Retruthing Steampunk: Caitlín R. Kiernan Rewrites American West Steampunk

By Goho, James | Extrapolation, July 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Retruthing Steampunk: Caitlín R. Kiernan Rewrites American West Steampunk


Goho, James, Extrapolation


"Steampunk" is a form of sf notionally set in the "nineteenth-century [and] characterized by technologies extrapolated from the science of that era, but which were not invented at that time" (Brave New Worlds 221). This sub-genre of sf originated during the 1970s and 1980s. In an April 1987 letter to Locus, K. W. Jeter invented the term "steampunk" to characterize some of his "Victorian fantasy" works and similar ones by Tim Powers and James Blaylock that explored alternative outcomes for steam-based technologies. Most, but not all, steampunk works engage with the nineteenth century in setting, technology, or theme, and such works often pose an alternate history. But the term "steampunk" now connotes more than that expressed in the literary definition. Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall (2016), Brian J. Robb, Jeff VanderMeer, David Beard, and Christine Ferguson have all explored the many manifestations of steampunk in popular culture as a fashion trend, musical expression, a design aesthetic, and as a DIY enterprise. Role-playing steampunk games, steampunk how-to books, video games, cosplay, and steampunk conventions, some focusing solely on American West steampunk, continue to proliferate.

Steampunk literature arose from the fantasy and sf works of the Victorian time period in Britain and the Gilded Age in the United States. British steampunk stems from H. G. Wells's (1866-1946) and Jules Verne's (1828-1905) classic novels. American steampunk roots are found in the "Edisonade" (a term coined by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction [1993]). Originally, an Edisonade told the story of a young American male hero who invents a new form of transportation or other mechanical marvel and travels to "uncivilized parts of the American frontier" (Nevins 4), or other alien places to punish the enemies of the United States, for example, the Indigenous people of the Americas. The Huge Hunter: Or, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) by Edward S. Ellis (1840-1916) is likely the first Edisonade. The novel refers to American Indians1 as demons2 and depicts them as savages. It features technology embodied in a steam-powered machine man, as do many Edisonades. In most such works women are accessories, if seen at all.

In its many forms, steampunk is the subject of increasing scholarly scrutiny. Patrick Jagoda maintains steampunk "has penetrated virtually every creative medium" (47) and he claims it is "a historical reboot" (63), helping to rethink Victorian literature and history. Jagoda focuses his analysis on The Difference Engine (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In addition, Cynthia J. Miller and Julie Anne Taddeo suggest steampunk is subversive as it examines race, class, and gender politics both in the past and the present (xviii). Margaret Rose examines the short stories in Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology (2006) edited by Nick Gevers, and concludes the stories place "a premium on minutely accurate historical detail" (319). Moreover, she claims the stories within her sample do not undermine the importance of the reality of the past. Ken Dvorak sees steampunk inspiring debates on current-day social, economic, and cultural issues. Similarly, but more specifically, Catherine Siemann argues steampunk offers a vision of how to avoid or face current and future urban crises. Further, steampunk artists, according to Lisa Hager, along with Victorian-era scholars present different but essential critical understandings of Victorian literature and culture.

On the other hand, a number of scholars question steampunk's fictional portrayal of the nineteenth century. Mary Anne Taylor contends steampunk creates a "myth of the industrialized nineteenth century" (40). Reviewing steampunk's narratives on women, she argues it distorts gender equality and builds a false empowerment for women in its depictions of female economic and political roles, styles, and sexual relationships. Amanda Stock says steampunk perpetuates aspects of Victorian culture as a conservative "retrosexual" (5) space in which men express nostalgia for times when gender roles were clearer. …

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