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Is Steampunk the New Gothic?


Is steampunk the new Gothic? On a recent trans-Atlantic flight I started to reread Michael Moorcock’s brilliant Wizardry and Wild Romance and was struck by the following passage:

[Gothic romances] did not merely look back to “romantic, antique days”…they added something novel in the emphasis given to natural (if often idealized) scenery as a means of expressing the moods of the characters…The popularity of the Gothic rose as the impact of the Industrial Revolution increased, reflecting, symbolizing and even explaining the anxiety felt by those who witnessed radical changes in the world they knew.

Now fast forward a hundred some-odd years. Is steampunk simply the modern incarnation of the Gothic novel? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it probably is. This raises several questions:

  1. How does steampunk resemble Gothic?
  2. How does steampunk diverge from Gothic?
  3. What lessons can we draw from Gothic’s history and apply to steampunk’s future?


To the first point, the Gothic novel is all about externalizing the inner landscape of the reader’s mind. Really, that’s just a fancy way of saying that the author uses setting to convey mood. Characteristic of Gothic fantasy are the brooding, crumbling castles and the dark Teutonic forests haunted by even darker beasts. These images subverted the contemporary countryside, showing an embroidered (and darkened) vision of the relatively recent past. This romanticized the past left behind by the industrial revolution and helped the reading classes escape from/cope with their rapidly shifting environment.

Steampunk (and perhaps its immediate progenitors in the New Weird) replaces brooding castles with Victorian cities and swaps forest monsters with automatons, but still follows analogous forms and function. Just like the 18th and 19th century readers of Gothic romance, you and I are living through a revolution. It isn’t a revolution of steam and combustion, gas and electricity. Instead it is of bits and bytes, broadband and social networking.

Just as Gothic readers found catharsis in books which subverted and romanticized imagery of era preceding them, so today’s readers find catharsis in literature which subverts and romanticizes Victoriana and the industrial revolution.

When we look at the works of steampunk’s luminaries – Cherie Priest, Scott Westerfeld, KJ Bishop, Jay Lake, SM Peters and so forth – we see the painstaking attention to setting that characterized the Gothic novel. Consider the following two passages:

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s Frankenstein, 1818 Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, 2009

With this resolution I traversed the northern highlands, and fixed on one of the remotest of the Orkneys as the scene of my labours. It was a place fitted for such a work, being hardly more than a rock, whose high sides were continually beaten by the waves. The soil was barren, scarcely affording pasture for a few miserable cows, and oatmeal for its inhabitants, which consisted of five persons, whose gaunt and scraggy limbs gave tokens of their miserable fare. Vegetables and bread, when they indulged in such luxuries, and even fresh water, was to be procured from the main land, which was about five miles distant.

And there, buried partly by the accumulated years of gravel, shells, and driftwood, lay the cracked brick cylinder that led back under the city streets.
Bleached by the ocean and the rain, worn by storms and battered by incoming waves, the tube was decrepit. It looked like it might collapse if Briar touched it; but when she leaned a hand against it and pushed, it did not move or settle.
She ducked her head underneath the overhang and let the lantern lead her. It still had oil enough for many hours, and she wasn’t worried about anything short of drowning or a downpour putting it out. But inside the coal-black extra-night of the tube’s interior, its glow felt weak and small. The sphere of light cast by the flame only traveled a few feet.

Both passages are clearly designed to shape the reader’s emotional response, to tap into the reader’s mental landscape and project it onto the page. However, one difference that strikes me is that steampunk authors often go to great lengths to rationalize their fantastic conceits in a way that Gothic authors didn’t have to.

Part of this stems from the primary difference between steampunk and Gothic: the story’s internal setting in time. Gothic novels were generally set contemporaneously with their readers. While they utilized imagery out of the past, or settings with great history, the events of the story often took place in the reader’s present. Steampunk, by contrast, is generally set as a form of alternate history.

In order for the reader to suspend their disbelief, the steampunk author must rationalize their divergence from “accepted history”. Mary Shelley did not need this extra step when writing Frankenstein: she could simply utilize the science of her time and make a somewhat-plausible conjecture. In contrast, Scott Westerfeld needed for 18th and 19th century bioengineering to be plausible in his Leviathan. Thus, his version of Darwin had to discover DNA. As a result, contemporary readers can rest easy, accepting a single basic conceit and extrapolating plausible consequences thereof.

That is neither a weakness of steampunk, nor is it a rule. Cherie Priest simply drops the reader into her alternate America with no rationalization, although she does make the divergence in Seattle’s “story” history from its “actual” history apparent early on.  This need to rationalize is one of the trends in this “modern Gothic” which so diverges from its earlier forms.

Another divergence rests in the construction of plot and characters. Here, steampunk has clearly been informed by the trends in literature (mainstream and genre) over the last century. Exposition is shorter, dialog more prevalent, and plots often more complicated. So a modern reader will find today’s “Gothic” to be a lot more readable than The Castle of Otranto.

But characters continue to be Gothic in their basic construction. The hero tends to be bi-dimensional: driven along one dimension, redemptive along the other. It sounds flat when written in such clinical terms, but in reality these characters are anything but.

Consider Victor Frankenstein and Briar Wilkes (from Priest’s excellent Boneshaker):

Frankenstein is at once driven to create life, driven by science and the rational. But fundamentally it is his quest to right his perceived mistakes and face the monster he created that lend the book motive force.

Briar Wilkes is quite a similar character. Driven by an ostensible need to survive, she hungers for redemption from her child and from society for her association with Leviticus Blue. And it is that hunger for redemption which again drives the book.

Supporting characters in the Gothic novel are flat (not a pejorative, I’m using Forster’s definition) and broadly interchangeable. The same holds true for modern steampunk. Consider Henry Clerval in Frankenstein or Lucy O’Gunning in Boneshaker.

Clerval represents the opposite of Victor Frankenstein: the eternal (and doomed) optimist to Frankenstein’s ever-increasing fatalism.

Lucy represents the can-do / never-say-die attitude of the Seattle survivors: there is no room in her world-view for self-doubt, despite her injuries and the challenges she has faced. Both of these supporting characters fundamentally contrast with the tragic and conflicted heroes (and villains) of the books.

Speaking of villains, there are many parallels here, too, even down to the imagery typically used to depict them. In the Gothic novel, the villain wants to destroy innocence, subvert it for his own hedonistic desires. While partly a response to the Victorian prudery of the times, Dracula as well yearns for some measure of redemption. It is this similarity between the villain and the hero that establishes the moral tension and tragedy in the Gothic novel. In terms of imagery, the villain goes masked to hide his shame/guilt, cloaks himself in shadows, skulks within an armor of darkness: a simultaneous symbol of the conflict between egocentric hedonism and repression.

In steampunk, the villain also shares the hero’s bi-dimensionalism. His motives are often the purest, as is the case with Minnericht from Boneshaker, but his methods define villainy. And like the Gothic villain, the steampunk villain rejects redemption, caving into his baser (darker) impulses. Where the Gothic villain hid behind masks, mist, and shadows, the steampunk villains also hide behind masks, or often automata (Whitechapel Gods, Boneshaker).

So okay, I think I’ve made a pretty solid case for steampunk being the new Gothic. So what? If I’m right, what are the commercial and artistic implications for this fun subgenre?

That’s a tougher question. As the industrial revolution slowed, the Gothic novel faded. By the time people took trains and horseless carriages for granted, its heyday was over. The same probably awaits steampunk. When the turmoil of the digital age subsides and we come to take the Internet and its myriad aspects for granted, I suspect the popularity of steampunk will pale.

The writing may already be on the wall: many scholars feel that Austen’s novels mocking the Gothic romance (Northanger Abbey, especially) marked the beginning of the end for Gothic romance. Perhaps the new “gaslight romances” (Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, for example) which explicitly fuse Austen with steampunk indicate that steampunk is nearing its zenith.

One way or another, steampunk will continue to evolve. The Gothic novel was the direct antecedent to the psychological horror story (Poe, Lovecraft, Ashton Smith). As the Gothic novel faded, the short form psychological began to develop. These (primarily pulp) stories utilized the imagery and devices of the Gothic romance but focused on characters and the evocation of terror, and less on plot. The same may well be starting with steampunk already.

Consider the great short stories recently published like “Counting Down to the End of the Universe” in Shimmer by Sara Genge. Like Poe, the author writes a story short on plot but amazingly powerful on imagery, utilizing the clockwork that has become synonymous with steampunk.

If I had to prognosticate (and this is always risky), I would say that this is the direction of steampunk to come.

It is a form difficult to sustain at novel length, difficult to execute well (think how many unreadable Lovecraft rip-offs were written in the ’30s and ’40s). But I suspect that it is cyclical: as society comes to grips with the digital revolution, steampunk will fade to be replaced by new forms. Perhaps internalized, character-oriented stories that utilize clockwork for metaphoric purpose will begin to gain traction in the shorts. And then, when a hundred years from now society is rocked by the next world-changing technological revolution, we will find a new Gothic form that uses images from our time to help transition readers to a new technological age. Maybe a hundred years from now we’ll see the rise of a “third generation Gothic” form that romanticizes our time, with its tweets, blogs, and e-mail.

So what do you think? Where does steampunk as an art form and commercial offering go from here?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. This was a good read.
    Your premise that the gothic genre

    Also, I might contend, if I had a better knowledge of steampunk’s conventions, that the form represents not strictly a “transposition” of the cathatrtic structure of gothic (medieval remixed for Victorians to sublimate industrial anxiety –> Victorian remixed for post-moderns to sublimate digital anxiety). It seems like not just a transposition but a complication; steampunk is more like a “meta-gothic” than a “gothic 2.0.” It’s a narrative mode that fetishizes another narrative mode, not just a time period; it sublimates post-digital anxieties not simply by subverting and revising

    September 8, 2010
  2. (accidentally hit “publish”)
    I forgot what I was going to say about “your premise that the gothic genre…”
    Rest of other thought:

    19th century history (“romanticizing”). It does do that of course. But the “what if” questions, phrased in a conditional past perfect, don’t offer a good-old-days nostalgia (a past we aren’t aware we are constructing), but create nostalgia for something we consciously know never was. This is a neat concept to think about.

    September 8, 2010
    • Hmmm. Very interesting points!

      I definitely think that historically, one can trace the genealogy of steampunk directly back to the Gothic romance. But I’m not 100% certain if modern authors of steampunk are conscious of that heritage. I doubt most of them sit down and decide that they are going to write a “modern-day Gothic romance” with airships and automatons (though there might be some out there who do). If they are writing a “meta-Gothic” that fetishizes the Gothic romance, I suspect it’s an unconscious fetish — maybe it even works like someone’s “type”: blonde, brunette, clockwork? ;-) Perhaps the narrative mode of Gothic romance “percolates” through the intervening layers of literature so that most steampunk authors simply find that a pseudo-Gothic style “feels natural”.

      The evocation of nostalgia for a non-existent past is an interesting device. Did the original Gothic romance have that effect? While it (typically) didn’t have the immediately-apparent divergence from “accepted history”, it certainly did idealize the past. Did that idealization produce the same “nostalgia” (if that’s even the right word) that steampunk does? Or is this relationship with the past a clear distinction between steampunk and the Gothic romance? Perhaps steampunk can be considered more of a “meta-history” than a “meta-Gothic” ?

      September 8, 2010
      • That’s true–maybe the genre is more meta-historical than meta-gothic.

        But diverging from history to construct “could-have-beens” (in contrast to the “might bes” of future-set sci fi/spec fic) strikes me as necessarily self-conscious: the author must be aware that fictive thinking is taking place. In contrast, did Mary Shelley, I wonder, self-consciously set out to construct a “past” for the setting of Frankenstein which was, in itself, speculative? I don’t think so, even though she was making decisions about details of setting to reflect psychology. Constructing a “past” for Steamboy or Boneshaker is a different type of creative decision-making–more conscious that setting is being constructed in opposition to the narrative of history, not in the way that idealization moralizes, editorializes, or streamlines history.

        I think its a difference of kind, not degree, when we say gothic stories idealize the past and steampunk stories idealize the past–steampunk doesn’t “idealize it so much that it’s not just what we wish it was but what we wish it could have been.”

        Maybe I’m just rehashing what you’ve already said, but typing it out helps me clarify the concepts, at least for myself.

        So, anyway, yes–there’s a hovering deconstruction of history as a fiction here; it’s not a meta-text of the gothic as much as a meta-text of the fiction that is history…and just happens to include the settings associated with the gothic genre.

        September 9, 2010
  3. Sorry: vague antecedents in that last paragraph. Read as:

    steampunk’s not a meta-text of the gothic as much as a meta-text of the fiction that is history.

    September 9, 2010
    • I like that! It’s a very succinct way of putting it!

      It’s also especially interesting considering a whole ‘nother conversation I had with someone about alternate history vs. altered history today, especially if we consider the relationship of the steampunk sub-genre to the alternate history sub-genre (which is a relationship equally important as steampunk’s to Gothic, I think).

      I’m going to think about this whole history aspect a little more, and then probably return to it in a more fleshed out blog post at some point. There’s a rich vein of interesting thought to mine here, I think, but I’m going to want to mull over it a bit (preferably with a nice steaming cup of coffee).

      September 10, 2010

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