A Few Thoughts About Steampunk and War
I have read a few different articles by people who believe that Steampunk as a genre is driven by violence. For instance, Harry Markov insists in his article for the multicultural Steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana that Steampunk is completely driven by war. The American Civil War and the impending first world war are certainly used as backdrops for Steampunk literature, and there are plenty of stories about fictitious places and made up wars, but I think saying that war is at the heart of the entire genre is broad overstatement.
Perhaps people have gained this misconception because gadgets, vehicles and creative technology are definitely key to Steampunk and war offers a great opportunity for mad scientists to flex their skills. The American Civil War and the over-hanging cloud of World War I are popular backdrops for Steampunk stories, as well as other conflicts like the Second French Revolution (Dark Portals: Chronicles of Vidoqc). And it is definitely true that many of the greatest technological advances in human history have been the result of weapons research. But, our quest to travel in space also drove an era of inventions that we still use widely today (click here for some examples). War may act as a catalyst for technology, but so does curiosity, and there is no reason to think that inventors are stymied without it.
And as central as old/new-fangled technology is to Steampunk, it is not the end of the story, not by a long shot. Steampunk is a means of exploring so many other concepts than war-driven tech that it is a discredit to distill an entire genre to one thing just because it is the most obvious. I would say that challenging gender roles and Victorian society is just as central if not more so than the technological aspect. Women who transcend their corsets and the men who come to appreciate them as equals pop up all over the genre.
And of course, references to and re-imaginings of classic science fiction and 20th century historical figures is where it all began. I would argue that if you had to choose only one thing about Steampunk to highlight this is the most unique and quintessential piece to the puzzle.
What do you think? Have you found war to be more central to Steampunk than I am giving it credit for? Or do you agree that violence does not need to be the key ingredient in a Steampunk story?
Great post, and raised some great points there. Most of the Steampunk books on my shelf do revolve around war. Some of them are distant, like in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, where this is a war, but it’s not mentioned, whilst others like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, the characters are in the heart of it. Even in my own steampunk book I’m writing, I realise that there is war in the background.
It would great to know of some books out there that are Steampunk but not revolved around war and violence. Suggestions?
February 18, 2014 at 5:45 pm
What prompted me to write this post was actually watching the movie Hugo. It is based on a hybrid novel/picture book called Hugo Cabret and the film is absolutely charming and whimsical. I have seen some of the art from the book and I am sure it is just as lovely in print. I was also thinking of classic sci-fi when I was writing about of steamy stories without war, so things like The Time Machine, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which of course has violence but not war), Journey to the Center of the Earth and such.
February 18, 2014 at 11:30 pm
I’ve never particularly associated steampunk with war. For me Gibson and Sterling’s Difference Engine is the defining example of what the genre’s about (I’m not saying that’s a general truth, it’s just the heart of my view of steampunk), and that’s about technological change and its social implications without getting drawn into big international conflicts.
I suppose any genre looking for action-packed options is going to play around with war, and it’s a feature of history that we tend to emphasise and so dip into regularly for fiction. But I really don’t see it as dominating or defining the genre.
February 19, 2014 at 6:50 am
I am reading the Difference Engine now 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
February 19, 2014 at 9:56 am
And are you enjoying it?
February 19, 2014 at 10:29 am
Yes, I LOVE the writing style, where it sort of pans out and describes things from a wide angle sometimes.
February 19, 2014 at 12:34 pm
Another brilliant post, thankyou! I agree that to say that steampunk is a genre driven by violence is incorrect. However I do think that it is often driven by conflict and a profound exploration of possibilities, idealism and utopia/ dystopia concepts and war often lends itself readily to these explorations. I must say though that the steampunk novels I prefer have these concepts play out on a smaller scale with little or no war backdrop. I certainly would not say that steampunk is all about war, anymore than it is about colonialism, white supremacy or the exploitation of women or the poor – because it takes it’s inspiration from the Victorian era, these concepts (as you rightly said) can be exposed, addressed and challenged and that, for me, is a beautiful thing. 🙂
February 20, 2014 at 3:47 am
Being a pacifist myself, I enjoy the aspects of steampunk that don’t have anything to do with war – and thankfully I do find that there are plenty of them!
I think your points are very well made, and I agree that Hugo is a good example of a steampunk-y film without any violent conflict. Exploration, scientific innovation, and – as you mentioned in your discussion – gender equality are all facets of steampunk that can contribute to engaging storylines.
Great post! 🙂
February 25, 2014 at 2:07 pm
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