A Steampunk Primer

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Steampunk. The name evokes an atmospheric vision of London; streets shimmering with damp, the faint glow of yellow gaslight as it barely penetrates the pea soup fog, and swirls of steam rising up from the pavement.

Perhaps you have never heard of steampunk. Or have only heard the term, but have no clue as to what it means, in which case you are no doubt thinking: That’s all very well and good, but what, precisely, is steampunk? For you, dear reader, we have created a steampunk primer.

Gail Carriger has the simplest, and perhaps, my favorite, definition:  “…steampunk is the future as the Victorians imagined it, where steam power never died, and electricity never dominated.”

At its heart, steampunk is a celebration and reinterpretation of the Victorian era. It takes the technology of the time and builds on it, often taking it much farther than any actual Victorian could have imagined.

Think the Industrial Revolution gone mad.

It is rife with brass goggles, airships, gears, springs, and sees both the beauty and the monstrosity that is inherent in machines. While it is most often associated with the Victorian and Edwardian eras, it can also involve Victorian-based technologies brought forward into a modern, contemporary or dystopic setting.

There are two theories as to where the punk part comes in. Some claim it has to do with the subculture aspect of steampunk–the genre has spawned  an entire subcultural. Others maintain that punk refers to early steampunk literature’s addressing of societal and political themes. There is often an undercurrent of social injustices and class disparities, often reflected in an oppressive environment with a discontented social or working class. Many steampunk works explore the cost of industrial advance when weighed against the cost to society or man as well as the consequences of a despotic government or exploitative empire.

The seeds of today’s steampunk can be found in the likes of Victorian writers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, whose vivid imaginations took science to places it had never been in real life. K. W. Jeter first coined the term steampunk, back in 1987 and he, along with Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Michael Moorcock are seen as the inventors of the modern steampunk genre. Up until the last five years or so, steampunk was a small but respectable, subgenre of speculative fiction. But recently, a few authors have brought steampunk genre to a much wider audience: Scott Westerfeld, Cassandra Claire, and Gail Carriger’s books have all hit the NYT bestseller list.

There are some differences of opinions on what qualifies as true steampunk. (Like Switzerland, I am neutral on the subject.) Some say it can deal with any alternate technologies and any time period; others say different historical time periods featuring other than steam technology require a different label. For example, clockpunk–which deals with extrapolating the earlier technology of clock gears–is separate from steampunk while others declare it a subcategory.

Either way, there is a high level of individualism running through the genre. It is all about interpreting rather than replicating. Of infusing it with the creator’s own vision of Victorian ideals and technology run amok.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, if you’re interested in further reading you might check out:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  • Nomad of the Time Streams by Michael Moorcock
  • Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
  • Mainspring by Jay Lake
  • Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • The Hunchback Chronicles by Arthur Slade
  • The Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare
  • The Iron Duke by Meljean Brooks
  • Souless by Gail Carriger
  • The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith
  • The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

School Library Journal also has a terrific list of ten classic steampunk works along with ten more recent titles.

Steampunk in Film & TV:

  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
  • The Wild, Wild West
  • Van Helsing
  • Sherlock Holmes (2010)
  • Warehouse 13

But steampunk is not just about books and movies. It also encompasses art andfashion. It is an entire subculture and aesthetic movement. The artwork often involves a highly distinctive fusion of gears and mechanics, with a heavy dose of Victorian flavor. Fashion, likewise, is a highly individualized mix of the antique combined with the merely old, finished off with a heavy dose of brassy whimsy.

Some more general links to explore if you’re so inclined:




http://steampunkwriters.ning.com/ (A writers and artists guild)

So there you have it. This primer is not by any means exhaustive or even the ultimate authority on all things steampunk, but it will bring you up to speed in time to help you enjoy the rest of steampunk week here on GeekMom!

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15 thoughts on “A Steampunk Primer

  1. Thanks for all the great information about steampunk. I’m a huge fan of H.G. Wells, especially the Time Machine, but now I have some new titles to add to my reading list!

  2. Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan series is awesome. I got it for my 12 year old and ended up reading it when he loved it so much. We can hardly wait for the 3rd book to come out!

    1. B.A., it IS fabulous, isn’t it? And I think the WWI period is hugely underrepresented, so it’s great he’s brought it to so many people’s attention.

  3. You forgot to mention the movie Steamboy (Katsuhiro Otomo). It´s a anime style steampunk adventure that takes place in London, right in the victorian era.

  4. Very timely theme for us since I’m in a creative frenzy trying to finish a variety of props and costumes for an upcoming steampunk convention. I added the photos of the steampunk fairy costume I made for my daughter to the geekmom flickr group.

  5. I loved Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn books from the beginning (before Steampunk really took off, at least in YA)! They really deserve more attention, and I love steampunk recommendation lists for every mention of them.

    I also really love Leviathan and Behemoth, but they’ve gotten more attention already!

    1. Yay, another AIRBORN fan! And isn’t that funny how some books gain so much more attention than others…Although, I’m sure that’s in large part to Westerfeld’s huge contemporary readership–a lot of which crossed over to his steampunk work.

  6. Great primer, thanks! I’ve only recently become interested in Steampunk, at least as far as seeking it out in books, etc. I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetic, I just didn’t have a name for it for years.

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