What is Steampunk?

By John Weagly

When I started writing CLOCKWORK ADORATION (which I consider an evening of short, interconnected Steampunk plays) I didn’t know what Steampunk was.  And now, three years later, the classification is still a little muddy to me.

From what I can piece together, Steampunk is a genre that originated in the 1980’s, but can be traced back to the early-70’s (or, really, as far back as the late-1800’s).  It combines elements of science fiction, alternate history, fantasy and horror.  Most often, it takes place in a setting where steam power is commonly used (Victorian England, the old west, etc.), but it can just as easily take place in the present, the future, on another planet or in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Some shorter answers as to what Steampunk is:

“It’s sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans.” – Caitlin Kittredge

“What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” – Urban Dictionary

“Victorian science fiction.” – GD Falksen

The core idea, to me anyway, seems to be “What would the future look like to someone in the Victorian era?”  This question can apply to technology, machinery, fashion, culture and architecture.

Still not clear?  It isn’t to me, either.

With so many variables, characteristics and ideas, the best answer to the question “What is Steampunk?” is “I know it when I see it.”

Recommended Steampunk Reading:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Welles (1895)
  • The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock (1971)
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983)
  • Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter (1987)
  • The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling & William Gibson (1992)
  • The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman (1995)
  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (1995)
  • The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul di Filippo (1997)
  • Homunculus by James P. Blaylock (2000)
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore (2002)
  • Steampunk – An anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (2008)
  • — Particularly the short story “The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel” by Joe R. Lansdale

Recommended Steampunk Viewing:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)
  • The Time Machine (1960)
  • Wild Wild West (1965 – 1969) — TV Show
  • Time After Time (1979)
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)
  • The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-1994) — TV Show
  • The City of Lost Children (1995)
  • Spirited Away (2001)
  • Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
  • Hellboy (2004) & Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)
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