If you ask a handful of steampunk aficionados the definition of steampunk, you’re liable to get as many answers as people in the survey. Steampunk is a notoriously hard to define sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that focuses on the combination of the past (almost always Victorian era style) with a science fiction/fantasy edge that didn’t exist during that period in history (steam powered or sci-fi machinery and devices, robots, and sometimes magical artifacts). About the only thing you’ll see in agreement across most steampunk definitions is that things are stylish, brown, brass, and full of gears and steam.
The origins of Steampunk are most often traced to the writings of authors like Jules Verne (’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’) or H.G. Wells (‘The Time Machine’). Many modern steampunk writers adopt a romanticized style similar to Verne or Wells (with a little Mark Twain tossed in for good measure). Modern steampunk, like its fans, is all over the place. Some steampunk is surely set in the past with modernized steam technology like Cherie Priest’s ‘Clockwork Century’ series. While other steampunk is set in the far-flung future but with archaic technology to keep the romantic aspect. An example of this would be Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly’.
Whichever definition of steampunk you choose to adhere to, there’s no doubting… it’s a genre that’s here to stay! It’s a style that has worked its way into almost every creative genre imaginable. You can find steampunk influences in all sorts of movies, books, television, music, video games, comic books, home décor, and art.
Steampunk literature is usually very romanticized, often portraying strong, self-empowered central characters. However, because of the popularity of steampunk, some steam-writing is bad writing with some brass on for decoration. Here are a few pieces of great steampunk literature.
‘The Clockwork Century’ series by Cherie Priest, ‘The Difference Engine’ by William Gibson, The ‘Leviathan’ series by Scott Westerfeld, and ‘Infernal Devices’ by K.W. Jeter
Filmmakers more often use the aesthetic styling of steampunk than the actual genre tropes. And even the ones that I would consider steampunk are more often than not, terrible bad films. (See ‘Wild Wild West’ with Wil Smith if you’re wondering what I’m referring to.) However, there are some great steampunk films out there if you’re willing to look. A few of the better ones are:
‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’, ‘Serenity’, ‘The City of Lost Children’, ‘Brazil’, ‘9’, ‘Steamboy’, and ‘Back to the Future 3’.
As meager as the choices for steampunk cinema, the selections for television are even more sparse. However, there are a few that I would recommend, even if they are more often modern or futuristic shows that incorporate the steampunk technology or aesthetic.
‘The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.’, ‘Firefly’, ‘Warehouse 13’, ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’, and Syfy’s ‘Tin Man’ mini-series.
For a great short documentary on steampunk, check out ‘PBS Gets Steampunk’d’