Genrely Speaking: Steampunk

So it occurred to me in the middle of the string of steampunk spotlights I did over the last month that I never took the time to define what steampunk is. And for that matter, I throw around a lot of genre names without really saying what I think they are. This is significant, since genres, like most other non-scientific classifications schemes (and even some scientific classification schemes) are a bit vague and their definitions tend to vary from person to person.

A genre, for those who aren’t that familiar with the term, is a category of a work of fiction based on its style, form or content (according to Merriam-Websters.)

So, what are some hallmarks of the style, form and content of the steampunk genre?

1. A setting in the Victorian era, or a fictional world that mostly conforms to the social, political and economic realities of that era. In either case, an exception is made in the matter of technology. The works of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne are often used as an example. The British empire is an almost omnipresent force in steampunk novels, and very few things can replace it. It often serves as the driving force in science, exploration and economy, not to mention serving as an excellent source of political intrigue and social commentary. If Britain is not used as the setting or it’s foundation, expect to find the American West or some other frontier setting. Otherwise, you might be looking at a different genre. This idea is usually summarized with the question, “What if the future came early?”

2. An emphasis on science, progress and the resulting social and sometimes military conflict that these forces bring about. One of the biggest themes in steampunk is science. With all the change and turmoil during the Industrial Revolution, it often looked like science would swallow up everything that people had known before and leave behind a world of steam, gears and barely human creatures to oversee them (today this is known as the technological singularity and people are expecting to actually replace humanity, rather than diminish them). The benefits and drawbacks of technology will often be debated.

3. Social change. The Victorian era also saw the beginning of the labor movement and women’s rights. These themes are almost always worked into steampunk stories. And, of course, the British Empire offers a wealth of opportunities to examine the effects of empire. In some cases these things are integral to the story, in some cases they merely signify the era and in some cases these causes are actually advanced further than their historical benchmarks, to go with the theme of progress come early.

Are there drawbacks to this genre? Sure, all genres have their pros and cons. Many people think of the Victorian era as a time of great scientific progress, and it’s true that a lot of people were running around and writing down the things they saw and a lot of very useful machines were invented, but it’s also true that many of the ideas espoused in the Victorian era were flat out wrong. (Ether, to give just one example.) Yet steampunk rarely looks at what the Victorians got wrong.

Sometimes that can be retconned by taking more modern ideas and handing them to scientists who are beginning to uncover them, but that papers over the fact that science was hardly the simplistic, straightforward undertaking so many people, even today, depict it as. There were a lot of widely accepted “scientific” ideas that were flat out wrong, “theories” with no experimental support that were accepted just because they sounded right an fit the mood. Quacks exploited people with pseudoscientific medicines or treatments. Steampunk rarely tackles that particular dark side of science – it’s just not as sexy as Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein’s monster.

One thing that authors will probably find very appealing about steampunk is that literacy rates were fairly high in some parts of the world. The written word, we think, was valued. But if you look at the kind of writing that was being done… well, it wasn’t always that great. There was a kind of story called the penny dreadful, so named because they only cost a penny. And, as the name implies, they weren’t exactly great reading.

In short, while most people recognize that the Victorian era had its flaws, steampunk tends to idealize certain parts of it that were, in reality… less than ideal, just like all the other parts.

What are the strengths of steampunk? Steampunk is a very romantic genre. Exploration and greater understanding are incredibly powerful and captivating ideas, and steampunk puts these things at the front and center, giving the reader immediate and visceral buy-in.

Steampunk is also a great home for a large number of fun archetypes. The gentleman adventurer or scientist, or his distaff counterparts, the plucky heiress with something to prove (be it her scientific prowess, her adventuring acumen or just her general equality with men), the airship pirate, the mad scientist – the list goes on and on. It’s a lot of fun for writers and makes it a lot easier for readers to connect quickly with the characters.

Finally, there’s a great appeal to returning to what many view as a great era of history and throwing our own hurdles at them, asking ourselves how would these people have handled the problem? When that’s done right we have fiction at it’s best.

I’ve shared several steampunk tales I love, but to be honest I wouldn’t mind hearing about one or two more. Any recommendations?


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