There’s a lot of debate at the moment about where steampunk starts and ends. I think a lot of people are missing the point because steampunk doesn’t end anywhere. It goes into the future. They say “Dieselpunk starts at the 1940s and 50s”. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean that steampunk ends there. In a steampunk universe, World War 2 and beyond can still happen, but the weaponry and clothing would retain an element of the late 19th/early 20th century design.
Our need to pigeon hole everything and compartmentalise it in order to comprehend it is disappointing when you have an entire culture at your fingertips and the creative freedom to experience it how you wish. It did get me thinking; in a steampunk universe in the time before the late 19th century, what would it look like? Being British, for this article, I will concentrate on British history, so I would be very interested in reading your own theories on what might happen in your country.
Could or would stylings that we currently call “Victorian” have happened earlier in Britain?
While the lack of steampunk rules means that you can decide this for yourself, it doesn’t necessarily fit in with the common aesthetic. We’ve all come together under an umbrella term and called ourselves steampunks because we smother ourselves in science fiction and writhe in the glory of Victoriana. The science fiction element does give scope for saying that the stylings and design for the late 19th century could have evolved earlier in Earth’s history, but should you begin a novel (for example) set in 1540 where people are wearing Bowler Hats and calling each other “old chap”, it would merely confuse the reader. Still, there are those who would find this an exciting twist on a theme and those who would simply grasp the idea straight away.
There are those who think that steampunk begins before the rule of Queen Victoria and prefer to base it on the invention of steam. There are some flaws with that ideology which I’ve discussed in previous articles, but if that’s how some people wish to interpret steampunk, that’s their decision and being non-judgmental types, we shouldn’t argue about that.
The Hanoverian age
The House of Hanover took charge of Britain in 1714 with the coronation of King George I. He was followed by three more subsequent George’s until 1830 when William IV was crowned. He reigned for seven years until Victoria came to the throne on 20th June 1837. She ruled until her death on 22nd January 1901, aged 81. From then, the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha came to power with the son of Albert and Victoria who retained his Father’s name. The Edwardian era has also been a time of inspiration for steampunks in Britain.
Given that many people argue that steampunk begins with the invention of the steam engine (either 1712 or 1698) then it was in full flow when Hanoverians took the throne. The United Kingdom was only young at this stage, though as it had only been reformed into the Kingdom of Great Britain with the merger of England and Scotland. Is it fair to say that steampunk can be portrayed with white wigs and stockings?
My main thought is what a steampunk universe would look like before the actual age of steampunk begins – whenever that is. Does it ride out like it did historically until the money hungry brutes of coal and industry destroyed our beautiful land? Or was it always a dark, dystopian country where the poor struggled against the greed of the rich and the introduction of the industrial revolution merely exacerbated the problem?
Maybe in your steampunk universe, the style has always been the same and steampunks in your land are immortal. Maybe they’ve always dressed the same and through countless millenia of evolution, they’ve got to the stage they are at by the late 19th century?
Whatever it is, this is just one more area to consider and ponder as you journey through steampunk.