The Old West Brings the Steam
by Felix Gilman
author of The Half-Made World
A couple of months ago I was on a panel at BEA, talking about steampunk with Cherie Priest and Cat Valente, to an audience of what I think were mostly publishers and booksellers and miscellaneous book-business riff-raff (e.g. writers). The official theme was something like “what is steampunk?” but of course the real theme was: “is there money in it?”
Anyway we got talking about American steampunk versus British steampunk, and I was surprised to learn that a lot of people think of steampunk as fundamentally British -- Victorian London, fog, Big Ben, Jack-the-ripper, all that. Apparently some people question whether you can really have steampunk set in America. I didn't even know that was a thing, but apparently it is.
It's nonsense, of course. Some of the very first proto-steampunk works are westerns. I give you Edward Ellis's 1865 “The Huge Hunter, Or The Steam Man Of The Prairies,” which opens like this:
'HOWLY vargin! what is that?' exclaimed Mickey McSquizzle, with something like horrified amazement.It's not the devil, of course. It's a ten-foot steam-powered robot. That is literally the most steampunk anything can be. Nor was this the only steam-powered robot patrolling the imaginary 19th century frontier. John Clute coined the term “Edisonades” for this sort of thing - the adventures of a lone scientific genius and his trusty robot - but what they also are is proto-steampunk.
'By the Jumping Jehosiphat, naow if that don't, beat all natur'!'
'It's the divil, broke loose, wid full steam on!'
There was good cause for these exclamations upon the part of the Yankee and Irishman, as they stood on the margin of Wolf Ravine, and gazed off over the prairie. Several miles to the north, something like a gigantic man could be seen approaching, apparently at a rapid gait for a few seconds, when it slackened its speed, until it scarcely moved.
Occasionally it changed its course, so that it went nearly at right angles. At such times, its colossal proportions were brought out in full relief, looking like some Titan as it took its giant strides over the prairie.
The distance was too great to scrutinize the phenomenon closely; but they could see that a black volume of smoke issued either from its mouth or the top of its head, while it was drawing behind it a sort of carriage, in which a single man was seated, who appeared to control the movements of the extraordinary being in front of him.
No wonder that something like superstitious have filled the breasts of the two men who had ceased hunting for gold, for a few minutes, to view the singular apparition; for such a thing had scarcely been dreamed of at that day, by the most imaginative philosophers; much less had it ever entered the head of these two men on the western prairies.
'Begorrah, but it's the ould divil, hitched to his throttin 'waging, wid his ould wife howlding the reins!' exclaimed Mickey.
The American-frontier proto-steampunk differs from the more commonly cited Euro-proto-steampunk of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne mainly in that (a) it's terrible - you can quite obviously tell that Ellis was being paid by the word -- and (b) it doesn't make the slightest effort to pretend that it has anything to do with actual science, the way Wells and Verne usually did, it just steams ahead with mad nonsensical enthusiasm, as if having pushed out past civilization and onto the wild frontier it can do whatever the hell it wants, and if what it wants is a steam-powered robot it's gonna have a steam-powered robot and there ain't no damn man from no gubmint can tell it steam-powered robots don't make no sense, dag nab it.
I digress. The point is that steampunk, at least in its more pulpy, fantastical or surrealist forms, owes as much to proto-steampunk writers like Ellis and his fellows as it does to anyone.
I say proto because steampunk is (it seems to me) inherently retro, inherently meta-. Steampunk is about recapturing old and obsolete notions of The Future (sometimes criticizing them, sometimes wallowing nostalgically in them, often a little of both). It borrows tropes from 19th-century authors of Edisonades or scientific romance or whatever you want to call it, but it's not the same thing. The 19th century guys were playing it straight, looking to a Future that was still potential for them. They wouldn't have got the joke.
Of course if what you're interested in is digging up and reanimating old-time notions of The Future, the western frontier is the place to be. There are dozens of utopian communities buried beneath it. The thing itself is the biggest and boldest metaphor for the Boundless Potential Of The Future one can imagine.
On the other hand, if what you're interested in is criticizing the ugly underside of Progress, the frontier also represents not only the betrayal of its own promise, but also one of the ugliest and grisliest crimes of human history. And that, I've always thought, is the animating principle behind the weird west sub-sub-subgenre, which has sort of sloped along beside steampunk for half a century or so, like an ugly mad cousin. Or at least that's what's animates what's interesting in it: that notion of American history as something deeply violent, weird, and haunted.
Whenever I say “weird west” someone mentions that godawful Will Smith movie. I don't want to talk about that awful movie. I won't. I just won't. No.
Felix Gilman has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award and the Crawford Award for best new writer and the Locus Award for best first novel. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Thunderer and Gears of the City. His new novel the first half in a duology The Half-Made World is now out from Tor books. He lives with his wife in New York City. You can follow him on his blog.
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