Christopher Priest

Victorian science fiction soon ceased to be fanciful

Iwan Rhys Morus describes how novelists’ futuristic visions began to be realised by engineers – though the course of invention is more random than he imagines

Illustration for Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, 1865. [Alamy]

One of the more daft but enduring spin-offs of the science fiction genre is steampunk – fiction fashioned with a retrofuturistic love of 19th-century industrial technology. Think of an ironclad of the air, shaped like a fantasy submarine, with six or more propeller engines powered by cogs and levers, funnels pumping out coal smoke from the steam turbines, windows replaced by watch dials, and hundreds of rivets holding the whole thing together. Inside would be a palm court saloon hosting a tea dance. Many of the gentlemen are garbed in comic-book versions of the army officer and entrepreneur style of British imperialism, the ladies in dark velvet, veils and stays, and an orchestra in evening dress and moustachios. Weird eyepieces, top hats and ancient firearms are omnipresent.

The earliest example of steampunk is probably Titus Alone (1959), the third volume of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. But in the early 1980s steampunk became the preferred idiom of a number of American writers, all of whom claimed to have thought it up on their own. One of these, K.W. Jeter, gave it the name, derived from ‘cyberpunk’, popular in the science fiction genre back then. The tag has stuck. Since then, steampunk has gripped the imagination of many others, widening out into a multi-disciplinary international phenomenon, inspiring installation art, fashion, comics, music, comedy and literature. There is a steampunk HQ and museum in New Zealand. The roots in science fiction are no longer relevant.

Alexander Graham Bell’s thrilling vision was that one day there would be a telephone in every American city

However, the roots of science fiction itself are known as scientific romances, the sort of work associated with fin-de-siècle authors such as Jules Verne, George Griffith and H.G. Wells. These are summoned by Iwan Rhys Morus in his non-fiction work How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon.

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