Steampunk is a unique retro-futuristic aesthetic that incorporates technology and designs inspired by 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery. It’s often set in an alternate history version of the Victorian era or American Wild West. But is steampunk truly an alternate history genre? Let’s dig into the origins and themes of steampunk to find out.
- What Defines An Alternate History Genre?
- The Origins of Steampunk
- Steampunk Settings and Themes
- Examples of Steampunk as Alternate History
- Is Most Steampunk Alternate History?
- Wrapping Up: Is Steampunk An Alternate History?
What Defines An Alternate History Genre?
Alternate history (also called alternative history) refers to a genre where historical events unfold differently than in our real timeline.
Works of fiction in this genre make intentional changes to the historical record by asking “what if” questions.
For example, an alternate history novel might explore how history would have changed if the Axis powers had won World War II.
An alternate history world creates a fictional parallel universe separate from our real history.
Key elements of the alternate history genre include:
- Divergence from real historical facts and events
- Exploring the consequences of different choices and changes to history
- Often incorporates speculative and science fiction elements
- Allows creators to reimagine history and play with historical assumptions
So for steampunk to be considered true alternate history, it would need to actively reimagine our real historical timeline, not just borrow inspiration from the past.
The Origins of Steampunk
To understand if steampunk fits the alternate history genre, we should look back at where it came from.
Steampunk traces its roots back to the 1980s as a subgenre of science fiction. It was coined as a term by author K.W. Jeter as a reference to cyberpunk.
But its aesthetic inspirations go back even further.
Many consider Jeter’s novel Moriarty: The Hound of D’Urbervilles published in Kim Newman’s 1990 book Anno Dracula to be one of the first true steampunk works.
The book portrays an alternate history where Professor Moriarty is a fictional villain who is a rival of Sherlock Holmes.
So from its origins, steampunk incorporated key alternate history elements. It asked “what if” questions that changed the fates of historical figures like Moriarty and Holmes.
Early steampunk works blended science fiction with 19th century settings to imagine how the past would look with advanced technology.
This allowed authors to speculate how history might have progressed differently.
Steampunk Settings and Themes
To be an alternate history genre, steampunk would need to actively reimagine our historical timeline rather than just borrow inspiration from the 19th century industrial aesthetic.
So let’s look closer at the common settings and themes of steampunk works:
Steampunk often incorporates retro-futuristic advanced machines and inventions powered by steam or clockwork mechanisms. This includes airships, mechanical computers, steam-powered robots, and ray guns.
This does diverge from real 19th century technology. But it isn’t always presented as an intentional “what if” change to history. Often this advanced technology simply exists as part of the fictional steampunk world.
Steampunk worlds are usually set within an imagined Neo-Victorian alternate era that mimics 19th century sensibilities.
This is inspired by the fashion, architecture, culture and technology of Britain’s Victorian period and America’s Wild West.
But this imitation of Victorian style doesn’t always equal rewriting history. Many steampunk stories don’t frame their Neo-Victorian settings as an intentional divergence from real historical events.
Speculative and Science Fiction Themes
Steampunk often incorporates speculative and science fiction tropes. Works feature fantasy elements like airship pirates, steam-powered automatons, time travel, alternate dimensions, and mad scientists.
While incorporating sci-fi themes, many steampunk stories don’t present a cohesive alternate timeline separate from history. The fantastical elements are part of the fictional steampunk world.
Emphasis on Aesthetics Over Alternate History
A key distinction is that steampunk tends to emphasize aesthetic style and genre tropes over crafting a tightly-plotted alternate history timeline.
Steampunk worlds might have anachronistic technology and neo-Victorian flair without actively rewriting history itself. The historical setting is often more superficial backdrop than intentional reimagining.
Examples of Steampunk as Alternate History
While not all steampunk adheres to the alternate history genre, there are examples that actively reimagine an alternate past:
- The steampunk classic The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling portrays an alternate 1855 where Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine successfully ushered in an information age of steam-powered mechanical computers. This divergence impacts politics, technology, and the course of history.
- Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series is set in an alternate World War I where the Central Powers use steam-powered mechs and the Allies employ genetically-engineered creatures as weapons. Major historical events like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand unfold differently.
- S.M. Peters’ Whitechapel Gods imagines a 1900s London ruled by steam-powered automatons who rebelled against their human creators during the American Civil War. Queen Victoria and other historical figures are reimagined in this new timeline.
- The comic book The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction imagines that Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla team up in 1899 against Thomas Edison who wields cosmic powers. Real historical figures drive changes to the past.
So there are certainly exemplary steampunk works that fit into the true alternate history genre. But a majority emphasize the retro-futuristic aesthetic over actively rewriting history.
Is Most Steampunk Alternate History?
Based on its origins and common themes, can steampunk as a whole be considered an alternate history genre?
There are a few key perspectives:
- Literal Rewriting of History – By a narrow definition based on strictly changing historical facts, most steampunk does not qualify as true alternate history. The neo-Victorian settings and anachronistic technology are usually not framed as intentional divergences from real history.
- Speculative History – In a broader sense, steampunk speculates about how history could have progressed differently. The “what if” questions about technology and culture reflect alternate history interests even if not overtly rewriting history.
- History as Inspiration – Much of steampunk uses actual history only as inspiration to create fictional worlds, not to actively reimagine the timeline. The historical aesthetics provide texture but are not the focus.
- Some True Alternate History – While not definitive of the genre, there are still many intentional alternate history steampunk works that diverge from historical facts to speculate on different outcomes.
So in summary – while steampunk came from an origins of alternate history, and contains elements of reimagining the past, the majority of works emphasize the retro-futuristic aesthetics over changing actual history.
The retro-technology and neo-Victorian settings are often designed to simply create a desired mood and texture rather than specifically rewrite the timeline. Steampunk worlds use history as inspiration without diverging from facts.
But there are still noteworthy examples within steampunk that do fit into the true alternate history genre by intentionally changing key historical events and figures’ lives to tell “what if?” stories about different outcomes.
So while not completely an alternate history genre, steampunk still reflects an interest in reimagining how the past could have been different.
Its speculative approach to history is part of the appeal and imagination of steampunk even if not overtly rewriting timelines.
There is fluidity between steampunk and alternate history, with many works blending these genres or emphasizing one aspect over the other.
Steampunk reflects both a history that could have been as well as fanciful histories never intended to be.
Wrapping Up: Is Steampunk An Alternate History?
- Alternate history actively rewrites and diverges from the historical timeline through intentional “what ifs” that change key events.
- Steampunk originated from an alternate history approach in some seminal early works.
- But most steampunk does not substantially rewrite history, instead using the past as inspiration to create fanciful neo-Victorian worlds with anachronistic technology.
- However, there are still many steampunk stories that do fit into the true alternate history genre by speculating how major events could have happened differently.
- Steampunk reflects both imaginary reinterpretations of history as well as the fanciful illusion of the past, often emphasizing the latter over substantive rewritings of history.
So while containing alternate history elements, steampunk is not defined wholly as reimagining the timeline. But the nostalgia and speculation about how the past could have been different is core to the appeal of the steampunk aesthetic.
Steampunk imagines both the history that could have been as well as the history that never was. By blending science fiction with retrospection about the past, steampunk history always remains enticingly out of reach, whether alternate or aesthetic.