A popular subgenre of science fiction and fantasy is known as steampunk. It features steam-powered technology with the decorative sensibilities of the 19th century Victorian era. Steampunk stories can also be considered a sort of alternate history where the British Empire continued on to be a major power in the world and their empirical style of culture and manners still hold sway in a future world.
It is often thought that the origin of steampunk as a genre began with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The stories of the adventurer explorer or the gentleman inventor who travels through the world or in time via their abilities and education and bring British culture to other peoples is a trope that is common in many steampunk stories. While Wells and Verne were certainly part of the inspiration of steampunk as a genre, they were writing alternate history or true science fiction of their times. In other words, looking to how the future may be based on the technology of their own times, much as science fiction writers do today.
The origins of steampunk was actually back in the late 1980s with a trio of authors in Southern California. Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter were a group of friends that met to talk about their writing. They developed a style of science fiction that was influenced by victorian fantasies of the past and taking it to the next level. The name for what they were doing came about when Jeter wrote a letter to Locus Magazine in 1987.
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.
If you look at the “gonzo-historical” books of these three authors, such as Power’s Anbuis Gates, Jeter’s Morlock Night, or Blaycock’s Homunculus, you will see that while all the novels are flavored with the Victorian era’s culture there is no fixed time period or even technology. Steampunk is not about the aristocracy, although they are often present and it is not always about steam powered gadgets either. Sometimes the Victorian idea of the supernatural takes precedence. If you tire of Steampunk stories that feature nothing but airships, goggle wearing heroines or characters that go around with steampowered batman belts, fear not. Look at the origins of the genre and you will discover that these conventions did not appear until much later.
Today, the term steampunk can refer to any of the clothing fashions, jewelry, and art objects that have a particular Victorian flair. Steampunk design emphasis’s a balance between the form and function, somewhat like the arts and crafts movement did, there is a blur between the line of tool and decoration. Examples include computers keyboards and electric guitars that are redesigned to employ materials such as polished brass, wood, iron and leather with Victorian conventions, rejecting the norm of current day industrial designs. Many of the costumes feature corsets and goggles, the color brown, or antiqued British military uniforms.
The best way to learn more about the genre is to read books by the three original authors and then expand out to newer authors of the genre. It will gain you a better balance about the genre and help you avoid falling into the cliches that have developed over the past ten years since the genre has gone more mainstream. Below are some of the places that I frequent to keep up to date with the steampunk movement.
The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles
This is an active forum where all aspects of steampunk are discussed. Clothing, art, music, writing and events. If you are looking for examples in costuming or simply want to know where the local steampunk groups hang out, this is a good place to start.
The Steampunk Empire
This online community is one of my favorites. The forums, photos and places to connect with fellow steampunk enthusiasts are many. I learn about new conventions from this site all the time.
The Gatehouse: Online Dieselpunk and Steampunk Magazine
I’m new to this magazine, but I like what I see. It covers more of the literary side of steampunk and goes into what steampunk and dieselpunk are. I find it a good resource for writers wishing to enter into the genre and for readers who want to learn more about the origins of what they are reading.