What Is Steampunk?

Posted Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 03:00 pm GMT -4 by

steampunk Ghostbusters cosplay

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:

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

Steampunk Films:

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’.

Steampunk TV:

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

  • Um dude… Serenity while awesome is not even remotely Steampunk.

    • I would have to disagree with you. I think that Firefly/Serenity, while definitely futuristic, still lies within the fringe borders of steampunk. Of course, that’s why I said you’d get different definitions and it just seems that your take on steampunk varies from mine. It’s all shiny. :P

  • Arthurpeterchappel

    On TV Steampunk, the David Tennant Dr Who adventure, The Next Doctor has a steampunk cyberman creation in Victorian times, the Cyber-King

    • Great catch! I almost put that in but since Doctor Who in general isn’t steampunk, I left it off.

  • I can see where you would say that Firefly/Serenity isn’t steampunk. However, I tend to be a little more expansive in what fits within my genre definition. I think that if things like ’9′, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Back to the Future 3′, all of which fit within my definition of steampunk, then so can Firefly. Like I said in my article, steampunk definitions will vary depending on who you are asking and it just seems like our views disagree and that’s perfectly fine.

    • JKE

      The Firefly universe has steampunk elements. However, I would not consider it to be steampunk. That being said, I agree with Scott that the steampunk genre definition should be as broad as possible. Similarly, I am a strong proponent of a “big tent” approach to the cyberpunk genre.

  • Anonymous

    I’m reading the second book in the series The Clockwork Century, and I have to say, it comes across as severely lacking in imagination, I feel I could write an epic that would put every book, movie and TV show on this page to shame. I should shut up and start writing eh. Steampunk has definitely not been fully realized in my opinion.