Can Steampunk be Dystopian?

Last week, someone asked if Steampunk was dystopian.

Both are sub-genres of speculative fiction. Of course, genres and sub-genres are just labels, and they’re hardly mutually exclusive. You can have an alternate history noir detective story. (Set it in Alaska, and you have Michael Chabon’s YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION.) And, you could have a dystopic Steampunk story. However, in general, the perspectives of the two sub-genres are very different.

Dystopia imagines a far less than ideal future. When writing one, we ask the question: what if things went really wrong? We extrapolate from today and build a future as we’d truly not like to see it become. And, as Beth so aptly pointed out, the world we build acts as an antagonist. The characters fight against the dystopic world around them.

Steampunk re-imagines the past. Its writers ask the question: what if the steam age (mostly the 19th century) had developed the technology we have today? (The term, Steampunk, was coined in the 1980’s as kind of a tongue-in-cheek play on the cyberpunk genre.) The premise is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Charles Babbage designed the first mechanical computer—the Difference Engine--in the 1820’s. Unfortunately, it didn’t work—at least then. One of the best known Steampunk novels—THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling—imagined that Babbage’s computer did work, and it became the cornerstone of technology in the Victorian era. Imagine a steam-powered internet--and Victorian England (Babbage was British, btw) as the Silicon Valley of the 19th century.

Not surprisingly then, Steampunk has a distinctive visual aesthetic. The Victorians would not have encased everything in plastic as we do today. They would’ve built computers out of mahogany and brass, all riveted together. You would have pulled levers, read gauges, spun dials, and watched gears turn. And, let's not forget the punk part of the equation. Like punk rock, Steampunk (or cyberpunk or any other literary punk) has an anti-authoritarian streak.

The aesthetic and attitude of Steampunk appeal to many people--so much so that an entire subculture has grown up around the genre. Afficiandos design Steampunk clothes, toys, art, role playing games, and machines. A museum in Oxford even dedicated an exhibit to Steampunk art:



Steampunk is making inroads in the YA/MG world—thanks to Scott Westerfeld. If you haven’t read LEVIATHAN yet, go do it now. It’s a rousing adventure set in an alternate 1914 Europe. Here, instead of me telling you about it, check out this trailer:



Isn't that one of the best book trailers ever?

If you read Westerfeld’s blog, you’ll see how his readers have embraced the DIY ethic of Steampunk. Fans submit their own art work, and Westerfeld features steam-powered mechanical creations on Walker Wednesday:



So, back to the question. Is Steampunk dystopian? Most of the time: no. But, it can be. At the end of THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, we do get a glimpse of the present day world (at least the 1990’s) in this alternate time line. It’s depicted as a dystopia. Other Steampunk writers who extrapolate that past to the future may end up with a dystopia, too. However, most Steampunk—at least that I’ve read—focuses on the alternate past—the past as we wished it had been—and embraces the brash confidence and optimism of the Victorians. It was an age when Brittania ruled its empire, the Wild West was still wild, and technology and reason could solve anything. In a dystopia, the characters fight against the world—whether it’s an oppressive government or a post-apocalyptic landscape. In Steampunk, the characters (in general) revel in their world, using technology, ingenuity, a bit of whimsy, and attitude to conquer it. Sooner or later, though, the world may catch up to the Steampunks. (World War I, after all, crushed the Victorian / Edwardian optimism and faith in technology.) Or the Steampunks may just kick the world's a*s.

What kind of dystopia could you create out of a Steampunk past? Discuss.

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14 comments:

sraasch said...

I love this! This is probably the best explanation of Steampunk/Dystopian differences I've read. You really get the root of each of them.

I'd never thought of Steampunk/Dystopian as subgenres that could compliment each other, but the way you describe it makes it totally possible. Alternate past and alternate future. It'd be interesting to play around with and see what fun stories/series could pop up...

lynnrush said...

LOL. Do you OIL your machines or FEED them? That's good!!!!

Thanks for this post. I'm still wrapping my brain around steampunk. :-) Loved those trailers, too.

Bittersweet Fountain said...

If Victorian Britain had really had the sort of technology imagined in steampunk - the future could be extremely different. Though if the technology was leaking to the other nations, things might not change too drastically. But let's assume that Britain is the only country with advanced technology at the turn of the last century.

WWI may never have happened - Britain could have dominated the world with their computers, advanced flying machines, etc. Then again, if WWI never happened, Britain might have imploded from the pressure put on by the suffragettes, the Irish Home Rule group, and the labor unions. In fact advanced technology might create a smarter populace, which might have led women to want to vote earlier. The technology probably wouldn't reduce the amount of labor needed - since Victorian machines often need laborers - so that might create even more labor unions. However, with the technology, Britain could have smashed Ireland and simply not bothered to deal with Home Rule.

Hmm....so many possibilities. Would Britain implode and create a future world without its influence? Or would it grow into a superpower - stoppable by no one?

The possible dystopias that could be created from this are mind boggling.

Angie said...

Keep going, Bittersweet. I think you're onto some cool world building possibilities.

beth said...

You know, I've never really thought of this. I tend to group all the sci fi subgenres in my head, but of course you're right--steampunk *can't* be dystopian as steampunk deals with the past, and dystopian deals with the future. At the same time, though, I'm now totally intrigued by the idea of a steampunk dystopian that shows a past steampunk world evolving into a modern dystopian....

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I've always loved dystopias and have a recent affection for Steampunk - put the two together? Hmm...I'm not actually sure about that. I think one of the attractions of steampunk, as you say, is a certain brash optimism. And while dystopia's have a world in opposition, I think the in the steampunk realm, the world is in support of that optimism.

But then again, someone will write it and it will just turn everything I just said on its head. :)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Great post- love that book trailer!

I think a post-apocalytpic story set in the future can be called a steampunk dystopia where everyone's reduced to having to cobble together gadgets and engines from whatever they find.

Jen Chandler said...

Excellent post. I'm toe-ing the waters of Steampunk with my WIP. It's fascinating, exciting and down right frightening to write! I've got Leviathan on order. Can't wait to read it!

Jen

Angie said...

Susan, you're right. The Steampunk world supports the characters, and they revel in it. If you extrapolate that world--as Gibson and Sterling did in Difference Engine--the you end up with in the future may not be Steampunk anymore. Just a dystopia.

Julia Karr said...

Lots to think about, Angie! *cogs in brain engage*

Jemi Fraser said...

Great explanation! I'm currently writing a YA steampunk mystery. A lot of people don't know what it is yet. Thanks for help in clearing it up :)

angelmcc said...

There's a book out this year by Cherie Priest called BONESHAKER that's a dystopian twist on Steampunk world. It's quite entertaining. :)

Angie said...

Thanks for the tip, Angelmcc. I'll check it out.

Ben Noddy said...

While I don't disagree with this summation, I have to disagree on what appears to be a general/vague conclusion; that the past can't be dystopic. As you've said, Steampunk deals with a kind of accelerated industrial revolution -- and the revolution as we know it was a period of tremendous human suffering and exploitation. By extension, one even more extensive might have produced an even greater concentration of people in "proto-Soviet blocks buildings". Computation might've taken concepts such as social engineering and even eugenics (quite popular pre-WW2) to their terrible extremes, creating oppressive regimes of surveillance or complex urban architecture meant to control the proletariate. Exploitation of colonies would have been a necessary factor to all of this, making racism and perhaps even slavery possible elements to play with. Pollution and the eradication of nature is another. Would it still be steampunk? Possibly.