Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Mainline Sequence
Apex Digest Online - October 2005

Although steampunk literature appeared virtually (pun intended) at the same time as its cyberpunk parent genre with works such as Jeter's appalling 1979 Morlock Night and Heinlein's equally atrocious 1980 Number of the Beast, it wasn't until Gibson's and Sterling's 1992 The Difference Engine that steampunk came into sharp focus. Having said that, an often overlooked precursor was Michael Moorcock's Grand Bretan from his Eternal Champion cycle.

Steampunk is the branch of SpecFic that combines alternate historical (usually Victorian) settings with cyberpunk trappings. Identity and politics and counterculture are examined through the devices of cybernetics and information technology wrapped up in exagerated steam technology. Or enhanced steam technology. Or extrapolated steam technology.

In visual media, a watered down version of steampunk gave rise to TV shows and movies such as Wild Wild West, but it could be argued that the 'punk' was missing. Not so Alan Moore's brilliant
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (currently two volumes), which combines 19th century adventure literature with 20th century superhero comicbooks to produce a steampunk masterpiece starring Dracula's Mina Harker (going under her maiden name of Murray), Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyl/Mr Hyde, Wells' Invisible Man, and H. Rider Haggard's Alan Quartermain as the League. In the first series the League are set against Moriarty, and in the second they rise to the defence of Earth against H.G. Wells' Martian Invasion, with Jon Carter (and many many others) making a guest appearance.

Less well known, although easily The League's equal in narrative complexity, is Joe Kelly's Steampunk: Manimatron (which brings together the first five issues of his Steampunk comicbook series). The rich detail of the illustrations mirrors (and is integral to) the temporal mind-fuck of Kelly's story, set in an England held in the hundred year thrall of archeo-science maven, Lord Absynthe. The people are revolting, and need a leader. The vivacious cyber-assassin Victoria (yes yes, it's THAT Victoria) is playing a double-game, so it falls to temporal refugee Cole Blacksmith (urged by political activist Robert Peel) to fill the role. The story details the reluctant Blacksmith's rise, but it does so in such a way that an immediate re-read is called for by the time the last page is turned.

Steampunk works better in the comic medium than any other -- sometimes you need to see it to believe it, and yet by its nature there also needs to be a literary feel to the work to capture the nineteenth century adventure literature flavour. Comics are also very much a part of the punk culture (less now than in the eighties and nineties perhaps).

Either of the titles described in this article would make great launch points into the subgenre.


Post a Comment

<< Home