What is Steampunk?

I’ve been talking about doing this post for a while but to be honest I’ve been putting it off because it’s just such a broad subject. I love steampunk, and I’m enjoying writing my own first foray into this genre but I want to make sure I do it justice. I’ve had several people ask me exactly what steampunk is so I’m going to give explaining it a go but be warned, this post is only going to scratch the surface…

In a really simplistic nutshell, steampunk is a fictional alternate reality in which steam-powered technology stayed in fashion as did Victorian society (either in old Londinium or the Wild West). Think dirigibles, steam-powered armour suits, Victorian spies running around with plasma blasters, bizarre technology and whole lot of tea. Imagine Babbage had actually managed to build his computer or if Queen Victoria had managed to augment herself so she stayed in power forever!! These questions, and others, are explored in steampunk literature; it’s the ultimate expression of what if?

I tried to remember what my first exposure to steampunk was, and I honestly can’t. It might have been The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris or it might have been the music of Professor Elemental (Steam Powered will tell you all you need to know about this genre) or perhaps something else altogether. But whatever my first steampunk taste was, I have since fully immersed myself in it. Not only that, but I have realised looking back, how many things I had liked before somehow fit into steampunk too.

Technology and science are a huge part of steampunk which is why a lot of real scientists seem to crop up here and there as characters in these stories. (Tesla and Edison appear in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences for example.) I’ll admit, the tech part does appeal to my geek side that loves science and watching science fiction but as with science fiction, there are levels of ‘intensity’. I like sci-fi but I would never call myself a hard core sci-fi fan because some of it is too heavy for me. Just like I like paranormal fantasy based in recognisable modern day lands but I don’t personally like dungeon and dragon style fantasy. Basically, I like my steampunk to be a riproaring romp full of adventure, quips and bravado. If this sounds like your sort of thing, then I suggest you check out the aforementioned Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences as well as these authors: George Mann, Gail Carriger, Liesel Schwartz, Lavie Tidhar and Joe Benitez (author of the Lady Mechanika graphic novels).

I know hard core steampunks would be crying out right now at the obvious names missed off this list. But hold on, those are the writers I like. As I said, I like those for the fun adventure which I personally find more accessible than some more scholarly steampunk writers. However, I shall not miss them out. The term steampunk was coined by one of these writers in the late 80s- K. W. Jeter when trying to describe the work of himself, James Blaylock and Tim Powers. However, these three were not the start of steampunk. Although the term did not exist then, HG Wells and Jules Verne are often held up as examples of writers of the speculative fiction now known as steampunk. Other key names in the field include William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Michael Moorcock, Philip Reeve, Philip Pullman, Mark Hodder, Cherie Priest, Scott Westerfeld, Jim Butcher and GD Falksen to name but a few.

Of course, steampunk is not confined to literature oh no! It is starting to appear more and more in all areas. Wild, Wild West although not Will Smith’s most well received outing, is definitely steampunk (as was the tv show it originated from). A recent Batman animation, Gotham by Gaslight, delves deep into the genre (where another figure who appears often, Jack the Ripper, makes an appearance). The musical steampunk subculture is taking off too, not only with Professor Elemental but also Victor and The Bully, Captain of the Lost Waves, Steam Powered Giraffe and many others.

Pixabay- Tim Hill

Some might say steampunk lets us see what would have happened if the sun really had never set on the British Empire and if scientists ruled behind the scenes. It harks back to a time where, manners and etiquette were tantamount (at least as long as you didn’t look behind the scenes). That’s why you can find the rise of the tea-duelling contest at many steampunk events. Yes, that’s what I said, tea-duelling. Whose biscuit will last the longest after dunking? It’s a question we’ve all asked. Once you’ve dusted off the crumbs, many ladies can attend a parasol self-defense class and learn the trade of a female agent of the Queen. If you don’t fancy that, how about learn the art of baritsu, Sherlock’s favoured martial art. Even if you don’t want to go in for all that, it’s hard not to get carried away with the sheer wonder of the costumes and props that steampunks wear. Yes, me too. I have been spotted in public with my googles, bespoke blaster holster and cogs dangling from everywhere. Old watch pieces, coins and hats are a steampunk’s best friends. We do so love getting crafty and making things out of supposed old junk.I’ll also admit, my current project is a Green Arrow steampunk crossover, because how can you outgeek a steampunk? Comic book steampunk 🙂

So has that answered your question about what steampunk is? Probably not to be honest. You really do have to experience it for yourself. A small taster can be found on my short prompt story Miss Nicoletta and the Mysterious Mecha Dinosaur. Give that a read and, if you don’t find it offensive, then I really do recommend all of the authors named in this article. Check out if there are any events happening near you- Asylum is the biggest one in the UK, Leicester Space Centre hold one every year and Whitby now hold two a year! And as a great profesor (when he’s not searching for his ape of a butler, I mean an actual ape, through time) has called out many a time, “You’re invited!”


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