From This City of Nightmares, What Dreams May Come?

072115 Chris Banner

In 1987 K.W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus magazine.  Jeter used the term to qualify the neo-Victorian writings that he, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers, were producing.  This term was in part a play on the term “cyberpunk,” which was a popular genre in the late 1980s.  Steampunk is a genre of speculation, whether it is set in an alternative version of Victorian England, in an alternative American West, in a future where steam power rather than electrical current runs the world, or in a fantasy setting where steam power is in mainstream use. It owes a debt of gratitude for its creation to such authors as Jules Verne, Mary Shelly, and H.G. Wells: Their works are speculative and include many of the aspects that readers now associate with modern steampunk novels. In terms of world building, though, the genre owes an even larger debt to Charles Dickens* and his depiction of Victorian England.

Gustave Dore Under the Arches

Gustave Dore Under the Arches

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute (2014) writes:

It is as if, for a handful of sf writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry, science and technology where the modern world was being born, and a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor . . . These recall not so much the actual nineteenth-century as a nineteenth century seen through the creatively distorting lens of Charles Dickens, whose congested, pullulating nineteenth-century landscapes . . . were the foul rag-and-bone shop of history from which the technological world, and hence the world of sf, originally sprang. Somewhere behind most steampunk visions are filthy coal heaps or driving pistons.

To Clute’s definition I would add an emphasis on the idea of the “turning point.” Victorian literature is filled with examples of a culture on the verge of reinventing itself. In the 19th century, Britain had moved from a primarily agricultural system to one based in manufacturing. Technological change was a way to improve the standard of life for all citizens. The lower class were abandoning the farms and moving to the cities in droves in search of a better life. The country was in the throes of the first industrial revolution in world history. The smokestacks from the mills and engineering works pumped noxious chemicals into the air.

Gustave Dore Victorian London

Gustave Dore Victorian London

In the slums, as Richard Altick (1973) notes, the cities’ density and expanse bred a sense of captivity. Vice, pollution, and disease filled these areas. Unlike the small towns of the past, where people would know their neighboring families for generations, rootless, indifferent strangers who were focused on their own survival crowed on top of one another. Altick (1973, pp. 77-78) explains:

“Paradoxically, the closer people were brought together physically, as in mill or slum, the farther apart they drifted in any social or spiritual sense; in the midst of crowds they were alone. . .There was a grim appropriateness in the fact that Gustave Dore, having done a set of illustrations for The Divine Comedy, should have gone on to portray mid-Victorian London in terms powerfully suggestive of Purgatory and Hell.”

The over-crowded buildings were covered with soot, pitted, and eroded by fumes. In this situation, is it no wonder that some people looked to the past and life in the small towns and countryside as a panacea? Yet those who would abandon the overcrowded cities and new technology seemed to forget the poverty and starvation of those who had previously lived the pastoral life. It was a culture being pulled in two opposite directions and this was reflected in the literature of the time, particularly in Dickens’s most famous works.

Gustave Dore Seven Dials

Gustave Dore Seven Dials

In the Victorian Era the nostalgia and idealization of the past mixed with the ideas that industry and innovation were the only ways to improve the human condition. Many modern day steampunk works have the same diametric opposition that the Victorians explored, especially those who look to the novels of Charles Dickens as inspiration for world building. This type of tension leads to multiple story inspirations. To miss-quote another English author**: From this city of nightmares, what dreams may come?

*Steampunk writers (and readers) owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Dickens for his vivid descriptions of London and other cities during the Victorian Era. More than any writer listed in this article, he helped to create the background setting for the genre. Yet it is important to remember that his works have only influenced the genre; he did not write any steampunk novels (unless I am completely miss-remembering Bleak House and Little Dorrit.)

**Shakespeare of course.


Altick, R. D. (1973). Victorian people and ideas. New York: Norton.

Clute, J. (2014). Steampunk. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Retrieved from



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