The Joy of Steampunk

I’m reposting some articles I wrote a while ago. This one featured on the Random House blog in 2009.

I love reading, and writing, steampunk. I’ve been fascinated by the whole Victorian/Edwardian era in fiction ever since reading Conan Doyle (the professor Challenger books as well as Sherlock Holmes) and, of course, HG Wells and Jules Verne. The combination of technological advances in a world that is making great strides into modernity in terms of morals, manners and outlook is a rich and intriguing one. When contemporary writers like Michael Moorcock and Harry Harrison started writing what now viewed as proto-steampunk in the 1970s, I was reading it and revelling in it. The steampunk explosion really started in the early 1980s with Tim Powers and James Blaylock, who wrote wonderful novels set in a Victorian/Edwardian milieu full of romantic poets, time travel, body-swapping werewolves, huge excavating machines, quests for the secrets of life and bizarre Egyptian magic. When William Gibson and Bruce Sterling collaborated on a novel that centred on one of the most beloved steampunk icons, Charles Babbage and his differential machine, the steampunk fuse was well and truly lit.

So what is steampunk? Think gaslights, real historical figures, nefarious deeds, stiff-upper lips, secret societies and histories, dirigibles, frock coats and top hats, machinery featuring brass and steam and electricity. It has a great deal to do with look and feel, the setting

I love steampunk because it’s retro and it’s fun. It’s rip-roaring stuff, full of panache, swagger and ripping yarns. It’s a great contrast with the here and now, and it’s romantic – in the sense of exploring heightened emotions and experiences. It’s grand and splendid – with plenty of horror and squalor set against the glamour.

And it brings together two of my great interests – history and technology. When I’m writing, it allows me to explore how people cope with times of great change and how some make the most of it, as an exhilarating opportunity. It’s nostalgic, too, a wistful look back at a world that might have been – and what sort of a world would we have today?

It means, however, that I have to work with that most seductive of writer’s tools – research. Great discipline is needed to keep myself to the necessary fact-finding and checking, and not surrendering to the fascinating titbits that research always throws up – although some of them do find their way into my writing.

Steampunk is glorious, riveting, thrilling, captivating stuff. Strap on your brass goggles, grab your silver knobbed walking stick, fire up the reciprocating engine, cry ‘The game’s afoot!’ and enjoy.