I wasn’t a Steampunk fan. Not really. I was familiar with it—the airborne pirates on steam-powered ships and the clockwork marvels that are more human than any person around them—but my bread and butter, fiction-wise, has always been hard-boiled fiction. Steampunk, I became aware, is the polar opposite of hard-boiled fiction—and yet at the same time it’s something more. Both genres deal with the same passions and pitfalls, the same morality and murder, but they strike opposite chords. The two balance at each end of a set of scales. Steampunk universes climb as high as crime fiction sinks low. It can’t do anything else.
The Bright and the Dark
Like most people reading this, I spent a sizable chunk of my formative years in the library. A side effect of devouring a wide variety of novels at the library is that I quickly figured what types of stories that I was partial to on an unconscious, or even primal, level. While a well-written tale is a well-written tale, a person may be more partial to medieval fantasy, hard science fiction, or trashy pulp fiction than anything else. Those stories trip something in your hindbrain that says, “Yes. This is for me. This is what I’m all about. This is my genre.” At first glance, Steampunk, as a genre, seems only like yesterday with a technological twist. The architecture is complicated, the style of dress even more so, and everything is shiny and bright. Even the darker Steampunk stories I’ve read—the ones with thick clouds of smog filling the sky and despairing, lost souls wandering the alleyways—still had that sheen of superficial chrome.
But the chrome isn’t just superficial. In the hardboiled fiction I enjoy, men wear ragged, ill-fitting suits and fire pistols that they clean while drinking whiskey out of a dirty glass. Women plot murders behind pretty smiles, and the authorities are just as corrupt as the gunsel waiting outside your window. The city is cold and unforgiving, with malice waiting inside every patch of fog or dark alley. Crime fiction is often about not being able to trust anyone or anything, from your best friend to Mother Nature. You can’t even trust your best friend to watch your back, because he’s too busy looking out for number one.
Technology as Magic
Everyone knows a Steampunk story that has exactly the same aura of mistrust and treachery under the shined exterior. The same base human desires and weaknesses play out in every genre. But Steampunk doesn’t approach the same tone as the others. It can’t. And it’s all due to that “sheen” of this strange, fanciful, Steampunk technology. New inventions aren’t just a convenience. Technology, real and imagined, has a way of spreading into every nook and cranny of our lives, changing how we do things and altering our lives for the better. A certain level of technological advancement allows fantastic things to happen, be they teleportation in Star Trek or steam-powered computers.
Steampunk as a genre is about traversing the edge of that level of technology. Characters have weapons and gadgets that are conceptually similar to things we have in the modern day, but work in entirely different ways, forcing them into what we in the real world conceive as the magical. Buildings appear to pulse and breathe due to the regular exhalations of steam, which puts me in the mind of hearts and lungs. The result is a strange synergy of cold, metallic technology and a hint of organic life that feels welcoming and endlessly optimistic.
The Hope of the Past
There is always conflict in stories, and there’s always a little guy to be stepped on, but a Steampunk story creates a world that is several orders of magnitude more utopian than those in any other genre out there. It almost has to be, considering that it suggests a world of highly advanced technology in a time parallel to or earlier than our own. It implies a certain measure of cooperation amongst the citizens of that world. You don’t get to the point where massive, gear-powered cities dot the land and extraordinary flying machines fill the skies without someone, somewhere, getting along. That measure of cooperation, technology, and idealism was sorely lacking in the past that we know from history books. Steampunk, as a genre, is putting it back.
Steampunk is the literary architecture of idealism. As a genre it has to be better than my hardboiled tales of murderers and burnouts—even when it deals with murderers and burnouts. It reaches back to the past for inspiration, but blends modern idealism with an extrapolation of past technology in order to do so. For a lot of people, and particularly from our point of view, the past was not a pleasant place to be. Steampunk provides writers and artists with a way to take hold of the past and fix it, molding it into a much more interesting, and perhaps even healthier, shape than it possessed before. It lets you wash away the unpleasantness of yesterday and replace it with something majestic. It’s nostalgia for a time that never was. And even I have to admit that that is an enthralling concept.