I can hear the groaning now. Why on earth would anyone need steampunk zombies? Hasn’t the world already had enough steam powered robots and zombie apocalypses? Perhaps–after I am finished.
Steampunk is a complicated thing, though it does boil down to one thing: science and technology in the Victorian era. That interest may be science, technology, technological ideals, or simply fashion, among others.
So where do the living dead come in? In none other than Frankenstein, where Dr. Frankenstein animates a dead being. Frankenstein’s monster is different in origin than the modern zombie, but is actually quite similar. Both are creatures on which we can project our fears for the future. For the early readers of Frankenstein, this was fear of where industrialism might lead us.
Though no one has been revived from the dead, the kind of technology Mary Shelley described in Frankenstein, is developing. The human genome has been mapped and animals have been cloned. Genetic engineering can be achieved on a crude level (i.e. isolating and inserting single genes). However, if you read into the science, the difficulties in full scale manipulation are still as insurmountable as they have always been. Humanity has yet to be able to play God.
The modern zombie is again a monster we can project our current fears onto. The fears however, are of a completely different nature. Those of us young enough not to remember life before computers have seen “next generation” technology develop every three to five years, while human generations are typically 20 if not more. In the modern era, people have grown up with these massive technological changes and have grown comfortable with them. The fear they have is quite different: that it will all fall apart.
The modern zombie is thus an agent of apocalypse. Society breaks down and survival skills have been lost over the generations that were too preoccupied with their technology. The people you love or befriend while society is in relative comfort can turn into your worst enemy. This species of human dead is always mindless and carnal in its brutality. The zombie horde generally spreads rapidly, overwhelming a society not prepared to deal with so raw a threat.
Frankenstein’s monster, by contrast, is a completely sentient being and able to choose between right and wrong. He attempts to live a human life, but no one can accept his inhuman nature. It is only when he is miserable that he turns to acts of violence and vengeance. Frankenstein’s monster is thus quite human and that’s what makes him terrifying, for human beings were not to return from the dead.
Now onto the Steampunk Zombie. As the Victorian era’s living dead, the SZ is sentient. Yet unlike Frankenstein, the Steampunk zombie readily makes copies of itself, probably through a medium poorly understood by Victorians at the time (probably electricity). The replicated zombie holds the modern fear of a zombie horde, though because the zombies would be intelligent, they would not need to overwhelm by numbers.
Shelley most likely figured one monster was compelling and terrifying enough. To contemplate a zombie horde is a modern notion. Thus the steampunk zombie fulfills the heart of steampunk: to project our modern notions into an earlier era that was projecting its own ideas into the future.
ps, much thanks to Ryan Littleton and James Wilkes whose material has inspired this entry.