What is Steampunk?

I write across several genres of both fiction and non-fiction, but many of my novels and stories are Steampunk.  The biggest question we Steampunk enthusiasts get is, “What IS Steampunk?”  At the Wild Western Festival I manned the booth for the Arizona Steampunk Society, where we handed out brochures and event descriptions and I answered that question around 300 times.  I conducted an entire seminar/panel at the LepreCon Convention in Tempe on the topic, powerpoint presentation is here:

Why is Steampunk Picking up Steam

The most basic answer is that you already know what Steampunk is and probably like it, you just don’t know the term.  Steampunk is science fiction adventure set between 1830 to 1900.  It is the Victorian Era in England when Brittania grew and the British Empire never had the sun set upon it.  During this period of colonialization, most of South America, Africa and Asia were annexed by the “major powers” of Europe.  In America, it was the pre-Civil War era, through the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Wild West.  It encompassed most of our traditional movies and literature about westerns and the Civil War.

Examples of Steampunk begin with writers who wrote during that time – HG Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and even some Kipling.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Land that Time Forgot, The Mysterious Island, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Dorian Grey, Sherlock Holmes and other stories are ALL steampunk.  Science fiction and adventure, set during that time.

More modern examples include The Wild Wild West TV series and movies, the movie versions of stories listed above, Cowboys and Aliens, the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer and so on.  That is the literary and movie answer.

However, there is a world-wide movement, complete with millions of fans and thousands of conventions in which people dress up and play out parts in Steampunk.  This includes Steampunk music, indie films, events (my wife is at a Steampunk Masquerade Party tonight, I am at home, just able to walk after surgeries, can’t dance) and even a life-style.  Those familiar with goth, punk, manga, hipsters and cosplay will understand more what these movements are like.  The people of Steampunk have a blast and are among the nicest people around.

So what then is the allure of Steampunk?  It is simply fun, naivete and adventure.  In the nineteenth century, Steam powered engines such as railroads, factories and other sciences made dramatic changes in the world.  Electricity, steel, oil, transportation all changed society from an agrarian world with no lights but candles and ships which relied on the wind, to a modern world.  This allowed war to change from what it had been for nearly a thousand years to a suddenly dangerous and brutal occurrence.  It allowed us to see at night, to move around, to transport over distances, to build skyscrapers, to travel the world reliably.  At the time, large parts of the globe were unexplored.  Africa was considered “the Dark Continent” because there were no maps except the coast.  The source of the Nile was discovered by Stanley and Livingston.  It would not be before 1922 that King Tut’s tomb was found.  The world was mysterious, and for the first time we could explore it.

Nine Kings Gather in Windsor Castle in 1910

This was an era of industrial magic, robber barons, monarchies, creation of huge cities with slums, conquering of weaker nations, exploration and excitement and fear of the future.  The United States and France were the only democracies, and neither were working out too well.  America had a major Civil War with over 700,000 casualties.  France had starvation, then the Terror, then Napoleon, then stupid wars like the Franco-Prussian War.  It was a simple existence gone wild through industrialization and science.  New fighting old.

That is Steampunk.  From 1900 or so to 1940s is referred to as ‘Dieselpunk’.  These include such favorites as Indiana Jones and Sky Raiders of the Universe, Tin Tin and Captain America.  Future sci-fi was originally called ‘Cyber-punk’ when computers were new in the 70s and 80s.  We have computers all over now, but when they first came out, they created a hopeful and scary future for us, just as steam power and science did for the Victorian Era.

Here are some Steampunk pictures to show you some variations in the genre and the community:



Filed under Humor and Observations, Uncategorized, Writing

3 responses to “What is Steampunk?

  1. galaxybureau

    Reblogged this on galaxybureau.


  2. Thanks for the info, very informative.


  3. Thanks for this post, it was very thoughtful. I generally agree with the idea that much of the appeal for steampunk surrounds the massive cultural change happening in the Victorian era, but I don’t think the genre is nearly as confined to that specific time period. If your interested you can check out my thoughts in an article I wrote recently: http://entropicworlds.com/2012/10/30/critical-engineering-a-perspective-on-defining-steampunk/


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