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Stars of Steampunk:

Lizzy Henry on The Novels

That Shaped a Phenomenon


Whoever you are and whatever you usually read, the chances are, you have stumbled across steampunk books or films. From the work of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne (pictured above), to that of modern authors like Philip Pullman, Stephen Hunt, and China Melville, or film makers like Studio Ghibli, the world of Steampunk is nothing if not widely available. You could even argue graphic novels like “Monstress” (leather-) skirt around the (brass-) edges of the genre. But, with so many different takes and worlds in Steampunk, actually defining it can be a little more challenging.

In this exclusive article for The Greatest Minds, Lizzy Henry examines the origins of Steampunk, what makes the subject what it is…. and takes a look at some of the defining novels of what is arguably the most alluring, innovative and certainly most quirky genre in literature today.

Of all the subgenres of science fiction and science fantasy, Steampunk stands out; it is famously famous, if you like. Not only does it incorporate technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery, but it has inspired a whole raft of other sub-fields that build upon the world of its best known books. Today, there is steam-punk interior design, Steampunk clothing, entire Steampunk stores on e-bay and Etsy, and even “Steampunk maker culture”, where highly skilled amateur craftsmen and women adapt and retro-fit modern appliances to give them a decidedly steam-punk flavour....

Although its literary origins are sometimes associated with the cyberpunk genre, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century's British Victorian era or American "Wild West" in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has maintained mainstream usage, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. However, steampunk and Neo-Victorian are different in that the Neo-Victorian movement does not extrapolate on technology and embraces the positive aspects of the Victorian era's culture and philosophy.

Visually, Steampunk draws on an industrial aesthetic with brass, cogs, clockwork and, of course, steam being key to the ‘look’ as well as formal 19th century Western fashion. (Ed: with that in mind, it is no coincidence that TheGreatestMinds looks the way it does…) Anyway, Steampunk frequently dabbles in alternate history, placing an accentuated importance on real life inventors such as Nikola Tesla or Charles Babbage as an explanation for ‘advanced’ technology like air ships and computers that run on clockwork and steam power.

Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era's perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Such technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, or of the modern authors Philip Pullman, Stephen Hunt, and China Melville....

....Other examples of steampunk contain alternative-history-style presentations of such technology as lighter-than-air airships, analogue computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine.

‘The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling originally published on 1990. In 1990 William Gibson was one of the hottest names in sci-fi. When he and Sterling published this Victorian cyberpunk alternate history many people, including myself, were introduced to the word “Steampunk” for the first time and assumed that the two of them had invented it to describe this one novel. It’s a serious, hard science fiction story set in a parallel universe where Charles Babbage’s calculating machine was actually mass produced and used to create an information age one hundred years earlier than in our time line. The exceptional world building for this book completely overshadows its mystery plot, but one has a fine time sightseeing in a version of Victorian London even more foul and industrially polluted than the original.

Steampunk is influenced by and often adopts the style of the 19th-century scientific romances of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley. Several more modern works of art and fiction significant to the development of the genre were produced before the genre had a name. “Titus Alone” (1959), by Mervyn Peake, is widely regarded by scholars as the first novel in the genre proper, while others point to Michael Moorcock's 1971 novel “The Warlord of the Air”, which was heavily influenced by Peake's work...

The film Brazil (1985) was an important early cinematic influence that helped codify the aesthetics of the genre. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was an early (1970s) comic version of the Moorcock-style mover between time streams.

Kevin Wayne Jeter (born 1950) is an American science fiction and horror author known for his literary writing style, dark themes, and paranoid, unsympathetic characters. He is also credited with the coining of the term "Steampunk." K. W. has written novels set in the Star Trek and Star Wars universe, and has written three (to date) sequels to “Blade Runner”.

“Infernal Devices” recounts the story of George Dower, who inherits a shop of clockwork devices from his late father, along with a cranky servant, Clef. Cringing in the wake of a local scandal, wherein automatons made by his father went amok in a church (the wonderfully dubbed Patented Clerical Automata), George is visited by a mysterious Ethiopian. When the Ethiopian is injured in the shop but bleeds only saline George is propelled into a fast-paced adventure wherein he uncovers layer after layer of bizarrely relating to his late father’s work.....

Another major player in the field, Timothy Thomas Powers, is an American science fiction and fantasy author. Powers has won the World Fantasy Award twice for his critically acclaimed novels “Last Call” and “Declare”. Actually, most of Powers novels are "secret histories": he uses real, documented historical events featuring famous people, but shows another view of them in which occult or supernatural factors heavily influence the motivations and actions of the characters. According to Tim Powers in the Steampunk novel ‘The Anubis Gate ”Brendan Doyle, a specialist in the work of the early-nineteenth century poet William Ash Bless, reluctantly accepts an invitation from a millionaire to act as a guide to time-travelling tourists. But while attending a lecture given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1810, he becomes marooned in Regency London, where dark and dangerous forces know about the gates in time. Caught up in the intrigue between rival bands of beggars, pursued by Egyptian sorcerers, befriended by Coleridge, Doyle somehow survives….and he learns more about the mysterious Ash Bless than he could ever have imagined possible.

James Paul Blaylock is another American fantasy author whose name is invariably closely associated with Steampunk. He is noted for his distinctive style and he certainly writes in a humorous way: his characters never walk, they clump along, or when someone complains (in a flying machine) that flight is impossible, the other characters agree and show him why he's right....

Another major player in the field, Timothy Thomas Powers, is an American science fiction and fantasy author. Powers has won the World Fantasy Award twice for his critically acclaimed novels “Last Call” and “Declare”. Actually, most of Powers novels are "secret histories": he uses real, documented historical events featuring famous people, but shows another view of them in which occult or supernatural factors heavily influence the motivations and actions of the characters. According to Tim Powers in the Steampunk novel ‘The Anubis Gate ”Brendan Doyle, a specialist in the work of the early-nineteenth century poet William Ash Bless, reluctantly accepts an invitation from a millionaire to act as a guide to time-travelling tourists. But while attending a lecture given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1810, he becomes marooned in Regency London, where dark and dangerous forces know about the gates in time. Caught up in the intrigue between rival bands of beggars, pursued by Egyptian sorcerers, befriended by Coleridge, Doyle somehow survives….and he learns more about the mysterious Ash Bless than he could ever have imagined possible.

James Paul Blaylock is another American fantasy author whose name is invariably closely associated with Steampunk. He is noted for his distinctive style and he certainly writes in a humorous way: his characters never walk, they clump along, or when someone complains (in a flying machine) that flight is impossible, the other characters agree and show him why he's right....

The Steampunk novel “Lord Kelvin's Machine” (written by James Paul Blaylock), features a scientist who is determined to avert doom befalling his wife. Scientist and detective Langdon St. Ives sees his only hope for doing so in Lord Kelvin's time machine, but the diabolical Dr. Ignacio Narbada has other plans for the invention, as Blaylock’s readers discover.

With such a broad and growing range of books to choose from, it is hardly surprising that Steampunk is a fast-growing field. Escapism can be a wonderful thing, but when it celebrates innovation so openly and comes in such an atmospheric package, it’s hard not to wish that just a few more aspects of this wonderfully bizarre fantasy genre were found in every-day life.

Text by Lizzy Henry for TheGreatestMinds.co.uk

Illustrations by V. Neblik for TheGreatestMinds.co.uk,

Text + Images (c)TheGreatestMinds.co.uk, 2017

All Rights Reserved.

[Image Copyright Note: these images are hybrid digital- and analogue- collages incorporating public domain elements (special thanks to OpenClipArt.Org). Some of these public domain elements have been substantially edited by V.Neblik. In all cases, they have been incorporated with her own, original material. Therefore, these images are (c) TheGreatestMinds.co.uk.

In asserting their moral rights and copyright, respectively, to these images, neither V.Neblik nor TheGreatestMinds is making any claims on the specific public domain components included within them.]