The Birth of Steampunk

Locus carried an early reference to "steampunk," in a 1987 letter from K.W. Jeter:
Dear Locus: Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it to Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in "the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate" was writing in the "gonzo-historical manner" first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering. Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of that era; like "steampunks," perhaps.... --K.W. Jeter
See the original at Letters of Note: The Birth of Steampunk.


  1. i like this steampunk phase. it reminds me of the Wild Wild West.

    the only problem i have with it is that the slave trade was booming during the Victorian era, and that the upper class made most of their profits off of it. therefore, steampunk enthusiasts promote slavery.

    1. Are you serious…? Your comment immediately assumes that there aren’t Steampunks of colour, or gay Steampunks, or members of any other sect of society that wasn’t the white privileged male that dominated our historical perception of the western Victorian era.

      Whether or not it’s always used to that end, Steampunk is a venue through which we can observe and evaluate the wonders and faults of the 1800’s- looking back at history and, god forbid, enjoying the fashion while critiquing the politics is not completely unheard of.


      1. i see what you’re saying… but in my mind, i can’t help comparing the steampunk subculture to the furry fandom, since both groups have turned their fetishes into lifestyles.

        1. Also the superhero and comic book subculture, the goth subculture, the hacker subculture, and especially the football subculture, to name just a few other fandoms that have become lifestyles.

          1. those things are totally cool… all i’m saying is that wearing a metallic vest and monocle in public makes a person look like a bit of a creep, not a gentleman. and i’m not being confrontational by suggesting corsets do not transform blobs of fat into an hourglass shape. just sayin.

    2. That’s like saying the SCA promotes pogroms. It’s possibly to be enthusiastic about some aspects of an era without promoting its vices.

    3. Re: “the only problem i have with it is that the slave trade was booming during the Victorian era, and that the upper class made most of their profits off of it.”

      Wrong. Slavery was abolished across the entire British Empire (with a couple of minor exceptions) in 1833. Victoria did not become Queen until 1837, so there was absolutely no British slave trade during the Victorian era. Indeed, it was the British, more than any other people in the 19th century, that worked to stamp out slavery across the globe.

  2. @joemolo: They’re also promoting poorer-quality medical science.

    OTOH, they’re also promoting a pre-Scientology world.

    Remember, because a fictional novel is set in a particular time period, you can bet dollars to donuts that the author is promoting everything non-fictional that happened at that time.

    Novels set in the 1980s? Only written by pro-Regan Thatcherites who want to invade the Falkland Islands again. Author probably wears bright neon-colored clothing with shoulder pads.

    Novels set in the 1940s? Obviously the author wants to re-fight WWII and … oh crap, Godwin’s law!

    You can also determine an author’s personal political views — with 100% accuracy — from the fiction they write.

    Never known to fail!



  3. It’s worth noting that Tim Powers from the triumvirate is having his Victorian fantasy ‘On Stranger Tides’ released as a film this year . . . even if it is a very loose adaptation. It’s the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.

    Still, it means hollywood is paying attention to their stories, and hopefully it means a nice chunk of change for Powers.

    When will Blaylock’s ‘The Last Coin’ be adapted as an HBO miniseries though? When o when?

    1. But Powers’ On Stranger Tides isn’t steampunk, or Victorian. It’s set in the early 18th century, more than a hundred years before the start of the Victorian era. It’s got magic and adventure and puppets, but no clockwork or steam-driven gadgets.

      “Gonzo-historical” is a pretty good description of Powers’ work, which is almost always set in an explicit historical period, with famous period characters showing up, and magical explanations put forward as explanations for actual, historical weird goings-on. But his work is pretty much always secret history rather than alternate history.

  4. I liked most of the steampunk movies, but Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire was a shitty movie and that Dinotopia sucked too.

  5. I liked most of the steampunk movies, but Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire was a shitty movie and that Dinotopia sucked too.

  6. i guess that’s pretty cool. but nowadays, cyberpunk is vastly cooler and superior, and has much better works in its genre. cyberpunk makes more sense than randomly throwing gears and steam into modern technology. it’s time to evolve.

  7. I wish there were some sort of courier service that carried around an engraved plaque of this letter, and every time someone started up about how steampunk is named for the countercultural or DIY elements it injects into Victoriana, a courier would drop from an airship, read the plaque aloud, distribute copies, and jetpack away on a column of charged vapor.

    There’s plenty of room to explore punk themes in steampunk, don’t get me wrong, I’m just tired of revisionism ad ignorantium.

  8. All in favor of replacing the term “Steampunk” with “Gonzo-Historical,” say aye.

    That is a much cooler way to put it.

  9. In the arguments about the birth of steampunk, why does no-one ever remember Harry Harrison’s 1975 “A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!”.

    Other than various Jules Verne works, it’s the first steampunk novel I ever ran across.

    1. Funny you mention that. I just finished re-reading Harry Harrison’s “A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!” yesterday. It’s not entirely “steampunk” but certainly has a lot in common with that genre. It was actually first published in 1972, originally serialized in Analog magazine.

      It’s certainly a story I recommend to SF fans – the tale of the construction of a transatlantic railroad, in an alternate universe where the American colonies are still part of the British Empire. In the U.S. I think it was also sometimes sold under the lame title of “Tunnel through the Deeps”.

  10. I just hope no one ever tries to re-contextualize of alfred jarry´s “the supermale” as “early” steampunk

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