A defining characteristic of steampunk is the fictional exploration of technological roads not taken. And one specific way this is exemplified is through the various sweet rides steampunk characters use to get from point A to point B. I’d like to think if I was offered any of the following vessels as my mode of transportation, I’d have the good sense to steampunk-up and jump behind the proverbial wheel.
The Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne) (see above for picture)
Though Jules Verne’s famous creation predicted advancements in submarine technology, rudimentary submarines did exist in 1870, the year 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was published. Verne honored the first submarine by borrowing its name for his fictional vessel. The real Nautilus was invented by Robert Fulton, who went on to create the world’s first commercially successful steamboat. Whoa! In the famous Walt Disney adaptation, the Nautilus is decked out with brass, and has cushy Victorian accruements all over the place. And let’s not forget that Captain Nemo brought that huge organ on board. Too bad the concerts were sort of mandatory.
Doc Brown’s Locomotive Time-Machine (Back to the Future, Part III)
If there were ever a reason to make a fourth Back to the Future film, it would obviously be because of this baby. Not only was it a working train, it also had the same flying ability the DeLorean possessed. It could also travel in time! (Natch.) We didn’t get to see the interior of this tricked-out train, but Doc did reveal how he’d solved the ongoing problem of fuel. “Marty, it runs on steam!” he declares. Doesn’t get much better than that.
The Rocketeer’s Rocket Pack (The Rocketeer)
While not technically occurring in the Victorian Age, one has to admit that the aesthetic of this bad boy is decidedly steampunk. With the rounded design and the metal rivets, this rocket pack is the standard by which we think about rocket packs. As mentioned before, beyond mere Victorian asthetic, steampunk attacks science fiction from the angle of anachronistic technologies. So even if this one isn’t technically steampunk (and maybe not even technically a vehicle!), in spirit and appearance, it sure feels like it belongs.
The Time Machine (The Time Machine by H.G. Wells)
Though stationary in relative space, the original time machine in H.G. Wells’ classic novel navigated the dimensions of time classically and tragically. In Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time, it didn’t even need Morlocks to drag it around. In that particular tale, the time machine manages not only to make it out of the Victorian Age and into the 1970s, but also goes all the way to San Francisco! But for the best and most classic design, the time machine’s appearance in the George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of Wells’ novel is the way to go. Here, the brass platting with jeweled control panels are only made more elegant by the plush red velvet seat upon which the traveler sits.
The Steampunk Airship (Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Steamboy, et. al)
The visage of a massively beautiful airship roaming the skies is certainly a mainstay of steampunk film and literature is for certain. It seems in most science fiction journeys into alternate universes there is always an airship floating around somewhere. The steam-powered vehicles in Kastsuhiro Otoma’s “Steamboy” could fill a list by themselves. But to me, the various civilian and pirate airships in Hayao Miyazaki’s Laptuta: Castle in the Sky represent the the best in steampunk airships. Obviously, if you don’t agree you can simply insert your favorite airship in their place. The point is, the ultimate in anachronistic rides will always be a massive retro blimp of some kind.
My first vehicle was almost a classic. My family owned a broken-down 1955 yellow Ford pickup truck which had sat immobile for as long as I had been alive. The idea was that I would help restore this vehicle to its splendor, and then it would be become mine. It never happened. Then, my manager at my first bookstore job started driving around an original Model-T Ford, which he offered to sell to me dirt cheap. I turned him down. I think my yearning for steampunk transportation can easily be traced to these foolish missed opportunities.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to figure out how attach these brass wings to my bicycle.
Ryan Britt’s writing has appeared with Nerve.com, Clarkesworld Magazine, Opium Magazine and elsewhere.