Today we welcome author Karina Cooper.
Karina Cooper broke into the scene with her Dark Mission series, a gritty post-apocalyptic romance set in Seattle. One part glamour, one part complete dork, she’s the author of dark and sexy paranormal romance and historical urban fantasy. When she isn’t writing, Karina is an airship captain’s wife and Steampunk fashionista. She lives in Washington with a husband, four cats, two rabbits, the fantasy of a dog and a passel of adopted gamer geeks.
The Literary Steampunk: A Market Defined
by Karina Cooper
I’m going to stick my parasol in an open wound once more and wiggle it around for effect: I’m going to define steampunk.
Since I can already sense the phantom pangs of a collective knot of knickers twisting, let me clarify the hook a little. I’m not going to try and define the whole of steampunk in one fell swoop. That’d be like trying to define a sub-set of humanity by the color of their skin or their sexual preferences or what they like to read. (See what I did there?) The argument over what is and is not steampunk is so pervasive and such a part of the structure that for many steampunks, the only common thread they have is the argument over what steampunk is or is not.
Instead, I’m talking about steampunk as a literary genre: a sub-set of the community that tends to be easily confused with the community as a whole, but whose rules cannot by very nature be applied to everyone within the greater sub-culture. Why? Because a literary genre has rules that make it a genre (rules that keep us from call The Hobbit science-fiction, for example, or To Kill a Mockingbird a fantasy). Business, industry, and readers demand that such rules, tropes, exist.
People are somewhat more complex.
The Breakdown: Steampunk
While some say that the creation of the word came about with a poorly timed and prophetically cynical William Gibson quote (something to the tune of “I just hope they don’t call it steampunk”; original sources are difficult to come by in this age of gossip and failed provenance), others claim that the term actually originated with author K.L Jeter in a 1987 letter to Locus magazine. (Fun fact: Jeter and his contemporaries wrote works usually set in the Victorian era and included much of the speculative science-fiction that current steampunk works are expected to have today.)
“Steampunk” emerged as a historical-oriented version of “cyberpunk”. Both words have “punk” as a suffix, which tells us a lot about the genre as a whole, but let’s ignore that for the moment. Instead, let’s take a look at the first word and see what it means. I bet it’s not as simple as you think.
“Steam” and “cyber” tend to be indicators of the level of tech. That’s the most obvious and common launching point. Steam seems to be somewhat less obvious than “cyber”. According to the historical knowledge of Miss Rose Trusham, a milliner in London, the “Age of Steam” is characterized as a period of industrialization between 1770 and 1914. We suspect that the reason steampunk as a literary genre is usually characterized by the Victorian Era is because of the collected works of H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jules Verne—who wrote their pieces predominantly in this era and were the first to romanticize the time. (As Miss Trusham says, “An ‘ah ha!’ moment!”)
While electricity and the motor engine were garnering more and more support and popularity, it wasn’t until the very end of the Victorian Era that such devices became commonplace everywhere. This meant that quite a few devices were still powered by steam, coal and manual labor at the very height of the Industrial Revolution—which went hand-in-hand with the Victorian Era, the Belle Epoch in France, and America’s Gilded Age. Thus, “steam” came to represent the upsurge in gadgets, modes of transportation. Tied to the sudden and extremely brilliant surge in inventions, and it’s ripe fodder for any setting where brilliance must play as much a part as characters themselves.
But what else does it mean?
We Are Our Technology
Have you ever noticed that our level of technology affects our community ties and behaviors? These days, with a smartphone in nearly every middle-class pocket and a TV in every house, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been—and even more disconnected. As we lose ourselves to the constant flood of information, we lose our ties to each other in small, fundamental ways.
Each major leap in technology has caused a shift in societal values. I’m sure there’s a perfectly brilliant anthropological and psychological explanation for it, but I’m not an expert in either field. Instead, as an observer, it can safely be surmised that each “era” of technology takes with it a societal contract. In cyberpunk, it’s often characterized by a dystopian, disconnected and often de-sensitized populace, often ruled over by “Big Brother” style corporations or entities. Once more, the people of a cyberpunk story tend to be connected through technology in ways we are only just beginning to develop and perfect, yet pay the price of the ultimate “rat race”.
In a steampunk world, correlating the society with the uptick in industrial effort creates the deep and heavily punctuated schism between the upper class aristocrats and the working class. The Victorian Era saw the struggle to control the world even as industry spiraled out of it. Society women were societally locked away, unable to be anything more than wives and home-makers. The undesirables were kept out of sight, ignored or used and discarded. America and France each had their own societies, their own “way it is”, colored by what kind of technology came to pass. The Wild West, most pointedly, saw the beginning of the end as technology brought more and more people, workers, war, to the once pristine and untamed land.
What does this mean? In short, it means that the prefix of the genre, “steam”, doesn’t just apply to the technology, but for the societal contract that goes with that technology. No society has one but not the other. As far back as the Stone Age, technology creates societal restriction—and progress.
Tear it to the Ground
And that’s where “punk” comes in. At the very heart, a “punk” is someone who wants to take the societal contract and rip it to shreds—for good reasons or otherwise.
No book is complete without a conflict, and in many cases, the most obvious and most beloved character is one who is fighting for or against the status quo, and causing waves wherever he or she goes. In steampunk, much of the conflict stems from the struggle against the defined structure. In Tarnished, Cherry St. Croix is a Society miss who wants to be anything but. Cherry fights to be her own woman—she is, albeit lacking in mohawks, a punk.
To sum up very briefly, a steampunk story fundamentally has these things: a level of technology characterized by the use of steam and similar- and appropriately-timed apparatuses, a societal contract that mirrors the progress or restrictions that technology has created or allowed, and those who fight the status quo with that technology.
I want you to look very closely at those things. Look again. Did I say “Victorians” in it? Did I say it had to be historical? What about the word “goggles”, “airship” or “accurate”? Did I say that the inventions had to be fantastical? That science had to trump magic?
Did I say it couldn’t?
There’s a reason for that.
Every literary genre—from the many shades of romance to hardcore science-fiction to fantasy and beyond—has rules. Tropes. Every single genre has a starting point, and every single genre has a foundation.
Not every book follows them.
In many cases, we as writers are no more responsible for laying down the rules than children are of parenting themselves. Tropes are made by communal understanding; by society, and the consumers that voraciously read what is placed out, and make known their tastes—and by doing so, shaping the industry that then dictates what books that we write will see the light of day. Yet there are always exceptions to these rules, books who don’t follow the format, writers who take a risk into the creative.
Some are rewarded by the adulation of consumers, and in so doing, shape the foundation a little bit more.
As with all genres, however—steampunk, cyberpunk, horror, romance, science-fiction, zombie apocalypse, urban fantasy, whatever—the onus is on us as authors to know the rules first. If we choose to break them, then we should know what we’re breaking and why.
That’s why steampunk literature can travel from the Victorian Era to futuristic fantasy worlds. That’s why the purely made-up world of Girl Genius —which launched before steampunk ever went mainstream and helped shape the genre—can share shelf-space with alternate-history and steampunk predecessor The Difference Engine; why the collected oral stories of the music industry’s time-traveling, steampunk-apocalypse Abney Park and Nico Rosso’s Wild West romance Night of Fire are both considered steampunk.
And why my own alternate-history with alchemy and light gadgetry is just as much steampunk as Cherie Priest’s stunningly invention-heavy, zombie-ridden, alternate-history Boneshaker.
Steampunk is so very much to the community at large. Another time, I’ll broach that much, much more complex topic. To the literary world, however, it’s just as expansive. Even the rules it claims aren’t as restrictive as many seem to think they are.
So if you’re feeling spiky, go out and write some steampunk. You may be surprised how easy it is to naturally develop the three rules that characterize the genre—even without trying. After all, we know what makes good story, and we know what makes sense. The rest is Turkish delight.