So, here we are, two days into our Steampunk Appreciation Week. And there is one question that we feel needs to be addressed, before we go any further:
What in the world, is Steampunk after all?
For the past few weeks, we have done nothing but to prepare for this week. We have researched blogs, read article after article, several books (some of which turned out NOT to be Steampunk at all) and we reached a conclusion: there is no definite, conclusive definition of Steampunk. Books that are mentioned in some essential Steampunk lists are very firmly excluded from others, and we’ve seen some argument as to the limits and parameters of what indeed constitutes or not “Steampunk.
Yes, there are some basics with which most people agree: usually steam-power is still used, and is set mostly in a Victorian-like world. This is definitely the “Steam” part. The “Punk” part or the other parts that makes it gravitate towards one genre or the other (is it fantasy? SciFi? Both? All of the above?) seem to be up for grabs and completely open to each person’s reception or expectations.
But we have been able to form our own, basic idea of what Steampunk is, and we asked some of our blogging friends what they think Steampunk is. And wouldn’t you know – none of the answers are quite the same :
I will be honest with you. This question? It has plagued me for weeks now. I didn’t even tell Thea the extent of my obsession (although I suppose the cat is out of the bag now) but I have been dreaming in Steampunk for days now.
I am usually not that strict in trying to define or form a coherent idea about a genre – I am usually pretty laid back about reading and very open about expanding my horizons, but I find that I haven’t been able to do the same when it comes to Steampunk. I know that trying to too hard may even suck the fun out of things but what can I say, I am one of those that need to have a more defined definition of THIS. And what’s more, I have come to learn in the past few weeks that I am a Steampunk purist, if you can put it like that.
I see ideas flying all over the place and I see enthusiasm for the genre and at first I think it is great. I see goggles and corsets and dirigibles and….then there is ALL I see as though those form a coherent picture or frame for what is Steampunk when it’s not. When I pick up a book labeled as Steampunk, I expect the setting to matter, the technology to be essential to the world if not to the story – if that society can function without those Steampunk “elements” then…well, it’s not Steampunk. If it is aesthetic more than functional, if it is more magical than scientific, then in my mind, it is not Steampunk. It is not enough to be set in the 19th century, in an alternate reality, to have time travel – all of those are usual fares of regular Fantasy and SciFi. Magic in Victorian times is very cool but more Gaslight Fantasy than really Steampunk.
As you can see, I am pretty confident I can recognize when something is NOT Steampunk.
It seems I am a stickler when it comes to Steampunk. Maybe even too much. You bet I see the irony in being so ruthless about something that has Punk in its name. After all didn’t the Punk movement embrace rebellion and free thought?
I know, what a party pooper.
Ok, Ana, dude you’ve never formally “confessed” your Steampunkish obsession to me formally, but from the emails and conversations we’ve been having (all of which have been initiated by Ana, I might add), I was able to put two and two together!
As you have probably surmised, dear readers, Ana is more of the “purist” of the duo. I, on the other hand, have a bit looser of a definition. Let’s start with the etymology of the term “Steampunk” – we’ve got the “Steam-” part, and the “Punk” part. Where the “Steam-” is concerned, I strongly feel that the book must ecompass at least some aesthetic or some basic inclusion of steam technology. That’s not to say I think there should be some kind of locomotive or the physical presence of steam in every expression of the genre – rather, the aesthetic and the technology needs to be (or needs to have evolved from) the Victorian Era. I don’t believe that the technology must be central to the plot – but it DOES need to be more than just pretty filler. For example, in my opinion, Gail Carriger’s Soulless, with its pretty dirigibles in the background and Victorian setting is NOT enough to classify it as Steampunk.
Then, there’s the part where the “Punk” comes in.
To me, the “punk” part is far more important than the “steam” part. The punk, as Ana alludes to above, involves the societal aspect of the book. Does the novel radically challenge the established social order? Does it involve a social, economic, political or religious critique/revolution of the world it is set in? This is what I yearn for, more so than the centrality of technology to a book in order to qualify it as Steampunk. I think you’ve gotta have one or the other (or both, if you’re lucky) – we want either a “steam” (evolved from Victorian Era) technology that is central and essential to the plot, or a story that has steam elements (Victorian/Steam aesthetic) but radically challenges the social and/or political setting of the world. In this second option, the technology is less important. This is why I consider The Golden Compass (and by extension the His Dark Materials series) by Philip Pullman to be “Steampunk” – because even though it does not have the central steam technology, it does push the political/religious/fundamental envelope and contains steam-ish elements (Victorianesque setting and society, dirigibles/air balloons, alitheometers instead of computers, strange Verne-worthy projection devices, etc).
There is some argument as to whether or not magic or fantasy elements can coexist in a “Steampunk novel” – and to this I say, of course they can. Why the heck not? Steampunk is a marriage of different genres – fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, romance, etc. I think the presence of magic is more than welcome in the mix, provided that at least ONE of the criteria above is met (either central steam-technology or steam technology elements plus a socio/politico centered and challenged plot).
And so without reaching a conclusion amongst ourselves, we reached to our fellow Bloggers and asked:
Here is what they had to say:
Katiebabs from Babbling About Books and More:
The Steampunk genre is still a very new on for me. I know the basics, where it’s a combination of science fiction and speculative fiction, set in an alternate later 19th century setting, mainly in Victorian England. Steampunk is set in a world where steam is power, but it is so much more from the fashion, to the dialogue and most importantly the technology.
Steampunk allows the reader’s imagination to run wild. It’s a world of endless possibilities and so very new and exciting.
Doug Knipe from Scifi Guy:
To me steampunk represents a reality where science took a fork in the road. Instead of scientific development proceeding to the electronic age it instead advanced through industrial/mechanical principles and better chemistry. I think of Jules Verne’s Nautilus and the mysterious Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and H.G. Wells The Time Machine. There also is a degree of mysticism and forbidden knowledge attached to it as well. Steampunk fiction explores and reflects the implications and changes in society wrought from this diverging path. Modern examples of steampunk that I favour include many of the works of James Blaylock, K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, The Difference Engine by Gibson & Sterling, Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti and the most recent Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Each embodies the spirit of Steampunk.
Mark de Jager from My Favourite Books:
It’s a concept that hearkens back to a vision of Victoriana, caught on the cusp of the industrial revolution- a more romantic, civilised time, when technology was still new, and exciting, where the world was still a big place and innovations knew no bounds; how far you could go with something wasn’t constrained by popular knowledge as it is today. It evokes a grand era of mad scientists, steam or clockwork driven contraptions, glass helmeted space explorers…. it’s the spawning ground of timeless figures like Captain Nemo, Alan Quartermain, Dr Frankenstein and their ilk. It’s an era where ideas have outpaced technology but not craftsmanship, and where cold science has taken a backseat to adventure.
Heather Massey from The Galaxy Express
Steampunk is like salt: it enhances the flavor of everything it touches.
To many people, it’s a literary subgenre. One way of defining steampunk is Victorian era science fiction that features steam-powered inventions—many of which are ahead of their time and have significant socio-political consequences. The glory of steampunk is that it pairs spectacularly well with a variety of other genres such as fantasy, romance, horror, and mystery.
But steampunk extends well beyond the written word. It’s an aesthetic echoed by art, costumes, accessories, and DIY gadgets. It is films, TV shows, and videogames.
It’s archaic. It’s modern. It’s brassy. It’s gritty.
It’s a state of mind.
STEAMPUNK, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer
WHITECHAPEL GODS by S.M. Peters
MAINSPRING by Jay Lake
THE NARROWS by Alexander Irvine
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN by Alan Moore
CLOCKWORK HEART by Dru Pagliassotti
PERDIDO STREET STATION by China Miéville
MORTAL ENGINES by Philip Reeve
THE TIME MACHINE
THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN
WILD WILD WEST (
endure see it for the steampunk elements only!)
EDGE OF TWILIGHT
RESONANCE OF FATE
FINAL FANTASY VI (FF III in America)
Maili from @McVane (she is on Twitter only at the moment):
It’s basically set during the Industrial Revolution (and the Enlightenment) when ideas existed at the time that theoretically could work, but there wasn’t enough during its time to make it happen, such as limited technological knowledge, attitudes, inflexibility within the society, class prejudice, etc. Charles Babbage, for instance, came up with an idea that we came to know as ‘difference engine’, and in his time, it was considered outlandish. Impractical. Useless. He still tried, but a successful attempt was never made.
However, some time during the 1990s, a team of researchers and historians gathered to construct a machine from Babbage’s detailed plans of the difference machine, using 19th-century technology but with 21st-century knowledge and attitude, and the machine works. With this, Babbage’s idea was proven do-able.
What if Babbage could make it work in his time? What if it became part of the everyday life? Instead of imagining what the future and its technology would be, we imagine what the past would be if its technology was part of that reality. That’s one half of the core premise of Steampunk.
The other half — what if the technology of that reality becomes so controlling that people of its time couldn’t move with freedom? How about the automata becomes an army and storms Victorian London? This is where the ‘punk’ of ‘steampunk’ comes in: Hero or Heroine is usually part or a leader of a rebellion against that. It doesn’t have to be about technology. They could rebel against dictatorship, ‘Big Brother’-style government, secret conspiracy, or an underground society that meddles with people’s lives. It’s about control, power and freedom. During this struggle, technology can be our friend or foe, or both.
There have been quite a few novels labelled as ‘steampunk’ when they weren’t. I have been asked what was the real difference between a Gaslight Fantasy and a Steampunk. In my opinion, it’s the setting that defines the difference. If a story *can* live without its steampunk element, e.g. the steampunk element is there for appearance’s sake, then it’s a Gaslight Fantasy. If it can’t live without it, then it’s a
Steampunk doesn’t have to restrict itself to Victorian-era England. It could take place anywhere in the world and in any time period — as long as technological ideas of its time are reasonably plausible and utterly faithful to its appearance.
Let’s take Leonardo da Vinci – an amazing innovator – and his ‘flying machine’ idea (Codex on the Flight of Birds) as an example. While living in 16th-century Italy and France, he couldn’t make his flying machine work even once during his lifetime, but in a story, it works. He could make it fly. What if his flying machine became part of a reality during his time? The idea of people going about in their everyday lives while the sky above them is filled with these winged machines flying? It’d be such an amazing sight. I think Steampunk is possibly the greatest tribute to innovators and engineers of our global past. I really love the idea we’re making their visions and dreams a reality through these Steampunk stories.
John Ottinger III from Grasping for the Wind:
To me, steampunk is a subgenre of alternate history in which technological progress diverged and developed along mechanized lines rather than digital. In steampunk, computers are vast machines capable of many of the same feats, but silicon chips were never invented and so they consist of cogs and wheels, more like a typewriter than our modern conception. Airships exist, but rather than planes, blimps rule the skies. In many cases, steampunk tales take place in a Victorian setting or uses that era as its point of divergence from true history, but any story with a focus on a mechanized society that also lives by a rigid social code like that of the Victorians could potentially be steampunk. Even a secondary world fantasy, so long as it takes as its model the Victorian Age – such as The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, The Affinity Bridge by George Mann, or The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt – fits into this category.
Steampunk tales have the tone and structure of a Conan Doyle story, often being mysteries or adventure tales similar to those popularized during the Industrial Revolution. For a tale to be steampunk it needs to be married to the idea that technology is solely mechanical, unable to progress without winches, gears, nuts and bolts. There is no computer age, at least as we know it, in the worlds of steampunk.
Steampunk also believes in the inherent domination of the earth by humankind, driven by our will and ability to make tools. Sometimes this takes the story into dark places, places where Jack the Ripper dwelt. At other times, it celebrates human achievement, a World’s Fair of literature. Always, there is a focus on the mechanical, the visible and concrete, that thrills the reader or viewer with a sense of adventure, of the wild unknown, and is filled with the both the capability and the desire to go Around The World in 80 Days.
Kenda from Lurv a La Mode
Steampunk to me is a fantasy or science fiction story set in an alternate reality (one that would be recognizable to us yet with some details obviously changed, hence creating said alternate reality) that has steampunk elements: machinery/technology that runs on steam and looks like something along the lines of the time machine in H.G. Wells’s book/movie, The Time Machine; clockwork/machinery gears and lots of things made from metal such as iron; old fashioned aviator or industrial safety goggles; animals that have been fashioned into pseudo machines, yet retain animal attributes (see Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan); a dirty, grimy smudge over everything – industry is prominant, such as the atmosphere in the Industrial Revolution; has a Victorian, England background, though is in no way strictly limited to this time period; old fashioned clothing that has been subtly altered with steampunk elements, such as the goggles, or strange glasses made from gears and patch worked metals…I imagine there are a lot more such details that could be cited, but we’ll leave off with those for the moment.
I think it’s important to give adequate detail for the above elements. It’s not necessarily steampunk enough if a dirigible is cited in the background – after all, we have them today a well in our own everyday reality. Maybe not with tentacles jutting from them, but you get what I mean. Steampunk is fantasy or scifi – it needs adequate attention given to worldbuilding details. The technology is fictional, it needs to be fleshed out and well-realized by the author. A story needs its own brand of fantastical to be deemed steampunk, just as any other kind of fantasy or science fiction would.
Erika from Jawas Read Too
I like thinking of Steampunk as being rooted to its namesake, not in any one particular country like the Victorian England we all associate with the Industrial Revolution. It’s very much the Industrial Revolution meets Science Fiction where the mechanics, fuel, and aesthetic of an age powered by steam meet the futuristic elements we’ve become familiar with in the Computer Age. Steampunk is machine- and gear-heavy; pistons, oil, and steam churn the cogs of technology much like we think of electronics doing for us today. There are gadgets and innovations boosted by steam-power; dirigibles, wooden limbs, everything you can think of related to the era suddenly has the chance to be enhanced with steam (and why not take advantage?). Then it gets interesting when you consider the magical possibilities that blur the lines between Science Fiction and Fantasy: the mysterious aether emanating between oil-greased machinery or delicate brass tick-tock devices that’s inexplicable but eerily similar, in its way, to the electronic signals of cyberspace.
Technology isn’t stunted so much as it’s deviated from its actual course of history; the advancements made are steam-based rather than electronic-based. This is why we can have marvelous books like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. Alternate history is what Steampunk is all about! If we imagine a world built around steam, we can imagine WWII exactly as Westerfeld projected: different enough from what actually happened to make it a curious, exotic mixture of something similar and something archaic and foreign.
And then, one of the best parts: the lifestyle. I don’t mean lifestyle like fans dressing up to go to conventions (although, that’s one interpretation of the subgenre!). I mean the inspiration derived from the time period (whether that’s war-torn Europe, pirate-infested Caribbean waters, the American frontier, or Victorian England) that goes to creating practical (if whimsical) articulations of individual expression: clothing, furniture, housing, the way our steam-powered devices look.
Steampunk is an atmosphere, an aesthetic, an alternate history, and let’s face it: it’s really cool.
It’s a subgenre that moves across subgenres–Paranormal Romances like Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books can have Steampunk elements while the thumping and grotesque weirdness of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Stationcan explode with enough odd devices that fit the definition despite not even taking place on Earth.
There are so many things to consider with Steampunk, but it is, more than anything, inclusive and varied in the ways it reaches to us across literature.
TDF Pamela from The Discriminating Fangirl
Steampunk has become a buzzword in the publishing industry, and honestly, it seems like the most visible books that get the steampunk label really aren’t steampunk at all. So, what is steampunk? Maybe it’ll be better to first say what steampunk is not.
Steampunk is not any old book set in the Victorian era with a couple of brass gears and some goggles slapped on. If you’ve got a generic romance and you toss in an airship, that doesn’t make your book steampunk. Steampunk sells, and as long as readers are interested in it, publishers will push everything vaguely Victorian in the hope that people who want to get into the genre will buy it.
So… again, what is steampunk? It’s a glorious mishmash of Victoriana and science fiction and romance and steam-powered technology. Steampunk is what would have happened if nineteenth century scientists had been able to create all of the crazy things they had dreamed of. Steampunk is an aesthetic that toes the line between Victorian and Goth. Some of my favorite costumes at conventions are the elaborate steampunk getups: corsets and high-necked dresses; bustles and brass goggles; waistcoats, top hats, and strange contraptions.
I keep thinking that I need to read more steampunk, but being a poor graduate student, I’m stuck combing used bookstores, and unfortunately for me, steampunk doesn’t show up all that often. I have a few steampunk books sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to have time to read them. I’ve been dying to read The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, a book that is often credited with bringing steampunk more firmly into the public eye.
I’m excited to see more steampunk fiction being published, but what I really want to see is real steampunk, not just attempts to cash in on the popularity of the genre. I’ll have to keep up my usual discriminating reader habits, I suppose, and separate the wheat from the chaff.
Stacy B from The Discriminating Fangirl; Steampunk: Blossoming Historical Subculture
I was a fan before I knew it had a definition. I thought it was olde-fashioned with a technological twist. I thought it was a revitalization of something that already existed. These are both true, but when I try to explain it to someone, the first thing I say is “have you ever read 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”? Jules Verne was steampunk before steampunk existed – he put technology and Victorian values together and made them mix like they were born for it. Verne in general wrote fiction upon fiction detailing technologies that didn’t exist yet – the true science fiction without changing the human component and taking it out of an environment it was comfortable in. It was this blend that I think was largely responsible for making steampunk possible over a century later.
Today, steampunk takes Verne one step further – we’ve added our modern ideas of femininity (women no longer have to be silent, we can be loud and boisterous…so long as we observe our manners at tea) and a touch of the supernatural. The late 19th century fascination with the supernatural (spirits, mediums, creatures of the night) fit perfectly into modern steampunk, and it’s become a genre of books, music, culture, and costume that absorbs more than it excludes. Steampunk can be strictly historical, it can have elements of the supernatural (both modern and historical), and it can play on the both modern ideas of gothic and the Victorian fascination with the macabre that birthed Gothic literature.
As a rule, the technological element is one that developed on an entirely different track than one we are historically familiar with. Instead of Edison, steampunk generally prays at the altars of Nikolai Tesla and Philo Farnsworth; to me, the differences are visible in style, but if you want the particulars, you’re going to have to speak to an engineer who can draw you circuit and current diagrams. Think cathode and vacuum tubes (I’m told the precursor to LCD is called the nixie tube, but again, you’d have to talk to someone who knows this better) a la Warehouse 13’s technology. While philosophical thought is more forward-oriented, costuming, like the technology, clings to older themes. Corsets, cravats, short pants and skirts are the norm, but occasionally there is a humdinger thrown in – women in pants are treated with mild shock, but not completely ostracized as they would have been in the reigns of Victoria & Edward. Manners are imperative, tea is necessary, and both fashion and good breeding are ranked highly in social circles.
Steampunk exists in reenactments, but is also prevalent in literature; spawned by the imagination, literature is, arguably, primarily responsible for the rise of steampunk – putting it on the road to subculture status. Two of my favorite steampunk series also straddle other genres (just like the entire phenomenon) – Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate” series (which begins with Soulless), is supernatural and Victorian with a touch of technology and more modern cultural acceptance of the odd with werewolves and vampires living alongside the aristocrats (werewolves are beastly men and occasionally vampires are lushes). On the opposite side, straddling technology and the supernatural on a flip-flop basis is Ilona Andrews’ “Magic” series starring Kate Daniels (beginning with Magic Bites) – where atmospheric damage prohibits technology from working all the time and when magic is “up”, everyone abandons cars and hops up on their horses and lights their gas lamps.
As an inclusive phenom instead of an exclusive one, there are plenty of aspects of steampunk I haven’t discussed, but visit wikipedia, read some books, listen to a few bands (recently, I’ve become a fan of the G-String Orchestra out of New Orleans), read some history and then pick up a good book and dive in. There are so many rights, it’s hard to go wrong when you’re learning to get into the groove.
Harry Markov from Temple Library Reviews
I have been posed one of the most difficult questions as far as genres go: What is steampunk? Ana and Thea have been loving the genre, but they want to gain better understanding of what it actually is. I am honestly not the leading authority in steampunk, but from the small amount of books in the genre I have read and the reviews I have scanned through, I have built my own humble opinion, which I am going to share with you.
Steampunk’s elusive nature stems from the fact that it has just recently stormed the scene and become mainstream and sought after in the SFF circles. Because it is a newborn in a pantheon of already established genres, steampunk explores all possibilities and has yet to settle on an identity, which will be synonymous to its name.
But let’s cut straight to the chase. People claim steampunk to be a subgenre with firm roots in science fiction, due to the central role the steam technology in the setting. However, I think that steampunk can also be a cross-genre between fantasy and science fiction, because I have encountered a few series, which incorporate fantastical elements. Prime example is Stephen Hunt, who combines the importance of technology for the world and characters as well as the epic momentum the story takes and powers beyond the grasp of science like telepathy.
Steampunk can garner many elements. It can border on horror as with Boneshaker. It can be an alternative history to what happens on Earth as with Leviathan. It can swell with a grand scale adventure as with Hunt’s novels. However, at its core steampunk has a few parameters that must be acknowledged in order for it to be true to itself. Apart from the technology that is mandatory for the series, steampunk is imbued with certain positivity, hopefulness and even a purity of heart, which contrasts to the grittiness that many genres have embraced today. By placing the stories in the Victorian era [more or less] the authors try to capture humanity in a phase, where promises and vows were unbreakable, feelings weren’t publically announced, but were intense, vibrant and not jaded, expired or wasted.
Steampunk may carry different and contradicting elements, which muddle or complicate the exact definition of the genre, but its integrity is in the spirit that comes from the world and the characters.
So there you have it folks – a variety of opinions, interpretations, and definitions of Steampunk.
What about you? What do YOU think Steampunk is?