Steampunk 101: From Sci-Fi Sub-genre to Cultural Phenomenonby Scott Laming
From humble beginnings as a loosely defined sub-genre of science fiction, steampunk has evolved into a cultural phenomenon that combines ‘a Victorian aesthetic and a punk-rock attitude’; one that has come to influence more than just literature.
The creation of the ‘steampunk’ term is usually attributed to the science fiction author K.W. Jeter, who used it in a letter to Locus Magazine. He was trying to find a way to describe Victorian fantasy novels like those written by himself (Morlock Night and Infernal Devices), Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (Homunculus).
He believed novels written in what he described as the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ would be the next big thing but only if there was a general term that described them as a genre. “Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks,’” Jeter wrote. The label stuck and those early works helped define the genre.
It’s still inadequate to explain steampunk as just ‘Victorian Fantasy.’ The most common theme is to show a world where humanity, usually set in the Victorian era, has adopted technologies that combine past and future – think ‘steam-powered, gear-driven time machine’. But the genre encompasses much more than that, from the Darwinists’ genetically modified creatures in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, to elements of the supernatural in Powers’ The Anubis Gates, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, and the more recent Soulless by Gail Carriger.
In 1990, steampunk was introduced to a wider audience with The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in which the mechanical computer Charles Babbage theorized in 1822 was successfully built and led to the dawn of an Information Age in the late 19th century, rather than 100 years later. Other examples of technology mash-ups that might be classified as steampunk are spring-powered robots, 22nd century zeppelins, Edwardian atomic power or a steam-powered hovercraft.
Steampunk’s influence in the 21st century has expanded to include film, television, art, music, and fashion, including an offshoot of the Maker Movement – dedicated DIYers crafting everything from electrostatic generators, to parasols and corsets, to goggle- and clockwork-themed housewares. Even mainstream designers Prada, Versace, and Kenneth Cole have incorporated steampunk style into their clothing and accessories.
In spite of its vintage feel, steampunk as a literary genre is relatively new, with roots that barely reach back to the ‘70’s and acquiring a name only as recently as 1987. But the seeds of steampunk can be traced back to the 19th century, when Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and others were writing about steampunk-ish themes, paving the way for a variety of modern incarnations.
Selected Steampunk Literature
by Cherie Priest
Zombies, pirates, airships and mad scientists turn this into great YA steampunk romp.
by Scott Westerfeld
A trilogy about an alternate version of WW1, pitting steam-driven iron war machines against genetically engineered, living creatures.
by Gail Carriger
Victorian England has werewolves and vampires, but the vampires are disappearing.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (vol. 1)
by Alan Moore
A great graphic novel and visual representation of steampunk, including many inside jokes.
The Diamond Age
by Neal Stephenson
A book about a book. In a Neo-Victorian future, the Earth is divided into tribal empires.
by China Miéville
Miéville is no stranger to steampunk - this novel is set in the old west.
The Affinity Bridge
by George Mann
A museum researcher/agent of Queen Victoria has to solve a mysterious airship disaster.
by Jay Lake
A clockmaker’s apprentice is visited by an angel and asked to wind the mainspring of the Earth.
edited by Nick Gevers
Steampunk short stories with plots like a Victorian bride stuck in the outback with a robot maid.
by Richard Harland
A good YA read where the main character lives on a city-sized ship called Worldshaker.
The Alchemy of Stone
by Ekaterina Sedia
Urban fantasy meets steampunk in this novel about a proletarian revolution in a city-state.
The Peshawar Lancers
by S.M. Stirling
Set in the year 2025 on a post-apocalyptic earth after a devastating meteor shower in 1878.
by Kim Newman
An alternate history of Bram Stoker’s Dracula where he survives and marries Queen Victoria.
by Stephen Baxter
In 1855, the British discover a new natural energy source and use it to win the Crimean War.
Against the Day
by Thomas Pynchon
1,085 pages and 100+ characters, this novel is a marathon example of steampunk.
Literature That Influenced Steampunk
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
by Jules Verne
Published in 1870, the futuristic submarine, Nautilus, is juxtaposed against a Victorian setting.
The Time Machine
by H.G. Wells
A Victorian protagonist travels into the distant future in a time machine. Very influential.
The Angel of the Revolution
by George Griffith
A group of terrorists aim to conquer the world through airship warfare.
by James Blaylock
An airship piloted by a corpse has been circling London for years....
Bring the Jubilee
by Ward Moore
Published in 1953, this prelude to steampunk has the Confederates winning the Civil War.
by Mervyn Peake
The fourth Gormenghast book – medieval and modern time periods are mashed up.
Worlds of the Imperium
by Keith Laumer
Published in 1962, one of the first to merge Victorian aesthetics with futuristic technology.
Queen Victoria’s Bomb
by Ronald W. Clark
Nuclear technology appears in the times of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Warlord of the Air
by Michael Moorcock
First part of the Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy. World War I & II never happened.
Tunnel Through the Deeps OR A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
by Harry Harrison
An alternate vision of 1973, full of atomic locomotives and coal-powered flying boats.
Books About Steampunk
The Steampunk Bible
by Jeff Vandermeer and S.J. Chambers
by James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson
The Art of Steampunk
by Art Donovan
Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos
by Thomas Willeford
Steampunk: An Illustrated History
by Brian J. Robb