Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What Is Steampunk?

Rusting Engine Block
When I posted a draft of my query on the WriteOnCon's forum for MG queries I was surprised to read a response from someone who said they didn't know if they could give good feedback because they didn't know what Steampunk was.

On the one hand, a good query should be all but genre-independent, citing story elements, conflict and character.

On the other hand, I still get puzzled looks when I tell people I'm writing a Steampunk Adventure for middle grade boys.

So, what is Steampunk?  Here is my working definition of Steampunk:

Steampunk is Science Fiction re-imagined from a Victorian perspective.

Nothing too scary about that, is there?

The Wikipedia gives a definition that expands on the notion of "from a Victorian perspective":

"The term denotes fictional works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era Britain — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, often featuring futuristic technology as the people of this historical period would have envisioned it to look like, i.e. based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc."

Personally, I like my definition better, but I could be biased.

Another Steampunk writer, Cherie Priest (whose Boneshaker is not only a fine story, but it's also an Amazon.com Sci-Fi Essentials book) has a lengthy blog entry on the definition of Steampunk over at the site her publisher (MacMillan) set up to promote her Clockwork Century universe books.  The full entry is well worth reading (particularly her reasons why she thinks Steampunk will be sticking around for a while).

From that entry, I particularly like this bit here:

"Steampunk could be considered a retro-futuristic neo-Victorian sensibility that is being embraced by fiction, music, games, and fashion. It is ornate and vibrant, and intricate. It believes that functional items can and should be beautiful. 
It is lots of fun. If it isn’t lots of fun, you’re doing it wrong."

Over at Kay Em Evans' blog she has an interview with Laurie McLean, an agent with Larsen Pomada who is actively seeking Steampunk submissions.  (Laurie, I'll be querying you soon!)

"If you take the fantastic Victorian devices of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells for example.  And you imagine that we never invented the internal combustion engine so everything from transportation to weapons to household appliances are steam powered, then you’ve got the beginnings of steampunk. I believe one reason it’s so popular, and the trend is growing, is because it is very inclusive of any permutation or creative twist, it is highly adaptable and surprising, it blends a love of devices and tinkering with great storytelling, and it presents an alternative future (or past) that is fun and easy to get enmeshed in."
Laurie also lists some of her favorite Steampunk sites; they're over at Kay's blog entry with the rest of the interview.

If you're a visual learner like me, maybe some pictures would help.

The wondrous Jake Von Slatt has numerous Steampunk mods over at his Steampunk Workshop. How'd you like to have this as your computer and keyboard?

Jake Von Slatt's fully functional
Computer Keyboard and Monitor
(I hope he doesn't mind my including it here)

A beautiful Steampunk-inspiried lamp:

Steampunk Lamp, posted at Wiremod.com by Hoodlumdan

And a mobile Steampunk "Clubhouse" that looks like the perfect traveling scientific laboratory and caravan.

From a 2009 SF Maker Faire event covered by Nowtopia.com

Many, many more visual interpretations of Steampunk can be found over at your local, neighborhood Google.  Or you could just click here for that same image search.

I hope you've seen something that has sparked your imagination.  There's plenty of fun to be had!

So, any thoughts?  Impressions?  Questions?  Let me know--I'm interested in what you have to say.

-- Tom


  1. Steampunk is Burning Man! seriously. I didn't understand it til I went. It was like living in it. but deserty. Steampunk is very fascinating. I like to read it, but not sure if I'd ever write in it.

  2. Hi Dayana,

    Flickr has an incredible collection of Steampunk images taken at various Burning Man festivals. (http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=burning%20man%20steampunk&w=all) There's a huge treehouse in amongst those images that is just amazing, especially when you consider it had to be built on-site for the festival and then taken down afterwards.

    -- Tom

  3. Also, many thanks to @mattdelman in the Twitterverse for tweeting about this entry, and to all of those who re-tweeted.

    Knowing I have been unknowingly re-tweeted about is... strange. (And greatly appreciated)

    -- Tom

  4. I hadn't heard of this genre before, but the description reminds me of some elements in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and the Hayao Mayazaki film Howl's Moving Castle (I haven't read the novel on which it's based). It's an entertaining concept!

  5. Where's your steampunk jewelry? I imagine bits and bobs of watch gears, springs, wires, and other shiny things.

  6. Van: I've read Pullman's trilogy, but long before I had heard of Steampunk. I'm not familiar with Mayazaki. I'll have to look into him. Thanks!

    Amlaped: As a goldsmith who works in precious and semi-precious gemstones, Bonn is not at all interested in any of the jewelry she's seen that's been tagged as "Steampunk." There's a lot of it out there and, yes, it's largely a collection of miscellaneous watch pieces. Not exactly what you'd call classic jewelry.

    -- Tom

  7. I love the pics--especially the computer--but I still prefer my Mac. Good luck w/ the novel. :)

  8. Kristi: I'm not giving up my Macs anytime soon either. (Mind you, the same type of computer mod could easily be done with an iMac)

    -- Tom

  9. Tom, Howl's Moving Castle is delightful, but another of Mayazaki's films, My Neighbour Totoro, is one of my all-time favourites. It is an incredibly vivid portrayal of the magic of childhood. It is the movie I watch when I am in particular distress and need to be reminded of innocence and joy. The illustration of landscape and natural light is another reason to see these movies. Totoro is much more realistic than Howl, but delves into folklore and a child's imagination.

  10. I remember you as being terribly fascinating and very intelligent and your writing definitely reflects that. I'm enjoying reading your blog.

    Dawn Church (nee Rogers and, for a few years, a married name of Williams)