The origins of wonderful and improbable world of Steampunk is just as intriguing as the genre itself. Paul Roland, author of Steampunk: Back to the Future with the New Victorians gives us an introduction to the genre and how it all started.

Steampunk could be said to have begun as a whimsical subgenre of science fiction in the late 80s but has rapidly evolved into an increasingly popular alternate lifestyle, one which is influencing almost every aspect of pop culture from music and movies to graphic novels and computer games. 


On the surface its adherents profess a penchant for dressing up in neo-Victorian costumes, accessorizing their outfits with home-made quirky clockwork artefacts and expressing a desire to live in a parallel reality inhabited by airships and eccentric inventions. But the literature, art, music and movies of this emergent underground community offers a radical and irreverent reimagining of society the way it might have evolved had history taken a sharp detour prior to the industrial revolution giving us a world without electricity, the infernal (sic) combustion engine and the technology that we take for granted today. The world of steampunk is the elegant gas lit world of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and their literary antecedents for whom the digital age never dawned.

The leading exponents of Steampunk are turning their backs on the 21st century and going back to a time of imagined elegance and adventure when airships filled the skies and Queen Victoria presided over an Empire so affluent that even she couldn’t suppress a smile.

It is a popular misconception among those who arrived late for the party that the origins of Steampunk can be traced back to those two estimable authors of the Victorian/Edwardian era, Jules Verne and H.G.Wells. But if Steampunk literature is defined as being a retro futurist fantasy set in an alternate universe which is invariably, but not exclusively Victorian, then the works of Verne and Wells simply do not qualify. Both authors set the majority of their stories in their own time, or in a feasible future, one conspicuously free of clockwork dolls, automatons and goggle wearing airship pirates. And as for voluptuous young ladies strapped into lace-up corsets and sporting fetishistic weaponry – well, Captain Nemo and the Time Traveller would have some strong words to say about that!

Michael Moorcock is often credited with penning the first proto-steampunk novel ‘The Warlord of the Air’ (1971), in which a Victorian officer is transported to an alternate universe where he encounters a fiendish oriental warlord and his airship armada threatening her majesty’s empire. But the universally acknowledged creators of the steampunk literary genre are three Californians - James Blaylock, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. The three friends shared an obsessive love of Victorian and Edwardian literature at a time when all their friends were reading Stephen King and James Herbert. When they realised that they had evolved a distinctive offshoot of cyberpunk (a subcategory of high tech themed SF popular in the 80s) they knew they had to patent it as their own by giving it a name that would set it apart. It was Jeter who jokingly came up with the term ‘steampunk’ in a letter to the Editor of ‘Locus’ magazine in 1987 and it was slowly but surely adopted by readers, reviewers and writers alike when they discovered that the three Californians were not alone in their obsession. 



Steampunk: Back to the Future With the New Victorians

Paul Roland is the author of and a recording artist who has been acknowledged as one of the godfathers of the steampunk movement.His latest book is a biography of H.P. Lovecraft ‘The Strange Case of H.P. Lovecraft’ (Plexus)

Find out more