By Cassie Gustafson, Katie Dubell, and Stephanie Panozzo
In order to write Steampunk, one first needs to have a basic understanding of what defines the subgenre. At first, Steampunk may seem elusive—difficult to define or even conceptualize. And yet Steampunk by its very definition encompasses many settings, characters, themes, and all manners of gadgets and machinery. True, there are certainly key elements to keep in mind and incorporate as one writes, but rather than close off and limit the authors, Steampunk opens outward and grants its creators countless liberties. For further definitions of Steampunk, please see our Steampunk: Defined page.
- Analogue Systems
- Clockwork Systems
- Difference/Analytical Engines
- Flying Machines
- Time Machines
Reference: Suzannelazear [Suzanne Lazear]. “A Guide to Steampunk Gadgets and Technology.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
Of course, Steampunk elements are in no way limited to the above list. Steampunk is that, and so much more. Read any Steampunk novel or watch any Steampunk movie to see that these are a mere branching off point. Think brass and copper, aviator caps and goggles, corsets and waistcoats, thigh holsters and top hats, gears and all matters of machinery. The possibilities are endless!
What Steampunk Is Not: Now that we have defined (in loose terms) what Steampunk is, it is important to also note what Steampunk is not.
Steampunk is not Science Fiction. Yes, it is a subgenre of Science Fiction and thereby shares many elements of its predecessor, but Steampunk fantasizes while Science Fiction attempts to foretell. Steampunk looks to reimagine the past while Science Fiction tries to predict and examine the future. In essence, Steampunk takes the technologies of the past and puts a contemporary, fantastical spin on them while Science Fiction takes our modern technology and shoots to invent the not-yet-invented.
Steampunk is not Cyberpunk. While the two genres can share a gritty and raw overlay, Cyberpunk usually involves a hopeless scenario where the characters (and the world) are doomed from the very beginning. All attempts to thwart the attacks against humanity will inevitably fail. Think: the virus or the robots that destroy(s) the world and all mankind. Though Steampunk often shares the high-stakes of Cyberpunk, the idealist, revolutionary protagonists almost always come out on top. This owes to Steampunk’s themes, which we will cover next.
- Makerism– The act of tinkering, of taking something apart to see how it works then rebuilding it anew
- Innovention– Innovation merged with Invention
- Idealism– The mentality that one’s actions should enhance “the greater good”
- Rebellion– To overthrow or conquer the oppressive or dictating powers that be
Reference: Suzannelazear [Suzanne Lazear]. “The ‘punk’ in Steampunk/Steampunk Ideology.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
As we covered in the “What Steampunk Is Not” and “Themes” sections, Steampunk tends to center around innovation, invention, idealism, and reform. The optimistic triumph aspect of Steampunk (vs. Cyberpunk’s often pessimistic outcomes) and its playfulness with technology (vs. Science Fiction’s more serious examinations) allows it to explore alternative versions of history: the “what might have been.” Plus, it is just darn fun!
- Adventurer/ Explorer
- Dandy/ Femme Fatal
- Mad Scientist/ Inventor
- Mechanic/ Tinker
- Philosopher/ Scholar
- Socialite/ Lady/ Gentleman
- Street Sparrow/ Scrappy Survivor
Reference: Suzannelazear [Suzanne Lazear]. “Writing Steampunk Archetypes.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 17 Jan. 2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
Once again, the archetypes act as a catalyst for other characters to emerge. For example, the Sherlock Holmes depicted in the movies combines the archetypes of Scholar, Tinker, and Victorian Gentleman with the eccentricity and indifference to societal expectations of the Mad Scientist. As demonstrated by this example, many of these archetypes can be combined, expanded, or reinvented to realize an innovative yet timely new character.
Setting: Though Steampunk nods to the Victorian era (mid-to-late 1800’s until 1900), this subgenre reaches into all parts of our world and even beyond. Steampunk fiction has been set in Victorian London, in the Wild West, and even other planets. What is important to remember is Steampunk’s dedication to the past in giving each of its stories an “old-timey” feel. Think dusk in 1890’s urban London, the misty streets lit only by lamplight that do nothing to illuminate the shadows in dark corners. Think the Old West in the 1850’s among a one-street town with banks, saloons, horses, and outlaws. Whatever the chosen setting, make it speak to the reader almost as if it is a character in and of itself.
Here’s a useful overview of Steampunk:
“Steampunk for Beginners” (By Suzanne Lazear)
Steampunk is a term that there’s been quite a bit of buzz about. But, what is exactly Steampunk?
Steampunkers party like it’s 1899 (and what happens when Goth’s discover the color brown, lol.) Steampunk is set in a world where steam and natural gas, not coal and electricity is still the primary power source. It’s a world abounding with airships, gas lamps, gears, cogs, and brass goggles and populated with mad scientists, philosophers, adventurists, and air pirates. HG Wells and Jules Vernon are huge inspirations for Steampunk. Examples include League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Stardust, Treasure Planet, and the Golden Compass.
Even though there’s a heavy Victorian influence and feel to Steampunk, there could still be extraordinary technology all done with Victorian materials and in Victorian styles. There can even be Steampunk airships, space ships, computers, and brass robots. Technology may have simply evolved differently–or maybe a natural (or unnatural disaster) caused society to “regress,” though Steampunk stories traditionally lack the dystopian/anarchist elements that cyberpunk has.
Steampunk stories can be set in the past, in the future, or on another planet. They can be alternate histories, mysteries with hard-boiled detectives or cozy Victorian ladies, they can be gothic, or horror, or sweet romance. They can be bodice rippers, erotic, or “tame.” Steampunk stories can even feature the supernatural or paranormal elements.
It’s in the setting, the language, the gadgets, and the characters–who could speak like Victorian ladies or fast-talking American teenagers. With Steampunk, there’s really a great opportunity to be creative and make amazing worlds ranging from gritty to opulent. Its basis is Victorian in nature, but it’s also fiction so you can do incredible and imaginative things. Are you ready to write?
Reference: suzannelazear [Suzanne Lazear]. “Steampunk for Beginners.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. AgeofSteam/Wordpress, 28 Dec. 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
More Useful References:
- Click here to see examples of Steampunk stories from CSUF graduate students.
- For further examples of Steampunk stories, click here.
- For the publishing aspect of Steampunk, see this Writer’s Digest page.
- Click here for Mike Perschon’s academic blog on Steampunk.
- This extensive Steampunk blog shares a wealth of information
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