How do you define steampunk?

“Steampunk Overlord” Liam Brandon Murray

Next weekend I’ll be at ConTemporal, a new sci-fi convention in North Carolina that is “planting its roots in Steampunk,” according to its website. Guests will include steampunk authors Cherie Priest, Clay and Susan Griffith, and John Claude Bemis, and steampunk artists from Brute Force Studios, Hatton Cross Steampunk and Penny Dreadful Productions.

And me. I’ll be in the bazaar selling my steampunk art books and wares, and on a panel talking about steampunk costuming accessories, Victorian Era jewelry and period style trends.

Robert Appleton mentions Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when discussing his steampunk novel, The Mysterious Lady Law. He notes that Cindy Spencer Pape’s Gaslight Chronicles series includes magic-and-fantasy. Island of Icarus by Christine Danse is a Male/Male romance. Like Clockwork by Bonnie Dee is a mystery involving automatons, and Christine Bell’s The Twisted Tale of Stormy Gale is a time-traveling pirate adventure.

With so much variation, then what makes “steampunk” STEAMPUNK?

Answers vary. “It’s retro-futurism or a steam-powered alternate reality.” “It’s gears and goggles, Nikola Tesla and zeppelins.” “It’s Blade Runner meets Jane Eyre.” “It’s DIY craftsmanship and rayguns — with corsets and pith helmets.”

To distinguish classic steampunk (if there is such a thing) from other varieties, there are terms such as weird west, dieselpunk, clockpunk, burlesque, and gaslight/gaslamp. The Steampunk Overlord depicted here describes himself as circus punk or “cirquepunk”

I often hear, “Steampunk is Victorian science fiction.” But then I run into people wearing bits and pieces of WWI, WWII, Art Deco, and Edwardian gear and calling themselves “steampunk” — when, in fact, all of those things came along after Queen Victoria died in 1901. Or then I read something such as Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman by Balogun Ojetade, or The Nine Pound Hammer by John Claude Bemis, which are not Victorian. Or, rather, not British. They’re alternate realities set within the United States. Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter, anyone? Are Mark Twain and steamboats also steampunk-alicious?

“Clockwork Queen” pendant made by yours truly, features a photo of Queen Victoria from an India travel brochure and real watch parts.

Some steampunk enthusiasts prefer to embrace the Victorian Era — and/or the American Civil War and Wild West period with which it coincides — then they slightly tweak or “punk” historical accuracy when it comes to clothing, tech and literature. While others want to leave the genre a wide open free-for-all where anything goes, so long as it feels steampunky …whatever that might mean, to them. Thus, we end up with everything from this freaking amazing steampunk house or an actual steam-powered phonograph … to “steampunk” dreamcatchers and “steampunk” plastic Jesus clock faces.

Or steampunk can be a verb — as in steampunking a laptop, a Nerf gun, Disney princesses or a Star Wars character.

How do you define steampunk? How much do you base your definition on historical fact or Victorian period literature — and how much on the current trends? What is it that makes something steampunk?

J.L. Hilton is the author of the Stellarnet Series of cyberpunk romantic thrillers, published by Carina Press. Her original jewelry designs are featured in the books “Steampunk Style Jewelry” and “1000 Steampunk Creations.”

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5 comments

  1. I think steampunk is what you make it. That’s the beauty of it. There is western steampunk like in the webcomic NEXT TOWN OVER. I have a new one called BOSTON METAPHYSICAL SOCIETY which is Victorian based. I think by not having a strict definition it allows people to be more creative.

  2. It’s exploding right now, no question, but I’ve no idea how long it will last. All these splinter punks are fascinating in their own right. The big question is how to label them for readers. My prediction is that gaslight paranormals are going to grow from strength to strength, while non-romance steampunk (with a focus on science fiction) is going to remain a popular niche genre. In terms of readership, you just can’t compete with a combination like vampires, romance and corsets. Gaslight will win out, though I probably won’t read much if it. I’m all vampired out.

    Whenever anyone asks me what steampunk is, I say it’s Victorian science fiction with an attitude. I love that it’s inspired all this variety and creativity, but I’m also waiting for the dust to settle, so I can tell which punk is which.

    1. Balogun Ojetade, one of the authors I mentioned above, wrote a long blog post about the varieties of “punk” — cyberpunk, steampunk, gaslight, clockpunk, etc. He goes way further into it than I do here. It’s amazing stuff.

      http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/05/24/punk-101-steampunk-dieselpunk-and-a-three-year-old-genius/

      And, yes, sir, I concur, I’m all vampired out, too. 🙂

  3. Excellent post! I believe Steampunk can be in any era and in any locale, as long as it is encapsulated in an Age of Steam. I have written Steamfunk stories set in 1800s and 1970s United States, as well as in 15th century Africa.

  4. I define steampunk simply. Just looking at the two words separately. It’s a story set in a steam age (I agree with Balogun. It can be any era, any reality, any planet). In a punk setting, which means some conflict in the social order (totalitarian government, lawless west, etc)

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