Steampunk, What is It?

They say steampunk's the next big thing. People are talking about it. Some folks are writing it. But what the heck is it? Honestly, steampunk is a lot of things, so as a certified expert on the subject* I'm going to give you an overview.

* Note: I'm not actually an expert, just a fan of steampunk... and of Wikipedia.

Steampunk as Historical/Science Fiction
At it's heart, steampunk applies the old sci-fi question -- what if? -- to the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution changed the world in a lot of ways, but what if those changes took a different path? What if steam power turned out to be more practical than electricity? What if airships became the most common mode of transportation and warfare? What if France went to war with Britain -- while ruled by Luddites? How might the 19th century have changed?

The classic example is The Difference Engine by Gibson & Sterling. It takes place in a 19th-century Britain where Charles Babbage has not only conceived of the computer, but has actually built one out of gears and cranks, where race cars and tanks run on steam, and where the Japanese build clockwork robot servants.

Another example is Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy, in which a boy inventor gets caught in a struggle between his father and grandfather, as their ideals about science collide. And when I say "collide," I'm talking steam-powered super-soldiers, jetpacks, and a flying fortress. (Seriously, if you're not sure about steampunk, watch this movie, and if you are, why haven't you seen this movie yet?).

Steampunk as Speculative Fiction
In the 19th century, science was changing dramatically. Evolution challenged centuries of creationist thinking. Subatomic structures were being discovered within the irreducible atom. In steampunk fiction, science may progress at any rate or discover things even we in the 21st century aren't aware of.

It may take the form of science fiction: a 19th-century scientist reanimates an army of the dead, or fashions a destructive laser using giant lenses and a ruby found in the Mayan ruins. Or it may be pure fantasy: magicians in the London underworld or an occultist's attempt to bring Genghis Khan back to life.

Often, it's a mix of the two. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which steampunk scientists like Captain Nemo and Henry Jekyll might team up with lady-turned-vampire Mina Harker or the immortal Dorian Gray.

Steampunk as Alternate-Earth Fantasy
Not all steampunk takes place in our history. Video games like Arcanum (gears, factories, and elves) and Skies of Arcadia (airships and pirates on a world of floating continents) take place in fantasy worlds -- even World of Warcraft has a little steampunk in it. Treasure Planet is steampunk in space. Avatar: the Last Airbender pushed the punk edge with the Mechanist and his bender-powered airships, submarines, and tanks.

What these alternate-Earths have in common is a 19th-century feel, regardless of the actual technology (or magic) level.

Steampunk as Fashion
Though steampunk is rooted in fiction, there is a massive offshoot in aesthetics. Steampunk clothing, for example, borrows styles from Victorian England or steampunk fiction: boots, top hats, coat and tails, goggles, tool belts, frills, trenchcoats, you name it. (Also guns, apparently).

There's also steampunk design. This might be anything from gluing gears onto a pair of headphones to a full-on computer/work desk modification. A lot of it is taking modern technology and making it look like it was built in the 19th-century (in the process, making it look super-cool).

So there you go. Are there any questions? Did I miss anything?

(Steampunk not mentioned in this post, that perhaps should have been, includes: Wild, Wild West, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, Laputa, Howl's Moving Castle, Disney's Atlantis, and Air Pirates. Also, I'm not familiar with every expression of the subgenre, so others will, no doubt, be mentioned in the comments.)

7 comments:

Anna said...

My eldest daughter ADORES those punked laptops!!

Keyboards too... :)))

Natalie Whipple said...

Ah, yes. Thanks for doing this post. I wanted to do one, but I didn't feel like I knew enough to talk. But you obviously do.

I think it's a very cool genre. I've loved learning more about it and getting into it myself.

Bane of Anubis said...

Excellent/thorough rundown.

MattDel over at
Free The Princess also sheds some light on the subject for those of us who aren't in the know.

MattDel said...

*raises hand*

One more that's writing it. Or at least attempting to put one together in a spec fic world so it doesn't sound wildly implausible based on the science behind it.

It's definitely a lot of fun making up the different inventions.

Adam Heine said...

Natalie, there's a lot I don't know. Wikipedia had stories and examples I'd never heard of. I think most of my connections to steampunk are, ironically, through the Japanese :-)

Bane, thanks for the link!

MattDel, that sounds like what I did my world. I wanted steam-powered airships without airbags. A lot of the world design came out of that alone.

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Adam,

at a gig recently I met a guy who makes steampunk jewellery:
http://www.thethreeofclubs.com/

Some of this stuff is just awesome

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Dan. The site itself is pretty awesome too.