Steampunk: Learning the Genre

Nathan Fillion in Steampunk GarbA 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.

Dear Locus,

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.

—K.W. Jeter

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.

17 thoughts on “Steampunk: Learning the Genre”

  1. Thank you for this. I first came across the term in British craft magazines and loved the look of the suggested projects and how to create that Victorian patina – leather, polished wood, brass and so on. Until now, I was never sure where it had originated.

    1. Many people don’t know the story of how it got started. The three authors are from my local area and still live nearby. They are all great writers and well worth looking at. 🙂

  2. Thanks. This is the most informative and helpful post on this subgenre I’ve seen, Wendy! Looking forward to our talk next Wed. on *CHANGES* to hear more.
    BTW: What are “Googles” and why are some made of Brass?


    1. Opps. I must have typoed. I’ll correct that. Googles=goggles. In other words, protective eyewear that pilots used to wear in the golden days. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

  3. Great article. I am planning to get into steampunk sometime. I am familiar with steampunk art but never read any books but I am interested in digging into this interesting genre soon.

  4. Reblogged this on jack Rollins and commented:
    I found this post today and found it extremely interesting. A number of people have described my Dr Blessing series as falling into the Steampunk genre (I don’t like to call it a subgenre because I prefer its feel to pure Sci-Fi and Fantasy), but I never intended it to be that way, nor did I ever consider it to be the case. I thought: There’s not an airship or pair of brass goggles in sight!

    This post, however, shows me that really, I am only picking up on the accoutrements of the genre which developed over time, rather than the original seeds of steampunk. Those seeds including the Victorian notions of the supernatural – which is squarely where another of my novellas, The Seance, exists.

    I really am something of a newbie to Steampunk. I erroneously stated in a blog recently that I had last year read my first steampunk book – that isn’t true so I’ll correct it here. A few years ago I read “Glass Books of the Dream Eaters”, its sequel, “The Dark Volume” and have since read some George Mann books: “Ghosts of Manhatten”, “Ghosts of War”, and his first Newbury and Hobbs book, “The Affinity Bridge”. Last year it was “The Immersion Book of Steampunk” a really rather good anthology, I have to say.

    Anyway, I wanted to share this post as I found it fascinating and quite enlightening, for me as a real beginner in this fantastic genre.

    1. I’m glad that I was of help to you, Jack. 🙂 From what you said in your post, your story does sound rather steampunk to me. You were picking up on the basic elements of it without realizing it. Good luck with your stories! 🙂

    1. You are exactly the sort of person I wrote this for. Steampunk is a fun genre, but sometimes we get lost in the airships and goggles. There is more to it than corsets and tophats. 🙂

  5. As a Steampunk I seriously dispute that Jetter et al “invented” Steampunk – they did not, no more than the guy that named an elephant “an Elephant” invented elephants. Steampunk has its origins in the Victorian and Edwardian SF of Wells, Verne, Boroughs etc. Most of us dislike the term anyway but Neo-Victorian Science Fiction Enthusiasts is a bit of a mouthful.

  6. I am a rabid steampunk maker and author and as such I like to see credit given where it is due. The picture at the top of your blog is Nathan Fillion wearing a steampunk mechanical arm made by Thomas Willeford of Brute Force Studios for a steampunk episode of Castle. You have compiled a good basic primer for the uninitiated.

    1. Thank you for crediting the photo. I knew that it was Nathan Fillion from “Castle”, but I did not know the maker of the arm. I’m glad to know who the artist is. 🙂

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