Steampunk – Setting, Style or Genre?

Setting, Style or Genre?


Let me begin by saying I will concede the point I could be wrong with everything I am about to say. I know there are folks who will not only disagree with me but will do so strongly. I fully expect to see a lot of comments telling me how wrong I am, and I am looking forward to the debate so long as you are respectful in how you express your point of view. Here goes:

I don’t get Steampunk. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

And by “steampunk” I am including “clockwork” under that umbrella.

Folks try to explain the genre to me by referencing Jules Verne, but as soon as they do so, I cannot validate their argument. Jules Verne was one of the founding fathers of science fiction. Looking back on his work and planting the steampunk flag there while making the declaration “that’s steampunk” does not make it true. I could hold up a rose and say, “this is a chocolate chip cookie” and eat it, but it’s not going to taste delicious-trust me on this. I don’t think anyone who has read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or seen any of the movie adaptations thought “wow, that’s good steampunk there!”

I will go out on a limb and make the statement that steampunk is not a genre; at best it is a fashion movement, one I highly approve of. I love the look of brass buttons on black wool military jackets and brown leather bodices laced up with red ribbons. Handlebar moustaches and fluffy beehive hairdos are both equally neat, even if the same person is sporting them both. But clothing does not a genre make. To me, a genre is something that is clearly defined, classified, and has established “rules.”

Can I clearly define to you what those rules are? No, I can’t. However, I feel there can be good fiction with steampunk elements to them without having to classify it as steampunk. For example, I feel the Vampire Empire books are a good example of steampunk because in spite of the fashion, in spite of the technology being used, in spite of the heavy British accents, the story is not dependent on all that glam and glitz. Take away the dirigibles and clockworks and the story of Adela and Gareth is still there.

For example, if I were to take the Shakespearian classic Romeo and Juliet and add muttonchops to the men and put the women in jodhpurs, this fashion adjustment would not make the story an instant steampunk classic. Machines that hiss and whistle and are replete with gears for the sake of gears is going to make your environment a steampunk world because it’s just window dressing; nonetheless, doing so only begs the question “so what?” A thing has gears and runs on steam, what’s the big deal about that, why is it important to the story? Tell me, why I should care.

In my opinion, steampunk is more of a setting than a genre and I believe this idea comes from the concept of a truly technologically developed Victorian era, a world where mankind reaches steam-power with the ability to have replaceable machinery parts-and then never moved forward. Neat and in some respects even conceivable, yet it never fails that in these same stories the authors then want to capture the sense of adventure and discovery that was rampant in the upper class of Victorian England at the time.

I suspect my real problem with the idea of steampunk is its feasible reality. I’m thinking while the noble British main character of the story is off in his dirigible, some Yank overseas is making a bigger, better, safer engine fueled by diesel gas. It’s logical that if geographic discovery is inspired and encouraged, then other sciences would be explored, not just the deepest parts of the interior of Africa. Galvanization is the science of using electricity for health benefits. It was dabbled with back in the day, applied to the corpse of a frog to temporally animate the legs and simulate life. Is it not possible then, in a world of scientific breakthroughs and wonderment, that electricity would be more thoroughly explored and eventually win the day just like it did in real life? I cannot see a steampunk world existing, because I cannot fathom man reaching that level of advancement and then deciding to close the patent offices and wallow indefinitely in a steam powered world.

And since I did not digress earlier on, I will do so now.

I think the origin of the word “steampunk” can be traced back to the word “cyberpunk,” which appeared in the 1984 William Gibson book “Neuromancer.” If memory serves me correctly (and truth be told, it may not), the phrase “cyberpunk” was used to describe a person who had a lot of cybernetic attachments, but these gizmos were not necessarily improvements upon the human form, like having a cyber-knife. Yea, you have a built-in knife, but you could also just carry a knife on you. Ergo, “steampunk” to me screams lots of wood and brass fashioned into a Rube Goldberg cascade, chain-reaction device, where over-engineering and a plethora of gears make a simple task highly complex.

I already know that Wikipedia, the best source of trivial knowledge available to anyone with access to the web, (citation needed), offers a different origin of the word “steampunk.” I just happen not to agree with Wiki on this one.

Also, there was a role-playing game that came out in the late 1980s called “Cyberpunk” that was deeply inspired by the Gibson books. The game took place in a futuristic dystopian society where cybernized people worked both for and against the mega corporations. The game’s motto: “Style over Substance.” If you like the idea of double-crosses, hyper violence, and intrigue but want to do so in a steampunk environment, there is a game called “Space: 1889.” Each game has its own set of core mechanics you’ll need to know before playing.

So there you have it, steampunk, albeit cool and fun, in my opinion, is not a genre. All I ask of authors is if they are going to set their story in a steampunk environment they give me some reason for the steam and clockwork, no matter how thin it may be, so that I can suspend the bubble of disbelief and enjoy the story for what it is-a good story.

by Theresa Bane

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Theresa Bane

Theresa Bane

QrT – Theresa Bane Vampirologist and one of Jim Butcher’s Asylum Inmates.
Theresa Bane
  • Kathy

    Just because 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was sci-fi, does not mean that is was not steampunk. The word may not have existed, but the concept sure did.

  • lomax Lamat

    “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” was a science fiction novel. it was not steam-punk. what about it makes you think so? because it had a submarine in it when the rest of the world was not readily using them? because submarines existed and were in use – not enmass or popularly – but in use. They were used in the civil war. A single device in a novel dose not make it a steam-punk book. if so anytime someone boiled water in a fantasy novel then it too would suddenly be steam-punk.

  • Dee Torres

    Lomax, submarines in use argues against it being called Science Fiction but I won’t split hairs. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was Science Fiction when written but it has all the trappings of Steampunk. When we read the novel or see the film, we see a future which looks antique. Like a fly trapped in amber. Preserved with all the idiocincaricies of the 19th century. In fact it is that earlier setting of futuristic happenings that makes it seem Steampunk. Original Series Star Trek is with the exception of Transporters and FTL drives quite dated but it is certainly not Steampunk.

  • Brendan Ruse

    Dee – by your logic because they boiled water in Lord of the Rings, THAT makes it a steampunk novel too. and also by your logic the submarine in 20,000 leagues makes it less steampunk and more of an action/adventure which is a single element of steampunk but not what defines the genera. Just because something is great does not give defenders of steampunk the right to stick their flag in it and declare it steam-punk after the fact. I have yet to hear a reasonable argument or definition of the genera. from anyone.

  • Dee Torres

    Steampunk is defined as 1. A sub genre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced macihines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world. 2. A subculture inspired by This literary and film subgenre: the fashions and gadgets of sfteampunk.
    With these definitions in mind, boiling water in Lord of the Rings is not applicable but the 19th century steam powered world of 20,000 Leagues most assuredlly does apply.

  • Brendan Ruse

    can you cite your source? its awfully broad. and I do not recall a lot of steam powered stuff in “20,000 Leagues” except for lobster pots because they ate a lot fish.

    the submarine the Nautilis was ELECTRICAL POWERED. electrical power is NOT steam power, ergo, not steampunk, electropunk maybe. have you read the book?

    • Dee Torres

      Souce of definitions are A. 3.Urban Dictionary Also steampunkscholar at blogspot has an interesting take on the whole subgenre. Steam is not required as a principle requirement for steampunk. “The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.” And yes, I have read the book-not the Cliff notes 🙂

      • Brendan Ruse

        oh, cliff-note quip, nice and adult, you told me. I am surprised you did not go for the really cheap shot and ask if which movie version I watched most of.

        I suppose you had to use on-line sources for your definitions because there are not real sources, like reputable dictionaries, that would offer up a definition. Webster’s would be nice, but clearly a self-proclaimed scholar of the genera who runs his own blog is clearly good enough. (that sarcasm btw).

        My point is this: Steam-punk people will sink their teeth into any thing good to legitimize this passing fad they are obsessed with. if you feel you need to lay claim to 20,000 Leagues to make your point, go for it. But its still not Steampunk.

        • Dee Torres

          You asked if I read the book. I told you yes, and it wasn’t the Cliff Notes. How do you see that as a cheap shot as if I was” asking you which movie version that you watched most of” ? Huh???

          I used online sources because A) We are communicating online. That does not make the sources wrong. and the Urban Dictionary are not only legitimate sources, they are up to date. B) Sad to say that Websters only added “cyberpunk” to its dictionary this year. Cyberpunk has been around for more than a decade. Should I wait for Websters to catch up so that I may quote it?

          I am not a “steampunk” person not am I obssessed with it but I am also aware that it is a vital part of the SF community. Will it pass out of fashion? Maybe, probably, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exsist. Things cycle.

          PS You used “sarcasm” and feel the need to point it out. That’s seems a little needy to me.

          • Brendan Ruse

            touchy much? On-line sources are not necessarily legitimate and your reason for using them “because we are communicating on-line” is silly. If we were talking on the phone what source would you use then?

            Also, don’t go crying when Webster’s pulls the word cyber punk from the dictionary. I was not aware they added it to the book but each year they add as many words as they subtract.

            also, thank you for pointing out my use of sarcasm, I was afraid I was too subtle and you may have missed it.

            and cyber-punk is not a vital part science fiction. Sci Fi is a real and legitimate genera and will go on long after this passing fade dies and lays its mechanical bones to rest next to disco.

  • Sophie

    While I do feel that some legitimate points were made in your argument, I’m going to say that steampunk is not one complete genre, but a sub-genre of science fiction that is defined by the setting and style of the world in the story (the setting, of course, having to do primarily with steam-powered machinery and other technology made aware to the reader) .

    (I’m going to stop here and say that my definition is not from any source; I’ve made it up myself and as such, is not firmly grounded. I only say it from previous experience, but I will grant that it could be disputed. You may argue that because there is no set definition it is not a real sub-genre, but to me that is what makes it so entrancing; the fact that there are a few similarities in setting and then complete ambiguities everywhere else is what I love about steampunk.)

    There are two problems when you say that there must be someone else inventing diesel-powered machinery somewhere else. One: you did say “somewhere else”, which is not the setting that is taking place. Two: it is possible that they may be in fact inventing it, so it has not been perfected nor has it been brought to the attention of the public within the realm of the story. Three: you must be able to maintain a suspension of disbelief while reading it, just as with any genre outside of nonfiction. Steampunk is in a way an alternate history, a sort of historical fiction combined with science fiction, and as such there’s no reason to go about over-analyzing it.

    I do believe that if authors chose to set their story in a steampunk setting, they should do so with a purpose and not just because “why not”, not just because they love the style. I have not read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so I cannot account for whether or not it fits into this sub-genre. However, if he did indeed set it in the future but it contains persistent remnants of the past as mentioned in the comments above, then perhaps it is. I suppose it depends if Verne went out of his way to describe the steam-powered technology and the influence of brass in fashion.

  • What is Steampunk?

    I have recently been asked more and more often (as a librarian) by parents, by students, by others: “what is this steam-punk thing?”

    After all, not only does the name of the genre/movement/thing date only to the nineteen-eighties, which seems to be very recent for the creation of a literary genre, but any quick browse of the internet will suggest that there are a lot of competing definitions – some of them arguing quite vehemently. It often seems that even those who profess to be part of the leading edge of the “movement” do not agree on what it is all about anyway. Certainly confusing enough to those whose curiosity has been piqued, but who are not certain where to begin.

    In truth, the genre is much older than the name for it. And in truth, the various elements of the steam-punk “movement” (or “aesthetic,” or “style,” or “culture” or “politic”) have more in common than some of their various proponents will admit to.

    The genre grew out of Early Modern Science Fiction, with its foundations easily traced all the way back to the seventeenth century. Utopian Science Fiction is not new, and this particular form of science fiction does many things common to most Utopian literature.

    Trying to examine the questions of current society, and current morality (current to the time it is written), the setting is often far away in space (another world) or time (the distant future). Steam-punk often sets its stories in the not-entirely-distant past, using that time to examine questions of OUR present. Steam-punk is not limited to the Victorian period of our history, however. Stories can be set any time, any where, even in entirely fictitious worlds with no obvious relation to our own. Being “Victorian Historical Fiction” does not make something steam-punk, or prevent it from being so.

    The Victorian period is, however, a convenient time, because it is an excellent time to explore the particular questions that steam-punk, as a branch of Utopian literature, and as a branch of Early Modern Science Fiction, looks at. The questions of the Industrial Revolution, and Industrialization, and what that means for society.

    Utopian literature has been around long before Early Modern Science Fiction, and likely will continue to be written long after. Not all of it, for that matter, simply explores idealized societies – “dystopian” stories are just as much an important part of the genre.

    Industrialization promised many things during the late 1700s and early 1800s. This change in labour – this change in production – was seen by many as a distinct break from the past. And it still is.

    It was claimed variously to promise anything from the abolition of slavery to universal sufferage, liberty from labour for all to workers completely owning their labour and goods. During the early years of the Industrial Revolution, abolitionist efforts became more than words, universal sufferage was fought for, Marxism and Socialism had their births, and people WROTE. Authors such as Jules Verne looked at the present and the future through the glass of technology and industry.

    And these questions remain important today. Where has industrialization brought us? Why is there still injustice? Why do many workers and consumers seem to feel even more alienated from production and labour? How did the promises of the Industrial Revolution bring us to this?

    Steam-punk – whether the genre of speculative fiction, the aesthetic movement, the role-players, the craftsmen (and women), or the politicals – explores this question.

    I disagree, then, with those who would say that steam-punk is “only” a fiction genre, or is “only” an aesthetic, or is “only” a social movement. I think that pursuing many of the community interests which are labeled as steam-punk ALSO inherently questions the promises of the Industrial Revolution, sometimes unconsciously, but still questioning none-the-less.


  • Apathygrrl

    In your article you said: “the phrase “cyberpunk” was used to describe a person who had a lot of cybernetic attachments, but these gizmos were not necessarily improvements upon the human form…”

    Actually, many of those gizmos were improvements on the human form, granting such abilities as increased strength, increased speed, heightened vision and improved memory. Some allowed a person to interface directly with computers, and while one may argue that this was not an improvement on the human form, I think the characters with said augments would say otherwise.