Goggles, top hats, airships, and, of course, gears. These are the things that most often come to mind when someone hears the word “steampunk” but what is steampunk actually?
Boiled down to the simplest explanation, steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that includes steam-powered technology. The technology can be current (like a computer) or based on older inventions, but is powered by steam. Most commonly, steampunk is set in the 19th century Victorian era. However, America’s Wild West is also a common setting. (Remember that Will Smith movie Wild Wild West?).
That is just the basic concept, though. There’s much more to steampunk, a lot of which has found its way into literature, movies, video games, clothes, and music. Let’s take a look at each of these:
What does steampunk read like?
Many people associate the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne with steampunk. This is kind of true, but not wholly accurate. Yes, they wrote in the same Victorian-era setting in which steampunk often occurs; however, they actually lived in that time period. Steampunk authors live now (or around now) and choose the Victorian time as their setting.
Instead, Wells and Verne can be thought of as inspiration for contemporary steampunk authors. K.W. Jeter is the author who coined the term steampunk in 1987. Even though steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction, the stories contain other elements like fantasy, alternate history, romance, adventure, and even horror. Sometimes we learn best by examples, so here is a list of steampunk books you could check out to get a better idea of the genre yourself, in no particular order:
Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy by K. W. Jeter
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy
Steampunk by Ann VanderMeer
Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded by Ann VanderMeer
What does steampunk look like?
One of the first steampunk movies I have ever watched is The Rocketeer, and it was not until years later when I was researching steampunk that I even realized it could be labeled as such. At the time I just thought I was watching a movie about a superhero with a jetpack.
Here are other movies that you may have seen and not realized that they were steampunk:
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
If you have seen any or all of the above movies, could you imagine playing or adventuring in such settings? As I said before, there are steampunk video games, too:
Final Fantasy 6
What do steampunk clothes look like?
Most of the clothes that are considered to be steampunk are modeled after clothes from the Victorian era. It is a blend of modern and old which means that steampunk outfits will include bustles, corsets, petticoats, top hats, waistcoats, and spats. The outfit will also include the technology of the genre: parasol, goggles, and ray guns. There really is no “color” of steampunk though there is a joke that steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.
Is all steampunk set in Victorian times?
No. The American West is a popular steampunk setting, but there are others. Alternative history, for example: one way to make a story steampunk is to take a point in the past and introduce steam-powered technology to it. This could also lead to a steampunk future depending on the past event that was changed. Post-apocalyptic, fantasy, and horror are other flavors of steampunk.
What does steampunk sound like?
This area was completely new to me. When I was working on a steampunk novel, I wanted to find music that matched the mood of the story to listen to while I wrote. I Googled “steampunk music” and found a new (to me) genre. So what does it sound like? Abney Park’s lead singer, Robert Brown, very loosely defined it as, “mixing Victorian elements and modern elements.”
Just as the genre of steampunk is wide and open so is its music. There are some songs that sound like folk music, some that sound like varieties of punk, to big band, to rock. I can try to describe it more, but it would be better for you to listen for yourself. Here are some of the bands I like and more:
The Clockwork Cabaret
The Absinthe Minded Professors
The Melting Clock
Fearless Vampire Killers
The world of steampunk is pretty extensive. This was not meant to be a comprehensive guide in any way, but hopefully it gave you some insight and now you have a better idea of what steampunk can be. So, go out and explore some of the books, movies, or music listed in this article and come back and tell us if you found a new interest.
Well? What are you waiting for? Go out and get your geek on!