Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Steam Punk

One of my friends, Richard Harland, has had a lot of success with his new YA steampunk book, Worldshaker. There is something very alluring about steampunk. It takes us back to an Antique Future.

Before I ever knew the term steampunk existed, I loved Sir Arthur Connan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books. There's Dickens works which are still being made into movies. And my favourite would have to be the satirist Saki. I discovered him in my early twenties and loved his dry wit. My favourite story of his is 'Sredni Vashtar', a very dark tale indeed. And then there is 'The Open Window' which must be a classic of horror stories. Then there's Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain and HG Wells, only none of these writers were deliberately writing steampunk.

For movies that are deliberately steampunk think Wild Wild West, Steamboy, The Prestige and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Those should give you enough visuals.

For a list of modern authors who could be termed steampunk see here. I would add Mervyn Peake, I think his Gormenghast trilogy is very steampunk in it's setting and characters.

The steampunk subgenre has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Here is an article on 'The Victoria Steam Exposition ... a celebration of a growing subculture called steampunk -- which unites Victorian era esthetics and futuristic inventions with modern literature and fashion.'

There is even a Steampunk Magazine. So if you are into steampunk and you can't get enough of it, this is the place to go.

So what is it about steampunk that draws people in?

Is it the quaint machinery? See some examples here.
Is it the repressed sexuality of Victorian England, combined with those corsets and garters? See some of the costumes here and here.
Is it because readers are tired of dystopic futures and want something whimsical and fun?
Are readers tired of epic fantasies set in medieval-lite worlds?

We can look back on the Victorian era, conveniently forgetting the oppression and injustices. Enough time has passed for the fusty old Aunts, who never married because they couldn't marry below their station, to die off. We can look back and enjoy a time when science was brave and exciting and the world looked like it was going to get better every year. When the world still contained mysteries and wonders. And a tennis player could be so incensed by the lack of skill at the Olympics that he could jump the net, pick a racquet and win a gold medal.

For anyone interested in writing steampunk, Richard has done a blog here on the topic.

And I'm finishing up with a delightful image, the steampunk Dalek!

Now, has the steampunk genre snuck up on you like it did for me?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Doesn't anyone love the steampunk dalek????

Anonymous said...

I love the steampunk dalek.

And I like the whole steampunk idea, I just don't quite know how to approach it as a writer.

My first impulse is "How do you make a steampunk spaceship?" But when you think that a nuclear reactor is, after all, just a fancy way to boil water, and then there are solar sails... the oxygen generating greenhouse would have to have stained glass inserts... maintenance crew of little clicking brass windup robots...

Okay. I think I've got it.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I am an adoring fan of steampunk in just about any form - well done for linking to the Steampunk Magazine; I met the lady and gent who run it at an event in London last month and they are both delightful people.

There are a whole host of reasons I love steampunk which I shan't bore you all with, but suffice it to say that I think it represents an untapped (and quite elastic - everyone can have their own interpretation of a steampunk world, and they can all be "right") resource for fantasy and sci-fi writers. There is a freedom to indulge in the joy of burgeoning science unleashed upon a world unburdened by modern ethics, or, of course, constrained by a deeply Christian set of morals and ethics, is a treasure-trove of ideas and inspiration.

Of course, the punk element is so often left out of steampunk works, and while I don't actually think it is necessary (some people like to pigeon-hole these works as gaslamp rather than steampunk) there is a joy to rebelling and upsetting social norms - all of which can easily be supplanted from the Victorian ideas that readers can readily understand.

There are a dozen links I could pop up here, but I think this would be best if I am limiting myself to one: http://thebooksmugglers.com/2010/03/steampunk-week-an-introduction-and-primer.html
These two ladies dedicated a pair of weeks to reviewing steampunk titles, and did a rather good job of it too I must say (although their review of your friend's Worldshaker book isn't glowing, Rowena). They cover a good variety of takes on steampunk; a good introduction for many people to the pretty broad genre of steampunk fiction.

Jim McCoy said...

Steampunk is awesome if done right. I just read Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson. It was action packed, intelligent and, although it was set in the future, it gave a plausible explanation for the absence of electric power. The technology that is used is all either real world or at least believable. It was the first book I'd read by Mr. Judson, but it won't be the last.

OTOH, I almost asked for my money back when I saw Wild, Wild West and I'm a WILL SMITH FAN. The "tacky" factor was set way too high on that one. I just couldn't get into it. The contraptions in WWW were just too "contraptiony." Everything about that movie screamed "THIS IS A SPECIAL EFFECT!!!" There was almost no way I could bring myself to suspend disbelief.;

The one thing I can't seem to do is write a Steampunk story. The same goes for the (pre-Steampunk?) 1632 universe. I love the stories, but I just can't seem to wrap my imagination around writing with that tech level. It's weird because I do fantasy fiction, and I'm working on an SF alien invasion type novel, but anything in between gets weird for me.

DK said...

I think part of the reason for steampunk's popularity is the amount of research material - Victorian culture was widely and extensively documented, which makes world-building (or just finding inspiration) much easier. The Victorian appreciation of aesthetics has an obvious appeal to a technologically advanced culture that still wants things to look cool, too.

The issues with steampunk fiction are that it's disorganized and pulpy, and essentially about rich guys in airships and their corseted love interests with no real depth or introspection. There's a debate in the community right now to correct this, and more women/minorities are getting into steampunk, which will do a lot to shake it out of its rut, I think. As it gets more varied and literary, it will become much more interesting.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I'm a Doctor Who fan, so I LOVED the steampunk dalek.

A steampunk spaceship? Well, Jules Verne thought his would take 3 days to reach the moon!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Thanks for the link, Jonathan.

I think you're right about this.

'There is a freedom to indulge in the joy of burgeoning science unleashed upon a world unburdened by modern ethics, or, of course, constrained by a deeply Christian set of morals and ethics, is a treasure-trove of ideas and inspiration.'

I was watching a program on the lack of romance in modern romantic comedies and the writers were saying without the constraints of societal expectations to repress people, it was very hard to get romantic tension into movies. So this is where steampunk has those societal tensions.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jim, I remember being shocked by the Wild Wild West when it first came out, because it was so over the top. In the end I just went along for the ride. But then, I feel that way about the James Bond movies and the Die Hard movies.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Ahh, a die hard steampunk fan. I've only just skimmed the surface. So please feel free to bring up points I've missed.

Kate said...

Two words. Girl Genius.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Cute, very cute, Kate!

Dave Freer said...

Rowena, sorry to beafter the fair. I have an entirely different idea about why it is popular - besides the whimsical nostalgia effect - it's sf, but down a far more accessible path than the currently 'fashionable' transhuman type one, which is very hard for ordinary blokes like me to relate to (which is why space opera, mil sf, alternate history and even sf set in a failed colony which has regressed have done well - despite being out of fashion). We can easily relate to and ID with the characters in those stories.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good point, Dave.

Steampunk is still SF.

The really intense transhuman type SF almost requires a dictionary open on the side. The writers expect you to have all this shared knowledge of what has been written before in the genre.

Amanda Green said...

Great post, Rowena. I have to agree with Dave about why Steampunk has become so popular. It is SF, but it is SF we can all identify with and, for the most part (there are exceptions, of course) feel good reading. It reminds us of the stories and books we read and enjoyed as kids; Sherlock Holmes, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, etc. More than that, much of it isn't a depressing, dystopian view of the future. I still believe most of us read to be entertained and, imo, that is what good steampunk does. It entertains.

Besides, if you're my age, you remember "Wild, Wild West" and who didn't love and want all the gadget Jim West and Artemis Gordon had?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I agree with Dave. There is also something about sf readers. We all want to be superhuman in a human way (at least, I don't feel particularly attracted to transhumanism, but perhaps that's a post for another time.) We all want to be Da Vinci, and scientists and artists and... Well, Victorian times might have been the last time that the common man could master that knowledge before we all got so specialized.
And Dave is right too in that sience fiction projected into the future... well... unless you do it like me in DST, it tends to be colder and dryer and more about the "wow, science" than about humans. Most of us want to read stories about humans.
Also Steam Punk is sheer visual cool, though I don't know how that will play long term in books.

DK said...


I'm not a diehard fan, but I think steampunk has a lot of potential to be cool and weird beyond all the shiny brass fixtures and top hats and such. It has the same failings that a lot of sci-fi has - writers get so caught up in the world-building that everything else (characters, plot, language) gets put on the backburner. Even I've made those mistakes. It's hard not to.

But steampunk has a chance to expand beyond the Eurocentric nerdbubble it currently exists in, and I'm hoping the shallow media focus on it doesn't hamper that progress.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I'm currently writing the first two books of a new series set in Australia with steampunk overtone, Dreamtime elements and Indian Raj.

I guess that is still Euro-centric in some ways. LOL