I read steampunk at its very inception, long ago in the 1980s – Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, and the works of James P. Blaylock – back when the sub-genre wasn’t even graced with a sobriquet but was lumped in with the catch-all term of Fantasy. Little did any of us realise, at the time, what a thriving genre it would become, nor what a lifestyle sub-culture these and other novels would spawn. (There is even, as I sit typing, a Steampunk-themed café seven miles north of here in North Berwick, East Lothian).
To me, in the Eighties, these and other novels occupied a strange hinterland between SF and Fantasy. While fantastical, they didn’t much partake of the occult or the overly magical; and while ostensibly SF, they weren’t tied to the rigorous rationality of Hard SF. They were great adventure romps which played fast and loose with the conventions of science fiction and fantasy; they had their cake and ate it.
Then in the 1990s Steampunk seemed to fall out of favour. Cyberpunk was the big thing, and retro-derring-do set in Victorian times appeared to have had its day. The future was Neuromancer, streetwise hackers and cynical multinational mega-corporations: the past was passé.
And then at some point in the Noughties, novels set in Victorian times, featuring fantastical inventions that never existed, began to trickle out. The trickle became a stream, and then a torrent. Publishers, always eager to jump aboard the next band-wagon, commissioned more and more Steampunk novels and it seemed that the surge was unstoppable, to the point where some bookshops up and down the country now have sections devoted not only to SF, Fantasy and Horror, but also to Steampunk. There are Steampunk conventions, Steampunk weekends (there’s one forthcoming in my hometown of Haworth, West Yorkshire), Steampunk parties, magazines, websites…
But, we ask ourselves, why the big attraction? What is it about stories set in mainly Victorian times featuring almost-magical inventions, street-urchins, evildoers and the like, that is so phenomenally popular? And why do we write it? (Well, the cynical amongst you might answer that writers write the stuff for the simple reason that it keeps the wolf from the door. But I like to think that there are other, more interesting reasons).
Perhaps the answer is that Steampunk is so popular these days for the same reason that, before the last millennium, everything New Age was in vogue: the future was a nebulous entity that frightened the average man and woman in the street, and it was comforting, even reassuring, to turn back to old certainties.
We live in interesting times, a decade and a half into the new millennium. Never has the advance of science and technology been so rampant, never has that person on the Clapham omnibus faced such confusion when attempting to come to terms with the many and wondrous quantum leaps in contemporary science. There are so many advances on so many fronts that no one person can claim to understand it all.
So readers fall back into the comforting safety net of Steampunk, where the science never existed – where the science and technology is retro and therefore not really threatening. We all like adventure stories, and the exotic, and never is the exotic more exotic than when two disparate elements (weird science and grungy Victoriana, in this case) are juxtaposed.
Well, we write Steampunk for many of the same reasons. We want to tell thrilling stories, we want to write of fantastical adventures; and I suspect that many of us – and I’m speaking personally here – find the future (the advance of science and technology) baffling and often incomprehensible. So we write fantastical stories set in the Steampunk milieu, utilising the same sense of wonder as found in SF, to tell our tales of human beings caught up in circumstances vaster than themselves.
Or that’s why I wrote Jani and the Greater Game, anyway. I wanted to write about India, and about India under the British Raj, about a woman half Indian, half British, who finds her loyalties torn and her life under threat from all sides. The novel is set in 1925, so it’s well after the usual Steampunk stomping ground of the Victorian era, but it hews to the same ideas and ideals: the inventions are fantastical, the villains evil, and the adventure is, I like to think, thick and fast and pretty well relentless.