written. When it was written steam power was in use for ships and the impression is that the Nautilus was powered by an electrical process that produced steam pressure. In fact I have heard it said that the ship itself was one big battery.

Prior to reading Jules’ tale there was the Wizard of Oz movie presented every year at Christmas. I remember everyone’s parents getting a bit tetchy about seeing the same old movie every year. BUT the first year it was not shown they all missed it. The steampunk shows here in the elaborate mishmash of mechanical steam pipes the wizard uses to maintain his alias and portray his wizardly green head.

From the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie the Wizard's Green Head

From the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie

And now I have just completed a steampunk series written over the last few years. This appears to only be available as an eBook but no worries here. I have a marvellous Kobo Aura eReader.

Steam Power Was Born

The meld of Victorian life with steam gives harmonic life to steampunk. The advent of steam power has been around for a very long time with the first noted design written down in the first century by the Alexandrian, Hero.

From then until the pre Victorian Era years steam power was slowly developing with constant improvements. During this time it was used for lifting water and boring in mines, factories for repetitious actions and in textile mills.

In the pre Victorian times steam as a reliable source of energy expanded to include the powering of ships and boats along with the first powering of land transport. For a relatively complex history of steam visit Wikipedia’s site.

steam ship

Full Steam ahead

Steam power for transportation via rail came into its own during the reign of Queen Victoria. And the lovely era of touring the country side became
a popular attraction for the locals. The image of the lovely old steam engines and carriages puffing along beside the hedges and pastures brings a wonderful nostalgic vision to me. The pillar of steam billowing into the air in almost per whiteness.

Forget about the smoke from the coal accompanying it. As long as you can’t smell it, ie plug your nose, you can ignore it! Or you can hope the smell is gone thanks to progress.

After all, even though the era is in the past the steampunk equipment has progressed to the future. Therefore the fuel must be environmentally friendly!

steam train

Other steam vehicles followed the trains with farm engines galore helping the farmers tremendously with their daily work. Steam powered vehicles, busses and cars came into production in the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign. In fact most initial work in these steam powered creations was done outside England but can still be considered part of her era.

The Elegance of the Victorian Era

Although elegance is often used hand in hand with the Victorian Era I am not sure I agree the period was elegant. Yes for the top strata of the population it probably was. It set the tone with fashion, jewellery, furnishings, music and the arts.

But that was really only for the wealthy and noted. And any poor sod who practised in the scientific and engineering areas who managed to get a patron or raise money to develop these amazing advancements.

It established the beauty in engineering (generally mechanical) and science. The steam power equipment was clinically cut, precision moving and very very shiny metallic in appearance.

Probably this is a significant influence in the trend for Steampunk paraphernalia as so many people like that clean shiny look. The structure around the shiny bits was usually pretty rustic and antique looking.

steam zeppelin

In general though, the era was not favourable to most people. Almost at the bottom of the heap was the Workhouses. These were those who had lost hope. The hopeless were even lower than this and starved on the streets.

So in reality a full spectrum ranged. And what better place than this to introduce the imagination that turned the Victorian era into the realm of fantasy and science fiction.

The Steampunk Marriage

Steampunk melds the above into a wonderful world where things mechanical, gas powered, steam powered and things magically sophisticated’ stemming from wonderful  imaginations are intertwined into often bizarre tales. And the world this is set in doesn’t have to be earth. It can be anywhere, in time and setting.  The year or century is arbitrary as long as the image is contemporary to the Victoria one.

A good example is the TV series, The Wild Wild West where high tech items frequented the 1880 western world. And note here that the later movie was not received well so if you see just remember the real steam punkers don’t like it.

corset2Although this fusion commenced in the written word it seems to be steam rolling (pun intended) long in many other areas. Fanciful costumes are now created, of corsets and bloomers, in leather and lace (and, if you are Goth, in black), using gears and other mechanical bits. I do hope the corsets don’t cause the extremely bad health effects of that era!

Men also have their costumes and believe it or not, in the real Victorian era,  they wore corsets too. They needed their nice trim waists. But in general padded shoulders, vests, old fashioned trousers and boots were the steampunk fashion statement for the fine upright male figure.

Steampunk accessories abound. With lots of metal, glass and leather included. Clocks and statues, gauges and lamps, turn of the century leather and metal flying helmets.
Katie in goggles

Along with goggles for all and sundry. Imagination is the only limit. Actually goggles seem to be a very popular interpretation of steampunk adornments. Made of various metals and leather straps. Having gears and their cogs attached randomly.  Often thick shiny metal bands surround the lens, one or both lens being telescopic and the lens glass being of many colours.

Pets as accessories. also have their own goggles. At least they don’t seem to be carried around in handbags. Not with the tougher, more practical steam punkers.

After seeing many of these steampunk bits and pieces I expect that vision was often limited though!

And there are Steampunk movies and television shows with outstanding special effects – almost realistic, one could say, for some who can’t separate fact from illusion.

TV series have entered the scene with the same artistic licence. For example the wonderful interpretation of Terry Pratchett’s  (RIP) book Going Postal

Steampunk World

Clockwork Universe by Tim Wetherell

Clockwork Universe    by Tim Wetherell

It seems to me that Steampunk worlds are encapsulated in spheres of the time when interesting things started happening; for us Queen Victoria’s era. Where ever you were in that time things began hoping with the steam powered advances.

Steampunk is a world where the population’s daily life didn’t change. However the equipment they used and the metal accessories they wore did. So we have the elegantly costumed look of that past era and the advanced metalled ornamentation and machinery, still steam powered but to the equivalent characteristics of the present day. That is the provocative thing about the entity called steampunk is, the technology and mechanics are imagined as very advanced and equivalent of those of the present day.

This allows great leeway in creative ideas, combining both the then and now.

What I would appreciate is that you, my visitors, give me some feedback and thoughts on what steampunk means to you. I look forward to furthering my adventure in this line of fantasy/science fiction.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

14 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Thank you for this amazing post. I am a fan of science fiction in general as I believe movies and tv shows are meant to help us escape our everyday life.

    I liked movies like lord of the rings, matrix and more recently interstellar. I like a mix of science fiction and fantasy. Can’t decide for one and don’t want to 🙂

    Some people will prefer to watch a movie about a guy learning to ride a bycicle 🙂 I am not one of them.

    I must admit when I first read your post about steampunk I thought about the nautilus. Apart from that, steampunk world didn’t mean anything to me.

    I like how you can talk about it as a cultural evolution within actual history. It was really interesting to read about it.

    I agree with you about that the so called amazing victorian era.
    When you dig further, you realize it was amazing only for the wealthy. But I don’t know, history manage to give that period a special glow:)
    Thank you for this post and keep it coming.
    best regards
    Armelle from France

    • You sure are right on the escapism. Add some humour into the mix and it is my idea of paradise! And why should you decide between the two. I hate the question ‘who is your favourite band’. How in heck should I know. I have favourite songs; as for bands some have great songs and mediocre mixed.

      As for steampunk meaning anything for you, you most likely have read more than ‘Nautilus’ from that time and space. The actual term wasn’t coined until the late 1980s by KW Jeters. So up until then it was just categorised (usually) as science fiction.

      A lot of fantasy and science fiction has a leg hold in history. And I believe that is what makes a lot of it so realistic.

      Thanks for your comment Armelle and I would love to hear from you again. Like minds you know.

      Cheers
      Helen

  2. Cool back-story on the steam punk fad! I’ve always wondered where it all actually originated from, and it’s nice to get a little history on everything. I love the visuals that went along with it all too. Can’t wait to see what else you come up with in the future! Thanks!

    • Shaun, I really feel a little history sets the scene better. After all there is usually a story behind everything. I had heard the term before but hadn’t yet investigated it. I read a series by Lindsay Buroker, really liked it as ligh, fun reading and found it was steampunk. Another interesting area of science fiction/fantasy opened to me. Feel free to return, comment and offer any suggestions for future reviews.

  3. This is quite the very informative topic. Steampunk is a terminology that I have not come across in the past, but after reading this post it is clearly explained. I never realized the implications of this within the Victorian era.

    It have provided me with a richer understanding of the many uses of steam engine throughout that time.

    • Warrington, I really love steam power. Although it is not as sophisticated as modern power horses it is much more powerful looking and elegant. Thanks for your comment and I hope it inspires you to look further into steampunk as an enjoyable entertainment.

  4. Have to say this article is a great read for anyone, I honestly never really heard of the Steampunk genre prior to you talking about it but I have always been a huge fan of novels within the Victorian Era because Victorian English within itself is so beautiful to read.
    I have learned so much more than I thought I would have so, thank you for the great writing! I’ll be coming back 🙂

    • Kyle, thanks for your comment. Regarding the Victorian English, I am currently reading Infernal Devises by KW Jeter. Now that is in Victorian English. I will do a review on it as soon as I can claim my eReader back from my partner. His won’t work and he is the insomniac so I lent him mine! Aren’t I nice.

      Steampunk as coined is relatively new to me too. Put I really like it as there is such a visual side to it. My content on it is sure to grow.

      So feel free to visit any time to keep up with steampunk.

  5. I, too, love steampunk as a genre of design. I feel it marries the romantic fascination we all seem to have with the Victorian era/Industrial Revolution, with the modern inventiveness of today.
    As a cosplay theme, it’s my all time favourite. Women are more elegant and men are far more dapper than more modern modes of science fiction cosplay.
    I also love the biomech aspects of it and the idea of creating animal cyborgs by combining mechanics with biology.
    I think it’s become so timely, with our societal focus so drawn to upcycling and recycling, rather than the throw-away culture of the 80’s and 90’s.
    Thanks for such a great read!

    • Sam, was the Six Million Dollar Man the first cyborg. Probably not but he sure was popular, corny but popular!

      I think that modernisation has taken the aesthetic out of many things. When a rally of vintage vehicles tours our neighbourhood we pull out the lawn chairs, grab a wine or beer and sit outside just viewing the continuing train of lovely old cars and trucks. I cannot ever remember doing that with modern vehicles.

      As for steam, every fair we go to that has a steam engine exhibition gets our attention first and last.

      Costumes I agree they are fantastical but you wouldn’t get me into one of those corsets. They were the ruin of many a woman’s health. Tiny waists, cramped innards.

      Thanks for visiting me and giving a descriptive comment on steampunk.

  6. Hi Helen,

    I love to read science fiction, too. Steampunk is something that always amazes me.

    The story teller usually has a great imagination that captivates the readers. I always believe people can make modern equipment while only using steam as its power.

    There should be more Wild Wild West movie themes. I love the spider steampunk engine.

    • Arief, thanks for visiting me. I must admit I much preferred the TV Wild Wild West. That was probably because I saw it first way back in the old days.

      And yes modern equipment can be build using steam power. New materials mean the weight can be lessened so the power produce is more efficient. In about 2010 a new speed record was set for a steam powered car. You can find the link to this in my post ‘What happens with Dragons. if you are interested.

      Now for both of us, back to reading wild and wacky things.

  7. I really never even heard of Steam Punk before reading this article. It is very enlightening though I did recognize much of the material.
    If I didn’t miss the meaning of the article then my idea of steampunk fantasy is bring back the the Steam Engines for dinner and adventure. I love the whistle of a train.

    • Ruth, steam engines for dinner! I hope you mean the dining car as the engine itself would be fairly hard to chew. But yes the steam trains are great. We have a transport museum in Hobart. Once a month the old steam train hits the tracks and takes people on a steam joy ride. It is great fun and a huge nostalgic moment. And the engineer does toot his whistle – the train’s too! Thanks for commenting and feel free to visit me again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *