Here’s how you understand steampunk, how you really understand steampunk.
It’s a reaction, and like all reactions, for its boiler to begin burning, steampunk needed something to react against.
Let’s skip back to the 1960s and 1970s. There was peace, and love. Everything was groovy, baby. Where there was war, it could be protested; where there were bayonets on campus, flowers could be hung from that sharp steel. Even if you weren’t there, kids, you kind of were–it was Mad Men, it was Swingtown, it was Life on Mars, and it was Forrest Gump, baby.
Then came the reaction. Simon and Garfunkel and their ilk got a headbutt in the face from a pogo-dancing brave who resembled someone who’d swaggered out of a Main Force Patrol jail cell with Max Rockatansky close on his tail. It was a visceral shock as Malcolm McLaren’s savages spat, swore, and urinated their way over the grave of Austin Powers. By the time they had finished, we were Thatcher’s children and Reagan’s sons. All that was left of the hippie legacy was a lanky dude and a talking dog with a permanent hunger and a ceaseless search for, cough, “Scooby Snacks.”
All of which brings us to the great steampunk timeline.
What do you notice? Proto-punk wasn’t the reaction: they weren’t living the dream, they were the dream. For Verne and H.G., the future was as shiny and new as graphene and superfluidity in quantum mechanics—no irony in cogs and rivets and steam for them. Yes, steampunk has been around for a long time. Our cold uncertain Brass Age lasted five decades, bumping along slowly in the background, and then the genre got its name as a throwaway line in a Locus letter column.
But look where steampunk accelerates, look where it starts to take wing. It’s the buildup of millennial angst towards the dawning of the new century. You know the one, the century that should have been the Age of Aquarius—the end of history, the death of faith, the dawn of super-science, and our long march towards Singularity.
Instead, the boiler was lit. Not by the gentle hand of a stoker measuring out spadefuls of coal, but with all the violent ignition of a multi-stage Apollo rocket: wars, terrorism, global warming, bird flu, crime, hoodies knifing granny, economic shock after economic shock. Careers and industries withering under the force of technological innovation, the internet upturning lives with the force of a superstorm.
And this, gentle reader, is the real whip cracking above steampunk’s hansom cab.
Steampunk isn’t true Victoriana. It’s not five-year-olds crying as they were shoved starving up chimneys; it’s not having to have seven children so you can watch five of them die from pandemics before the age of ten. It’s not a decade of pain from a crumbling tooth because you’re living in an age where cutting-edge dentistry means a long swig of whisky and a short pair of pliers.
It’s faux Victoriana. It’s elegant smoking jackets and flounced petticoats rather than two quid jogging bottoms from Lidl. It’s manners and wit rather than trash-talking curses. It’s understanding and stripping and rebuilding your gadgets, rather than trading in yesterday’s iPhone for tomorrow’s Google Nexus One. It’s comfortable tweed and refined salons, rather than a punch-up in Cardiff City centre because you disrespected some moron by watching him vomit for two seconds too long.
That’s how you understand steampunk.
So God save the Queen and the steampunk regime. No apologies to Johnny Rotten.
Stephen Hunt is the author of various fantasy novels published by Tor and HarperCollins. They are sometimes accused of being steampunk.