Rose, Margaret. (2009). Extraordinary Pasts: Steampunk as a Mode of Historical Representation. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 20(3), pp. 319-333.
Rose’s article defends steampunk against accusations that fiction that plays games with history undermines “the idea of the reality of the past” (p. 322). In particular, she looks at the ways in which steampunk evokes and questions the events of the past in order to criticize and challenge the assumptions of the present.
Although she’s defending steampunk against what she argues are unfair assumptions about the genre based on only one novel, The Difference Engine, her article in turn uses only one steampunk anthology, Extraordinary Engines, as the case study from which she makes her generalizations. Nevertheless, she offers a good description of how alternate-history steampunk evokes and uses the genre, and writers interested in steampunk may find her analysis useful as a “how-to” guide. Her article doesn’t address fantasy steampunk, steampunk romance, or lighter “gaslamp” fiction, however. Moreover, perhaps due to the limits of the source material, it doesn’t address well some of steampunk's contemporary concerns, such as challenging historical representations of race, sexuality, non-Western cultures, and non-Christian religions. Academics interested in expanding on her work may wish to look at a broader selection of steampunk, to look specifically at steampunk fantasy, and/or to address some of the other historical/cultural concerns of the genre.
Fiction that replaces the “facts” of real history with an inaccurate, fantastic, or shallow reinterpretation of the past has been criticized as distorting our understanding of real history. However, we can’t actually live the past; we can only grasp it through a series of representations, and representations will always be distorted and incomplete. After all, even our own memories are too-often-inaccurate representations of our personal pasts. Steampunk presents stories that are set in a past that is often historically accurate in many small details but is ultimately distorted by the presence of technologies that have changed or will change the course of that history.
Rose sets out, with examples and discussion, a variety of ways in which steampunk evokes a sense of the past for the reader:
(1) By using archaic terms, diction, spelling, and/or capitalization
(2) By making early reference within a story to to steam-powered technologies, whether historically accurate, anachronistic, or fantastic
(3) By including a significant amount of (often obscure) historical detail
(4) By incorporating real historical figures into the story
(5) By imitating the tropes of actual Victorian writing, such as providing Dickensian descriptions of poverty
(6) By referring to “obsolete settings and social forms” (p. 327), such as gentlemen's clubs and ladies' societies
(7) By using “markers of cultural change,” such as making reference to sexist, racist, or classist assumptions that would have existed in that historical period.
These historical details, Rose says, are used
to train steampunk readers to practice what historians call “microhistory.” That is, to look for historical truth in the interconnections between minute events and minor players acting as individuals within, and being shaped by, larger historical forces, especially when such a practice can challenge or revise our existing sense of the grander historical narrative. (p. 325)
If you're a writer, read that quote again, slowly. It's a well-worded description of the social and political insights steampunk fiction — perhaps any historical fiction — may offer a reader. The use of steampunk fiction to analyze and criticize contemporary society is what I’d call its -punk aspect; the critical, skeptical, iconoclastic stance I'd expect from anything with "punk" in its name.
Of course, this emphasis on historical forces assumes that one is writing or reading an alternate-history steampunk novel, and not all steampunk falls into this category. My own Clockwork Heart novel, for example, was a steampunk fantasy, and although Ondinium was loosely based on London, the setting was also strongly influenced by a variety of Asian cultures and beliefs. Nevertheless, even fantasy fiction can challenge readers' understanding of society, not so much by questioning existing history and culture as by imagining completely new histories and cultures that contrast with our own.
Rose observes that when steampunk authors choose certain aspects of the past to establish a story’s historical setting, the aspects they choose are often the predecessors of aspects within contemporary society. This historical linkage allows steampunk authors to criticize present-day society beneath an alternate-history veil. Rose writes, “[t]he interplay between genealogy (the Victorians are our distant forebears) and analogy (we are very much like the Victorians) is a key feature of steampunk historical representation...” (p. 328).
Of course, she’s ignoring those of us who do not claim (European) Victorians as our forebears — but again, this may be due to the limits of the single anthology she’s using. Academics and writers looking for unexplored niches to investigate, however, might consider addressing steampunk set in non-Western, non-Christian cultures; there still isn't much of it, and there's even less currently published about it.
After looking at how steampunk evokes the past, Rose describes a few themes that recur within the stories she studied:
(1) The danger of social progress being defined as the imposition of “one’s own order upon others” (p. 328) or mastering the world.
(2) The danger of scientific and technological advances being made without thought for the human toll they may take
(3) The danger of “getting it wrong” (p. 330) — the ways in which our observations, filtered through our cultural assumptions, may lead us to make incorrect conclusions about the world and/or the people around us.
Rose acknowledges that the first two (usually interconnected) themes are common within science fiction, although she argues that steampunk links these themes back to science fiction’s literary origins — by which I assume she means the works of authors such as Mary Shelley and Jules Verne, who are often cited as inspirations for steampunk work but are not, arguably, the earliest science fiction writers.
The third theme, however, is the one she thinks is particular to steampunk. I’d counter that this theme has been explored by plenty of non-steampunk science fiction, too. Still, "getting it wrong" is an interesting phrase to consider as a key aspect of the genre, since what steampunk is doing in the first place is taking history and "getting it wrong" in challenging ways, just as the stories themselves may address characters who are "getting it wrong" and thus putting themselves, others, or the entire world at risk in some way.
In conclusion, Rose argues that steampunk’s manipulation of the past is not done arbitrarily or carelessly, but is a carefully thought out means of “continually challenging or revising the totalizing narrative of historical progress” (p. 331).
Rose was defending steampunk from being criticized for playing postmodern games with history, but she doesn't try to shift the genre away from the postmodernist category. There's certainly an interesting tension between steampunk's postmodern criticism of metanarratives (those sweeping stories we tell about the world that help us understand it, such as "progress") and its nostalgic appropriation of an archetypically modern time period. I'm not certain whether that's been addressed or not, but nostalgia, at least, will be part of the analysis I'll be discussing next time as I tackle M. Sakamoto's "The Transcendent Steam Engine: Industry, Nostalgia, and the Romance of Steampunk."
Books mentioned in the text:
Gibson, William & Sterling, Bruce (1991). The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam Spectra.
Gevers, N. (Ed.) (2008). Extraordinary Engines. Nottingham, UK: Solaris.
Caveat Lector: In Steampunkology, I try to simplify, reorganize, and interpret the arguments presented in academic authors' papers to make them more accessible to the general reader. Please remember that my characterization of an article will be affected by my own interests and values; you will probably find additional or different points of merit in the article if you read the original yourself.