Nevins, Jess (2009). The Nineteenth Century Roots of Steampunk. In The New York Review of Science Fiction, 21(5), 1, 4-5.
Although this article wasn’t published in an academic journal, its overview of steampunk’s “boy inventor” roots offers steampunk scholars some interesting insights and further paths for exploration. An earlier version of the article was published in Steampunk (2008), edited by the VanderMeers.
Nevins’ purpose is to compare and contrast the “Boy Inventor” genre of American dime novels popularized in the mid to late 19th century with what he calls first-generation steampunk. The comparison is thought-provoking, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t been referenced more often in other works I've been reading.
Nevins describes the Boy Inventor genre as one in which “a young American male invents a form of transportation and uses it to travel to uncivilized parts of the American frontier or the world, enrich himself, and punish the enemies of the United States, whether domestic (Native Americans) or foreign” (p. 1).
The stories and dime novels in this genre include “The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies” (1868), “Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains” (1976), “Frank Reade, Jr., and His Steam Wonder” (1879), “The Electric Horse” (1881-1883), and the Jack Wright, Tom Edison, Jr., and Electric Bob stories. However, Nevins writes, as the frontier became settled, the Boy Inventor genre declined, so that by the end of the 1800s this proto-science-fiction genre had shifted to Lost Races. Later, the Boy Inventor was revived as the Adult Inventor of mainstream science fiction and the Juvenile Inventor we still see today, Nevins says, in shows like <em>Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius</em>.
Consciously or not, Nevins writes, steampunk is “an argument with the science fiction of previous generations ... and also with the Boy Inventor genre” (p. 5). In particular, he is interested in first-generation steampunk, which he said “used steampunk to invert the ideologies of the Boy Inventor genre” (p. 5), whereas second-generation steampunk, he says,
...is not true steampunk — there is little or nothing “punk” about it. [...] The abandonment of ideology is an evolution (or, less charitably, an emasculation) that is inevitable once a subgenre becomes established... (p. 5)
More on that comment later. Let’s move back to the steampunk vs. Boy Inventor comparison.
The Boy Inventor genre, he says, is American, dynamic, emphasizes exploration of the frontier, and celebrates man as the master of the machine. On the other hand, steampunk is English in fashions, manner, and style, no matter what nationality its writer; is static and urban, usually set within London; and asserts that “the machinery of society and life is too much for any man to control or master” (p. 5). The Boy Inventor genre is essentially innocent, whereas “[s]teampunk is a genre aware of its own loss of innocence” (p. 5), and in that awareness lies the essence of its -punk, the anger, rebellion, and critique that existed in, at least, the earliest steampunk works.
Nevins’ article offers several intriguing areas of pursuit for the scholar or the writer.
For the scholar, further exploration of American proto-science-fiction might prove useful; most articles cite early English writers like Wells, Verne, and Shelley when discussing proto-steampunk, but why ignore the pulp fiction of 19th century America? Indeed, it might be interesting to compare English vs. U.S. steampunk — are there differences in emphasis and attitudes toward technology, creation, and progress between the two countries? (And if we threw Japanese steampunk into the mix, what then?)
A less obvious route this article offers to the scholar is exploring Nevin’s choice of the word “emasculated” to describe second-generation steampunk. It can’t escape anyone’s notice that first-generation steampunk was largely written by men, whereas second-generation steampunk has seen a great influx of women as authors. Have female writers emasculated an originally critical, gritty, manly steampunk genre by turning into a softer, more stylized and effete gaslamp romance? Or has second-generation steampunk’s ideological critique simply moved away from public to private spaces of oppression?
Writers might find Nevins’ sources a good place to find inspiration for an American West steampunk. Some have already started to explore the possibility, but most steampunk is still as he describes it — urban and English. Where is the distinctive American voice of steampunk?
Moreover, Nevins comments that the Boy Inventor genre “portrays white boys using advanced technology to kill nonwhite men and loot their treasure” — if steampunk is a critique of the genre, then writers might consider writing a Boy Inventor steampunk story from the “nonwhite” point of view. How do the victims react? How can they fight back in either the short term or the long? Some steampunk has been written in critique of British imperialism, but what about slavery and the forced resettlement of Native American peoples within continental North America? Certainly a few steampunk books and several dozen steampunk stories have been set in the U.S., and a few address these questions, but overall this is still an area of critique, of -punk, still open for those who wish to write ideologically positioned steampunk.