Wed
Oct 20 2010 11:30am

The Great Steampunk Timeline

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.

Steampunk TimelineThen 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.

Steampunk timeline

Download the timeline and follow along.

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.

32 comments
N.E. Lilly
1. N.E. Lilly
Very cool. Might I suggest adding Cthulhu by Gaslight (Chaosium, 1986) to the list under Games?
R O T
2. rogerothornhill
Bravo. What a really nice piece of work. It will be interesting to see what Ron Moore will do with the WWW reboot since the original was steampunk fifteen or twenty years before anyone knew what that was.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
For a while, the Fourth Doctor's TARDIS had a slightly steampunk feel to it, all rosewood and brass. I'm not quite sure of the timing, but I think it was after Romana left, so circa 1980?

On the game side, I second @1's suggestion of Cthulhu by Gaslight, and would possibly add the Eberron setting for D&D (2002). Although using magic rather than steam, there is still a strong vibe that is similar to steampunk of the time.

I would definitely add Manly Wade Wellman's Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds (1975), which tells of how Holmes, Watson, and Professor Challenger dealt with the Martian invasion.
Michael Burke
4. Ludon
Very interesting but what am I missing here? How does that one page PDF take up 8.2MB of memory/space?
N.E. Lilly
5. PhoenixFalls
This is awesome!

One or two missed titles though: Kage Baker (RIP *sob*) has a couple titles that I classify as steampunk. The Women of Nell Gwynne's (just out this month combined with another short story in Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy) which was published by Subterranean Press and Not Less Than Gods, which is a Tor-published novel from earlier this year. Both are set in her larger Company universe, but both are very much steampunk also.
N.E. Lilly
6. HaphazardJoy
Very fun, very much like The Court of the Air. Only one issue though: Final Fantasy 6 came out twelve years earlier than indicated, in 1994.
N.E. Lilly
7. Chris, Elflands2ndCousin
Great timeline and post!

Just as 19th century gothic reacted to the 19th century reality by romanticizing the past (especially the medieval period), I think modern steampunk romanticizes the 18th and 19th centuries. When you start looking at what steampunk novels actually do in terms of their structure, imagery, and even language the similarities are quite startling (I did a quick back-of-the-envelope comparison on my blog a couple of weeks back, if anyone's interested).

Kind of makes me wonder if this similarity is going to have implications for the future of steampunk as a sub-genre.
N.E. Lilly
8. DontDriveAngry
Why is Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates listed twice? Amazing novel- an all-time favorite of mine, in fact... just wondering.
Bill Spangler
9. Bspangler
More than just the look of the TARDIS, the Doctor Who stories "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "The Pyramids Of Mars" are pretty clearly steampunk, I think. (There may be others, but those are the first two that come to mind.) I don't have the broadcast dates at hand, but Leela was the companion in "Talons" and Sarah Jane was the companion in "Pyramids."
Mike Perschon
10. Mike_Perschon
*enthusiastic clapping, followed by standing up from seat*
Well done, Mr. Hunt. Love the timeline, and I like the direction you took the evidence. I also like how you broke down the various periods - it's both informative and fun.
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
Excellent article made even more excellent by the mention of Swingtown :)
Ashe Armstrong
12. AsheSaoirse
There are some definite things missing on the timeline. Back to the Future III and the Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. being the top 2 (for me personally anyways). Course, those also cross over into Weird West territory as well (heavily) but Doc's train was clearly steampunk. Then there's Penny Arcade's game, On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness. I wouldn't really consider Dracula steampunk though.
N.E. Lilly
13. HaphazardJoy
@AsheSaoirse- No, Dracula isn't steampunk in any direct way, but Stoker's work is full of the sort of imagery and concepts that make steampunk what it is. Same with Frankenstein, though Shelley's work is way less impeachable Stoker's. Still, it's important, just as, say, Lou Reed is important to punk rock without being punk rock himself.
N.E. Lilly
14. JZakem
Another omission is Richard Lupoff's/Steve Stiiles' Professor Thintwistle stories, originally published, I believe, in Heavy Metal in the early Eighties and first collected in book form in 1991.
Stefan Hayden
15. STHayden
How is Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve not on this list? It is the best series I have ever read.
N.E. Lilly
16. Kansan52
I'm not familiar with The Anubis Gates. Is there a reason why it is in the Literature timeline twice, 1983 and 1997?
N.E. Lilly
17. Delilah Moran
Wild Wild West was listed twice as well. Unless there was a remake?
N.E. Lilly
19. Gerry__Quinn
"What do you notice? [...] But look where steampunk accelerates, look where it starts to take wing.It’s the buildup of millennial angst towards the dawning of the newcentury."

What I notice is that the seminal works of the SF subgenre known as steampunk were written long before the dawn of the new century.

Perhaps they owed something to millenial angst, perhaps not. One would probably have to ask the authors.

Certainly the subgenre became popular, and it's possible to list lots of recent works, with an increasing number of spin-offs in various media. Clearly, however, such influenced works will tend to postdate their influences by a few years. Their existence at this period in time, therefore, does little to support a thesis of any connection between them and whatever wars or economic jolts happen to be most notable in the public mind at the same period.

I think perhaps their current popularity does owe something to a sense of technological optimism - albeit tinged with irony - which finds an echo in the spirit of the Victorian Age. The internet has had much to do with this; in my opinion this is probably the main influence that historical events have had on the genre.
N.E. Lilly
20. ChristianeT
How about Kim Newman's "Anno Dracula" and "The Bloody Red Baron"?

On the humorous side, I think the Adult Swim Show "Frankenhole" could be included. An immortal Victor von Frankenstein and his pal Dr. Polidori do surgeries-on-demand for clients from across all time and space.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6kcsQJ3RMo
B. Ross Ashley
21. brashley46
Girl Genius is chopped liver? The Studio Foglio comic is called Gaslight Fantasy by its creators, but ...
N.E. Lilly
22. Joe Bethancourt
And how about Randall Garrett's brilliant "Lord Darcy" stories?
N.E. Lilly
24. K. Bowman
How can anyone make a timeline of Steampunk and leave out The Difference Engine?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Difference_Engine
N.E. Lilly
25. M E Armstrong
How can anyone make a timeline of Steampunk and leave out The Difference Engine? Errr, Hunt didn't - that novel is in the books section, year = 1990. A pedant without attention to detail isn't really a pedant, so here's a joke for you. Q: Who led the pedants' revolt? A: Which Tyler.
N.E. Lilly
26. braak
Hm. Well, but of course steampunk as Neo-Victorianism wouldn't be all the horrible parts of the Victorian Era--I don't think this undermines the idea that steampunk is a reaction to late 20th century post-post-modernism (or, hypermodernism, I guess, to distinguish it from the "modernism" of the mid-century)--but none of the "neo" forms adopt the crappy elements of history. It's the same reason why Neo-Classicism ignores the parts that it doesn't like of Classical civilization (in fact basing its understanding of Classical civilization on grossly-inaccurate archaeology)--because the point of steampunk or other similar movements isn't re-creation, it's salvage.
Robert Blake
27. Galdrin
I know I've posted about this a number of times over the last 6-8 months, but I cannot recommend Cherie M. Priest’s “Cleckwork Century” series highly enough. They are:

1.) Boneshaker
2.) Clementine
3.) Dreadnought
4.) Ganymede (forthcoming in the spring 2011)
5.) untitled (forthcoming probably late 2011)

This series is going to be my “Best Reads of 2010”. I am in the final chapters of Dreadnought and the last couple of action- packed chapters just blew me away, and that is saying something ‘cause I’m an extremely picky reader. I was on the edge my seat during lunch and felt absolutely drained by the time I got to their arrival at Salt Lake City.

While #3 does not require having read #1, some of the things happening are clearer if you have where it all started. Preferably buy - but if you have to ... beg, borrow, or steal this series as soon as you can.
N.E. Lilly
28. R. W. Ware
No Thomas Riley by Nick Valentino?
N.E. Lilly
29. Tara Maya
I love the chart. :)

I think it's a little odd, though, to accuse Steampunk of leaving the squalid bits out of Victoriana. It seems to me that the squalor, alongside the grandeur, is exactly what is romanticised.
N.E. Lilly
30. Richard T.
Stephen, if Paul Weller is The Modfather, you are The Steamfather. Look what you've gone and done now.
Charley McCue
31. Kansan52
I just noticed you didn't get an answer either. Yes, WWW was a TV series (the 1st listing) and remade into a Will Smith movie (2nd listing).

"Delilah Moran


Wild Wild West was listed twice as well. Unless there was a remake?"
N.E. Lilly
32. Eric_RoM
I know there's no accounting for taste, but I couldn't even FINISH "Boneshaker", it was just too stupid. Seriously UNfun characters, and the concept of the wall in Seattle to contain a heavy gas.... it's like Priest never actually went downton and realized it's ALL on a frackin' steep hill. Feh. Weak at almost every angle.

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