Steampunk: My definition (Next Big Fiction Trend RWA/09)

by Kathryn Smith
Publish Post

Steampunk was one the topics brought up at last week's Romance Writers of America's National Conference in Washington D.C. One comment I heard is that Steampunk is a hard genre to define, but it's predicted to be the next big thing, along with post appocolyptic fiction ala Joss Ware.

So what is Steampunk? Well, wikipedia offers the following:

Steampunk is a sub-genre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of "the path not taken" of such technology as dirigibles, analog computers, or digital mechanical computers (such as Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine); these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or with a presumption of functionality.

Basically? Steampunk -- in my opinion -- is the perfect blending of romance, sci-fi and fantasy with a heavy dose of gothic sensibilities. Fun!

Chances are you're already familiar with at least one Steampunk franchise. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is very steamy with it's reinvention of literary characters, magic and futuristic technology. The movie wasn't that great, but it is pretty. If you want a real feel of just how gritty the genre can get, you must read Alan Moore's original comic! I will never, ever look at Jeckyl and Hyde or the Invisible Man in the same way again! But Moore's work is brilliant because not only does he create something new, he uses characters and fiction of the Victorian era to add extra depth to his work. It's not just a fictionalized Victorian World, it's a fictionalized account of fictional Victorian characters! Brilliant! It's got submarines, potions, sex and aliens. What more could you want?

Chris Bachalo and Joe Kelly also did a comic book. The series, simply titled Steampunk managed to last for 13 issues and is a dark, sometimes twistedly funny and often strangely touching tale of an alternate world where man becomes machine and the woman we know as Queen Victoria is a svelte, crazy kick-ass warrior!

While there's not a lot of Steampunk fiction out there, there is a webzine and a ton of websites that feature technology worthy of the era, such as this computer:

But one of the most enduring characteristics of Steampunk has to be the clothing. In fact, the Steampunk look is often confused and mixed with more traditional gothic fashion. If gothic is dripping sleeves, black velvet and long flowing locks, then Steampunk is striped stockings, hiked up skirts and dreadlocks. Afterall, we can't have your hair or skirt getting in the way when you're trying to fix the analytical engine of an automaton now can we?

Steampunk fashion also lends what is typically male toward the female. Steampunk women wear trousers and tight fitting waist coats. They wear goggles and top hats, frock coats and heavy boots. Imagine, mixing fashion and practicality! Well, perhaps it's not that practical. But it is a lot of fun.
Steampunk and it's American counterpart, Weird West is often used to portray futuristic worlds as well. Think of A Clockwork Orange -- definitely a Steampunk influence there. One only has to look at Malcolm McDowell in his bowler and dandy suit to see the neo Victorian influence.

The TV show The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. was another example of Weird West and starred the ever amazing chin of one Mr. Bruce "I'm gorgeous AND funny" Campbell. The show only lasted a couple of seasons, but you can savor it forever on DVD.

And speaking of DVD, I'm pretty sure Joss Whedon is a fan of Steampunk and Weird West. Most recently he released the web phenom Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, which not only had elements of the Victorian, but singing evil cowboys! Now, this is set in a modern, or even futuristic world, so it's not technically Steampunk, but still, it's Joss Whedon and it's bloody brilliant.

But Whedon gave us something that was even more Steampunky/Weird Westerny than Dr. Horrible. He gave us Firefly. Shall we all take a moment to mourn the unfair demise of this amazing, genius TV show? While set in the future, Firefly was a western in spirit, combining everything we love about cowboys with everything we love about space. Lazy drawls, holsters worn low on the hip and scary, beautiful amazons -- Firefly had it all! And just because I miss the show so gorram much, here's a pic of Nathan Fillion (Mal Reynolds -- be still my heart!) who was just one of the fabulous stars of the show.

So, if you didn't quite 'get' what Steampunk was before, do you get it now? Are you as excited as I am to hear that soon we'll be able to read romances set in this fabulous genre? Katie MacAlister and Meljean Brook have Steampunk series coming soon. Emma Holly's Demon series had SP elements in it, and most recently Gail Dayton (who I met in DC last week) has published a SP romance. I saw the cover for her upcoming release, and it's gorgeous!

And I suppose, if I must toot my own horn that my Brotherhood of the Blood series had Steampunk elements as well. My Victorian vamps had to deal with an enemy with access to great power, and there was blood magic too! In fact, I've been inspired to write a little SP of my own, but for now that's all I'm going to say for now. :-)

So, dish -- does Steampunk do it for you? Are you excited for this new wave of fiction? Or do you wish authors would stop messing with your historical romance/science fiction? Inquiring minds want to know!


  1. I LOVE Firefly!! Thanks for a great article on steampunk! Do you know what publishers are the most interested in it? I love anything Science Fiction, and this happens to give me the best of both worlds. I love how things are evolving... how authors like Katie MacAlister (and your Victorian Vampires) give me something new and exciting to enjoy. ~Laura T

  2. Laura, I haven't heard of any publishers in general who are looking. I really think it's still so new that there's more buzz than books right now. Hopefully that will change soon!

  3. Terrific post Kathryn! I think it's all good! I love pop-cultural mash-ups. I think Tim Burton has that steampunk-esque vision going on on his movies - esp. his version of Sweeney Todd. And Coppola's "Dracula" with Gary Oldman has that feel as well. It's also kind of a retro re-envisioning of the that Brit style in the 60s and 70s - that goth look that we saw in Brit fashion and movies. And dare I say it - The Harry Potter series - especially as visually realized on the big screen has that touch as well. Fun!

  4. Intriguing post, Kathryn. Now that you laid it out I definitely can *see* what you mean. The blending of cultures is always fascinating and the gothic/Victorian/punk is an incredible mix!

    Knowing you're another Bruce Campbell fan is also a plus. *laughs* He's a resident of my area, and we just recently watched My Name is Bruce which is hilarious and cheesy and so bad it's good. The out-takes were the best part.

    Thanks for a fun read!

    --Chiron O'Keefe
    The Write Soul:

  5. P.S. you gotta love a sub-genre with the name "steampunk".

  6. Chiron - Bruce Campbell lives near you? eek! have you had any BC sightings? Still love him in the Xena episodes - so dashing and charming! ;D

  7. Jo, I have yet to see Bruce, though some of my friends know him. *sigh* He's usually hanging on his property, dang it. That is, when he's not in Miami for Burn Notice. *wink*

  8. Yo babe! Thanks for the shout-out!

    Loved your definition of steampunk and I think it's going to be the next big thing, I do, I do.

  9. Great post, Kathryn! I'd heard the term steampunk but only had a vague inkling what it was all about. Definitely worth investigating!

  10. Chiron - "some of my friends know him" there needs to be a block party or a wine and cheese and an invite proffered!

  11. That's so cool that Bruce is from your 'hood! He's so fabulous.

    Glad some of you have found the post helpful! I really think SP is just a fabulous genre. So fun to work with -- there's really no set rules.

  12. Kathryn,
    I sat in on the PRO retreat at RWA last week and every agent on the panel lit up at the word steam punk and all begged us for some. So go write it!

  13. Hey Kathryn

    Thanks for the definition. I had a vague idea what steampunk was about, and Jules Verne definitely fits the bill.

    I loved The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the movie, lol. And since we're talking movies, wouldn't Wild Wild West and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrrow fit the bill for steampunk and steampunk influences too?

    I'm intrigued by the genre if only to see how one can mix and mash anachronisms such as history and technology and have it all make sense! If that makes any sense, lol!



  14. I think Sky Captain would definitely fit the Steampunk influenced category, though WWII seems to have it's own 'punkish' quality. Hellboy and even Indiana Jones both toy with that as well. Wild Wild West is definitely Steampunk or 'Weird West' as the western counterpart is called.

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