SteamU: From Mary Shelley to Gail Carriger; How did we get here?


From Mary Shelley to Gail Carriger;

How did we get here?

by Melanie Karsak

Ahh, steampunk (or clockpunk, greenpunk, dieselpunk, elfpunk, etc.), how we love thee! But how did we get here? When looking for the root of all things steampunk, fingers wag toward Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. But what about our gaslamp Gothic writers? While I grew up watching H.G. Wells remakes, I also arrived at steampunk via a marriage of the gaslamp environment of Gothic writers and fantasy fiction.

As an academic, I enjoy and study Gothic classics. From Horace Walople’s first Gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto,” to Ann Radcliffe’s terrifying tales, there is a lot to love about the Gothics. Writers like Mary Shelley gave us fog-shrouded cobblestone streets, dimly lit by flickering gaslamps, for well-shod vampire hunters to roam. What’s not to like? A couple of years ago, I was teaching a course titled “Vampires in Literature.” We discussed how/when/why the vampire made the cross-over from folklore to literature.

Lord Byron

The first vampire made its way into literature under the hand of one of steampunk’s darlings: Lord Byron. Byron’s “Fragment of a Novel” depicted the earliest vampire in literature. Byron “fan-boy” John Polidori later plagiarized the great poet’s ideas, penning “The Vampyre.” Sheridan Le Fanu arrived on the scene later, but before Bram Stoker, with the first female vampire in Carmilla.

It was from our gaslamp Gothics that we first saw one of most beloved monsters move from folklore to fiction. Gothic writers provided us with a gaslamp environment, often filled with monster, well-suited to steampunk. This is why we see so many steampunk works set in Georgian and Victorian England, though we also find steampunk works set in the American west, a dystopian future, and other time/place settings. This, I think, is also why we see so much cross-over between monster literature and gaslamp. The Gothics really enjoyed blending their world with the world of the supernatural. And while we had seen a blend of the mythical and the real prior to the Romantic period, the Gothics put their own stamp on and birthed a new genre. It is this gaslamp environment that writers like Gail Carriger so masterfully recreate.

But gaslamp is not steampunk. In order to be steampunk, there need to be “punk.” In other words, there needs to be societal unrest, the subjugation of groups, and other punk elements (as with cyberpunk). There should also be technologies like steam power favored over the combustion engine and advanced technology (for the time setting) such as the analytical machine of Charles Babbage. Once we take the gaslamp environment and punk it up a bit, adding in steamy touches, then what? Is it science fiction? Is it fantasy? Is it alternative history? What the hell is it? Well, the answer to those rhetorical questions is yes. Yes. It is all those things.

I really adore the Gothic writers, but I was weaned on fantasy fiction, devouring works by Tolkien, Piers Anthony, then finally burning through every Arthurian fantasy novel ever written. My writer brain tells me that steampunk and fantasy belong together.

Second Star to the Right by Artist Aimee Stewart
Stop back on August 30th for my interview with this talented artist!

In my works, the gaslamp environment merges with its steamy elements then goes fantasy. Many steampunk writers find fantasy elements at home alongside steam-powered tinkered devices. Through this mix, you get a really exciting aesthetic. What if a Verne-esque submarine is powered by an arcane device? What if Victorian era elves living on the streets of London turn into airship pirates (wait, let me go write that down somewhere—good idea!). It’s exciting to blend the gaslamp world of the Gothics with fantasy. Advanced Victorian technology, touched by magic, can infuse the steampunk aesthetic with the mystical. But then, that’s just my flavor of steampunk. Other writers have us traveling in airships through space, have clockwork women generating energy in dystopian futures, or have Holmes-esque detectives chasing down vampires across time. This is what makes steampunk exciting. Once you have a feel for the aesthetic, there are no limits!

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