You may have noticed that I’m a fan of science and technology. What you may not yet know is that I’m also a fan of Victorian fashions. I love me some long, flowing coats fitted to an hour-glass shape attained with clever use of corsetry. And thus, when I first met the Girl Genius (my first foray into the world of Steampunk) I felt like I was coming home. It helps of course that a lot of Steampunk features adventure stories full of a sense of joy and wonder even while dangling from a cliff’s edge by their fingertips.
But what is Steampunk anyway?
Jeff VanderMeer‘s short answer in a lovely equation to the question is (from the excellent Steampunk Bible, but originally contributed to a notebook design):
STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [invention (steam * airship OR metal man / baroque stylings) * (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive OR reactionary politics * adventure plot
Now how could you not love that?
The very early days of Steampunk – long before such a name was eve thought to be tacked on the genre – can be traced all the way back to Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, both of whom were utterly fasacinated with the rising technology of the age. Around the same time in the United States a string of more optimistic stories dubbed the Edisonades was published. Penny dreadfuls, they usually featured an inventor who got into adventures while using his own steampowered inventions.
The actual term “Steampunk” was thought of sometime in the 1980’s by three writerly fellows called James Blaylock, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. Then at the beginning of the 1990’s it just went forgotten until sometime after 2005 it again surfaced and this time it took off like wild fire, inspiring multiple subgenres.
A lot of the most popular modern Steampunk features women as protagonists, in my opinion possibly because women’s stories were so largely and deliberately ignored, even though their contributions to science and technology were sometimes huge. If you’ve never heard of Emmy Noether, you’ve just made my point. It’s also possible that it’s because a lot of the more popular Steampunk is written by women (Cherie Priest and Catherynne M. Valente to name just two of my own favourites). It may even be the fact that women’s fashion is so much more interesting. Or it may just be confirmation bias on my part. Nonetheless, those women tend to be strong in a way that speaks to me, and apparently a lot of others besides. They are utterly feminine and yet take control of their life even through seemingly insurmountable odds and keep going because they have to, mostly without the more insulting tropes that tend to crop up in genre fiction and – to be perfectly honest – in other fiction too, including TV and especially movies.
Take nurse Mercy (Vinita, really) Lynch from Priest’s Dreadnought; she is working in a Confederate hospital during the American Civil War when she gets the news that her Union husband has been killed in the war. Soon after that she gets a telegram telling her that her estranged father is injured badly and may be dying and that his last wish is to see his daughter again. The thing is, he is located clear across the continent and the trip for a lone woman is nearly unheard of let alone made even more dangerous by the war. Nonetheless, Mercy hauls off and leaves the life she knows behind. Nobody along the way lets her forget she is just a woman and yet… She does a lot of things considered indelicate and unbecoming by her peers because they must be done and there’s no one else to do them. When action happens, she does not wring her hands helplessly and wait for someone to rescue her. She is the one doing the rescuing as need be. She makes me think of pretty much every woman I’m related to. Rare is the delicate flower, simply there to look pretty (see Buttercup from The Princess Bride), in Steampunk. And frankly; I like it that way.
And as it happens Felicia Day had a Steampunk photoshoot this week on her Flog.