What is Steampunk?

Last month, for Steampunk Hands Around the World, I posted about how steampunk had enriched my life. I spoke of the diversity and inclusivity of steampunk, how it fired my imagination and inspired me to search for the wonder in the world and how its whimsical nature has helped with my anxiety. Recently I spoke to someone who asked me what exactly is steampunk? I thought I'd revisit a post which explains about:

The Steam, the Punk and the Writing.

The first appearance of the word steampunk was in Locus Magazine in 1987. The term was coined by SF author K W Jeter to define specific speculative fiction works and is a tongue-in-cheek variant on cyberpunk.

What is Steampunk?

The simplest definition of steampunk is to describe it as Victorian science fiction. To elaborate: Victorian: set in the 19th century, with the science fiction element containing modern technology powered by steam. In reality steampunk is more complex. It is a creative movement re-imagining analog technologies, mechanics and inventions – powered by steam – and set in the industrialised 19th century. It now encompasses not only fiction, but art, fashion, music, cinema/TV and fandom. The Steam The essence of steampunk can be described as an imagined alternate history or future where electricity and petroleum technologies did not dominate, and where steam/ geared, analog technology gave rise to its own versions of modern technology. The Punk – a philosophy of bucking the system, going against the convention to declare an individuality in style, attitude and gadgets. In a way steampunk is a rebel with a cause – to be free of the norm. One of my favourite definitions comes from the TV show Castle (Episode: Punked) “…a subculture that embraces the simplicity and romance of the past but at the same time couples it with the hope and promise and sheer super coolness of futuristic design.” As a writing genre, it is a sub genre of science fiction and fantasy; steampunk is now listed as a separate sub-genre on Amazon and Goodreads. It can contain fantasy, horror or historical aspects. It is usually written as alternative history or alternative fantasy. Steampunk stories are often set in 19th century Western civilizations, such as Victorian England (or the Wild West) where there was a rapid urbanisation and expansion of Empires, a plethora of inventions and scientific discoveries, telecommunication and the rise of mechanised manufacturing and industry.  Recently more stories have been set in Asia or Africa. Steampunk has also crossed over into other genres such as YA, Romance, Erotica and with Gothic/paranormal crossovers such as Gaslamp. There is sometimes a fine line between Victorian (historical) era and steampunk novels. There is no rule to how many steampunk elements need to be incorporated into a story; it can be subtle or over reaching, creating a very blurred line in some cases. Steampunk has increased in popularity over the past decade. There are books on writing the genre and even an article on How to Write Steampunk in Writing Magazine.  It has infiltrated into mainstream media and fashion. Steampunk inspired fashion featured in the Fall 2012 line from Prada, Retro G Couture.

Icons and Idiosyncrasies:

Steampunk often includes the following:
  • Goggles are probably the most recognisable steampunk icon. They are often found used in pastimes – eg. driving, inventing, mechanics etc. now commonly seen in the fashions and one way to help delineate from historical 19th century styles and modernity.
  • historical or fantasy setting/world or retro-futuristic
  • alternative history – 19th c industrialised setting and society,  or post apocalyptic
  • steam powered gadgets and machinery
  • gears are a familiar icon – relating to engines, pistons, wheels, mechanics.
  • modern inventions as envisioned with 19th century, steam-powered mechanics, eg. mechanical/analog computers
  • airships and dirigibles
  • often relaying the Victorian optimism for the future, encompassing a sense of adventure (often found) in the Empire
  • oh, and kraken/octopuses/squid are not uncommon, whether gigantic, mechanical or symbolic (cool – I love cephalopods)

Examples of Steampunk:

  • Literature – novels by HG Wells and Jules Verne. Modern novels such as William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, KW Jeter’s Infernal Devices, The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. Graphic novels such as The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
  • Movies/TV:  Captain Nemo, Steamboy, Wild, Wild West, Sherlock Holmes, Murdoch Mysteries, Warehouse 13. The steampunk theme has been used in episodes of TV shows – with varying success – like Castle (Punk’d – liked) and CSI:NY (Time Up) and NCIS: LA (Random On Purpose – disappointing).
  • Music: Professor Elemental, Abney Park, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, and The Cog is Dead – to name but a few.
  • Games: Bioshock II, Arcanum,
And the Writing – I have written science fiction, fantasy and even science-fiction comedy (or at least tried to). But I most enjoy writing steampunk. It meshes my long-time love of science fiction with my love of history and historical re-enactment. I can identify with the steampunk philosophies of creativity, decoration, self-reliance and the Victorian optimism for the future – even in the face of danger, and dastardly deeds. I often find a delicious contradiction between the passions and machinations that are concealed beneath the expected manners of Victorian society. I love the rampant enthusiasm for new adventures, scientific discoveries and inventions. Steampunk allows me to rewrite history to allow my female characters to exert themselves, to rebel against the conformity present in history. There are so many possibilities I can write – political intrigue, murder, mystery, myth and magic, treachery and adventure. And the clothing is cool too.


Photos © 2009/ 2017 Karen J Carlisle. All rights reserved.

Re-imagining a Better World

Historical re-enactment is often accused of avoiding the real world, ignoring history's atrocities or hiding in the past. Sometimes all three. In my experience this is not the case. Most re-enactors (and historians) will tell you it is important to look back and analyse history so we can learn from past mistakes, to improve our future.

One of the most important reasons to look back into and analyse the past is to learn from society's mistakes. Steampunk looks into the past, but with modern eyes; it is a re-imagination of the past, not a slavish re-creation. Colonial England was all about domination and power, a way to fuel the economy of mother England. Instead, we can embrace the diversity of cultures. The 'punk philosophy' inspires us to question authority, society's ethics, politics and gender roles and encourages us to look for solutions for society's short-falls. Doing so allows us to embrace cultures and celebrate diversity.

Suna Dasi of Steampunk India is one example: "Transferring this and many other aspects of Victorian society to an alternate, Post-Mutiny India, incorporating native characters unhampered by traditional gender roles, seems an opportunity for fiction that is too good to let lie."

Through steampunk, and Steampunk Hands, I discovered Josué Ramos  award winning writer of science fiction, terror and historic tales. Josué is part of the Spanish steampunk community, organising the EuroSteamCon Madrid and posts regularly on (huzzah, for google translation) his blog Mundosteampunk. You can find my 2015 Steampunk Hands guest blog on Mundosteampunk here.

El Investigator is part of the Mexican steampunk community and has been involved in varied steampunk anthologies.

Beyond Victoriana is another blog celebrating multicultural steampunk. Its founding editor, Diana M. Pho, wrote the introduction for Steampunk World, an anthology published in 2014, and funded via Kickstarter. It contained stories from around the world, showcasing the diversity to be found. I'm eagerly awaiting the follow-up anthology, Steampunk Universe - also funded via Kickstarter. Stories highlight disabled and aneurotypical characters. Both have cover art by steampunk artist, James Ng.

The way we express steampunk is wide-ranging. Events range from family picnics, fundraising events and conventions to music events. Music style varies; rap, punk, folk, jazz, swing and rock are all represented in bands such as Professor Elemental, The Cog is Dead and The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing.

At a local level, we also have participants of varied educational and vocational backgrounds. Even the degree to which individuals experience steampunk is diverse. Some dip their toe in the genre by reading books, watching movies, listening to music or wearing costumes to the local convention. Others delve deeper - creating alternate personas and joining forums. Some immerse themselves, living the steampunk lifestyle to the full or embarking on steampunk-related careers.

For me, the diversity of those who enjoy steampunk is one of its attractions. Steampunk is inclusive. I can be myself, part of a welcoming and diverse community. And it has made my life richer as a result.

Firing the Imagination: Steampunk Hands Around the World #3

Certain groups seem to have a higher percentage of creative types. And steampunk is no exception. It's a creative culture. It nurtures the imagination - through a good book, a stunning costume or breathtaking images. But this is no cookie-cutter culture. Steampunk fosters individuality. Give a group of steampunks a box of similar items, and they will create their own, unique masterpiece; no two things alike. Writers, artists, costumers. We have the lot. And you don't have to spend a fortune. I found a second hand 'Nickelodeon Slime Blaster' (water gun). It resembled the old Mortein fly spray pump-action squirter. My imagination took over and, voila! A Pump-Action Fairy Eliminator. And hence was born my Steampunk Fairy Catcher outfit. It's so much fun wearing this outfit to conventions! Just let loose your imagination; what would you have made?


I started doing photography in high school. (What better way to get out of PE than joining the photography club and taking photos for the school magazine? Back then we did it all in a dark room, with enlargers and smelly chemicals). Steampunk has re-kindled my passion for the art form. It's not just portraits. There are some gorgeously intricate gadgets -themselves inspiring - with intriguing shapes. Or the way the light catches on the brass...


Then there's my greatest passion: writing. Where would I be without steampunk?

Over the years, I've started writing. Stopped. And started again. I just couldn't find my niche. I'd been a member of the steampunk community for about six years before I tried again. But what to write? They say: write what you know. So, I started writing a fantasy novel; a story that had been mulling around in my brain for over fifteen years. I got sidetracked by Viola. She wanted to tell her story. And her story was steampunk. I've now expanded my steampunk world, with two more planned series. Each is different. The Adventures of Viola Stewart were darker, Victorian mysteries (closer to gaslamp). The Department of Curiosities is a rollicking adventure. Then there's The Wizard of St Giles, set in the shadowy world we rarely see.

I can ferret around in familiar settings (like Victorian England or Colonial Australia), meet interesting historical characters (Tesla, Queen Victoria, Jack the Ripper), throw in a few of my own and see how they interact. Like costuming, I can immerse myself in history and indulge my passion for science and fantasy. I get to play the ultimate 'what if?' I get to cross-pollinate genres, postulate on alternative theories leading, or resulting, from historical events. I get to twist history. Or, if I prefer, I can create my own world, complete with steam-powered engines and cog-driven sentient beings.

Want some first-hand inspiration? Check out these drawings of how 19th century envisioned the year 2000 (in full steam) and what they imagined future space ships would look like: Science meets art in Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000 and Maison Tournante Aérienne (both from 1800s) can be found on the Library of Congress webpage.

So how has steampunk fired my imagination? Ideas come more readily and I speculate in many directions - adventure, paranormal, fantasy and science fiction - all enhanced through steampunk goggles.

Photos ©2013-2017 Karen J Carlisle All rights reserved.