Saturday, February 6, 2010

Defining Steampunk

Think Leviathan.
Think Jules Verne.
Think H.G. Wells.

Providing a detailed definition of the sub-genre of Steampunk is not an easy task. But we'll give it a shot. According to Google Trends, the searches for “Steampunk” have been rising since 2007. It's a very new and popular sub-genre that continues to gain exposure. The purpose of this post is to give the reader a general and somewhat limited overview of the elements involved in Steampunk fiction. There is more information available on the internet, but it is somewhat sparse. Some of the information below was found at, and wikipedia. You can search those sites for more info if you'd like.

Basically, Steampunk fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction. It may contain fantasy elements as well. Even those Steampunk novels aimed at the YA and MG readers may be written in a more literary or antiquated style, similar to that found in works written during the late 19th century.

The over-arching theme of the Steampunk environment is the abundance of old-fashioned gadgets and machinery. You will usually find a lot of brass and glass, mirrors, goggles, and steam-powered vehicles and devices. There may also be clockwork mechanisms with gears and springs.

The Steampunk novel may revolve around an alternative history, or a what-if scenario: Lincoln wasn't assasinated; the rebels won the Civil War; Hitler didn't die during World War II, etc. The time frame is most often the turn of the century or the early 19th century. Steampunk novels are commonly set in Victorian England, although it could be the Old West of America during the same time period. It may be a somewhat Dickensian world, perhaps dystopian, or it might have a more lighthearted fantasy element involved. This setting may include dark alleys, pubs, fog, dirt and grime, laboratories, or whatever elements the writer feels necessary to convey the mood.

Following are a few items most commonly found in Steampunk fiction. Feel free to pick and choose as you wish for your own novel. These include: An alternate universe, antiquities, hot air balloons or zeppelins, bombs and explosions, gunpowder, nitroglycerin, TNT, clockwork mechanisms, flying machines, gears and springs, grease. There may also be something known as a "gizmo." This may be an animated clockwork mechanism, a helper of sorts that can be used to add some comedic effect or come to the rescue in whatever capability it possesses.

In addition, you may find magnetism, magnified light (solar energy), magnifying glass (goggles are a particularly good option), mirrors, pirates (usually air pirates with dirigibles), secret societies (may be good or bad, harmful or helpful), steam-powered or clockwork hybrid computers, telescopes, a tinkerer's workshop (filled with gears and springs), trains (handy in a showdown scene), and a whiz kid. The latter may be the hero or a sidekick who can create helpful devices with little or no resources. Very handy to have around.

And there you have it. As mentioned at the beginning, this is merely a general overview. I hope it's been helpful. Comments are always welcome if you'd like to add any additional information.


  1. Frankly, I would love it if Steampunk fashion became mainstream. It looks amazing and it would be so much fun to wear (and guys, you would indeed look good in it!).

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  3. I've been wanting to learn more about this. My 12-yr-old son is a huge Jules Verne fan, so I can see why this would appeal.

    Does anyone have titles to recommend?

    Another great post! Thanks.

  4. Thanks very much for this explanation, Michael. As a reader I've only just discovered this sub-genre of science fiction and I'm loving it. One of my favourites is Gail Carriger's Soulless, which combines a lot of steampunk elements with a really good dose of fantasy and does is brilliantly. I should add though that Soulless is most definitely only for adults - don't give it to your kids! Some of Terry Pratchett's books have steampunk elements (like 'The Truth' and 'Thief of Time') and they are more suitable for younger audiences. But it's probably a good idea to read stuff yourself first, just in case.

  5. WOW! What a detailed explanation. Thanks. I first heard of this genre when I got a copy of "Lightning Strikes the Colonies". I was looking for detailed information on it then. I'll be linking to this post in the future. Who would have thought it was geared towards MG and YA.

  6. Thanks for the info about Steampunk. This helps clarify some points I wondered about. =D


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