Steampunkology: The Nineteenth Century Boy-Inventor Roots of Steampunk

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, 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.

Views: 500

Comment by Stephanie Abbott on April 15, 2011 at 10:55am
Lots to think about here, particularly the charge of "emasculating" the genre...
Comment by Dru Pagliassotti on April 18, 2011 at 6:36pm
Yeah, there's definitely a paper there! And a contentious one, at that. :-)
Comment by Paul Marlowe on April 19, 2011 at 9:54am

I haven't read the original article, but the quote from p.5 doesn't seem to imply anything involving gender politics. It isn't even referring exclusively to steampunk - " inevitable once a subgenre becomes established..." - but rather to the changes literary genres undergo as they become more mainstream, which presumably means the watering down of some of the elements of the genre, and its becoming more conventional & generic.

The writer may be using the word "emasculate"  to refer not to removing the "maleness" of early steampunk, but rather in the more general metaphorical meaning of changing a thing's character by removing something that by nature belongs to it (originally making a eunuch of a man, but generically applicable to such things as removing the science from science fiction, for example); another accepted use of "emasculate" (OED) is in describing the weakening of a literary composition, which seems relevant here. To assume that the word is referring to sex because it has an origin related to sex would be as misleading as to consider bellwethers necessarily unmasculine, or "a load of bull" masculine, simply because the words originally referred to particular male animals.

But beyond that, there is an assumption that steampunk is not so much a literary genre as a sort of propaganda vehicle with a political purpose, to disseminate (no pun intended) ideology. That is only one view of steampunk, certainly not the only one.

Comment by Dru Pagliassotti on April 23, 2011 at 4:23pm

I agree, "watering down" was probably what he meant; I doubt he was being intentionally sexist. But the term "emasculate" has strong gender implications. Whether that's how he meant it or not, his comment opens up an interesting avenue of inquiry for steampunk scholars, and that's what I'm trying to do when I examine these essays; suggest places where writers and scholars can explore new avenues for their work, based on existing academic research.


It's true that most scholars assume that steampunk has an ideological content (the "punk"); that's precisely what interests them in the genre. Ideological content isn't necessarily propagandistic, however. I'd argue that all texts are ideological vehicles — we can't possibly construct a story, novel, movie, song, etc. without referring to our cultural and political assumptions about social relationships. Even the lightest, silliest works convey some information/assumptions about, for example, gender relationships, or familiar relationships, or work relationships.... Ideological content may or may not be what any individual writer or scholar wants to concentrate on with regard to steampunk, of course, but it inevitably exists. Thus far I haven't found much research on steampunk that doesn't address ideology, but we'll see what else I run across as I search. Maybe looking at the other aspects of steampunk, such as its visual aesthetic, is exactly what scholars should begin to investigate if they're looking for a new angle on the genre.


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