Friday, September 18, 2015

Do Alternate Historians Hate Steampunk?

If there is one constant criticism I get from alternate historians from and other sites its that Alternate History Weekly Update has way too much steampunk content on it. One person even suggested I change the name to "Steampunk Weekly Update". You would think there really wouldn't be that much tension between the two genres, since many steampunk works have alternate history elements to them, but than again many also don't. Nevertheless, alternate historians remain critical of steampunk. So I ask: do alternate historians hate steampunk?

Some background first. In 1987, KW Jeter came up with the term "steampunk" to describe a new literary movement where stories were set primarily in Victorian England or the American Wild West, but featured advanced technology and modern social mores. As mentioned before many of these stories had alternate history elements. Good examples include The Warlord of the Air and The Difference Engine, which are both alternate history novels that were influential on early steampunk creators.

So the two genres, alternate history and steampunk, can be considered at the very least cousins in a sense. Despite these shared origins, the history of steampunk and alternate history would begin to diverge at this point. While alternate history remained primarily a literary genre with most communication between fans and creators taking place on the Internet, steampunk would evolve into an atheistic movement that received mainstream acceptance and was embraced by many different formats. Heck there is even a realty television show dedicated to steampunk fashion.

The divide has only grown as steampunk's popularity increases. In 2007, searches for “steampunk” on Google began to trend higher than “alternate history”. In 2013, an IBM supercomputer even predicted that steampunk would be the next big retail trend. Some alternate historians even believe the increase in popularity in steampunk has begun to negatively affect the genre. For example, Robert Schmunk, Uchronia founder and former Sidewise judge, told Motherboard:
In the past several years, alternate history has been fading, or perhaps I should say morphing, because there’s been a big increase in the publication of steampunk stories and novels…Many steampunk works are legitimately alternate history, but a lot are not…I think the Roman Empire theme has faded, and perhaps the ‘Hitler wins’ theme just a bit, also…’The South wins the Civil War’ seems to be hanging in there, especially as this is often used as part of the background for alternate-history-steampunk works.
Which got me thinking: are alternate historians just the hipsters of the speculative historical fiction community? Do they reject whats popular and embrace obscure works only because "you probably haven't heard of them"? Perhaps, but then again, alternate historians are at their core lovers of history. To be able to craft plausible alternate histories, you need to understand just what you are changing. For alternate historians, the mark of a good creator is someone who can make a plausible alternate history, while still providing us with an entertaining read.

Steampunk, while often set during different historical periods, often plays fast and loose with our history and sometimes drop it altogether and the laws of physics along with it. Thus steampunk can be set on a magical world where steam powered mecha exist alongside late 19th century mores, even if the place names don't match anything on this Earth. Blatant disregard for plausibility just for the sake of what looks or sounds cool is enough to set off any serious alternate historian, regardless if the the subject is popular with the mainstream or not. So do I think alternate historians hate steampunk? No, they just don't like bad alternate history.

Personally I have no major issues with steampunk and can even recommend a few good steampunk books (like Cherie Priest's Boneshaker or Alan Gratz's The League of Seven). Being a lover of stories, however, I actually have no plans to cosplay as some intrepid airship pilot. Its not because I think its silly or stupid, its just that I am not interested. I will always put the story over everything else (and there may be many other alternate historians who will agree with me), but I still think there can be peace between steampunk and alternate history. Hey, we are family after all.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger on Amazing Stories and a Sidewise Awards for Alternate History judgeWhen not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the day when travel between parallel universes becomes a reality. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and YouTube. Learn how you can support his alternate history projects on Patreon.


  1. I am good friends with a steampunk author Liesel Schwarz; we both belong to the Romantic Novelists' Association, we guest on each others' blogs and we've done joint events. 'Cousins', but not 'sisters' would describe it very well.

  2. Acherly Jeter's usage was intended as humorous but that's probably not important any more.

    For my personal use I divide between "hard" and "soft" steampunk. The soft is the fantastical with magic, werewolves, vampires, Tesla ghosts or whatever.

    The hardest steampunk contains the tropes, requiring a change of history, but no changes to the laws of physics. My own work comes in at Mohs Scale 9 of steampunk hardness where I change a single facet of science and the changes in history are dependent on the altered technology (based on that single change).

    For example I have the Siege of Lucknow (1857) but it ends slightly differently because its easier to move heavy artillery. By 1896 the Anglo-Zanzibar War (the shortest official war in history, about 45 minutes) has rather more going on than a simple bit of gunboat diplomacy because the scramble for Africa involves flying machines. And I'm about to interfere with the unification of Italy.

    And so on. By the time we get to the trigger for the "Modern War" in 1911 thing have become very alternate indeed.

    Hm, my books aren't in your do I fix that? :-)


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