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If only Charles Babbage...Myths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Does the above quote tell anything to you? It wouldn't have for me (at least before I started researching for this column) and yet this is the beginning of the book that, according to most critics, started a whole genre: Morlock Night, by K.W. Jeter, almost unanimously quoted as the first steampunk novel, published in 1979. Jeter himself is credited as the originator of the word, in a letter written to the Science Fiction magazine Locus published in the April 1987 issue.
But what is steampunk?
Ask three different lovers of the genre and you'll probably get four different answers. Some consider it a sub-genre directly linked to cyberpunk, referring immediately to what is probably the most famous steampunk novel, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published in 1991, and seeing dystopian tones and the angry, rebellious punk element as essential.
Others would refer more to the scientific romance (3) of the 19th century, quoting Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells (Morlock Night is a sequel of The Time Machine) as direct antecedents of steampunk.
Yet others point out to the magic and fantasy elements present from the very start in steampunk (the same Morlock Night counts Merlin and Arthur among its characters) and if only possible would do away with the 'punk' part of the name altogether. Italian author Alessandro Fambrini says:
It is also not surprising that steampunk originated a plethora of sub-genres with strongly different flavours. We have, for instance the Wild/Weird West, where the setting is moved to the American frontier in the 19th century, and cowboys, saloon girls, scientists and settlers rub elbows. The Voyages Extraordinaires name once applied to a part of Jules Verne's works, nowadays defining 'Victorian adventures with a larger than life twist,' (5) and even Neo Victoriana, a current originated in Japan whose aim is to recreate certain aspects of the Victorian era (real or perceived) with modern tools and ways. Elegant Gothic Lolita has its origin in Neo Victoriana and can be seen as the contact point of Gothic and Steampunk.
Moreover, the genre has spilled from its Victorian boundaries into the Renaissance and the Middle Ages (an example of the former is the novel Pasquale's Angel by Paul McAuley, whose British edition, by the way, is graced by a beautiful Jim Burns cover), and often reveals (and revels in) strong Lovecraftian, occult, horror and fantasy influences.
Steampunk, of course, is not limited to the printed media. Besides books and comics (for instance The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen recently turned into a movie), there are anime series and movies (Laputa, Steamboy, Last Exile, Howl's Moving Castle), computer games (Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, but also Final Fantasy VI and some games set in the Warcraft universe), several Role-Playing settings, (both alive and defunct), and, thanks mostly to the above mentioned Neo-Victoriana (that often mixes Victorian aesthetics with Edwardian), fashion, interior design and accessories, in short a whole style of living (some go as far as speaking of a 'steampunk way of life').
I hope this small taste has tempted you into exploring the labyrinthine, mysterious and exciting steampunk world. The next issue of EMG-Zine will be devoted to Egypt, and in this column I shall delve into the history of the Tarots: are they really a hidden code of ancient Egyptian wisdom?
(1) Special thanks to Vesa Lehtinen and John Alwyine-Mosely of BookMooch for sending me the quote.
(2) quoted in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk
(3) 'Romance' here is used in his literary meaning, equivalent to 'novel', not in the current meaning of 'love story'.
(4) From http://www.intercom.publinet.it/2001/steampunk.htm, the translation from Italian is mine.
(5) Quoted from http://www.brassgoggles.co.uk/brassgoggles/?page_id=18
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