I've appealed to the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (EF) a fair amount in putting my definition together.
The OED defines Neo-Victorian in its adjectival form as "Resembling, reviving, or reminiscent of, the Victorian era." I think this takes into account the various ways in which steampunk accesses the nineteenth century: as resemblance when the story actually takes place in the nineteenth century, as in The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives; as revival when there is a move to being "like people used to be," in future settings like Fitzpatrick's War; and as reminiscence when it feels like the nineteenth century but isn't, in secondary world settings as in The Court of the Air. I chose Neo-Victorian over a number of other possible terms because it was the most inclusive and the least cumbersome. It's also important to note that I consistently say that steampunk "evokes" the nineteenth century. To evoke is "To call (a feeling, faculty, manifestation, etc.) into being or activity. Also, To call up (a memory) from the past." So steampunk manifests the nineteenth century, though not necessarily in the nineteenth century.
I rejected Nineteenth-Centuryism, which the OED defines as "The distinctive spirit, character, or outlook of the 19th century; a feature or trait suggestive of the 19th century," because unlike "Victorian era," the words nineteenth and century are immediately connotative of temporal limitation - while the "-ism" suffix should signify something more than just a time period, it likely wouldn't.
The way in which I use neo-Victorian is as an umbrella term for the Belle Epoque, the Gilded Age, the Victorian and Edwardian era, and fin de siècle, woven together along with speculative elements. Otherwise, how does one say that without taking ten minutes to explain it all? Neo-Victorian doesn't suffice beyond approximation, but it's as good a place as any to begin. Check out the links for all those terms, and you'll find an overlap of industrial advancement, artistic innovation, social revolution, optimism, and decadence (which I find terribly appropriate for steampunk art and sub-culture in its North American manifestations). I'm going to be studying the Belle Epoque in particular over the summer in relation to steampunk fashion and Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! I'm also suspicious that the way most North American steampunks view the Victorian era is through the lens of the Gilded Age in America, which might explain why most steampunk fans "cut off" the aesthetic at the end of the Gilded Age with the start of World War I.
I wanted to preface today's post with those thoughts, because unlike recent posts on The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Retribution Falls or Mortal Engines, Mark Frost's List of 7 is set in Victorian London, and I didn't want to give newcomers to the blog the impression that I think steampunk is limited to London, or just Victorian culture in particular. I should also inform my readers that aside from a dalliance regarding spiritualism and technofantasy, I won't be engaging in a lot of scholarly analysis with this post. I've been slaving away on my field papers for my PhD candidacy, and I'm all out of SMRT. It could be that, or it could be just that I'm such a fanboy of Mark Frost that I can't talk about this book without saying how much fun it is.
Mark Frost was the other half of the creative team that brought us Twin Peaks. Everyone knows David Lynch was involved with Twin Peaks, which I consider one of the best pieces of television art ever made, but few people are aware of Frost's contribution. I'm actually suspicious that much of what people loved about Twin Peaks is as much (possibly more) due to Frost's involvement than Lynch's. Reading through The List of 7, fans of Twin Peaks my be surprised to find the sort of witty banter between Agent Dale Cooper and Sheriff Harry Truman, now being traded between Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the mysterious Jack Sparks (who the reader is quick to assume will someday provide the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes). In addition to this quick banter, they will find an excellent mystery, and finally, as in Twin Peaks, a supernatural battle between good and evil. You might say List of 7 is a steampunk Twin Peaks with the coffee and pie replaced by tea and biscuits.
The book begins with Doyle's attendance at a séance that goes horribly wrong: it is here that Frost educates his readers on the history of the modern Spiritualist Movement, and allows me a digression to remind readers that spiritualism was once considered a science:
Science's assertion of primacy over the rusting tenets of Christian worship had created a seedbed that Spiritualism took root in like wild nightshade. The Movement's stated objective: Confirm the existence of realms of being beyond the physical, by direct communication with the spirit world through mediums--also known as sensitives--individuals attuned to the higher frequencies of noncorporeal life. (13)It could be argued that spiritualism is a form of technofantasy - a method of scientific inquiry that we no longer hold to be scientific. It appears often in steampunk, which is appropriate for an aesthetic seeking to evoke the Victorian era. However, technofantasy and neo-Victorian are only one part of the steampunk aesthetic, and Frost uses no retrofuturist elements. There are some interesting gadgets, but they're all within the boundaries of nineteenth century possibility. This isn't the London of The Difference Engine.
This raises a further line of inquiry for me, one I'm remiss to follow: Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, like The List of 7, includes no retrofuturism, and leads me to simultaneously agree and disagree with the EF when it offers Gaslight Romance as an alternative to Steampunk for stories that are "urban fantasies (and other generic fictions) set in the high Victorian or Edwardian period" (391). The EF holds that The Anubis Gates is steampunk because its "principal plot-driver is technological anachronism" (391). I can only assume this is a reference to time-travel in Anubis Gates - the question becomes, is anachronism really a hallmark of steampunk? The OED defines anachronism as "Anything done or existing out of date; hence, anything which was proper to a former age, but is, or, if it existed, would be, out of harmony with the present; also called a practical anachronism. Also transf. of persons." The EF states that "Anachronism" is a "dislocation" which "applies most obviously to timeslip fantasies" (26). There are a number of timeslip fantasies considered steampunk: Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams series, Powers's The Anubis Gates, and Jeter's Morlock Night. These are all instances of early steampunk though, and the timeslip story doesn't seem as popular in later steampunk.
Just because many people have stated that anachronism is a hallmark of steampunk doesn't make it so, and as I've argued here, gonzo technology isn't anachronistic in a secondary world where it belongs. There are numerous instances of anachronism in steampunk to be sure, but it's once again, not a consistent trope. I'm guessing further discussion of this point will be needed in another post, when it's more salient to be discussing anachronism. I'm suspicious that we've used that word incorrectly in regards to steampunk, which is why I chose retrofuturism instead.
Back to The List of 7, our
They made their way to the rear edge of the roof. The street twenty feet below was empty. Jack put two fingers into his mouth and whistled loudly enough to pierce the wind.These moments of sharp banter between our heroes are so frequent, that Doyle will reflect later on the aggravating nature of Sparks's "insouciance" (76).
"I say, Jack . . ."
"Your whistling like that, is that such a good idea?"
"But I mean, their hearing seems awfully acute by reckoning [Doyle refers to their pursuers]."
"Acute doesn't quite cover it."
They waited. Jack unfolded the veil from his pocket, which Doyle noticed was nearly ten feet long and heavily weighted at either end. Doyle heard movement behind them; another gray hood appeared, loping down toward them over the crown of the roof.
"Shoot that one, will you?" Jack asked.
"I'll wait until it's a bit closer, if you don't mind," Doyle said, raising the pistol and drawing a bead on the figure.
"I wouldn't wait too long."
"I'd be happy to let you try--"
"Because if you think you can do better--"
"I'm brimming with confidence in you, old boy--"
The hood was no more than ten feet away. Doyle fired. The creature, incredibly, dodged the bullet and continued to slowly advance.
"Not trying to be critical, you understand. It's just," Jack said, beginning to twirl the scarf above his head in a tight circle, "they're a good deal quicker than they first appear. Better to lay down a dense field of fire and hope they dodge into it." (71-72)
I can't say a lot about the unraveling of the mystery, as that sort of spoiler just ruins the reading in a book like this, except to say that it may disappoint fans of Sherlock Holmes, while being rather satisfying for fans of writers like Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. There's too much actual supernatural activity for this to work in a "Case of Identity" sort of way. Last year's Sherlock Holmes movie owes more to writers like Frost than it does to Doyle.
I also found Frost's polemic of good vs. evil particularly refreshing, and I get the sense that a number of my readers will too. Gail Carriger has lamented the sort of dreary aspect a good deal of steampunk takes, and as I stated in my post on Retribution Falls, steampunk seems to work best when it's having a good time. While Frost keeps things dark and dangerous (his villain is truly monstrous-his origin as related by Sparks is chilling), he's also savvy enough to keep the story from taking itself too seriously. Maybe it's his years working in television, but Frost really knows how to balance a Big Idea like good vs. evil against moments of comedy and high adventure. If you're a fan of Sherlock Holmes and looking for summer reading, I'd recommend the dark gaslight romance/fantasy of The List of 7 over the steampunk drudgery of George Mann's The Affinity Bridge. The List of 7 is available new from both North American Amazon sites, though it occasionally shows up at used book stores as well, for those of you who enjoy treasure hunting for your summer reading.