Where to start? Two early steampunkish authors in the ‘60s were Joan Aiken and Keith Roberts. Joan Aiken wrote for younger readers and so was never taken very seriously, yet it’s amazing how many adults still have fond memories of novels like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Night Birds on Nantucket and The Cuckoo Tree. Aiken’s world is 100% Dickensian, and she throws in the occasional amazing invention, like a long-distance canon that can fire across the Atlantic Ocean. How the impact of those books has lingered!
Keith Roberts, in Pavane, paints an England where steam traction engines are the dominant mode of transport. (I can actually remember one from when I was a kid: like a steamroller, but with wheels for running along the road!) Both Roberts and Aiken set up their worlds as alternative histories.
Michael Moorcock was another early steampunkist. (What an originator! If only he’d concentrated his powers of imagination into just a few incredible novels, instead of scattering them here, there and everywhere …) His Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, starting with A Warlord of the Air in 1971, introduced a multitude of classic steampunk tropes – including dirigible airships. (Any book that contains dirigibles, you can bet it’s steampunk!)
Harry Harrison came soon after with A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! The title says it all!
No one had yet used the word ‘steampunk’. It was coined in 1987, to describe a wave of Victorian fantasies that had appeared in the previous eight years. W. K. Jeter applied it to his own Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, to Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates, and to James Blaylock’s Homunculus. Anubis Gates is the one that has lasted best – and brings in another favorite trope of Victoriana novels, the urban underworld.
When Jeter coined ‘steampunk’, he was playing off the big trend in SF of the time, ‘cyberpunk’. The ‘punk’ part fits far better with ‘cyberpunk’; the most you could say of the ‘punk’ in ‘steampunk’ is that steampunk novels are typically urban and often have a noir-ish sort of feel to them.
This phase of steampunk development reached a peak when the grandmasters of cyberpunk produced a steampunk novel –as if led across by verbal association themselves! William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s premise in The Difference Engine (1990) is that Charles Babbage built his planned proto-computer a century before any computer was actually built in our own real world.
It’s a great premise—and for another great premise, I fervently recommend Howard Waldrop’s short story “…the World, as we Know ‘t”. The physics of phlogiston (one of science’s forgotten byways), America at the turn of the 18th century, an experiment that goes horribly wrong—it’s brilliant!
Steampunk in this phase was very definitely a sub-domain of SF, not fantasy. Even when the imagination was essentially historical or fantastical, the readership was SF. As the SF readership declined and the cyberpunk wave died away (hate to say it, but we know it’s true!), so steampunk faded from attention. When it revived, it was with a new appeal—to a fantasy readership.
I suppose fantasy readers were looking for something new by the turn of the millennium. There’s only so many swordfights, dark lords and magical incantations you can take. (I’m lying, of course, the sales figures prove otherwise … but some fantasy readers like me were hankering for a bit of variety.) The new steampunk is an urban form of fantasy, as distinct from the rural-medieval settings of traditional post-Tolkien fantasy. Compared to SF-oriented steampunk it’s less interested in past scientific possibilities, but much better at creating a real Victoriana mood and 19th century atmosphere.
Philip Pullman is a major name, of course, and China Miéville (so very Dickensian in many ways). I’d include Ian R MacLeod for The Light Ages and Paula Volsky for The Grand Ellipse.
(The New Weird movement is another trend that relates to the steampunk-Victoriana-alternative history mix. Hard to say what it is on the positive side, except that China Miéville is definitely its standard-bearer. Easier on the negative side—it’s any kind of fantasy deeply opposed to Tolkien!)
The last kind of steampunk to mention is also the first: the ‘scientific romances’ of the second half of the 19th century, especially the novels of Jules Verne. In their own time, they weren’t steampunk but hypotheticals for the future. Time marches on, however, and their future is now our past. All the hypotheticals that never came true—which means most of them—now look to us like ‘paths not taken’. (I’m not saying the Verne’s predictions were wrong in principle, but that, even when he was right, he and his illustrators had a very 19th century way of picturing the technology-to-come.) So contemporary movie versions of Verne’s novels inevitably play the steampunk appeal. What would have seemed advanced and modernistic on its first appearance has now taken on a quaint, nostalgic quality of the past.