I believe it’s time to do a multi-part series on the history of steampunk. (i may or may not do the entire thing consecutively.)
First of all, barring the 1960s TV show Wild Wild West (we’ll get to it) the roots of the subculture began as a few literary experiments in the 1970s.
Although Jules Verne and H.G. Wells would indeed have to be declared the fathers of steampunk, as they actually wrote science fiction in the victorian era, steampunk is also a reimagining of the past or a parallel reality with a different history. The key point is that instead of throwing science fiction ideas ahead in time, as was mostly the case during the entire history of science fiction (with some exceptions for pulp writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lovecraft who would establish advanced civilizations in the very distant past) steampunk took relatively recent history about a century old which everyone knew, and throw backdated science fiction into it, reimagining both science and history.
Michael Moorlock’s 1971 Warlord Of The Air was the official “first” steampunk book. It wasn’t in the past, it was in an alternate 1973 (where a character from 1903 in our world is thrust unexpectedly), but it did establish numerous aesthetic themes which would blossom.
The British Empire is still the ruling Empire of the world, there have been no world wars, and dirigibles cover the skies. Steam power is the dominant energy source as opposed to gas and oil. There is world peace of a sort, but colonialism is still the norm. He ends up fighting against imperialism, yadda yadda and there’s two more sequels making it a trilogy. I actually read this when i was at summer camp one year as a kid. It was… you know. All right.
In 1972, Harry Harrison wrote A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! which interestingly enough ALSO takes place in a parallel 1973. The War of American Independence was won by the British, who once again, still have en Empire that rule the world. In this case, an engineer, the grandson of the traitorous George Washington, who was of course hung, has been hired to build a tunnel connecting Britain to the American colonies since travel by ship is still the dominant method.
One last 70s writer that should be mentioned is Philip Jose Farmer, who wrote two faux biographies about famous Victorian fantastical characters Tarzan and Doc Savage in which he claims an asteroid which fell in Wold Newton was responsible to genetically altering the occupants of a passing coach and their descendants which include also Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Phileas Fogg, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Allan Quatermain and the list goes on. (i imagine this must have been an influence upon Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)
These are the 3 main precursors to the literary invention of steampunk. The actual appearance of steampunk as we know it today,a dn the 3 books that truly led to the current subculture, appeared in the 80s. (almost)
In 1979 K.W. Jeter wrote Morlock Nights, a novel where the Morlock from Time Machine, steal said machine and return to Victorian England to wreak havoc. The book is a little nuts… King Arthur appears to rescue England and the London sewers are the last remnants of Atlantis, but nevertheless, Jeter actually coined the term ‘Steampunk’:
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in ‘the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate’ was writing in the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps…”\
Tim Powers’ 1983 Anubis Gates is particularly notable in that not only does it feature a group of time travelers going back to Victorian London to hear a lecture in a pub by Samuel Coleridge and getting involved in Egyptian magic and secret societies, but it’s also, imo, the first actually readable book mentioned (with the exception of Farmer, but he was working off existing material). No offense, but if you were to ask my opinion, i might say something to that effect and be quite serious.
Powers wrote 2 others books in this series, and within the trilogy most steampunk basics are established.
In 1986 James Blaylock published Humunculus. Set in Victorian London the book is “darkly atmospheric, Homonculus weaves together the stories of Narbondo — a mad hunchback who works tirelessly to bring the dead back to life, of the members of the Trismegistus Club — a surly group of scientists and philosophers who meet at Captain Powers’ Pipe Shop, and of the homonculus — a tiny man whose powers can drive men to murder.” at least according to Amazon.
This next one is of THE book that put steampunk on the map. Without this, these others would have come and gone and no movement would have come from it.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling both well known names to every modern speculative fiction reader, in 1990 co wrote The Difference Engine. it takes place in 1855 and computers powered by steam exist. Lord Byron is prime minister, and Disraeli a hack writer. A race for a set of perforated computer cards during an uprising by technology hating Luddites is the basic plot (and it gets plenty complex from there). With this book, the steampunk literary genre was on the map.
One last one bears mentioning.
There have been many steampunk laden books to come out, and after this point, we are effectively done with the history of steampunk and are into the actuality of the genre. However, there is one more book that has so impacted the growth the steampunk, it cannot be ignored
Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Comic fans will get a look of ballistic rage and start to seizure if you mention that blasphemous excrement of a movie, so don’t. The series of graphic novels are out of the park superb. They take all the fantastical characters of literature set in Victorian and Edwardian times and weave them together in a dazzlingly exciting and fun way. From Allan Quartermain to Mr. Hyde, Fu Manchu to Dr. Moureau, the series cannot be over recommended or understated in it’s impact on steampunk during the first decade of the 2000’s.