I’ve been noticing a persistent, sustained interest in steampunk in the various mainstream outlets of geek culture (a phrase I use with affection) such as the Gawker blog io9. (For example: We could probably list dozens of examples of steampunkery in popular culture, from video games to movies to prog-rock concept albums and so on if we wanted to. I have a different question, though — one I’m asking as a fan and marginal practitioner of Victorian studies rather than someone trained and based in it. Has there been much substantial work on steampunk from within Victorian studies, as distinct from fields who study science fiction in the present? Is steampunk something that matters, or should matter, in Victorian studies these days, or has it run its course — and if so, what was that course?

I ask partly because I was surprised not to find anything that looked like a definitive monograph or book collection on the topic, despite steampunk being around long enough to have prompted those kinds of publications. Maybe I just neglected to pour enough coal into my analytical engine…

(Full disclosure: I’m asking also because I’m working on a project on the prehistory of digitization, looking back to various 19th-century tech experiments — kind of a steampunk approach to digital humanities. So this post is a not-too-thinly veiled request for suggestions for the lit review.)


4 thoughts on “Steampunk in Victorian studies

  1. Steampunk borrows from many era’s, many fictions and many “worlds”. It’s still developing as a subculture which is why I think we haven’t seen a critical body of work on it. We will. It is just now entering the mainstream. Prada, for example has just come out with a clothing line based on Steampunk street looks.

    This either spells the death of steampunk as a growth culture, or the peak. Either way, steampunk needs to evolve beyond its somewhat stilted, imaginary cage of “Victoriania + Tech” to truly become a style. Some steampunk style is just silly. Some steampunk style is classic, meaning, worthy of the ages.

    Prada’s interpretation — not so much.

    Is Steampunk important in Victorian studies? No. Not really. It’s a purely postmodern invention which borrows haphazardly from what people imagine as Victorian. The only possible extraction from Steampunk would be how moderns envision what the Victorians were, not what they really were.

    Not very useful. But, lots of fun!

  2. Quite possibly you know it, but Jay Clayton’s Charles Dickens in Cyberspace is the best/closest thing I can think of. It’s a few years old and focused on literature, so it doesn’t capture recent developments in steampunk as an aesthetic or maker culture, but has a detailed discussion of The Difference Engine, other important steampunk books, and general affinities between Victorian and postmodern/anachronist culture.

  3. As I understand it studies of steampunk often fall under the umbrella of Neo-Victorian Studies. I would like to hear more, though, from those of you who are more knowledgeable about the field, about the relationship between Victorian Studies and Neo-Victorian Studies. So, for instance, are many of the scholars working in Neo-Victorian Studies also interested in Victorian Studies or is there less overlap than I am imagining?

    If you haven’t already seen it, Alan, one place to start your lit review would be the journal of Neo-Victorian Studies out of Swansea, especially their special issue on Steampunk, Science and (Neo)Victorian Technologies from 2010:

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