For the uninitiated, steampunk, a term that is prominently tossed around in the late ’80s. is one of the many subgenres of cyberpunk (others — some more tongue in cheek than others — are sandalpunk, bronzepunk and stonepunk). Nikola Tesla and/or Charles Babbage frequently pop-up as characters, as do set pieces involving dirigibles, steam engines and, inexplicably, the Japanese. While the idea of meshing Victorian-esque machinery with future societies had been floating about long before the label was applied, it was William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine that was the watershed title that brought the term into widespread use. Well, widespread is a relative term — but steampunk was suddenly the hot thing in discussions about speculative fiction.
I don’t really recall it being all that big a deal, but I wasn’t reading a lot of SF criticism in the late 80’s and early 90’s, so who knows. What I find particularly puzzling about the piece, though, is the set of books she chose to read in the course of re-evaluating the genre: Christopher Priest’s The Prestige is arguably steampunk– it doesn’t really strike me as attitudinal enough to really fit as a historical-fiction offshoot of cyberpunk, but I don’t have any major objections to it.
(Stranger choices below the fold…)
But The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers? That’s a fantasy novel, and not remotely punk. And while Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age certainly has its punk aspects, I don’t think nanotech-wielding Neo-Victorians in a future Hong Kong really count as “steampunk.” At a minimum, I would expect “steampunk” to involve, you know, steam…
As I said, I wasn’t really plugged into the critical side of the genre back then, so I’m not sure how people defined things at the time, but these books don’t seem to me to have much of anything in common. I have a hard time imagining how you draw a sensible subgenre boundary that encompasses all three.
Are these really all considered “steampunk” books?